US Should Follow Europe's Lead on Toxins

Is your lipstick laden with lead? Is your
baby's bottle toxic? The American Chemistry Council assures us that
"we make the products that help keep you safe and healthy." But
U.S. consumers are actually exposed to a vast array of harmful
chemicals and additives embedded in toys, cosmetics, plastic water
bottles and countless other products.

U.S. chemical and manufacturing industries have fought regulation,
while Europe moves ahead with strict prohibitions against the most
harmful toxins. The European Union says regulation is good for
business, inspiring consumer confidence and saving money over the
long term.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the cosmetics industry
in the United States is largely unregulated. Investigative
journalist Mark Schapiro is the author of "Exposed: The Toxic
Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American
Power." In the absence of oversight, researchers and journalists
like Schapiro and grass-roots organizations have stepped into the
breach.

Schapiro told me, "Whether it is your nail polish, eye shadow,
shampoo, essentially personal care products, is not regulated by
the (Food and Drug Administration) ... numerous times in the
Senate, over the last 50 years, there have been efforts to expand
the purview of the FDA, and it's been repeatedly beaten back by the
cosmetics industry."

Details on the toxins are hard to come by. Schapiro continued, "The
reason I even know what kind of material is in cosmetics is not
because the FDA has told us; it's actually because the European
Union has taken the action to remove that stuff, and they have a
list."

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics lists numerous toxins that appear
regularly in cosmetics and personal care products, among them lead
and phthalates. Phthalates are linked to birth defects, including
disruption of genital development in boys, decreased sperm counts
and infertility. Lead actually appears in lipstick and hundreds of
other products. The CSC reports that "lead ... is a proven
neurotoxin -- linked to learning, language and behavioral problems
... miscarriage, reduced fertility in both men and women, hormonal
changes, menstrual irregularities and delays in puberty onset in
girls." This is the stuff women and girls are putting on their lips
all day, licking off and reapplying.

The European Union, with 27 member nations representing almost half
a billion people, is asserting itself on issues of toxins, using
serious economic muscle. Stavros Dimas, European Union commissioner
for environment, explained the long-term benefits of regulation:
"The medical expenses for chemical-related diseases will be less.
Medicines will not be needed. We will not lose working hours, and
productivity will be better. So the overall benefits will by far
outweigh costs to the industry."

Interestingly, because European countries pay a far larger share of
their citizens' health-care costs than does the U.S., they want to
keep costs down and expect to save upward of $50 billion in coming
decades, says Schapiro, as a result of the improved health and
environmental conditions brought about by stricter chemical
regulations.

In the wake of the 2007 China toy recall in the U.S. (because of
lead found in the toys), Congress passed, and President George W.
Bush signed, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. A key
provision, mandating a ban of phthalate- and lead-containing
products intended for children 12 years of age and younger, went
into effect Feb. 10. If you bought a plastic toy before that date,
beware: After the law passed last summer, some stores stuffed their
shelves with tainted toys and sold them at firesale prices to
unload their inventory.

Safe alternatives for toys, cosmetics, shampoos and other products
are becoming increasingly available as demand for organic products
grows. The difference between market forces limiting toxins and a
law doing it, Schapiro says, is "if you have a law, it makes it far
more equitable, because everybody gets the same protections,
whether you have the resources or the knowledge to pursue the
alternatives."

That is where the EU comes in, with its expansive and world-leading
regulatory system in place (called "REACH," for Registration,
Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemical substances).
Schapiro notes, "The European-led revolution in chemical regulation
requires that thousands of chemicals finally be assessed for their
potentially toxic effects on human beings and signals the end of
American industry's ability to withhold critical data from the
public."

Tough regulations on toxins are not only essential to saving lives;
they also make good business sense. The U.S. now has an opportunity
to catch up to our European partners -- and make changes that are
more than just cosmetic.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.