Roses Are Red, Lipstick (Still) Has Lead
Any day now, President Obama will name the head of the Food and Drug Administration, and the question is: Will the new FDA revive its passion for the public interest, or continue giving consumers the toxic kiss off?
Case in point: lead in lipstick. More than a year after health groups in the U.S. reported that top-selling lipsticks contain lead, FDA is sitting on the results of its own research.
Meanwhile, new tests reveal that lipstick isn't the only make-up with a heavy-metal problem. Health Canada announced last week that if found lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium during routine testing of children's face paints. The results were immediately announced to the public as the government evaluates next steps.
Health Canada is also conducting a major review of chemicals in cosmetics, and creating an "ingredient hotlist" to prevent harmful chemicals from entering beauty products in the future.
Here at home, Americans are left to wonder about the safety of cosmetics. Unlike Health Canada, the U.S. FDA has no toxic-chemical designation, does not conduct routine safety testing of personal care products, and -- as the lipstick saga shows -- doesn't even bother to share its science with the public.
Lead in Lipstick Jungle
The story began with internet rumors claiming that popular brands of lipstick contained lead, a highly toxic heavy metal that can affect brain development at the lowest doses.
Not true, said the cosmetics industry.
True, according to tests conducted in October 2007 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: 61% of the lipsticks tested contained lead, including a $24 tube of Christian Dior Addict and six L'Oreal brands. (In contrast, a $1.99 tube of Wet & Wild and several Revlon lipsticks did not contain lead).
FDA said it would conduct its own analysis, and several U.S. Senators urged FDA to test a wide range of lipsticks, publicly report the results, and take immediate action to reduce lead exposure from cosmetics.
Fourteen months later, FDA has made no public statements, issued no report and taken no action to reduce lead exposures.
It takes about 10 days to turn around lead tests in a lab, so what's the hold up? FDA is saying they will not release their study until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal -- a process that could take years.
In the meantime, don't expect any action from the beauty industry. L'Oreal has repeatedly dismissed concerns about lead with the statement that their brands are "in full compliance with FDA regulations."
Unfortunately, FDA doesn't regulate lead in cosmetic products.
This isn't the first time FDA has kept science from the public with the peer-review journal excuse. In 2002, environmental groups reported that 70% of personal care products tested contained phthalates, a set of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects and infertility.
FDA conducted its own study of phthalates in cosmetics in 2003 but did not release the data despite a Freedom of Information Act request filed by environmental groups. The FDA study eventually appeared -- three years later -- in a journal edited by an Estee Lauder staffer.
The public was not notified, the article cost $35, and the raw data was not disclosed as required by law.
So what's going on at the FDA Office of Cosmetics?
As I wrote in my book, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry," in recent years, the agency has served more as a marketing arm for the beauty industry than a watchdog for public health.
"The new reality, unfortunately, when you look at the federal budget, is that there will be no federal funding available to FDA -- either this year or in the foreseeable future -- to focus on cosmetics," lamented Pamela Bailey in her first speech as president of the cosmetics industry trade association in 2006.
Bailey was lamenting because, as she explained, "we know that industry needs FDA as the tough cop on the beat to protect us, and to reassure consumers."
Wait -- isn't the cop on the beat supposed to protect us, the American public?
Unfortunately, FDA has few resources to protect people from toxic cosmetics. But the agency does a good job of reassuring consumers, according to focus groups conducted for the cosmetics industry by right-wing messaging guru Frank Luntz.
Lexie Shultz, who sat though a three-hour focus group about cosmetic safety in 2006, reported that participants reacted most favorably to messages from the government. "People were willing to believe FDA," Shultz said. "The FDA comforted people."
Comments from participants included "FDA is strong" and "Nothing would get through FDA if it wasn't safe."
The reality is, FDA lacks the authority to fulfill this expectation. Under current law, FDA can't require companies to safety test cosmetics and can't even require product recalls. In cases where FDA does have authority -- for example to recommend limits for hazardous substances such as lead -- well ... take a seat and wait a while.
FDA does, however, have a good reputation over at the cosmetics industry trade association.
At an industry conference in 2006, John Bailey, former head of the FDA cosmetics office and current spokesman for the industry trade association, was introduced with these words by conference moderator Meyer Rosen: "(John) has always been on our side, even when he worked with the FDA. He was always willing to give us an inside voice."
Several speakers at the conference joked about Bailey being "user friendly" to industry during his tenure at FDA. Bailey joked back, "If I'd known I was so user friendly, I would have been a bit tougher."
Compare this to FDA's relationship with consumer groups: When a Campaign for Safe Cosmetics staffer called FDA to find out how many people work in the Office of Cosmetics and Colors, she was told to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
Time for a Makeover
All this has deeper implications than the lead that obviously doesn't need to be in lipstick. It's about the food we all eat, the medicines we take, and the products we put on our bodies and our babies.
It's about whether American products will be as safe as they can be, or whether we continue to fall behind as other countries develop greener ways of doing business.
For the long-term health of our economy, American companies must shift away from polluting technologies and toxic chemistry, in order to develop the next generation of safer products that the world market is demanding.
FDA has an important role to play in spurring the green economy. Yet, as former FDA head William Hubbard pointed out in the Washington Post:
How much does Congress appropriate for the agency that has responsibility for the safety of the whole country's supply of food, drugs, vaccines, medical devices, cosmetics, animal foods and drugs, dietary supplements, and more? The same amount as Fairfax County, Va., provides for its schools.
It's time to give FDA the authority and funding it needs to do the job the American public expects it to do, and to give it leaders who will restore scientific integrity and public accountability.
It's time to make FDA what it should be and what it once was -- the world's gold-standard leader for advancing public health and safety.