A Lack of Precaution is the Biggest Problem in U.S. Chemical Regulation

A group of partially used lipstick tubes.

What's in your cosmetics? You may be surprised to learn that many health and beauty products manufactured and sold in the U.S. are filled with harmful chemicals. Find out more by checking out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. CREDIT: POMO MAMA (flickr).

America is unlike many other countries in that the use of chemicals across a wide swath of applications – from medicinal to pesticide to consumer product uses – there is no “precautionary principle” in effect. This means that chemicals DO NOT have to be proven harmless before they are used and that, once in use, they are only removed from the marketplace if something bad happens. In effect, U.S. policy toward chemicals closely mirrors the country’s judicial system: chemicals are assumed innocent before proven guilty. The precautionary principle, by contrast, is based on the assumed-guilty-before-proven-innocent model, in which chemicals must be proven safe BEFORE they are used.
For those who want to understand what’s going on with the lack of safety rules regulating American manufacturers’ use of chemicals in their products, this article by Elizabeth Grossman provides a good outline of the basics. Grossman is an independent journalist and writer specializing in environmental and science issues and Ensia, the magazine in which her article appears, features stories covering the vast spectrum of environmental problems and solutions that our world faces today.
What prompted this post was my response to a friend who supports the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, best known for its association with the iconic “pink ribbon campaign.” During a Facebook conversation between us on the above topic, I posted a series of comments on her page with good links for anyone wanting to dig further and I then decided to repost these links here for others to see. In our conversation, my friend asked me where, if not the Avon Foundation for Women, they should donate, and I replied, “first, read up on pink washing.”I posted this piece written by Lindsay Coulter for the David Suzuki Foundation.
In terms of finding easy solutions, or places to donate, the issue is complex. Here is one of the major problems: The aforementioned lack of chemical safety regulations. So, giving to an organization like Center For Environmental Health, which supports enhancing and strengthening the Safe Chemicals Act (more on that below)and other legislation to put precautionary principles in place such as they have in Europe is a good choice.CEH works on many fronts to help enforce stronger precautionary safety regulations and they have had some very good success. The key is to support work on “prevention,” as cancer rates have exploded primarily because of environmental pollution.
Most solid environmental NGOs (Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, New Yorkers Against Fracking, Food & Water Watch, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Beyond Nuclear, for example) do good things in this area of cancer prevention – mainly through efforts to curb air, water and soil pollution – as many forms of toxic pollution contribute to high cancer rates. Some do more of this work than others (check their websites to see their projects). I happen to love Grassroots Environmental Education in New York. They focus primarily on New York, the state in which I reside. Their efforts to influence environmental policy have proven highly effective, and I follow them closely.
We need to clean up our act in the U.S. We need to pollute less – and this means stopping our production and consumption of dirty and dangerous energy (natural gas, oil, coal, tar sands and nuclear). That’s the biggest issue. Read the President’s Cancer Panel Annual Report 2008-2009 and it will give you a really good overview of how such energy sources harm our health. Also, read Living Downstream (as well as her other books) by biologist, writer, cancer survivor and activist Sandra Steingraber. Steingraber identifies the many exposures to toxins we experience every day, and elucidates the implications these exposures have on our health. She also reminds us to keep in mind that our children are the most vulnerable to toxic exposures.
In response to Avon’s claim that they use “only ingredients that can be used safely,” they have eliminated only one harmful chemical from their products, as far as I know: triclosan. There are other dangerous chemicals that their products still retain. It’s a good first step, but given all the funds they’ve raised, and the power of their voice in the beauty industry they could and should go much further. To really make a difference and do what they “pretend” to be doing for cancer research, they should get behind strengthening the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill based on the precautionary principle that was introduced by the late Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ). They should rally the beauty industry, in general, to stop all use of toxic chemicals and advocate for the reduction of toxic chemical use in other products as well. There is so much to be done on the prevention end. According to Center for Environmental Health’s Eastern States Director Ansje Miller, “There are chemical reform bills moving through Congress right now that are problematic and have the potential to undermine even Europe’s laws if the trade deals go through.” Learn more about this issue, and sign a petition that could prevent this calamity from happening, here.
The answer is not in the cure, ultimately, it’s in prevention. If we really want to make a difference in the “war on cancer”, giving to pink isn’t the way…. So much help is needed: in policy, industry, production, waste and more. Navigate back to the home page on my website and review my thirteen “Key Environmental Issues Today” to learn more about toxins, dirty energy and other problems our planet is now facing.
Love our Mother Earth! Thanks for reading!

Originally posted at:HeidiHutner.com and Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations.
Heidi Hutner is director of the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program. She teaches and writes about ecofeminism, sustainability, and environmental literature and film. Heidi is working on two memoirs: Inspiring Green Minds and Nowhere: the story of an atomic mom. Find her on Twitter @HeidiHutner and at HeidiHutner.com and Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations.

2 thoughts on “A Lack of Precaution is the Biggest Problem in U.S. Chemical Regulation

  1. Thank you once again, Heidi, for a clear, accurate and cogent exploration of this important issue. I have been involved in parallel efforts to address toxic flame retardants in building products, mainly foam plastic insulation, including work to change building codes to minimize or eliminate the use of these chemicals where they clearly provide no fire safety benefit and to make industry prove that they are both safe and effective. So much work to be done and so hard to find funding to support much of it. Another excellent organization that has done groundbreaking work on the precautionary principle, cumulative impacts, the rights of future generations and much more is the Science and Environmental Health Network -www.sehn.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *