Health: Plastic Oh-No

A chemical found in everything from nail polish to shower curtains may be linked to health problems

By Emily Gertz

“There’s a misunderstanding the public has that when they go to the store and buy a product, someone has tested it and deemed it safe,” says Joel Tickner, Sc.D., an environmental health professor at the University of Massachusetts–

Lowell, but “the sad reality of our current system is that there’s no government requirement to demonstrate safety before chemicals are used in products.” Generally, under federal laws, a substance has to be proven harmful to be restricted or banned, rather than proven safe before use. Not only that, but it must be shown to be harmful enough that the benefits of regulating it significantly outweigh the costs of the regulation to industry. By contrast, in the European Union, chemicals generally need to be proven safe before they’re approved for use, a standard called “the precautionary principle.” Two kinds of phthalates commonly used in cosmetics here have been banned by the European Union.

But many U.S. advocates are working to change the situation, despite the lack of government oversight. A coalition called Health Care Without Harm is fighting for safer alternatives to PVC in medical gear. The group scored a success last year at its annual conference when two top medical-device manufacturers announced new lines of equipment made without PVCs or phthalates. And there’s activism on the personal-care-product front as well. In 2002, a coalition called the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics had 72 products tested, including lotions, deodorants, and hairspray, and found that 52 contained phthalates. In 2003, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group created the Skin Deep Database, which rates 15,000 personal-care products based on the ingredients listed on their labels. The group found 89 nail polishes and nail treatments that listed phthalates, says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst with EWG, “but tests we’ve commissioned in the past, and general knowledge, indicate that many more use phthalates and don’t put them on the label.” This is because of a loophole in FDA regulations: Fragrances are considered part of trade secrets, so companies are not required to reveal every single ingredient in them.

Many safe-cosmetics advocates want European manufacturers to sell their phthalate-free formulations to U.S. consumers as well. If they can do it cost-effectively in Europe, they reason, they can do it here. Industry, however, resists. John Bailey, Ph.D., executive vice president for science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, contends that current U.S. laws adequately protect consumers, and that phthalates in cosmetics are safe. Recent research implicating phthalates in hormone disruption fails to balance the hazard versus the risk, says Bailey, who compares phthalate use to driving a car: Sure, moving across the landscape in a metal box at 65 miles an hour is inherently dangerous, but the actual probability that you will get hurt in an auto accident is very small. Similarly, Bailey says, while phthalates can be hazardous, in typical daily uses they present little risk.

For many of us, it’s going to come down to deciding for ourselves: Do we consider phthalates safe enough just because they haven’t been definitively proven dangerous? Or would we rather follow our own precautionary principle and avoid them until they’re proven safe?

And Keep in Mind...

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Issue 25

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