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“Toxins 'R' Us”

ColumnFebruary 25, 2009

    Is your lipstick laden with lead? Is your baby’s bottle toxic? The American Chemistry Council assures us that “we make the products that help keep you safe and healthy.” But U.S. consumers are actually exposed to a vast array of harmful chemicals and additives embedded in toys, cosmetics, plastic water bottles and countless other products. U.S. chemical and manufacturing industries have fought regulation, while Europe moves ahead with strict prohibitions against the most harmful toxins. The European Union says regulation is good for business, inspiring consumer confidence and saving money over the long term.

    Most people would be surprised to learn that the cosmetics industry in the United States is largely unregulated. Investigative journalist Mark Schapiro is the author of “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.” In the absence of oversight, researchers and journalists like Schapiro and grass-roots organizations have stepped into the breach. Schapiro told me, “Whether it is your nail polish, eye shadow, shampoo, essentially personal-care products [are] not regulated by the [Food and Drug Administration]. … Numerous times in the Senate, over the last 50 years, there have been efforts to expand the purview of the FDA, and it’s been repeatedly beaten back by the cosmetics industry.” Details on the toxins are hard to come by. Schapiro continued, “The reason I even know what kind of material is in cosmetics is not because the FDA has told us; it’s actually because the European Union has taken the action to remove that stuff, and they have a list.” The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics lists numerous toxins that appear regularly in cosmetics and personal-care products, among them lead and phthalates. Phthalates are linked to birth defects, including disruption of genital development in boys, decreased sperm counts and infertility. Lead appears in lipstick and hundreds of other products. The CSC reports that “lead … is a proven neurotoxin—linked to learning, language and behavioral problems … miscarriage, reduced fertility in both men and women, hormonal changes, menstrual irregularities and delays in puberty onset in girls.” This is the stuff women and girls are putting on their lips all day, licking it off and reapplying. The European Union, with 27 member nations representing almost half a billion people, is asserting itself on issues of toxins, using serious economic muscle. Stavros Dimas, European Union commissioner for environment, explained the long-term benefits of regulation: “The medical expenses for chemical-related diseases will be less. Medicines will not be needed. We will not lose working hours, and productivity will be better. So the overall benefits will by far outweigh costs to the industry.” Interestingly, because European countries pay a far larger share of their citizens’ health-care costs than does the U.S., they want to keep costs down and they expect to save upward of $50 billion in coming decades, says Schapiro, as a result of the improved health and environmental conditions brought about by stricter chemical regulations. In the wake of the 2007 China toy recall in the U.S. (because of lead found in the toys), Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. A key provision, mandating a ban of phthalate- and lead-containing products intended for children 12 years of age and younger, went into effect Feb. 10. If you bought a plastic toy before that date, beware: After the law passed last summer, some stores stuffed their shelves with tainted toys and sold them at fire-sale prices to unload their inventory. Safe alternatives for toys, cosmetics, shampoos and other products are becoming increasingly available as demand for organic products grows. The difference between market forces limiting toxins and a law doing it, Schapiro says, is “if you have a law, it makes it far more equitable, because everybody gets the same protections, whether you have the resources or the knowledge to pursue the alternatives.” That is where the EU comes in, with its expansive and world-leading regulatory system in place (called “REACH,” for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemical substances). Schapiro notes, “The European-led revolution in chemical regulation requires that thousands of chemicals finally be assessed for their potentially toxic effects on human beings and signals the end of American industry’s ability to withhold critical data from the public.” Tough regulations on toxins are not only essential to saving lives; they also make good business sense. The U.S. now has an opportunity to catch up to our European partners—and make changes that are more than just cosmetic.

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