Environment

What Are We Doing to Ourselves? 84,000 Chemicals, and Only 1% Have Been Tested

Women are particularly at risk because they use more personal care products than men.

Photo Credit: Goodluz/Shutterstock.com

There are around 84,000 chemicals on the market, and we come into contact with many of them every single day. And if that isn't enough to cause concern, the shocking fact is that only about 1 percent of them have been studied for safety.

In 2010, at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health, Lisa Jackson, then the administrator of the EPA, put our current, hyper-toxic era into sharp perspective: "A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in our history."

Just consider your morning routine: If you're an average male, you use up to nine personal care products every single day: shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, hair conditioner, lip balm, sunscreen, body lotion and shaving products — amounting to about 85 different chemicals. Many of the ingredients in these products are harmless, but some are carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors.

Women are particularly at risk because they generally use more personal care products than men: 25 percent of women apply 15 or more products daily, including makeup and anti-aging creams, amounting to an average of 168 chemicals. For a pregnant woman, the risk is multiplied as she can pass on those toxins to her unborn child: 300 contaminants have been detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

Many people don't think twice about the chemicals they put on their bodies, perhaps thinking that the government regulates the personal care products that flood the marketplace. In reality, the government plays a very small role, in part because it doesn't have the legal mandate to protect the public from harmful substances that chemical companies and manufacturers sell in their products. Federal rules designed to ensure product safety haven’t been updated in more than 75 years. New untested chemicals appear on store shelves all the time.

"Under federal law, cosmetics companies don't have to disclose chemicals or gain approval for the 2,000 products that go on the market every year," notes environment writer Jane Kay in Scientific American. "And removing a cosmetic from sale takes a battle in federal court."

It's high time these rules are revisited. Not only have thousands of new chemicals entered the market in the past several decades, there is overwhelming evidence that the public is unnecessarily exposed to health hazards from consumer products. In 2013, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a report that found "robust" evidence linking "toxic environmental agents" — which includes consumer products — to "adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes."

Formaldehyde is a good example. It is a known carcinogen used as a preservative to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms in a wide range of personal care products, from cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and lotions to deodorants, nail polishes and hair gels. It is also used in pressed-wood products, permanent-press fabrics, paper product coatings and insulation, and as a fungicide, germicide, disinfectant and preservative. The general public is also exposed to formaldehyde through automobile tailpipe emissions. Formaldehyde has been linked to spontaneous abortion and low birth weight.

While the main concern about formaldehyde exposure centers around industrial use (e.g., industrial workers, embalmers and salon workers), the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent panel of experts that determines the safety of individual chemical compounds as they are used in cosmetics, recommends that for health and safety reasons cosmetics should not contain formaldehyde at amounts greater than 0.2 percent. It's a small amount, but the problem is that the FDA doesn't regulate the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics (except for nail polish), and companies aren't required by law to follow CIR's recommendations.

Empowering FDA to Protect Consumers

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are trying to bridge this gap in federal oversight. Last month, they introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act (S. 1014), a bill that seeks to protect consumers from toxins found in personal care products by strengthening the authority of the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the cosmetics industry, to regulate the ingredients in those products.

Specifically, by making significant revisions to the cosmetics chapter of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the bill would require the FDA to review chemicals used in personal care products and provide clear guidance on their safety. In addition, S.1014 would require cosmetic manufacturing facilities to register with the FDA, require brand owners to submit ingredient statements every year, require the FDA to assess the safety of cosmetic ingredients at a minimum of five ingredients per year, and give the FDA the authority to recall certain personal care products that threaten consumer safety.

“From shampoo to lotion, the use of personal care products is widespread, however, there are very few protections in place to ensure their safety,” said Sen. Feinstein. "Europe has a robust system, which includes consumer protections like product registration and ingredient reviews. In addition, the legislation has broad support from companies and consumer groups alike."

The first set of chemicals that would be reviewed under S. 1014 includes:

Several non-profit environmental and public health advocacy groups have supported the proposed legislation, including Environmental Working Group, Society for Women’s Health Research, National Alliance for Hispanic Health and HealthyWomen. The bill, which involved discussions with the FDA as well as the personal care products industry, is also supported by numerous companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Revlon, Estee Lauder, Unilever and L'Oreal. Sen. Collins said that for manufacturers, the bill provides "regulatory certainty ... enabling them to plan for the future."

"While we believe our products are the safest category that FDA regulates, we also believe well-crafted, science-based reforms will enhance industry's ability to innovate and further strengthen consumer confidence in the products they trust and use every day," said the Personal Care Products Council, a national trade association for the cosmetic and personal care products industry, in a statement. "The current patchwork regulatory approach with varying state bills does not achieve this goal."

Overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act

Like the FDA, the EPA is similarly toothless when it comes to protecting the public from dangerous chemicals. Though it has the power to investigate some consumer chemicals through the Toxic Substances Control Act, the agency can act only if a chemical poses an "unreasonable risk" to public health — and that is difficult to prove. Since the TSCA was passed in 1976, the EPA has only tested around 200 of the 84,000 chemicals on the market. The law hasn't undergone any substantial update since it was enacted.

In a 2011 paper published in the journal Health Affairs, Sarah Vogel, a program officer at the Johnson Family Foundation in New York City, and Jody Roberts, the associate director of the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, argue that the TSCA requires an overhaul:

The EPA’s ability to obtain safety information and set regulatory standards as outlined under the Toxic Substances Control Act has fallen far short of expectations. This is due to a combination of limitations in the statute and a series of events over the past thirty-five years, including reductions in the EPA’s budget in the 1980s, changing political leadership and shifting agency priorities, limited oversight by Congress, and successful challenges by the chemical industry to limit the EPA’s authority.

In March, senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) made an official push for that overhaul when they introduced the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S. 697), a bill that seeks to update the TSCA. The bill would require the EPA to ensure that 25 high- and 25 low-priority substances will be addressed within five years of the bill's enactment, while not conceding all oversight to the federal level: It also permit states to implement requirements that are identical to the federal requirements enacted by the EPA.

Also, before producing a new chemical or manufacturing an existing chemical for "significant new use," the EPA would be required to say officially that the chemical in question would "likely meet the safety standard," rather than simply letting the review period expire — which is the case under the current TSCA. Also known as the “Udall-Vitter” Toxic Substances Control Act reform bill, it is currently pending a vote on the Senate Floor.

We absorb up to 60 percent of what we put on our skin. (Infographic by Natural Healthy Concepts)

"Americans are exposed to a toxic soup of more than 80,000 different chemicals, but we have no idea what the impact of those chemicals is on our bodies — or those of our children," said Sen. Udall. "Current law has failed to protect Americans from dangerous carcinogens like asbestos, and Congress can't afford to stand on the sidelines any longer."

Sen. Vitter noted that "chemicals are used to produce 96 percent of all manufactured goods consumers rely on every day."

Unlike previous unsuccessful attempts to reform the TSCA, S. 697 enjoys strong bipartisan support: 17 Republican senators and 17 Democratic senators have joined Vitter and Udall to co-sponsor the bill. However, it faces a challenge by a similar competing bill, the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act (S. 725), introduced two days later by senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA). Unlike S. 697, S. 725 currently has no Republican co-sponsors.

Supporters of S. 725, including the Environmental Working Group, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and Safer Chemicals Safer Families, argue that the Udall-Vitter bill is "embraced by the chemical industry" and it "would take more than a century to analyze and regulate the 1,000 chemicals EPA has flagged for review on the grounds they appear to be particularly dangerous to human health."

A stark difference between the two bills is that the Udall-Vitter bill doesn't even mention asbestos, a known carcinogen that kills approximately 10,000 Americans every year and under current law, cannot be banned. The Boxer-Markey bill would require that all forms of asbestos be listed as a high-priority chemical substance, requiring the EPA to complete a safety assessment and determination for asbestos within two years of the bill's enactment.

S. 725 "addresses asbestos, children's cancer and other threats that toxic chemicals pose to our families, including cardiovascular disease, developmental disorders, respiratory disorders, neurological disorders, endocrine disruption and many others," said Sen. Boxer. "Our citizens deserve nothing less than a bill that protects them — not chemical companies."

Senator Markey called the nation's current federal chemical laws "outdated and ineffective," and said their bill would also "preserve vital protections like a state's ability to clamp down on dangerous chemicals."

"The fact that the Vitter-Udall bill will not even restrict, much less ban, the deadly substance that claims 30 lives a day is nothing short of a national travesty," said Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. "Any senator who supports this industry proposal is in essence supporting the continuation of the toll asbestos has already had on millions of American families."

The current prognosis for these three bills is fairly grim: GovTrack gives S. 697 a 15 percent chance of being enacted, S. 1014 a 3 percent chance and S. 725 a 1 percent chance. Whatever happens, it is clear that the current system in place to protect the public from dangerous chemicals is not working. 

As America's lawmakers review these bills, they would do well to consider the prescription of Lynn Goldman, dean of George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health: "It is far wiser and less expensive to prevent exposure to unsafe chemicals ... than to have to treat the serious health problems that they can cause."

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