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Everyday Products Are Filled With Toxins -- And We're Not Doing a Thing About It

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By Amy Goodman, Truthdig
February 25, 2009

Is your lipstick laden with lead? Is your baby's bottle toxic? The American Chemistry Council assures us that "we make the products that help keep you safe and healthy." But U.S. consumers are actually exposed to a vast array of harmful chemicals and additives embedded in toys, cosmetics, plastic water bottles and countless other products. U.S. chemical and manufacturing industries have fought regulation, while Europe moves ahead with strict prohibitions against the most harmful toxins. The European Union says regulation is good for business, inspiring consumer confidence and saving money over the long term.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the cosmetics industry in the United States is largely unregulated. Investigative journalist Mark Schapiro is the author of "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power." In the absence of oversight, researchers and journalists like Schapiro and grass-roots organizations have stepped into the breach.

Schapiro told me, "Whether it is your nail polish, eye shadow, shampoo, essentially personal-care products [are] not regulated by the [Food and Drug Administration]. ... Numerous times in the Senate, over the last 50 years, there have been efforts to expand the purview of the FDA, and it's been repeatedly beaten back by the cosmetics industry." Details on the toxins are hard to come by. Schapiro continued, "The reason I even know what kind of material is in cosmetics is not because the FDA has told us; it's actually because the European Union has taken the action to remove that stuff, and they have a list."

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics lists numerous toxins that appear regularly in cosmetics and personal-care products, among them lead and phthalates. Phthalates are linked to birth defects, including disruption of genital development in boys, decreased sperm counts and infertility. Lead appears in lipstick and hundreds of other products. The CSC reports that "lead ... is a proven neurotoxin -- linked to learning, language and behavioral problems ... miscarriage, reduced fertility in both men and women, hormonal changes, menstrual irregularities and delays in puberty onset in girls." This is the stuff women and girls are putting on their lips all day, licking it off and reapplying.

The European Union, with 27 member nations representing almost half a billion people, is asserting itself on issues of toxins, using serious economic muscle. Stavros Dimas, European Union commissioner for environment, explained the long-term benefits of regulation: "The medical expenses for chemical-related diseases will be less. Medicines will not be needed. We will not lose working hours, and productivity will be better. So the overall benefits will by far outweigh costs to the industry."

Interestingly, because European countries pay a far larger share of their citizens' health-care costs than does the U.S., they want to keep costs down and they expect to save upward of $50 billion in coming decades, says Schapiro, as a result of the improved health and environmental conditions brought about by stricter chemical regulations.

In the wake of the 2007 China toy recall in the U.S. (because of lead found in the toys), Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. A key provision, mandating a ban of phthalate- and lead-containing products intended for children 12 years of age and younger, went into effect Feb. 10. If you bought a plastic toy before that date, beware: After the law passed last summer, some stores stuffed their shelves with tainted toys and sold them at fire-sale prices to unload their inventory.

Safe alternatives for toys, cosmetics, shampoos and other products are becoming increasingly available as demand for organic products grows. The difference between market forces limiting toxins and a law doing it, Schapiro says, is "if you have a law, it makes it far more equitable, because everybody gets the same protections, whether you have the resources or the knowledge to pursue the alternatives."

That is where the EU comes in, with its expansive and world-leading regulatory system in place (called "REACH," for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemical substances). Schapiro notes, "The European-led revolution in chemical regulation requires that thousands of chemicals finally be assessed for their potentially toxic effects on human beings and signals the end of American industry's ability to withhold critical data from the public."

Tough regulations on toxins are not only essential to saving lives; they also make good business sense. The U.S. now has an opportunity to catch up to our European partners -- and make changes that are more than just cosmetic.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!

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I became chemically sensitive when teaching high school in a classroom that had just been fixed up with new ceiling, paint and carpeting. My first symptom was partial complex seizures, but they were not diagnosed for a long time. The teacher in the adjoining room began having really terrible reactions to perfumes worn by students and would freqently have to be driven home in the middle of the day. Four months later I began also reacting to fragrances. We learned from the chief engineer that the rooms were pesticided regularly along with the rest of the building and that the ventilation in our rooms was installed backwards. I got a job in another school, but the damage was done and I continued to react.

I have since learned that the EPA did an analysis of many products with fragrances in 1988 and developed a list of the many chemicals in fragrances. A member of our support group named Julia Kendall worked with a man in the EPA to develop a list of the twenty most common chemicals in fragrances. With this list we have quotes from the Health Hazard Information section of the Manufacturers Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each chemical (such as benzyl acetate, linalool, methylene chloride). We find quotes like "Do not inhale." "Wash hands thoroughly after handling" and "Dispose of in a hazardous waste dump"(!)I can provide you with this list and a similar one for fabric softeners.

One may well wonder why these products aren't required to have a warning label and why they don't have to list their ingredients like other products. It is because they are protected by Manufacturer Trade Secrets legislation. I suppose anytime anyone has to have a trade secret it's because someone else might start using their product for sale. In this case presumably someone might steal their "recipe" if they list the ingredients. Now the truth of the matter is it's not that expensive or difficult to find out what chemicals are in a product. A nurse with a middle class income in our chemical injury support group paid to have the perfume "obsession" by Calvin Klein analyzed. So if someone really wanted to go into business making it and if a list of the ingredients was all that was needed, it wouldn't be difficult. It's not a justification for hiding what they are doing. They are hiding the ingredients in fragrances because they are poisonous.

I know you might like to get in touch with Julia Kendall about her research. Unfortunately we lost Julia from a chemical exposure when her landlord began preparing the apartment next door to her without warning. She called a friend and the Visiting Nurse's Association, but was afraid to go to the hospital because the products and fragrances make hospital visits too toxic for many of us. The nurse's assn. said she didn't qualify for their help, so her friend took her to the hospital where she died. The original cause of her illness was from a crop dusting exposure as she was driving in a convertible in southern California. She developed both leukemia and multiple chemical sensitivity. Most of the time the leukemia was in remission and she said the chemical sensitivity was the worse of the two.

Manufacturers say, and perhaps believe, that the amount of a toxic chemical or chemicals they are using is "safe" because it is below the established toxic threshold. What is not taken into consideration is that there is a cumulative effect from the many such products in our environment. When all the small exposures a person gets on a daily basis from their own products, other people's products, and other exposures in the environment, are taken into consideration, we are all getting quite a toxic load. Also there is no control over how much of a product a person will use.

Why some people fall over the edge while others don't has to do with the amount and duration of the exposure(s), past history, and the luck of one's genetic makeup. For example, my brother built a house and for what he thought was extra protection, he put down a heavier load of pesticide under the foundation than necessary. As the years went on he remained healthy, but his two dogs got cancer, his daughter developed the rare Moya Moya disease, and his wife now has ALS. Is there a connection? We don't know.

Amy, people are unknowingly endangering themselves because manufacturers have broken the public trust. Fragrances aren't made from flowers. They are petrochemical and need to be regulated. Formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic yet added to almost all new products, needs to be regulated. Pesticide too. The list is long. Now that we have a sensible administration, the EPA and FDA will hopefully be funded and once again focus on product safety.

The fact is that anyone can be impaired. Chemical sensitivity has been written off as quackery despite an enormous body of evidence to the contrary. This may be related to efforts by the fragrance lobby and other lobbies related to the manufacturing sector. Physicians have not always been immune to these pressures either. Even now what may be the premier clinic in the US dealing with environmental illness, the Environmental Health Center, Dallas, is under attack by the Texas Medical Board which is trying to revoke its director's license (

There are numerous web sites, journals, newsletters and support groups around the country for people with chemical sensitivity. Three prominent groups are: the Environmental Health Network of Northern California (, the Chemical Injury Information Network (, and the Human Ecology Action League ( All of them contain ample resources for further exploration.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts with you and for whatever light you can shine on this growing nightmare.

I am already chemically sensitive due to long term exposure to lead and have trouble memory, reading and thinking to write and be clear. However, with help from Alternative physicians and other practitioners as well as a good diet, exercise and nutritional supplement regimen I do quite well most days, considering that 10 years ago I could barely think fast enough to talk.

With that in mind Amy, I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you for the well written article addressing this pandemic toxic problem.

Blessings and peace,

"I have struggled with chronic illness for years. Either I could be bad at trying to be the person I'd been before I got sick, or I could figure out who I am now, and learn to be good at that" ~~Edward Readicker-Henderson

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