We’re exposed. Our bodies are open vessels, taking in the good, the not-so-good and anything we put in it and on it. So it’s no exaggeration to say that our health and very lives depend on the everyday products—from cosmetics to shoes to TV’s—we buy and use.
Most of these everyday products rely on manmade chemicals to “work” according to their broad and bold claims—make your skin brighter, help you run faster or make you perfectly irresistible. As mounting evidence shows, however, these substances do even more. They alter our bodies’ healthy functioning and seep into the environment.
How did they end up here and where does their future lie? Mark Schapiro, editorial director for the Center of Investigative Reporting, gives answers with global perspective, exposing the industries and government policies that have concocted, shaken and poured everyday chemical cocktails into our daily lives. His book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power shines a light on a dark situation, making us more informed consumers and worldly citizens. Most of all, his unveilings inspire action to ensure the future of these chemicals no longer lies inside us and in the depths of our environment.
The following text is adapted from Mark Schapiro’s book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.
EXPOSING THE TRUTH INSTEAD OF YOU
Ninety-five percent of chem-icals today have never undergone even minimal toxicity or environmental-impact testing. This shocking statistic comes directly from the desks of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the agency responsible for regulating chemicals. What’s more, it comes a mere 27 years after the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted. TSCA was the first attempt by any government to oversee the countless chemicals introduced since World War II. The law required that all chemicals developed after 1981 be subject to toxicity review before coming to market. A major caveat, however, rests in the two words “after 1981.” Those already on the market as of that date were “grandfathered” in. The result: 62,000 chemicals remained on the market and in our everyday products—without toxicity testing or safety review.
Lynn Goldman, a former assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, recalls a party held in Washington to celebrate TSCA’s 20-year anniversary: “I’ll never forget. Someone from the chemical industry got up to salute TSCA and said, ‘This is the perfect statute. I wish every law could be like TSCA.’ It was then I knew for sure that something was wrong.”
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REACHING FOR SAFETY IN THE EU
Goldman was not alone in seeing the faults of TSCA. Europeans were growing wary as new scientific evidence about chemicals’ effects began to surface. In the late 1990s, news stories, first in Denmark and the Netherlands, spread throughout Europe, reporting that infants were being routinely exposed to carcinogens and neurotoxins. Babies were sucking on bottles laced with pthalate-containing polyvinyl chloride, and their diapers were glued together with tributyltin, a neurotoxin normally used to line the bottom of ships to kill algae. The European Commission issued a proposal to limit these and thousands of other toxic threats under the name REACH: Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chem-icals. For the first time, toxicity data would be collected on the thousands of untested chemicals that had been allowed onto the European market under TSCA-inspired principles. The rules of REACH required chemical and product manufacturers to submit data on each of their chemicals to the European Chemicals Agency. If they did not comply—or if the chemicals they used in their products were too dangerous—they would not be able to sell their goods in the European Union (EU).
After several years of cross-country debate, international lobbying and industry negotiation, REACH will become a tangible reality by the end of 2008, when the first set of toxicity data—the first phase to be implemented over the next 11 years—is submitted for all chemicals on the market. Healthy changes are on the horizon—at least in Europe.
Why haven’t such fundamental policies, created to protect citizens’ health, crossed stateside? The truth is simple yet awakening: the rules governing chemicals have been written largely with the support and under the influence of the chemical industry, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. But although the U.S. government and industry joined forces in attempting to put a stop to regulations, REACH represented a new outlook, and it would affect companies and their products far beyond European soil.
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BEYOND REACH: BEAUTY AND CHEMICALS
Even before REACH, Europe’s proactive approach to ingredient safety and toxicity had begun to change industry practices. It started with cosmetics, which covers those products intended for external use, as well as oral care items. In 2005 the EU implemented what’s known as the 7th Amendment to the 1976 Cosmetics Directive, which mandates that all chemicals determined to be carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins be removed from cosmetics sold in Europe. Such ingredients have been placed on a “negative list,” banning their use in cosmetics. Another “restricted” list severely limits the use of other ingredients of concern. Additionally, the testing of cosmetic ingredients on animals must be phased out. Every three months, EU legal authorities and scientists meet in Brussels to review the chemicals used in cosmetics. Independent scientists evaluate these ingredients for their safety, and the availability of alternatives is assessed.
The Cosmetics Directive goes beyond REACH’s safety evaluation policies. It follows the “precautionary principle,” which aims to prevent harm before it happens—acting even when scientific evidence points to significant health risks yet remains inconclusive.
The conflict over chemical toxicity and its associated risks—What is it? How much evidence is needed to prove it? When should the government act to prevent exposure?—is at the core of the different environmental paths followed by the U.S. and the EU. According to University of California-Berkeley economist David Vogel, who has spent years exploring the differences between the U.S. and EU regulatory systems, the critical distinction is that in Europe, scientists act independently of the government or industry. Additionally, politicians, operating under the precautionary principle, may take action on potential risks even before an absolute scientific consensus has been reached.
Concern is growing over the potential long-term effects of repeated exposure to substances. Every morning across America, tens of millions of women apply 12 to 20 “personal-care” products to themselves, according to the Personal Care Product Council. The average American adult is exposed to more than 100 distinct chemicals every day through these very products. Given this sheer volume, we have to at least wonder where these chemicals are going and what they are doing to us and our environment.
One study by the University of Southern California School of Medicine concluded that women who use hair dyes at least once a month for a year are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer than women who do not; those who use it for 15 years or longer triple the risk. This is only one example, and it may take decades and generations to compile a full portfolio, but the data suggesting links between chemical exposure and health effects is mounting.
Despite the concerns, the U.S. government is taking no action on consumer protection from cosmetics. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, has no authority to regulate the ingredients in most cosmetics. In the U.S. it is up to cosmetic companies alone to determine if their products are “safe.” In Europe an independent body of scientists makes that assessment.
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COSMETICS FREE OF...
In the U.S. several concerned, nonprofit health and environmental organizations have banned together to form the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an attempt to bring the EU Cosmetics Directive across the Atlantic. Over the past few years they have encouraged all companies selling cosmetics in the U.S. to sign a pact committing themselves to the EU guidelines governing cosmetic safety. Eight hundred companies have signed. (Weleda was one of the original signers, having never included potential toxins in their products.) While the major cosmetic conglomerates have refused to sign, the EU’s standards are still having an effect. Simply put, because companies must comply with the EU regulations in order to sell their products in Europe—a market that most businesses cannot afford to overlook—they are beginning to reformulate their products. This change will become more prevalent as other countries adopt Europe’s approach. Canada now has an “ingredient hotlist” that closely parallels that of the EU’s Cosmetic Directive, and Japan, Korea, Argentina and Brazil are all in the process of instituting similar policies. Change may also come for Americans when they begin to realize that they are being exposed to hazardous chemicals from which others throughout the world are being protected.
Synthetic chemicals are not the bare bones of all products, nor are they necessary in order to “turn back aging,” “reduce cellulite” or achieve any of the miraculous beauty cures that companies claim and consumers desire. Long before the industrial era and widespread chemical creation and use, the wonders of the world came from nature. Beauty, including cosmetics and skin care, reflected the authentic and the natural. Essences and pure, direct-from-nature ingredients went into products, and these products made people look and feel beautiful.
Such products still exist (and are growing in availability) today—both modern and true to their roots. Their popularity can be explained by their efficacy, but even further, their deeper quality resonates with our whole bodies, including our emotions and senses. We naturally gravitate toward their aroma, feel and essence. If we listen closely enough, it is as though our bodies know what will bring us health and strength. When organically nurtured, nature also has this instinctive ability to create a balanced, healthy system.
“Nature has a whole wisdom to it,” explains esthetician and holistic skin care expert Lilith Schwertle. “Each plant is made up of several ingredients. Every ingredient has been scientifically researched for our use, and we know they can be used to support the skin and our whole bodies in a specific, special way. For instance, vitamin C is a part of sea buckthorn, oranges and lemons. You can also chemically ‘build’ this ingredient, but it simply cannot be the same as it is nature. Chemistry uses only part of nature’s wisdom to develop products and achieve results. The essence of nature, which we can call the ‘miracle of life,’ is missing from these chemical ingredients, and so our bodies cannot understand the ingredients in the same way as they can the complete, natural source.”
It is this “miracle of life” that we must preserve for our health and the health of the environment. Balanced beauty comes when we care for and protect nature’s wise, inherent equilibrium. This is the secret of natural ingredients. They care for us when we care for them. Nature will share its gifts as long as we let it be—authentically wise, healthy and beautiful.