Home   »  Media  »  News Coverage  »  2005 News Coverage

Get Updates
Security Guards: Cosmetic safety is goal of Quincy health group

by Jody FeinbergThe Patriot Ledger
November 15th, 2005

Sue Weber used to dye her hair, but now it’s a natural salt and pepper shade. She sparingly uses make up and nail polish. As a 14-year breast cancer survivor, Weber, 52, wants to avoid putting on her body substances that could be harmful.

‘‘After the diagnosis, I really wondered what brought this on and I started looking at everything about my lifestyle,’’ said Weber, 52, a book keeper who lives in Randolph and has no family history of cancer. ‘‘Now that I know how much my body absorbs, I think that we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way by putting things on us that haven’t really been tested.’’

Thankful for her good health now, Weber tries to educate other women about breast cancer. She focuses these days on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a nationwide effort sponsored by the 8,000-member Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition (MBCC) of Quincy and other health and consumer organizations.

Earlier this month, she manned a health information table at the American Cancer Society Walk in Boston, passing out literature about the 2-year-old campaign. It’s aim is to pressure American corporations to remove from health and beauty products chemicals believed to play a role in cancer. It wants manufacturers to meet, and even go beyond, safety standards required by the European Union, which since September 2004 has banned from all products more than 600 ingredients linked to cancer, genetic mutations and reproductive abnormalities.

Unlike food and drugs, independent government safety tests are not required for personal care products in the United States. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has evaluated for safety only 11 percent of an estimated 10,000 ingredients used in personal care products, according to the campaign. For the most part, safety tests are conducted by the manufacturers themselves.

‘‘People are shocked when they realize that the FDA doesn’t regulate this,’’ said Susan Roll, associate executive director of the Mass. Breast Cancer Coalition, whose mission is prevention of cancer, which one in seven American women will get. ‘‘They say, ‘What do you mean? I can walk into a store and not be sure these products are safe?’

Since the campaign started, more than 200 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, indicating a commitment to remove from products the chemicals banned in Europe as well as others, Roll said. But nearly all the companies are small, often organic, and have a tiny share of the market compared to products created by major corporations.

‘‘It’s very exciting that all these companies have signed the compact and the number is growing all the time, but we want the big companies to sign on,’’ Roll said. ‘‘We’re hoping that they will come around.’’

Major companies stand by the safety of their products and testing, saying there is no need to sign a compact. Estee Lauder and Revlon say they meet European Union requirements and market the same products here as in Europe.

‘‘Safety is a top priority and we feel we hold ourselves to a higher standard of quality assurance,’’ said Janet Bartucci, vice-president for corporate global communications for The Estee Lauder Companies. ‘‘We are in compliance with the regulations in the European Union.’’

Specifically, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has focused its concern on phthalates (pronounced THA-lates), chemicals used in about 1/3 of all cosmetics, as well as many other items, including vinyl products, detergent, insect repellents, and plastic food packaging. In cosmetics, phthalates are often used to make fragrances and colors last longer and to make nail polish more durable.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control in 2000 found that 75 percent of people tested have traces of phthalates in their urine. Other studies have found reproductive abnormalities and tumors among newborn male rats exposed to high levels of phthalates. A small University of Rochester study published in May suggested that infant boys exposed to higher phthalate levels in the womb were more likely to exhibit genital abnormalities.

However, the risk of phthalates is controversial in the medical and scientific community, because so few human studies have been conducted.

‘‘Because of the lack of current scientific evidence, the American Cancer Society takes no official organizational position,’’ said Jodi Pascucci, director of communications for the Central New England Region of the ACS in Brockton. ‘‘But we absolutely will continue to monitor further research.’’

That wait-and-see approach is too risky and should be replaced by caution, Roll said.

‘‘Our culture is one that says we’re going to wait until we’re absolutely positive that this exact chemical is causing breast cancer,’’ Roll said. ‘‘The reality is that we’re living in a chemical soup. If we wait for one specific chemical that causes breast cancer, we’re not very likely to find that. So we need to protect ourselves.’’

While scientists, industry and consumers may differ in their views of chemical safety, advocacy groups had a recent success in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005, the nation’s first state law regulating chemicals in cosmetics. The right-to-know bill, against which cosmetics companies heavily lobbied, requires cosmetic companies to register with the state all product chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.

‘‘It’s a very big piece of legislation,’’ Roll said. ‘‘It will allow the public to know what’s in all these products.

In Massachusetts, state Sen. Steven Tolman and state Rep. Jay Kaufman are sponsoring another chemical safety bill, An Act for a Healthy Massachusetts: Safer Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals, known as S-1268 or H-2275. It would require all companies, not just cosmetic manufacturers, to gradually substitute 10 toxic chemicals with safer ones.

Meanwhile, Weber and other MBCC members try to promote the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. At various times, they write letters, gather petitions with signatures, urge local stores to stock safer products, and distribute informational leaflets outside stores.

Though controversy remains about the hazards of so many chemicals, Weber tries to raise women’s awareness.

‘‘We try to ask people to think about what they’re putting on themselves and whether they really want to be using these products,’’ said Weber, a volunteer with breast cancer support groups. ‘‘Women have to decide for themselves. We’re just educating them a little.’’

For information on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, call the Mass. Breast Cancer Coalition, 617-376-6222, or go to www.mbcc.org. For information from the company viewpoint, go to www.cosmeticsaresafe.org. To find out the ingredients and safety ratings of thousands of personal care products, go to www.safecosmetics.org and click on Skin Deep.