November 1, 2007 The Pump Handle 1Comment

Monday’s edition of the On Point radio show (a production of WBUR in Boston) focused on the issue of the chemicals that surround us, and the movement for “green chemistry.” The first guest was Pete Myers, who produces the indispensable Environmental Health News and co-authored the book Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?; John Warner, president and CTO of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, joined the show part way through.

Myers gave concise, easy-to-understand explanations of the concerns surrounding phthalates and bispehnol A; the show is worth a listen for anyone who’s beginning to explore potential risks associated with chemicals in wide use today. For those already familiar with these chemical issues, it’s interesting to hear the common consumer attitudes surrounding chemical-containing products.

One thing that came up several times during the show was the widely held belief that if something’s on a store shelf in the U.S., it must be safe. Myers pointed to cosmetics as an example of products that aren’t fully safety tested, though consumers might expect them to be. Here’s the FDA’s explanation of what it can and can’t do regarding cosmetic-product safety (via the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which Myers recommended as a resource):

The regulatory requirements governing the sale of cosmetics are not as stringent as those that apply to other FDA-regulated products. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, cosmetics and their ingredients are not required to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. Generally, FDA regulates these products after they have been released to the marketplace. This means that manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, to market a product without a government review or approval.

But some regulations do apply to cosmetics. In addition to the FD&C Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires an ingredient declaration on every cosmetic product offered for sale to consumers. In addition, these regulations require that ingredients be listed in descending order of quantity. Water, for example, accounts for the bulk of most skin-care products, which is why it usually appears first on these products.

Although companies are not required to substantiate performance claims or conduct safety testing, if safety has not been substantiated, the product’s label must read “WARNING: The safety of this product has not been determined.”

“Consumers believe that ‘if it’s on the market, it can’t hurt me,'” says Bailey. “And this belief is sometimes wrong.”

FDA’s challenge comes in proving that a product is harmful under conditions of use or that it is improperly labeled. Only then can the agency take action to remove adulterated or misbranded products from the marketplace.

Upon learning about how little assurance we have of the safety of the chemicals in our canned food, bottled water, and skin creams, many people start sounding like On Point host Tom Ashbrook, who expressed a combination of disbelief and outrage. If we’ve got so many chemicals being produced in such huge quantities, and so much science telling us our health is affected, why isn’t anything being done, he wanted to know. Why isn’t there more outrage? Why aren’t we marshaling all our resources to address the problem?

Part of the reason is that most people don’t know the things that Ashbrook and his guests reported on this show.

Myers pointed out that we’re getting some of the benefit of the European Union’s new chemical regulations (check out Joel Tickner’s post for more on the EU chemical policy). Many companies are altering their products to meet the standards of the EU or other countries and selling the same reformulated products here in the U.S. Consumer demand is also having some impact; sales of glass baby bottles skyrocketed once mainstream news sources started reporting on the concerns about bisphenol A on infants’ development. For the most part, though, most consumers probably aren’t aware of what’s in their products or what the alternatives are.

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