Counting Chemicals In Your Cabinets

Women who use Revlon Moondrops Lipsticks may be shocked to learn the secret ingredient that makes their lips glisten all day is also a potent reproductive toxin – and it's not in the ingredients.

According to the new report Cabinet Confidential, released by the National Environmental Trust (NET), toxic chemicals that cause cancer, reproductive harm and neurotoxicity are widespread in household consumer products. And more than half the products tested contained toxic chemicals that were not included on the package's ingredient list.

Cabinet Confidential describes flaws in federal oversight that allow products to go largely unexamined as source of exposure to chemicals. The report analyzed unique programs in Massachusetts and New Jersey that require manufacturers to document the amount and the kinds of toxic chemicals they put in their products. It confirmed the findings with select laboratory tests.

The five industries that shipped the most problem chemicals by volume were: paints, varnishes, and enamels; specialty cleaning products; motor vehicle and passenger car bodies; adhesives and sealants; and wood preservatives. Facilities that manufacture household products report shipping 42 pounds of toxics chemicals in the product for every pound they emit as pollution.

Where's the Oversight?

In contrast to the programs that curb air and water pollution, federal law is toothless in the area of chemicals in products. The Toxics Substance Control Act (TSCA), exempts virtually all of the chemicals examined in the report from government oversight in products and does not provide the Environmental Protection Agency enough power to assess the safety of most chemicals.

Though cosmetics would appear to be in better shape because they fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in practice the agency defers on all safety questions to a privately funded industry panel. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is similarly absent on chemical issues. When it comes to policing the safety of chemicals in consumer products, there is no cop on the federal beat.

Cosmetics tested were found to contain a variety of industrial chemicals, including phthalates (reproductive toxins) and glycol ethers (neurotoxins). Many popular brands – including L'Oreal, Neutrogena, Clinique and Dove – are some of the worst offenders.

Stagnated Health Policy

National policy has stagnated in the face of overwhelming evidence that human and environmental health are more sensitive to chemicals than was widely understood in the '70s, when most of the relevant laws were established. We now know that even very small amounts of many chemicals impact health, especially in children or the developing fetus. And chemicals within the same family or with similar properties can have a cumulative effect on the body. Federal pesticide and drinking water programs were updated in the mid-'90s to require EPA to take into account this new information in setting allowable levels of contamination in food and water, but there has been no similar update for chemicals in products.

Also, the assumption that Americans are not widely exposed to many industrial chemicals has been shattered by the new science of bio-monitoring; the practice of actually measuring chemicals or their breakdown products in human blood and urine. The Centers for Disease Control found widespread exposure across a broad spectrum of the American public to over 100 different chemicals, including phthalates, some of which are used in cosmetics and plastics.

Europe Takes the Lead

Though the U.S government is hampered by weak laws and industry obstruction from confronting the problem, the European Union is moving ahead with ambitious new policies. The European Union banned carcinogens and reproductive toxins in cosmetics effective this September. It is poised to enact a more sweeping policy that requires safety evaluations for commercially used chemicals and reduces or eliminates the use of harmful chemicals by industry generally.

The proposal has already drawn fire from the Bush administration and the American Chemical Council – the trade group for the industry – including threats to challenge it at the World Trade Organization. Congressman Henry Waxman has exposed the close collusion between industry and the administration in lobbying to defeat Europe's policy.

Fortunately, there is some good news; Europe's action is forcing industry to change its ways and provides a model for how Congress can address the same problems in the U.S. American activists are increasingly demanding that U.S. industry and government follow Europe's lead.

New coalitions have emerged to take the fight directly to industry and state governments. The Safe Cosmetics Campaign has already succeeded in getting major manufacturers to agree to abide by the stricter European standards in the products they sell in the U.S. The Healthy Buildings Network is putting similar pressure on the building products sector.

Pushed by a unique collaboration of environmentalists, women's health advocates, and the state's second largest labor union (UFCW), state legislators in California are close to final approval on a proposal to demand full information from the cosmetics industry on its toxic ingredients.

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