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As of this (2020) writing, there are products on the shelves in many stores, which we apply, spray, rub, and wear that contain undisclosed chemicals, untested by the FDA or EPA. As erroneous, deranged, or unfounded as that claim seems, it is the truth. For a compelling and detailed history as to how this happened, check out the documentary Stink!
Stink! is a 2015 film produced and directed by Jon Whelan and explores how and why certain toxins and carcinogens are legally allowed in many consumer products. The documentary exposes a current aperture in fragrance law which may be indirectly harming a large number of the people who use these products on a regular basis.
One of Whelan’s daughters opens up a gift on Christmas morning, a pair of pajamas from the tween chain Justice, and both Whelan and his daughter are troubled by the synthetic smell the neon-colored pajama set exudes. Whelan sets off to find out just what this chemical is and if it is harmful, as he recently lost his wife to breast cancer and does not want to expose his daughters to anything unsafe, toxic, or cancer-causing.
Jon makes a series of phone calls, to Justice customer service, the head of products, the home office, the sourcing team, and even pays a translator and communicates with the factory in China which makes the clothing. No answer. He receives one of two responses, either “I don’t have that information” or “that information is considered proprietary to the company.” These employees assure Whelan that they are “in full compliance with the government’s laws and regulations” and every chemical they use is “completely tested and appropriate.”
Whelan then calls the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and asks if there is a list of chemicals a manufacturer would not be allowed to put into a children’s pajama or clothing and finds out they do not. It is up to the manufacturer to provide the list of chemicals, and no federal agency can provide this information. Left with no other choice, Whelan decides to send the pajamas to a laboratory for a chemical analysis.
In a March 27th, 2012 congressional meeting, Ed Markey, a senator from Massachusetts, and FDA official Michael Landa had an interaction which highlights a loophole in the current state of cosmetics:
Ed Markey, Massachusetts: “does the FDA have the authority to ensure products like bubble bath or baby lotion is free of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde before they hit the shelves?”
Landa, FDA: “there is no premarket approval requirement”
Markey: “if they FDA believed that the level of formaldehyde was harmful, could it require a recall of that product from market shelves?”
FDA: “it could not under current law”
Markey: “if a company decided to include arsenic as a component of face cream, would they even have to notify the FDA first?”
FDA: “it would not”
Markey: “if the arsenic was used as a component of a fragrance would the company be required to list arsenic on the product label”
FDA: “as a component It would not”1
So… not only does the FDA not have access to ingredients in many of the products on our shelves and in our cabinets, but they don’t even have the power to recall certain products which have been proven to be toxic. Believe it or not, the FDA guidelines haven’t changed since they were enacted in 1938. Listing particular fragrance ingredients is entirely optional. There is a loophole in the labelling law, so understand that when you see the word “fragrance” on a bottle of soap, shampoo, lotion, shaving cream, cleanser or any other scented household products, it seems like one ingredient but is actually used in lieu of disclosing perhaps a hundred different synthetic chemicals. ‘Fragrance’ is a category rather than a single ingredient.
Most manufacturers don’t want the consumer to know what chemicals are in their products. Because a fragrance is essentially a recipe of chemical compounds, fragrance makers can keep the chemical components in their scents secret. Much like how KFC has their sacred 11 herbs and spices and Coca-Cola is allowed to keep their ingredients secret, fragrances do not have to be disclosed on the label and are considered a “trade secret.”
‘Fragrance’ may be composed of one, five, or hundreds of different chemicals, which is very alarming. A manufacturer can take a variety of synthetically produced chemicals, mix them together, and coin a name on the label and ingredient list something innocuous like “Dutch Apple,” “Meadows and Rain,” or something sophisticated like “Violette Précieuse.”
Everyday we’re consuming fragrance, we’re wearing fragrance, we’re washing our hands with fragrance, even blowing our nose in fragrance. On average, boys and men use 10 products with fragrance, while girls and women use double that. The hidden ingredients in these products have been linked to a variety of adverse health issues such as asthma, obesity, infertility, and cancer. We have allowed these chemicals into our homes and into our bodies.
In a segment done by ABC, Kathy Fowler, a medical reporter, had an independent lab hired by the Environmental Working Group to test her blood. Coursing through her veins, they found 175 chemicals linked to cancer, 210 chemicals linked to heart disease, and 196 chemicals linked to birth defects.2 The lab also tested the umbilical cord blood of ten newborn babies, born in the U.S., for 300 different chemicals. The lab found 287 chemicals. All 10 infants tested had almost as many harmful chemicals in their blood as the adults tested. These babies had anything from Teflon™ and Scotchgard™ to flame retardants and fragrances, and waste products from burning gasoline and garbage. Babies are being born pre-polluted. The chemicals that are in the environment and in our products are ending up in our bodies and they’re ending up in our babies’ bodies as well.
Of the over 70,000 chemicals being used commercially today, the ones that are of high concern are phthalates (pronounced thalate). Found in cosmetics, fragrances, food packaging, nail polish, pesticides, plastics, cleaning supplies, clothing, among other commercial products, phthalates are members of a longer list of man-made molecules called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDC’s.
According to Dr. Richard Denison, “EDC’s mimic natural components of our endocrine system, hormones in particular, and interfere with the function of those hormones by binding to the same sites and cells where those hormones usually bind and create havoc.”2
These molecules come in through our skin, mouth, and nose, and trick our endocrine system by mistaking them for actual hormones. When a synthetic chemical is a mimic of a hormone, it creates disruptions throughout the body and there are real consequences. The intestines take in more calories, the pancreas secretes more insulin, and the ovaries and testicles are very sensitive to these disruptions, leading the obesity, diabetes, and infertility and birth defects.3 According to the CDC, endocrine disrupting chemicals are considered a “global health threat.”4 And these chemicals are everywhere.
Yet it gets worse. EDC’s are mutagens, meaning they can change and mutate our DNA. EDC’s can “change the chemical signals on the DNA molecules themselves that tell to turn off or turn on certain genes”, according to Denison.5 Even worse, a child born to a mother who had an endocrine disrupting chemical exposure can have the same genetic mutation caused by these molecules and the health consequences associated with it, despite that child having never coming in direct contact with the mutagen.6 EDC exposure has been linked to infertility, birth defects, learning disabilities, and cancer.
These chemicals have been introduced into our environment without any careful testing on effects on human health and children health. We are slowly and quietly being genetically modified by these carcinogenic chemicals from pre-birth.
Companies refuse to release the chemicals in their products, and they are tested and approved in isolation, solely as one entity. However, we are exposed to a wide variety of chemicals, meaning no one really knows the effects of many different chemicals in conjunction with each other. They work together in concert. According to Denison, it “is next to impossible to figure out how two chemicals or three chemicals are working together to create a type of chemical chaos.”7 A rise in autism, breast cancer, reproductive problems, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular issues over the past forty years directly correlates with the increased use of and exposure to US chemical production.
Of course, correlation is not causation, but these two graphics are a bit too uncanny to disregard entirely. It’s time to move away from synthetic chemicals, synthetic pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate. In the next few years we need to shift to all-natural compounds, make all products transparent, and in the next couple of decades, may we look back on the era of undisclosed fragrances with regret, anguish, and remorse.
What Can I Do?
“No snowflake in an avalanche
ever feels responsible”
-Stainslaw Jerzy Lec
It’s hard to actually take action against an issue. For many, posting a politically charged story or status qualifies as their civil activism. While it is good to spread values and information, most social media posts don’t do much at all. Realistically, when was the last time anyone has changed their beliefs and shifted their ideals after scrolling through their social media feed?
More powerful tactics are signing petitions and using your purchasing power. Actionnetwork.org and act.ewg.org both have online petitions demanding transparency by corporations and manufacturers. Change.org and ipetitions.com are also great mediums for demonstrating your voice. Ultimately (and cynically), it’s probably best to speak with your wallet. For large corporations, there is no better motivating influence than being outsold by competitive products. Resources like the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), Made Safe (madesafe.org), and GoodGuide (goodguide.com) claim to do the testing and research for you and mark products which have toxic or concerning chemicals in them. While these sites are great tools, it is still important to do independent research and keep these websites in check. Ultimately, as long as products have 'fragrance' in them, it's impossible to know for sure if they are safe for us to come into contact with or into contact with other household products and the environment at large. More consumers should consider creating their own homemade products using known, safe ingredients.