Watch Out: Toxic Cosmetics and Personal Care Items

Commercially-produced household products in the U.S., including personal care items and cosmetics, often include harmful chemicals and volatile compounds.

| July/August 2016

If you’re a reader of this publication, you’re probably aware that common household items may contain toxic chemicals. As educated consumers, many of us have learned to be concerned about chemicals in all kinds of household products, including—but certainly not limited to—furniture, building materials, paint, food containers, cleaning products and personal-care items such as shampoo, lotion and makeup.

What chemicals are we trying to avoid? In cosmetics and other personal-care products, we worry about parabens and phthalates. In food packaging, we’re concerned aboutBisphenol A (BPA). For furniture made from manufactured wood, we wonder about formaldehyde exposure. For upholstered furniture, it’s toxic flame retardants, while many other products, such as paint and cleaning products, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Evidence suggests that these chemicals may play a role in a wide variety of health risks, including developmental problems, fertility issues and cancer. To many of us, it seems strange that manufacturers are allowed to knowingly use established human carcinogens, for example, in products we bring into our homes or slather on our skin—yet that is precisely the situation in the United States. So how did we end up with this situation, and what can we do about it?

What’s Up in Washington?

For help understanding the issues, I turned to several environmental nonprofits, including the Washington D.C.-based research organization Environmental Working Group (EWG). “We’ve really fallen behind the rest of the world in regulating chemicals that are linked to different health issues,” says Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs with EWG. “I think the big picture is, whether it’s the chemicals in food or cosmetics or cleaners, the government currently plays little or no role in regulation.”

One problem is the huge number of chemicals that simply aren’t tested. One often-cited figure is that more than 80,000 chemicals available on the market in U.S. products have never been fully tested for potentially toxic effects. But don’t get too depressed yet, Faber says. “The good news is there are efforts underway to give the FDA and the EPA the power and resources to review the chemicals in everyday products. And it’s long overdue.”

One of these efforts is a move to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This law, passed in 1976, gives the EPA the authority to require testing and restrict the manufacturing and use of many chemicals. But the way the law is written creates challenges for the EPA to obtain the information necessary to assess the risk of chemicals. For one, TSCA doesn’t require chemical companies to test new chemicals before they’re submitted to the EPA for review; instead, the law generally places the costly and time-consuming burden of obtaining data on the EPA itself. The EPA also has limited ability to publicly share the information it receives from chemical companies, as TSCA prohibits the disclosure of confidential business information, and chemical companies claim much of the data submitted as confidential. At the time TSCA was passed, the EPA allowed 62,000 chemicals to remain on the market without being tested; since then the EPA has required only 200 new chemicals to be tested, and fewer than 10 have been restricted.

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