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Investigation: Toxic Chemical in University Hand Sanitisers

Oxford University distributes a hand sanitiser containing a banned EU chemical, butylphenyl methylpropional, for use in its facilities.

Relisan hand sanitiser, purchased by Oxford University for use in its facilities, has been found to contain a synthetic fragrance called butylphenyl methylpropional, also known as lilial, which has been banned by the EU.

The European Chemical Agency states that lilial “is harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects, is suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child, causes skin irritation and may cause an allergic skin reaction.” Lilial is also under assessment as endocrine disrupting. This means that it is suspected of negatively interfering with hormonal systems and triggering developmental consequences for humans and animals.

In June 2019, the European Chemicals Agency reclassified lilial’s reproductive toxicity from Category 2 to Category 1B, meaning that lilial must now carry a label saying that it “may damage fertility and is suspected of damaging the unborn child”, and in August 2020 the EU formally banned lilial, meaning that all manufacturers must remove it from their formulae by March 2022.

The EU decision states: “Article 15 of the EU Cosmetic Products Regulation (CPR) prohibits substances classified as Carcinogenic, Mutagenic or Reprotoxic (CMR) under the CLP Regulation from being used in cosmetic products, unless a specific exemption is granted.” It goes on to add that butylphenyl methylpropional, which is classified as Reprotoxic, “does not meet the criteria for exemption”.

Whilst it might be the case that the UK does not choose to comply with this law under a free trade agreement, a special government report in 2019 on Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life recommended that the UK government should “set targets for the elimination of endocrine disrupting chemicals from consumer products”. The government pledged its commitment to uphold the EU legislation on restricted chemicals, stating: “The preparations that have been made for our exit from the EU ensure that equivalent levels of protection will be replicated under an independent UK chemicals regime, UK REACH.”

The recent EU ban highlights the dangers of continued use of this chemical, and with the increased precautions students and staff are having to take when entering University buildings as a result of the pandemic, many could be exposing themselves to it on a daily basis.

A spokesperson from the University said: “The University reviewed the safety data sheets for all the hand sanitisers it procured centrally to ensure compliance with current legislation and safety standards. These data sheets did not reveal the presence of butylphenyl methylpropional in Relisan as a substance hazardous to health. In compliance with current legislation suppliers are only required to highlight within their safety data sheets if any chemical in the product exceeds any prescribed levels for substances hazardous to health.”

However, the presence of butylphenyl methylpropional in Relisan is evident from the ingredient list on the bottles of sanitiser themselves, despite it not appearing on the data sheets. Moreover, there is no EU-determined level of safe exposure for lilial in cosmetics. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety in May 2019 stated that while “on an individual product basis” butylphenyl methylpropional with alpha tocopherol at 200ppm, “can be considered safe when used as fragrance ingredient in different cosmetic leave-on and rinse-off type products”, when considering the “first-tier deterministic aggregate exposure, arising from the use of different product types together, butylphenyl methylpropional at the proposed concentrations cannot be considered as safe.”

A spokesperson for Reliance Medical Ltd., the manufacturer of Relisan, told Cherwell: “Our fragrance supplier is already working on the alternative formulation, so the BMHCA will be removed from our products by the 1st of March 2022. At this moment the level of this chemical in the gel is 0.025%”. They did not comment on why butylphenyl methylpropional did not appear on the product’s data sheets.

The University spokesperson added: “The University periodically reviews the products it procures to support its operations and there are currently no plans for further purchases of Relisan. As part of its normal due diligence processes the University will continue to review the safety data sheets provided for all products it procures centrally to support its operations.” However, they did not comment on how widespread the use of this brand of hand sanitiser already is throughout the University.

Companies are therefore still able to get away with not listing lilial on their data sheets, and the removal of this chemical is not required in cosmetic products until 2022, but it is still clear that Oxford University should reconsider their decision to distribute a hand sanitiser containing a chemical with proven adverse effects. To top it off, Relisan hand sanitiser also contains Propylene Glycol, which was granted the dubious honour of being named the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s Allergen of the Year for 2018.

While the University is clearly not breaking any laws by purchasing this brand of sanitiser, it is also not putting enough consideration into the health and safety of its staff and students when making decisions about which products to buy for its facilities.

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