Chemicals and allergies - Chemicals In Our Life

Chemicals causing allergies

More people are suffering from allergies than ever before. Some man-made chemicals cause them, but so can naturally occuring allergens like pollen, plants and food.

Since industrialisation, there has been a significant increase in the prevalence of allergic diseases such as asthma and contact dermatitis. There are multiple reasons for this, one likely cause being that we are exposed to many more chemicals than before.

Allergic reactions range from the relatively minor, such as itching and redness of the skin, to the severe, such as life-threatening anaphylactic reactions, depending on how potent the allergen is. However, humans don’t all react in the same way to a specific allergen – the substance causing the allergy. So it is important to get to know your own body’s reactions and manage your environment as best you can.

What is the EU doing?

The EU tries to identify sensitizers based on data collected by industry on the substances that are on the market. This data, together with information from several other sources, is screened and when a new potential substance of concern is identified, suitable risk management measures can be put in place.

For example, where substances are known to cause allergies, the EU may restrict their use to protect consumers and workers.

One example is chromium, which has been used in leather products such as shoes, gloves and handbags for many years. It gives leather more flexibility. However, chromium can escape from the leather onto, and even into, a person’s skin – which causes an allergic reaction in some people.

Click to view infographic

It has been estimated that since the use of chromium was restricted, 11 000 new allergy cases have been prevented every year.

Another example is nickel, which is still the main cause of skin allergy in Europe. The use of nickel has been restricted in products that are in long-term contact with the skin, such as in earrings, necklaces, wristwatches and zippers in garments.

Suppliers placing products containing certain isocyanates (MDI), on the market, have to make sure that the packaging contains protective gloves and warns you as a consumer about possible allergic reactions if you are already sensitised to diisocyanates. People who may have existing asthma or skin problems should likewise avoid contact with these products. The packaging should also advise you to wear respiratory protection if a good ventilation is not possible.

Allergies tend to affect the part of your body that comes into contact with the allergen.

Read more about common allergenic substances by following the links below.

  • Nickel, if released from jewellery, can cause sores where it comes into contact with the skin.
  • Methylenediphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), used in spray paints and liquid roof coatings, is a well-known respiratory sensitiser that can cause an allergic reaction when inhaled. (link to infocard)
  • Chromium, used in leather products, can cause skin allergies.
  • Dimethylfumarate (DMF), an anti-mould chemical, is commonly used in sachets accompanying consumer products such as shoes and sofas – the substance can be transferred onto the product and on to a person’s skin, causing allergic reactions such as itching, redness and irritation.

Several respiratory sensitisers have been identified as substances of very high concern. This is a first step towards a replacement of the substance with a less hazardous one. Once a substance is included in the Authorisation List under REACH, only companies that apply for and are successfully granted an authorisation may use them in the EU.

What you can do

If you have an allergic reaction and you think it might be caused by a chemical, consult your doctor and try to identify what is causing the reaction. For example, if you suspect being allergic to a substance in a washing product, you could bring the label with the ingredients to your doctor’s appointment.