The Impact of Modern Media on the Use of Chemicals in Consumer Products

Modern media has a major impact on brand reputation and legislation relating to the use of chemicals in consumer products. SGS helps businesses understand how a movie or social media can affect a business.
( | Press Release | 2018-07-30 16:38:54 )
The media voice is no longer restricted to newspapers, magazines and television. Modern media is the place of bloggers, activists, social media and independent outlets and it allows stories to permeate places where previously they may have failed to reach. This can have a profound effect on the decisions being taken by brands, retailers and authorities.

The ‘chemical world’ has always been the preserve of the specialist, and this has afforded it a certain amount of protection. Modern mainstream media, however, has broken into this cossetted world and it is forcing fundamental change as these examples show:

The award-winning film, Erin Brockovich, told the story of the contamination of Californian drinking water by a utilities company. For years, wastewater containing the rust preventative, chromium VI, was discharged into the local environment. This then found its way into the food chain, causing damage to the health of local residents. After it was investigated, the resulting legal action led to the largest financial settlement from a direct-action lawsuit in US history. The uproar and the popularity of the movie contributed to the introduction in 2014 of a limit for chromium VI in drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb).

In another example, in 2009, the European Union (EU) restricted dimethyl fumarate (DMFu) to less than 0.1 parts per million (ppm) in consumer products. This followed the awarding of GBP 20 million damages to 1650 people following the realization that DMFu was becoming gaseous with use, causing severe irritation and burning to the skin of furniture users. Sachets of (DMFu) had been regularly, and legally, stitched inside sofas and chairs to prevent mold growth during transportation and storage. The media coverage of this story caused significant reputation damage to furniture retailers.

The way media now reports stories, and the ease with which older stories can be recovered, means that the reputation damage can continue beyond any legal settlements. On two occasions in 2017, UK footwear retailers were forced to instigate costly recalls when products were found to contain harmful substances at levels above the legal limit. In the first case, flip-flops were found to contain high levels of chrysene – one of a group of chemicals (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) restricted due to their carcinogenic properties.

In the second case, a different retailer had to recall children’s shoes when the banned amine, benzidine, was found in the lining at levels above the legal requirement. Amines are breakdown products of azo dyes, commonly used to color textiles and leather. Some amines are carcinogenic and are restricted in finished footwear in materials that can touch the skin. Both stories were covered in national and local press, causing reputational damage to the retailers.

Media coverage can be hugely influential. In the 1980s, UK media regularly reported the link between food additives and children’s hyperactivity. Anecdotal evidence suggested that some additives, such as colors and preservatives (known in Europe as ‘E numbers’), were causing the hyperactivity and consumers began carefully checking food labels before they gave products to their children.

Medical research, conducted all over the world, has never found a conclusive link between the additives and hyperactivity but that doesn’t mean companies have been unaffected. In many cases, the negative publicity has caused them to find natural alternatives, and ‘E number’ has become a catch-all term for describing unnatural additives – the ‘chemicals’ in our foods. Ironically, Vitamin C is also an ‘E number’ and most people would agree it is natural and good.

Finally, the latest media storm relates to plastics. Their impact on the environment and our health has meant brands, retailers and manufacturers are adjusting their policies with regards to plastic materials. For example, some major apparel and footwear brands are no longer using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), to reduce the risk of phthalates, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, ending up in their products. European legislation only currently restricts phthalates in toys and childcare articles but the years of negative publicity, mean other product manufacturers have also chosen to remove phthalates from their products. In March 2017, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposed the restriction of four phthalates, showing the power of negative publicity on brands and legislative authorities.

The 2017 BBC series, “Blue Planet II”, dramatically showed the effect plastic can have on wildlife. Popular all over the world – reportedly seen by 80 million people in China alone – the program showed aquatic creatures being tangled and trapped in plastic waste and, in a particularly shocking scene, a dead whale calf with the suggestion that it had died after drinking milk contaminated with residual industrial chemicals that came from discarded plastics.

These images struck a chord with people and now the public is forcing change, such as the reduction or removal of single-use plastic-coated cups from coffee shops, or the elimination of plastic straws. Campaigners use the momentum created by these images to try to improve the health of our planet.

The ‘chemical world’ is complex and difficult for the public to understand but, as this selection of mainstream media stories has demonstrated, sometimes a small story can lead to big changes in the way we approach chemicals in our consumer products. Businesses need to remain vigilant in order to avoid costly product recalls.

To help manufacturers, SGS produces SafeGuardS to keep them informed on all consumer product recalls in the EU, US and Australia. To subscribe: (

To learn more, please contact:

Steve McDonald
Global Footwear Technical Manager
SGS United Kingdom Limited

About SGS
SGS is the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company. SGS is recognized as the global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 95,000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 2,400 offices and laboratories around the world.

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