Phthalate Concerns Cause Company Makeovers

  • Women marching on behalf of a campaign to remove phthalates and other chemicals from cosmetics. (Photo courtesy of the Breast Cancer Fund)

There are new concerns that products we use every day to keep us clean and make us beautiful may contain toxic chemicals. The targets are things like shampoos, deodorants, hair dyes and cosmetics. Some companies are taking these concerns seriously and giving themselves a makeover. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has this story:

Transcript

There are new concerns that products we use every day to keep us clean and make us beautiful may contain toxic chemicals. The targets are things like shampoos, deodorants, hair dyes and cosmetics. Some companies are taking these concerns seriously and giving themselves a makeover. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has this story:


(Sound of woman and child talking)


Teri Olle is playing dress-up with her two-year-old daughter, Natalie, in the family’s bathroom. Teri is applying lotions to her daughter’s chubby cheeks, while Natalie puts lipstick on her mother.


Little girls like Natalie have been playing dress-up for generations. But Natalie’s game is slightly different. She’s using nail polish, lipsticks and creams made without man-made chemicals.


That’s because her mother is an environmental activist who lobbies against toxic chemical use. With cosmetics, her biggest fear is a group of chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates increase the flexibility of plastic and keep nail polish from chipping.


“Phthalates are testosterone-suppressing synthetic hormones, essentially. And they’ve been linked with all sorts of developmental problems, including, most dramatically, a set of male genital defects that show themselves as birth defects in infant boys.”


Last month, scientists released the first study on male babies. They found a strong link between high levels of phthalates exposure in pregnant women and damage to their sons’ reproductive tract. Studies like this, and others on lab animals showing possible links to reproductive problems, prompted the European Union this past March to ban two types of phthalates from all products sold in Europe. The states of California, New York and Massachusetts are also considering similar plans.


Olle is five months pregnant with her second child. She doesn’t know if she’s carrying a boy, but she says chemicals in cosmetics could be risky for any fetus. So she’s not taking any chances.


“For me, as a person, if someone said to me, ‘You can either use this product that may cause a genital defect in your baby boy or not’, I would think most people would go, ‘Really, we probably shouldn’t be using these products.'”


And it’s not just phthalates that could be a problem. Environmentalists say that the ingredients in cosmetics haven’t been evaluated for health or safety effects. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t do that kind of testing. And in 60 years, it’s banned only nine ingredients. So there are other chemicals, like coal tars used in hair dyes and formaldehyde used in nail polish, that might cause health problems as they’re absorbed by the skin into the bloodstream.


Because of these concerns, a group of environmentalists called the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has convinced 136 natural cosmetics companies to sign a pledge to check for potentially toxic chemicals and eliminate them.


One of those companies is Avalon Organics. Over the past year, Avalon’s spent two and a half million dollars to reformulate their products and switch to more natural alternatives. Gil Pritchard is the company’s President and CEO. He says the jury’s out on whether these chemicals definitely cause harm. Even so, he didn’t hesitate to make the investment.


“It’s convincing enough for me and our company to exercise what we call a precautionary principle – to adopt it and say look, we may not have direct scientific evidence, but there’s enough evidence here to say whoa, I can feel the heat from the stove. I don’t need to put my finger on and burn myself to know that that’s one of the likely outcomes.”


But not all companies feel this way. Procter & Gamble, in Cincinnati, Ohio, has not signed the pledge. Nor have any other major cosmetic companies. Tim Long is a company spokesman. He says environmentalists are blowing this issue way out of proportion.


“The amounts of most of these ingredients that the activists have concerns about are, in fact, extremely small and at the doses used in our products, there’s no scientific evidence to support that they’re resulting in any harm to consumers.”


Long says Procter & Gamble complied with the EU directive and took the banned phthalates out of all of its products both in Europe and the U.S. But he says that wasn’t necessary, since phthalates, along with all other cosmetic ingredients, simply aren’t dangerous. He says his company wouldn’t be using them if they were. And the FDA says that these cosmetics are safe.


Environmentalists say that more research needs to be done to better understand the effect of chemicals used in cosmetics on the body. But Teri Olle says that with so many natural alternatives available, it makes sense to be careful.


“When I became pregnant, I definitely became more conscious of what I was putting on my body. I mean, if you’re supposed to avoid soft cheeses and cake batter, it certainly can’t be good for you to be spraying petrochemicals on your body. That definitely can’t be good for the baby.”


So when the baby’s born this September, instead of using products with man-made chemicals, Teri Olle will be spreading diaper rash ointment with beeswax and apricot oil on her newborn baby.


For the GLRC, I’m Julie Halpert.

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Usda Withdraws Organics Law “Clarification”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has withdrawn a “guidance statement” regarding organic food production. Some feared the directive was an attempt by the government to relax standards for organic foods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has withdrawn a “guidance statement” regarding
organic food production. Some feared the directive was an attempt by the government to
relax standards for organic foods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner
reports:


Critics said the USDA’s “guidance statement” was actually a new policy that could
lead to more synthetic pesticides being used on organic farms. But USDA officials said
the statement only clarified an existing law, and was issued in response to questions from
people who certify organic operations.


The department has now withdrawn those new statements. Andrea Caroe is on the National Organics Standards Board. She says confusion over the issue raises some new questions.


“Perhaps the regulation is not suiting the community the way it should and that we
should look at the process to evaluate how we could improve the regulation or the law.”


Agriculture officials say they’ll work with the Organics Standards Board to find a way to
address producers’ concerns.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

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