The corporate world is well aware that people love free gifts, but Nordic chemical agencies say they can be dangerous to people’s health.

Companies spend millions of dollars annually on promotional giveaways or “swag” like zip drives, T-shirts, bags, and Bluetooth speakers for trade shows and events. Most of these items are imported from Asia.

When tested, however, some freebies were found to include potentially harmful chemicals, the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency, known as Tukes, said in a Feb. 21 statement.

In fact, joint Finnish, Swedish, Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian chemical audits on corporate gifts found that almost one in four breached environmental rules, according to Tukes.

Of the 263 freebies that were audited, 63 were found to breach rules on chemical content, labeling, and documentation, Tukes said. It added that the full report isn’t published yet, but should be out before the summer.

Exhibition Hall Blues

Electrical appliances and soft plastics were the worst performers among audited products that included batteries, jewelry, and textiles. Some products contained illegally high levels of restricted chemicals, while others didn’t display the contact information of the manufacturer or the European Union importer, according to the agency.

Another finding: The cheap price of the product wasn’t always tied to noncompliance. Two of the products dinged in Finland’s study were among the most expensive.

Because these products aren’t sold directly to consumers and typically not distributed in their original packaging, they can potentially bypass additional safeguards imposed by the retail sector, but are still subject to the same rules.

“The fact that the products are given away for free doesn’t mean that they are able to circumvent the laws on labeling and chemical content,“ Camilla Westlund, an inspector at the Swedish Chemicals Agency known as Kemi, told Bloomberg Environment Feb. 22.

“The act of placing a product on the market includes the delivery or provision to third parties, regardless of whether the goods are sold or offered free of charge.”

Who Knew?

Ultimately, companies could be liable for the safety of the gifts they hand out. If a freebie displays only the name of a company that distributes it, then that company must assume the responsibilities and liabilities of the manufacturer, according to Tukes.

But “the distributing company doesn’t always see the final products,” Tukes Chemical Products Senior Officer Tiia Salamaki said. “The logo is often printed in a warehouse or factory and then delivered to the company. The responsibilities of the distributing and the ordering company are not always clear in the purchase stage.”

World Water Week, a large annual water conference in Stockholm, handed out 3,700 reusable water bottles to attendees last year. Participating organizations didn’t assess the giveaways, an event spokeswoman said.

“Corporate gifts have to comply with the relevant legislation, but we don’t have any information about company or conference policies,” Salamaki said. “Companies are not always aware of their responsibilities and they do not always know the legislation.”

In addition, companies trust the upstream information “and that may not be correct,” Salamaki said.

Westlund, from the Swedish Chemicals Agency, said she wasn’t aware of any companies or conferences that have policies on the types of gifts that can be offered, but many require their suppliers to live up to a general code of conduct.

Swedish companies that were found to be in breach of the audits may be reported to prosecutors, she added.