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WITH ALL THE thought we put into what goes in our bodies, it's amazing how little most of us think about what goes on our bodies -- the lotions we rub into chapped skin, the deodorants we swipe under our arms, the lipsticks and blushes we use to brighten our faces. Unfortunately, says Charlotte Brody, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, even if we did investigate what's in the myriad personal care products and cosmetics at our local drugstores, we wouldn't turn up very much information.
'If you asked Utne readers and everybody else in this country 'What happens before these things go on the shelves of the stores?' most people would say that there must be some review process. Cosmetic companies must have to send their formulas and safety studies somewhere,' says Brody, whose organization is a founding member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a coalition of U.S. health, environmental, and women's groups.
In fact, they don't. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the cosmetics industry, nor does any other governmental body. Instead, in a case of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse, the job of regulating the thousands of chemicals that are used to preserve, dye, and emulsify most of the personal care products and cosmetics on the market -- the very same chemicals, by the way, that are used in industrial manufacturing to soften plastics, clean equipment, and stabilize pesticides -- falls to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, the industry's voluntary oversight committee.
Additionally, thanks to a major loophole in the federal law regarding chemicals, only chemicals developed after 1976 require health and safety testing (and minimally at that), which allows the cosmetics industry to put untold amounts of chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive harm (and found lodged in human breast and fat tissue, as well as breast milk) into our shampoos, shaving creams, and hair sprays. As a result, says Brody, we have adequate safety and health data for only about 10 to 12 percent of the chemicals we're exposed to daily.
A heartening trend in Europe, however, is giving consumer activists like Brody some hope. The European Union (EU) recently passed a law banning the use of suspected CMRs -- carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and mutagens -- in any cosmetics or personal care products sold in the 25 EU member countries. Not wanting to miss out on the lucrative European market, all of the major multinational cosmetics companies have since reformulated their products. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Astonishingly, instead of making the safer formulations available globally, these companies are still peddling the old lotions, nail polishes, and lipsticks that are loaded with CMRs here in the United States and elsewhere. After all, our government doesn't require the safer formulas, and the chemicals industry is only too happy to maintain the status quo.
'The American Chemistry Council is balking at anybody looking for safer ingredients because it means they'll have less business,' says Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, another founding member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Hoping to piggyback on the new EU law, CSC has mailed a compact to 250 cosmetics companies asking them to make their reformulated products available globally. As of press time, CSC had some success with smaller, organic companies, but none of the large or conventional cosmetics companies had signed on. (For a complete list of the cosmetics companies that have pledged to reformulate globally, see www.safecosmetics.org.)
Looking toward the long term, the compact also asks each company to study other potentially toxic chemicals in its personal care products. This provision is modeled on another, more far-reaching European initiative called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), which has not yet passed into law. REACH is based on the precautionary principle -- that is, products should be proven harmless before they are turned loose in the world. This ethos stands in stark contrast to the after-the-fact Band-Aid approach frequently favored by the U.S. government (think Vioxx).
The Bush administration, in concert with chemical industry interests, is lobbying hard against REACH, arguing that it will stifle innovation and impose excessive costs on industry. Nonetheless, CSC and other consumer advocates are pushing back toward not only the immediate goal of safer cosmetics, but also the larger fight to reform U.S. chemicals policy.
The old way to think about chemicals, Brody recently told Common Ground (Dec. 2004), was: ' 'How much of one chemical will give a 50-year-old male worker cancer?' And as long as we all were exposed to less than that amount, we were supposed to be safe.' Instead, Brody says, we should aim for an environmental health policy that places at its center motherhood and the right of children to be born without chemical contamination, whether from the food we eat, the air we breathe, or the products we use.
'What we need to be aiming for is how do we create a society that encourages the birth of healthy children,' Brody told Common Ground. 'Women of childbearing age -- not just pregnant women -- are the canaries in the mine. A world that's safe for young women will also be safe for men and frogs and coral.'
Anjula Razdan is a senior editor of Utne.