Everyday Products Are Filled With Toxins -- And We're Not Doing a Thing About It
By Amy Goodman, Truthdig. Posted February 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.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
The GAO Slams EPA's Regulation of Toxics
Posted by Josh Harkinson on 01/23/09 at 12:06 PM
Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released its annual list of government programs that it considers to be at risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and due for reform. The list included three new programs: the financial regulatory system (duh), the FDA's regulation of drugs (Vioxx, and this), and the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals. The last has received little press, except here and here in Mother Jones (MJ contributor Mark Schapiro also published a book on the subject), which makes the GAO's bold suggestions much more striking.
The GAO says the EPA has a huge backlog of unperformed assessments that are needed to determine whether individual toxic chemicals should be regulated:
Overall the EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December, 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than 5 years and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.
Of course, as we've pointed out, Europe has stepped into this vacuum with a much more stringent set of toxics regulations that essentially puts the burden of proving the safety of chemicals upon the industries that use them. The logical thing would be for the US to simply adopt Europe's approach, and that's essentially what the GAO is now suggesting. The government should "shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals," the GAO says, "and enhance the public's understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed."
Exposed: the poisons around us
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Recently, many Californians have received dramatic mailings from a group named Californians for Fire Safety warning that if legislation banning some fire-retardant chemicals is passed, we would all be at much greater risk of burning to death in fires. Among the omissions in this literature are that the "Californians" are actually chemical-industry lobbyists, that firefighters themselves support the proposed legislation and that the chemicals in question have already been banned elsewhere because of concerns about health problems such as increased cancer, birth defects and reproductive problems.
This last point, that we in the United States allow use of substances deemed too toxic in other nations, especially European ones, is the primary focus of San Francisco journalist Mark Schapiro's "Exposed." And while environmental science underlies the book's argument, it is notable that Schapiro's perspective is more a business one than otherwise. His startling message is that by lagging behind on environmental innovation, American industries are jeopardizing their financial future. And since money talks, he may have produced a book with more eventual impact than a crate of dire environmental warnings.
Public health researchers at UC Berkeley "estimate that forty-two billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily, enough chemicals to fill up 623,000 tanker trucks, a string of trucks that could straddle the globe three times, every day," notes Schapiro. Further, "fewer than five hundred of those substances have undergone any substantive risk assessments." At the same time as this massive post-World War II production has taken place, research has demonstrated health hazards even or even especially, in some cases, at very low doses. And children, fetuses and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
Schapiro's previous book, "Circle of Poison," demonstrated a quarter century ago that American chemical companies exported pesticides banned here, causing health hazards in poorer nations. Now the flow of risks is reversing. "In one industry after another, a new double standard is emerging: that between the protection offered Europe's citizens, and those afforded to Americans," Schapiro writes. And ironically, although we like to think of our nation as more advanced in such arenas, it is now fair to ask: "Is America itself becoming a new dumping ground for products forbidden because of their toxic effects in other countries?"
Consider cosmetics. A survey of common products "found hundreds of varieties of skin and tanning lotions, nail polish and mascara and other personal-care products that contain known or possible carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins." Contrary to common assumption, most cosmetics are not effectively tested or regulated for their health effects. European authorities, however, started to demand toxicity information before multinational companies could continue to market their products there, and this development did garner corporate attention and action. Chemicals put on the European Union "negative list" were removed from products without seeming to hurt the bottom line.
Back at home, however, such as when a Safe Cosmetic Act was proposed for California just last year, chemical lobbyists convened en masse in Sacramento to argue that there were no risks from the chemicals used. "They (the cosmetic companies) are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against laws in the United States that they've already agreed to in Europe," says a representative of the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco. Of course, the industry agreed only under duress and when the regulatory writing was already on the wall. But no bankruptcies of European cosmetic companies have occurred because of such healthier standards, and as another advocate notes, "I don't notice European women looking any less stunning than they'd looked before."
The example of cosmetics can be seen as one of voluntary exposure, although consumers would seem to have a right to know exactly what they put onto or into their bodies. But Schapiro provides similar case studies of other chemicals or categories of substances, such as phthalates used in plastics, persistent organic pollutants including pesticides, and genetically modified foods, where much of our exposures occur even if we do not actively use a product. Meanwhile, federal agencies we might expect to protect us, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, have been "eviscerated from within" by the current administration.
The advent of the European Union has tilted balances of power in many ways, including how "chemical politics" now take place. When the EU developed far-reaching new regulations to reduce exposure to harmful substances, American chemical lobbyists swarmed across the Atlantic to fight them. But EU markets are now bigger than those in America, and as one diplomat there states, "We are not going to ask the United States for permission." This is true even when the White House weighs in on behalf of the chemical lobby, as was shown when a leaked memo indicated that such lobbyists were drafting letters from our ambassador to the EU, "an extraordinary glimpse into the routine merging of U.S. governmental and private interests," as Schapiro notes.
"U.S. environmental policies are not sparking innovation; they are fighting it," Schapiro holds. The EU economies are now growing faster than that of the United States; our balance of trade in chemicals has become negative for the first time. European experts calculate that their new safer chemical policies will "be repaid many times over by its benefits." "Europe is looking at the future," Schapiro concludes. "This is not utopian; it's more like a realpolitik for the twenty-first century."
How ironic then, that shortsighted, self-serving perspectives in what was once the New World have become outmoded, and put Americans at risk not only in terms of our health but also our economic future. So, yes, as the "fire safety" advocates advise, we probably should call our elected leaders. But read this book first.
Europe poised to put tough chemical laws in place
December 1, 2006
The European Union is a step closer to agreeing to an ambitious new set of rules regulating the use of chemicals in order to better protect people and the environment, officials announced on Friday.
Under the new rules, it will no longer be up to public authorities to show the toxicity of chemicals. Instead, it will be the responsibility of industrial producers to demonstrate that their products are safe.
After marathon negotiations, lawmakers and governments hammered out the details of one of Europe's most ambitious and disputed legislative packages in years. The compromise paves the way for its adoption by the European Parliament on 13 December in a Strasbourg plenary session.
Since the European Commission first laid out proposals in October 2003, the package has been the subject of fierce lobbying by both industry eager to avoid red tape and green campaigners wanting tough regulations over hazardous chemicals.
The reform aims to ensure that 30,000 chemicals in daily use present no long-term risks to human health or the environment.
"I think we are doing a successful job of work here for future generations," says Italian MEP Guido Sacconi. "We're trying to ensure that the chemical substances in the medium and long term will be controlled and will be replaced when they're dangerous."
The plan sets up a system for the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals (REACH) under which companies have to register all chemicals used and provide information about them, including potential hazards.
Tests provided by chemicals producers will be controlled and monitored by a new agency to be set up in Helsinki, which will be empowered to authorise and register substances.
No outright ban
The rules are to be phased in gradually by 2018, with priority for chemicals considered to be highly dangerous and produced in the largest volumes.
The compromise agreement calls for producers to provide plans for substituting the most dangerous chemicals or developing alternatives when none exist, although dangerous substances will not be banned outright as environmentalists had hoped.
The European Commission welcomed the agreement, which it said struck the right balance between the interests of consumers, the environment and industry.
"It is a marked improvement on the present situation regarding health and environment and at the same time it safeguards the competitiveness of the European industry—paying particular attention to small and mid-sized enterprises—and encourages innovation," a spokeswoman said.
However, some MEPs were furious about the compromise, accusing their colleagues that brokered the deal of having compromised too much.
"The European Parliament has finally sold out to the intense lobbying of the German chemical industry and agreed a compromise ... which will seriously limit the potential benefits of REACH in terms of protecting EU citizens and the environment from toxic chemicals," said Green MEP Carl Schlyter.
The potential economic impact of the new rules is huge. Europe produces 28% of the world's chemicals, with an industry turnover of €360 billion ($477 billion).