I wrote the other day about how I believe it’s prudent to be mindful about what we purchase, use, eat, drink because of negative health implications. It’s easy to be overwhelmed because there are so many carcinogens (and that says nothing of all of the crap that’s causing other adverse effects.)
So if we know there are problems with all of these things, how are they so widespread?
The short answer has two parts: 1- profits; 2- no oversight.
The FDA has rules about most foods (meat, eggs, dairy are largely under the jurisdiction of the USDA), but not about much else that’s useful to us in a direct-consumer context.
From the cosmetics page of FDA’s website: “Cosmetics are not subject to FDA premarket approval. It is the firm’s responsibility to ensure that its cosmetic products and ingredients are safe and properly labeled, in full compliance with the law.”
If you’re trying to avoid phthalates (like I do), sometimes they’re on labels, but “the regulations do not require the listing of the individual fragrance ingredients; therefore, the consumer will not be able to determine from the ingredient declaration if phthalates are present in a fragrance. Also, because the FPLA does not apply to products used exclusively by professionals–for example, in salons–the requirement for an ingredient declaration does not apply to these products.” (source)
(I do my best avoid everything with general categories as an ingredient, including fragrance, natural or artificial colors, natural or artificial flavors. There are long lists of all of the things that word/phrase can include, and none of those lists is all things I’m comfortable with.)
From the dietary supplements page of FDA’s website: “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.”
Household cleaners are marginally regulated by the EPA and are required to list ingredients that are potentially harmful or active disinfectants. According to Scientific American:
“The government only requires companies to list ‘chemicals of known concern’ on their labels. The key word here is ‘known’,” she says. “The fact is that the government has no idea whether most of the chemicals used in everyday cleaning products are safe because it doesn’t test them, and it doesn’t require manufacturers to test them either.”
She adds that the EPA, under the terms of 1976’s Toxic Substances Control Act, “can’t require chemical companies to prove the safety of their products unless the agency itself can show that the product poses a health risk—which the EPA does not have the resources to do since, according to one estimate, it receives some two thousand new applications for approval every year.” She cites a recent study by the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which found that the EPA approved most applications within three weeks even though more than half provided no information on toxicity whatsoever.
So basically, companies can use anything not already known as unsafe, whether it’s known to be safe or not.
We’ve already seen how difficult it is to get something that is GRAS (generally regarded as safe) to be taken out of food and other products when they’re shown to be not safe. (see: cigarettes, BPA, glyphosate, flame retardants, and on and on…)
Testing for these things—when it’s done—is typically done in high doses over the short term. So adverse affects are seen in quantities much higher than our consumption. We’re told that this is evidence of their safety.
The problem is, there’s no testing for consistent, long-term, low-dose exposure. There’s no testing for how these things react to each other, or how we react to all of them together.
There is, however, an explosion of cancer, of neurological disorders, of hormonal disruptions. (I need to write about hormones one of these days…) Correlation isn’t causation, but some causation has been shown, but it doesn’t apply to us because the quantities needed for those effects are higher than what we consume… And here we are again.
As far as children’s products go … there are rules, but the rules don’t stop products from hitting the shelves—they just instigate recalls. Which are mostly voluntary. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees children’s products, among other things. But here’s the catch: the CPSC starts to look into a potential problem with a product after consumers or companies report issues. The whole chain is reactive.
And so, carcinogenic crap is everywhere. Because there aren’t safeguards in place at a systemic level. Which is why the burden is left on us to know what to look for, to read labels, and so on.
My opinion (if you didn’t already know it) is that it’s flat-out wrong. Getting products on the shelves quickly isn’t more important than consumer safety, in my opinion … but I’m not the one (or one of the ones) in charge.
I could rant for a long time about profits, about conflicts of interest, about lobbying… maybe another day.