May 14, 2019 by Georgina Downs
Some people may have never heard the word ‘organophosphates’ to know what they are and what they do. Others may have only heard of organophosphates in relation to nerve agent chemical attacks – such as the one in Tokyo in 1995 where sarinwas released on three lines of the Tokyosubway during rush hour, killing 12 people, severely injuring 50 (some of whom later died), and causing vision problems for nearly 1,000 others.
All those who have suffered the adverse effects of organophosphates (OPs) from sheep dipping, agricultural pesticide spraying, contaminated air on planes, among other sources, will of course know only too well the health damage and devastation these chemicals cause.
Organophosphate chemicals are in fact among some of the most toxic in the world.
Indeed a brief glimpse into the history of organophosphates shows the true and deliberate toxic purpose of these chemicals. In 1937 the first OP compounds were synthesized by a group of German chemists. These very potent compounds were originally developed as ‘nerve gas’ chemical warfare agents for potential use during World War II.
After the war, in search of new outlets, these highly toxic compounds were then remanufactured as agricultural insecticides, and organophosphate pesticides continue to be used in many countries around the world.
OPs are cholinesterase inhibitors. They are highly toxic by all routes of exposure. Symptoms of OP poisoning include headaches, blurred vision, giddiness, pain, weakness, numbness, damage to memory, slurred speech, chest tightness, loss of coordination, uncontrolled urination, seizures, coma, and death due to respiratory failure and/or cardiac arrest.
Repeated or prolonged exposure to OPs may result in the same effects as acute exposure.
A Working Party in 1951 – that had been set up by the then UK Government – recommended that the container labels of organophosphate pesticides should be required to show the words “Deadly Poison” in large, clear type, along with a concise statement of the dangers and precautions to be taken, and antidotes where known.
There is no doubt that some OPs when mixed together can result in increased toxicity and synergistic effects. For example, the synergistic effects of mixtures of anticholinesterase pesticides have been described in the medical literature for over 50 years.
I have spent a number of decades researching the organophosphate group of chemicals, along with many other neurotoxic agricultural pesticides that have been permitted for over three quarters of a century – under successive UK Government sanction – to be sprayed on crop fields all over the UK, and with no protection at all for rural residents and communities.
Organophosphates contained in everyday products
However, there are even less well known uses of organophosphates, such as the widespread use of organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) in everyday products and devices, which is – as with agricultural pesticide use – yet another astonishing public health scandal.
OPFRs have been increasingly used over the last few decades in countless products including electronic equipment such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones, TV’s, washing machines – indeed it is hard to think of any electronic equipment that doesn’t contain these highly toxic chemicals. Even many electrical cables also contain them!
They are also found in furnishings such as sofas and mattresses, carpets, curtains, building insulations, amongst many other consumer and domestic products. In fact the full list of items that these chemicals are contained in may never really be known such is the secrecy and lack of publicly available information surrounding their use in such everyday products.
It is not only that exposure to individual organophosphate flame retardants in products poses a health risk, but the fact that people will inevitably be exposed to cocktails of OPFRs, as well as other harmful chemicals, contained in such consumer products, in their air and surrounding environment (particularly if also living in the locality of pesticide sprayed crops)
Devices such as mobile phones and tablets are now part and parcel of everyday life for many, particularly the young who are more vulnerable to such exposures because their bodies cannot efficiently detoxify chemicals, as their organs are still growing and developing. Also when children are exposed at such a young age to such chemicals they will obviously have a longer lifetime to develop long-term effects after any exposure.
The majority of the population will no doubt be blissfully unaware of the presence of such toxic OP chemicals in their everyday domestic products and devices. I know I most certainly was until the events of August 2009 which is when I first found out about it to my great cost.
In August 2009 I was exposed via various routes (in particular eyes, inhalation, dermal) to an organophosphate flame retardant – triaryl phosphate ester, containing triisopropylated phenyl phosphate and triphenyl phosphate – that volatilised from a faulty (and severely overheating) laptop. It was deemed a relatively high level exposure considering that an OP breakdown product was still found in my body fat almost 3 months later in blood and fat tests that were taken at a medical and scientific laboratory at the end of October 2009.
The extensive and subsequently confirmed impacts on my eyes as a result of the exposure causing pain in the eyes, light sensitivity, acute problems with glare, dry eyes, significant disturbances in the field of vision (which is like looking through debris with how many black lines etc. there are), have been permanent ever since. Also, at the time and for a few weeks after the exposure I also had pinpoint pupils (which is a common feature of OP poisoning).
When I was trying to find out at the time what had happened to my eyes I asked the laptop manufacturer (Dell) to send me the material data sheet for the organophosphate flame retardant involved. I was met with the usual “commercial confidentiality” line but persevered to try and access this vital information.
Toxic to eyes, central nervous system, liver, kidney and linked to cancer!
When I eventually obtained it – after 8 weeks or so of dogged persistence on my part – I was truly shocked to see the clear warnings that the target organ for the OP flame retardant was the eyes, in addition to the central nervous system. Further, that it is a liver and kidney toxin and there is even a line at the bottom of the data sheet relating to cancer also! In addition the data sheet clearly includes “heat” in the “conditions to avoid”. Yet laptops are products that – even when they are not faulty – will notoriously get hot and overheat in many cases.
There is no doubt that most people will not be aware that such eye toxic organophosphorus chemicals are used in electronic products that are specifically designed to be used only inches away from someone’s eyes! Yet, as said, many electronic products and devices manufactured over the last few decades now contain organophosphate flame retardants.
If someone like me who has spent a number of decades researching the organophosphate group of chemicals – and who only weeks before the incident had written a document detailing the extensive evidence of the damage OP pesticides can cause to human health – had no idea they were present in laptops and other electronic equipment until after my eyes had been affected and I started to investigate exactly what had happened to them, then it is highly unlikely that members of the public in general will know about this issue.
Pre-existing adverse health impacts from agricultural pesticides, including OPs
I have already had over 34 years of exposure to the innumerable cocktails of agricultural pesticides sprayed in the locality of my home and garden and that included organophosphates. Previous blood and fat sample results in 2004 had found a number of different agricultural pesticide groups in my body including organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, organochlorines, amongst others. Such pesticide groups individually are known to be neurotoxic and capable of damaging the central nervous system, as well as other systems within the body, even before considering the enhanced toxicity and synergistic effects of such mixtures of these synthetic chemicals.
Following the blood and fat results in 2004, my chronic neurological symptoms of many years (including headaches, dizziness, giddiness, as well as periods of high speed rotational vertigo with a complete loss of all balance and co-ordination, tinnitus, memory and concentration problems, numbness and tingling, amongst various other symptoms) were confirmed by experts as being neurological damage and injury as a result of exposure to all the neurotoxic pesticides sprayed for decades in my locality.
Previous scans also confirmed that I have osteoporosis with a high risk of fracture. There have been a number of studies that have found that pesticides – in particular organophosphates – can cause impacts on bones leading to osteoporosis. (Eg. see one such study published in 1999 in the Lancet, “Reduced bone formationafter exposure to organophosphates,” by JE Compston, S Vedi, AB Stephen, S Bord, AR Lyons, SJ Hodges, BE Scammell).
However, the one area in which I had nothad any long term impacts from agricultural pesticides was the eyes, as I had only ever had acute short-term effects on the eyes following crop spraying exposures such as burning and bloodshot eyes. Therefore to have suffered long term impacts on my eyes from exposure to OPs from a different source – and when I didn’t even know anything about OP flame retardants until after the impacts – was extremely difficult and distressing, especially as the effects on my eyes has also drastically changed my appearance over the last 10 years as a result of having to wear dark glasses due to the light sensitivity and acute problems with glare, particularly in relation to UV light.
UK Environmental Audit Committee inquiry
I have not previously spoken publicly about what happened to my eyes, but decided to at this time after seeing an inquiry being undertaken by the Environmental Audit Committee called “Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life”, and which has a specific focus on flame retardants.
This has given me the opportunity to be able to say something on this subject now in order to highlight the risks of the presence of organophosphate flame retardants in countless everyday domestic products including electronic equipment, furnishings, among other items
As said, the fact that toxic chemicals known to be harmful to the eyes are put in products that are specifically designed to be used right next to someone’s eyes is just outrageous.
Further, OPFRs are often odourless which takes away the clear warning mechanism, as when a strong chemical odour is detected it raises awareness of a likely chemical release, but in the total absence of it someone may not realise the symptoms being suffered are as a result of exposure to a such a chemical, as was the situation in my own specific case.
Obviously the fundamental point is that these highly toxic chemicals should not be present in such products in the first place, irrespective as to whether there is odour or not!
Virtually zero traceability
One article on organophosphate flame retardants points out that more needs to be disclosed about where and in what quantities such flame retardants are being used. It goes on to state that manufacturers don’t make that information publicly available and thatthey may not even know themselves as they buy things to meet certain flammability standards not necessarily knowing what chemicals are used to meet those standards.
I can vouch that this is absolutely the case here in the UK also and is often compounded by the fact that manufacturers of computers, washing machines, and other electronic equipment can often use parts produced by other companies within such products. This means there is virtually zero traceability for knowing what chemicals are contained in those parts if the manufacturers of a particular product don’t even know!
For example, when I was previously researching about certain electronic equipment and what chemicals were involved in the manufacture of them, I was often told by manufacturers that they would not know when it came to the specific parts that were included within the product as they came from other manufacturers and were then just inserted in. The lack of traceability of all the chemicals contained in products is thus truly shocking!
Following the impacts on my eyes from exposure to the OP flame retardantin August 2009, my eyes would be affected and made worse by any subsequent OPFR exposure. I was therefore conscious to try and ensure that I did not purchase products containing OPFRs.
False claims that products are ‘chemical free’
However, this is easier said than done as firstly so much electronic equipment does contain OPFRs and secondly because manufacturers can deny using these chemicals and can claim they are chemical free even when they are not. For example,I remember when I was trying to find a washing machine that did not contain OP flame retardants. One manufacturer repeatedly insisted that not only did it not contain OPFRs but that it didn’t contain any flame retardants at all! Although I was dubious at such a claim, considering the amount of times they insisted this was the case and also considering – at the time – that I was new to my research in this area then I reluctantly accepted what they told me. I purchased said washing machine and on the first run through, and on a hot wash of 900as it advised to do (and which results in even further volatilisation of any impregnated chemicals), my eyes were so badly affected by it that I had to stay out of the room that the washing machine was in. My eyes continued to be made worse each time the washing machine was used and so I started to question the manufacturer again about whether it contained OP flame retardants as I strongly suspected it did considering the worsening of my eye symptoms when in use.
After attempting to fob me off multiple times by either denying OP flame retardants were present in the washing machine and/or not replying at all, I eventually after 5 or so months of persevering received correspondence confirming that the washing machine did indeed contain organophosphate flame retardants! It is wholly unacceptable that members of the public, especially those who already have a history of chemical exposure and related adverse health impacts, are not provided with the correct information on what chemicals are present in any given product prior to the purchase of such a product.
There is a notable comparison to be made here. If this had been a peanut or other food allergy where something had been said to not contain something that greatly affected the consumer and then it turned out that it did, there would be some sort of action taken to enforce food retailers to inform customers of the contents of any food produce before purchase, (or at least that was the intention of something that was going through the UK Parliament recently following the high profile deaths of a number of allergy sufferers).
Obviously we are talking here about exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and yet manufacturers of electronic equipment are not only misinforming customers about what such products contain as my experiences show, but when adverse effects are reported it then takes many months to obtain the vital chemical information, if actually able to access it at all!
For example, the representative of the washing machine manufacturers also said – in the same letter that confirmed that the washing machine did indeed contain organophosphate flame retardants -that the company “cannot make a complete list of all chemicals available for you”nor provide me with any specific written documentation, “as you may appreciate the details which we hold are of commercial sensitivity and therefore the discussion would need to be held face to face as we would not agree to publish this information.”
As said earlier, the full list of chemicals contained in any one product, let alone all the products that such chemicals are contained in, may never really be known if the secrecy and lack of publicly available information continues. The business and industry mantra of “commercial confidentiality” or “commercial sensitivity” simply has no place when it comes to the use of such harmful chemicals in our everyday products and everyday life.
Action on flame retardants
There is a considerable body of scientific evidence to support action on the widespread and increasing use of, not only organophosphate flame retardants, but all synthetic chemical flame retardants, for the protection of human health and the environment.
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry examining this issue has received evidence from others to show examples of non-chemical alternatives to chemical flame retardants.
Further, the presence of synthetic chemical flame retardants not only does not of course prevent fires from occurring, it can actually greatly increase the toxicity of such fires.
Here’s hoping the current EAC inquiry will lead to more awareness on flame retardants – and their increasing use in our everyday lives – as it is such a vitally important public health issue.
To see Georgina’s written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry see here
The first part of the submission is specifically on the widespread use of organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) in everyday products. The second part of the submission contains a short overview to update on the latest developments regarding the adverse health impacts of agricultural pesticides on rural residents and communities, the continued lack of action by the UK Government on this public health scandal and the measures that are needed to finally provide the high level of protection for rural citizens, including the crucial NC10 amendment.
Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields in the UK for more than 30 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign