There are around 84,000 chemicals on the market, and we come into contact with many of them every single day. And if that isn’t enough to cause concern, the shocking fact is that only about 1 percent of them have been studied for safety.
In 2010, at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health, Lisa Jackson, then the administrator of the EPA, put our current, hyper-toxic era into sharp perspective: “A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in our history.”
Just consider your morning routine: If you’re an average male, you use up to nine personal care products every single day: shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, hair conditioner, lip balm, sunscreen, body lotion and shaving products — amounting to about 85 different chemicals. Many of the ingredients in these products are harmless, but some are carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors.
Women are particularly at risk because they generally use more personal care products than men: 25 percent of women apply 15 or more products daily, including makeup and anti-aging creams, amounting to an average of 168 chemicals. For a pregnant woman, the risk is multiplied as she can pass on those toxins to her unborn child: 300 contaminants have been detected in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.
Many people don’t think twice about the chemicals they put on their bodies, perhaps thinking that the government regulates the personal care products that flood the marketplace. In reality, the government plays a very small role, in part because it doesn’t have the legal mandate to protect the public from harmful substances that chemical companies and manufacturers sell in their products. Federal rules designed to ensure product safety haven’t been updated in more than 75 years. New untested chemicals appear on store shelves all the time.
“Under federal law, cosmetics companies don’t have to disclose chemicals or gain approval for the 2,000 products that go on the market every year,” notes environment writer Jane Kay in Scientific American. “And removing a cosmetic from sale takes a battle in federal court.”
It’s high time these rules are revisited. Not only have thousands of new chemicals entered the market in the past several decades, there is overwhelming evidence that the public is unnecessarily exposed to health hazards from consumer products. In 2013, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a report that found “robust” evidence linking “toxic environmental agents” — which includes consumer products — to “adverse reproductive and developmental health outcomes.”
Formaldehyde is a good example. It is a known carcinogen used as a preservative to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms in a wide range of personal care products, from cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and lotions to deodorants, nail polishes and hair gels. It is also used in pressed-wood products, permanent-press fabrics, paper product coatings and insulation, and as a fungicide, germicide, disinfectant and preservative. The general public is also exposed to formaldehyde through automobile tailpipe emissions. Formaldehyde has been linked to spontaneous abortion and low birth weight.
While the main concern about formaldehyde exposure centers around industrial use (e.g., industrial workers, embalmers and salon workers), the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent panel of experts that determines the safety of individual chemical compounds as they are used in cosmetics, recommends that for health and safety reasons cosmetics should not contain formaldehyde at amounts greater than 0.2 percent. It’s a small amount, but the problem is that the FDA doesn’t regulate the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics (except for nail polish), and companies aren’t required by law to follow CIR’s recommendations.