"Foot Dragging" is apparently what the first two letters of FDA stand for. Just before April Fool's Day, the agency rejected a petition by the NRDC urging it to ban bisphenol-A (BPA) from canned food and liquid infant formula containers.
BPA is a synthetic chemical that mimics estrogen in the body and is associated with a raft of health woes.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: "Innocent until proven guilty" is appropriate for people, but not for chemicals that people ingest.
"The next decision the FDA should make is to remove 'responsible for protecting the public health' from its mission statement," Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. "It's false advertising. Allowing a chemical as toxic as BPA, and linked to so many serious health problems, to remain in food means the agency has veered dangerously off course."
A few points about the new law on lead and phthalates in children's products:
A minor furor erupted about it recently on my local parents' email list. Everyone is in favor of protecting kids from hazardous substances, of course, but people worried about some pretty important unintended consequences of the law's vague wording.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which goes into effect on Feb. 10, applies to all products intended for people under age 13—including apparel. Under the law, all such products must be certified as complying with the new lead safety standard. Any untested items are considered hazardous and therefore illegal to sell.
Would secondhand stores like the one in our neighborhood where many of us outfit our kids be forced to send perfectly good used clothes to the landfill, and either stop selling children's clothes or go out of business because they couldn't afford the costly tests?
No, thankfully. This past Thursday the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a press release clarifying that resellers are not required to do the costly tests. It will still be illegal to sell products containing lead, of course, so stores must carefully screen their offerings to guard against, for example, shoes adorned with lead charms.
However, there's more at stake here than used-clothes sellers. What must also be considered are the livelihoods of Etsy sellers and small natural-toy makers, like the guy I met at the Green Festival last year who complained about having to limit his line of wooden vegetable-themed figurines because he would have to spend money testing not only, for example, the jalapeño toy but also the lettuce one, even though they were made from the same materials, right down to the paint.
Here's a great Z Recommends post about the issue; it includes a bunch of actions you can take to help spur reforms before the law goes into effect, including submitting a comment to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Finally, there's the phthalates loophole. As this story details, this past November, three months after the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed, a legal firm successfully petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to apply the phthalate ban only to products manufactured on or after Feb. 10 (when the law goes into effect)—which means stores can keep selling phthalate-laden products for who knows how long after the law takes effect, and consumers have no way of knowing the items aren't free of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
So, the NRDC and Public Citizen have sued.
Lucky for me and other California residents, a new state law protects us from such shenanigans. As of this year, in the Golden State, it doesn't matter when the product was made; if it doesn't meet the safety standard, it doesn't get sold here.
Do you ever feel like you’re in the Twilight Zone? Between learning about all this BPA stuff and finishing the book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, I’m having a touch of reality disconnect.
You see, most of the time when I blog about the unsavory side of commerce, it has to do with the environment or labor abuses—stuff that’s “out there”—not physical harm that potentially threatens me personally, as well as my loved ones and most everyone else who lives in the U.S.A. Yet here is Stacy Malkan’s book, a well-written account of how most mainstream cosmetics and personal-care products are contributing to pollution “in here”—inside our bodies, women and men alike—and how nobody is protecting us from this contamination, because the industry polices itself. (And it polices itself without concern for the long-term health effects of chemicals, testing only for short-term things like skin irritation.)
I’ve blogged about this issue before, in the context of the Environmental Working Group’s helpful Skin Deep online database (which is discussed in the book). But as I read the screed, the surreality of the situation really started to sink in. After all, these are normal, familiar products that have been sold on the shelves of normal, familiar stores for years and years. Are we all crazy?
Thankfully, there’s a reality check: the fact that the European Union has banned scads of chemicals regularly in use in the U.S. (and not just in cosmetics, by the way) through its Cosmetics Directive and REACH legislation—both reflections of Europe’s embrace of the precautionary principle. Why, oh why, can’t the U.S. get hip to this eminently reasonable approach? Here’s where my EU envy starts to kick in with a vengeance (Down, EU envy! Down!).
Of course, it’s not really about where you are. A couple years ago, I spent an afternoon on a gem of a beach in a Mexican eco-reserve that was stunning—except for the waves of garbage that came in with the tide. My sister, Mr. Wallet Mouth, and I made a game of collecting the trash and putting it in a neat pile on shore so that the people who ran the place could have it taken away. Then we found out from them that there wasn’t any “away” where it could be disposed of. This happens every day, they told us. The litter rides in on currents from places as far away as Australia and China. It was a good reminder that the world isn’t such a big place after all, that you can’t necessarily escape the ills of one region by traveling to another.
It’s the same thing with chemicals. Once they’re let loose in the world, we can’t avoid them—a point Not Just a Pretty Face drives home with its opening anecdote about a 2004 study in which randomly selected newborn babies in the U.S. were found to have hundreds of toxic chemicals in their blood.
So on this Earth Day, I’m contemplating the limits of pocketbook activism. It’s simply not always enough. We need to actively pressure companies to do the right thing and actively pressure our government to strengthen its regulatory muscle to keep us and our environment safe.
Finally the mainstream media is talking about bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in many plastics, in light of a new brief by the National Toxicology Program that expresses concern over the substance. As the report puts it, “the possibility that bisphenol A may impact human development cannot be dismissed.”
It’s especially nice to see more light being shed on the fact that the FDA based its sketchy “BPA is safe” stance on two studies funded by the plastic industry [link], ignoring hundreds of government and academic studies that raised red flags about BPA.
In my recent post about the chemical, I expressed surprise to learn that it’s found not only in baby bottles but also in aluminum food cans and beverage cans and bottles. Turns out it’s in numerous other everyday objects, such as CDs, too. Today's Washington Post story on the issue quotes an overseer of the report as saying, “It’s everywhere.... Your cell phone is probably made out of it.”
Much of the focus in recent reports is on BPA’s presence in baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula containers. That’s as it should be, since developing bodies are more affected by endocrine disruptors than adult bodies are.
The Washington Post story points out that BornFree, a company that makes BPA-free baby bottles, can’t keep up with demand. I don’t know about other parents, though, but I’m sticking to glass bottles. Today it’s BPA, but tomorrow...?
Not to be outdone by the FDA, the EPA is being grilled by Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak about possible conflicts of interest in advisory panels assessing the human health effects of toxic chemicals.
Meanwhile, speaking of toxic chemicals, my friend Evan sent me this link to an interesting PBS piece on phthalates in toys sold in the U.S.
A blues: This story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the FDA deemed BPA to be safe at current exposure levels based on two studies ... paid for by an arm of the trade group the American Chemistry Council.
We’ve all heard that you shouldn’t drink hot water out of the tap, and most of us know why. As a story from this past week’s New York Times explains, contaminants from pipes, such as lead, are easily dissolved into hot water. But the article goes on to state something I didn’t know: “even newer plumbing advertised as ‘lead-free’ can still contain as much as 8 percent lead.”
Sure enough, if you dig around in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, you can learn all about the Lead and Copper Rule. Paragraph D of section 141.43 states
that the term lead free, “[w]hen used with respect to pipes and pipe fittings refers to pipes and pipe fittings containing not more than 8.0 percent lead.”
I’m reminded of the “0 grams of trans fat” language approved by the Food and Drug Administration. As I’ve ranted about here before, products can claim to have 0 grams but actually contain .49 grams—nothing to sneeze at when you consider that the American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2 grams of trans fat a day (assuming a regular 2,000-calorie diet).
The Lead and Copper Rule has been in force since 1991, and apparently it’s an improvement over previous regulations, so that’s good, but still. Eight percent is not “lead free,” in my book.
Can any doublespeak experts out there shed light on this?
I just learned that the lotion I’ve been using every day for years is hazardous to my health.
The culprit is probably the 11th ingredient, triethanolamine, which according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database is toxic to human skin and respiratory and immune systems—and may be carcinogenic, to boot.
It could also be any of the other inscrutable ingredients, but in any case, I’m not buying any more fragrance-free Lubriderm. Especially since, as I also learned from Skin Deep, the manufacturer of the moisturizer, Pfizer, conducts animal testing and has not signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ pledge that represents a promise to meet European Union standards prohibiting the use of chemicals known or strongly
suspected of causing cancer, mutations, or birth defects.
And why, you may wonder, is an American public-interest group encouraging the use of European standards?
Because we don’t have any.
Yep, that’s right. Our government (specifically, the Food and Drug Administration) does not require cosmetics and personal-care products to be tested before they are put on the market. Given that the skin is the largest, most permeable organ in the human body, that strikes me as insane.
I encourage everyone to check out Skin Deep—but be warned: you may not like what you learn. It’s a great site, though, because it gives you healthier alternatives to the same type of product you’re investigating. There’s also a guide to children’s products, which I suspect I’ll be using more and more often in the months to come.
I also recommend spending some time on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ site, which has links to stories with headlines like “Mercury in Mascara” and “Lead in Lipsticks.”
Happy horror-finding. And remember, if you ever encounter 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol in a dark alley (or in your body wash), run the other way!
Recommended reading: a scary story in today’s New York Times about a hazardous home product that stayed on store shelves long after its dangers were known to the manufacturer, the retailers, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The cost: two fatalities and scores of injuries.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).