Brexit could see Brits exposed to toxic underpants which ruin fertility, a new study has said.
Back in January 2016, an EU ruling banned the import of any garments containing a hormone-disrupting chemical called nonylphenol ethoxylate, or (NPE), which mimics the female hormone oestrogen.
That regulation - something environmental campaigners had long lobbied for - is due to come into force in 2021, giving fashion houses time to remove NPEs from their supply chain.
READ MORE: Is Brexit good or bad for Doncaster?
But now the charity Greenpeace has told how they fear Brexit uncertainty could cast that legislation into doubt when it comes to UK imports.
And while the effects of NPE on humans is much debated, studies have linked the substance to infertility, pregnancy complications, and even breast cancer.
Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist for Greenpeace UK, is worried safety standards will be lowered after Brexit, making Britain the 'the dirty man of Europe’.
He said: "There appears to be tension in government between ministers vowing that the UK will not lower our environmental and safety standards when we leave the EU, and ministers vowing to secure comprehensive free trade deals, which would, in all likelihood, require us to lower those standards.
"Whatever kind of Brexit we end up with, it seems unlikely that many people voted for the government to use it's increased powers to contaminate our water, air or food and return us to our old role as the dirty man of Europe."
NPEs are used in the manufacturing of cotton, knit and silk clothes, mainly as a detergent. This chemical remains in the final product, and can escape once you wash it.
This NPE is then released into our waters, entering our food chain, and can have an impact on the health of marine animals - which is Greenpeace’s chief concern.
But some also suspect that NPEs can also be hazardous to humans, and just wearing underwear laced with NPE could harm fertility.
In 2002, British researchers at King’s College looked at the effects on sperm of ‘environmental oestrogens’ - one of them being nonylphenol - found in synthetic cleaners, paints, herbicides and pesticides.
NPEs degrade to the equally harmful nonylphenol.
In rats, they discovered that sperm, when exposed to the chemicals, crashed and "burned out" long before they reached the egg.
A separate study in 2009 - conducted by University of Siena - suggested that NPEs 'used in the chemical industry and manufacturing’ will ‘accumulate in the environment, where it acts with oestrogen-like activity.’
In cases where high levels of nonylphenol was detected in human placentas, researchers observed ‘implantation failure, pregnancy loss, or other complications.
Lead author Luana Paulesu added: "The effects of extremely low doses of NP on the placental release of cytokines raise considerable concerns about maternal exposure to this endocrine disruptor during pregnancy.”
Leading European fertility expert Dr Hana Visnova backed Greenpeace’s calls for the EU ban on NPEs to remain in place.
Dr Visnova, clinical director at the IVF Cube fertility clinic, said: “The effects of NPEs on fertility is still much-debated, and there’s a need for more research.
“But there’s a growing body of evidence that these environmental oestrogens are harmful and eradicating NPEs from Britain can help to turn that tide.
“The precise cause of his decline is unknown, but hormone-disrupting chemicals, as well as diet, stress, smoking and obesity, have long been suspected as major players in this modern crisis."
A report by the Environment Agency in 2013 revealed that 96 per cent of our underwear comes from abroad, and 29 per cent had traces of NPE.
It can take numerous washes before this toxin is finally removed from clothes.
In the meantime, reproductive organs are in intimate contact with it.
The 2013 report warns: "Of the one hundred samples purchased, 96% were found to be non-EU manufactured; this demonstrates that the majority of cotton underwear available in the UK is manufactured in countries where there are no restrictions regarding the use of NPE.
"If the results of this testing are representative of how NPE is released from all textiles, it can be expected that the majority of any NPE present in a new garment is highly likely to be removed during washing throughout the lifetime of the garment, and has the potential to enter the aquatic environment.
"There are concerns over the ability of waste water treatment works to fully remove all NPE prior to discharge of treated effluent. Further work is recommended to establish the true impact of NPE on the aquatic environment from imported textiles.”
A 2011 study by Greenpeace found NPE in two-thirds of clothes tested, including items sold by big-name brands.
The NGO argued that although concentrations of NPE found in the clothes were low, the chemical’s ubiquity in the environment posed a risk.
Greenpeace say that in fish, NPEs disrupt their hormones while harming fertility, growth and sexual development.