Chemicals in Consumer Products:
Researchers at the Silent Spring Institute argue that the findings of their consumer product evaluation illustrate the need for full disclosure of ingredient information. The Institute tested consumer products — ranging from toothpaste to laundry detergent — for compounds identified as either endocrine disruptors or asthma-related. Most products evaluated by the Institute included one or more “chemicals of concern.” In their report, the researchers emphasize that current chemical testing and product labeling requirements do not prevent the use of hormone disruptors or asthma-associated chemicals in products or provide enough information for consumers to avoid them. Silent Springs published its findings in the March 8, 2012 issue of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Environmental Health Perspectives. The report has proven highly controversial and been severely criticized by industry for a flawed methodology and equating the mere presence of a chemical in a product with a lack of product safety.
The Institute, and other environmental and public health advocates, clearly plan to use the report to support their arguments for robust reforming of TSCA, the primary federal statute for regulating chemicals in the United States. Such advocates argue that many consumer products contain chemicals known to adversely affect human health. They note that for numerous common commercial chemicals, information about their presence in consumer products is limited. In particular, little information is available about hazardous chemical exposures from personal care and cleaning products.
The Institute found 55 chemicals of concern in conventional and “green” consumer products. The evaluation assessed consumer products for the presence of 66 known endocrine disruptors and asthma causing chemicals. Tested consumer products ranged from toothpaste to laundry detergent. The researchers found bis-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, diethanolamine, and glycol ethers in high concentrations. They found phthalates, monoethanolamine, alkylphenols, parabens, and cyclosiloxanes in many of the products. Sunscreens and scented products such as air fresheners and dryer sheets contained both the largest number of target chemicals and some of the highest chemical concentrations. However, the Institute did not report whether these chemicals were present above limits setting safe levels of exposure. For example, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends diethanolamine exposure be limited to 3 parts per million.
The researchers allege that regulations require only limited product labeling, thereby limiting the information available to consumers. Personal products such as sunscreens, deodorants, and anti-bacterial hand soaps are largely regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the FDA. FDA regulations mandate only that “active” ingredients be identified on product labels. The Institute asserts that EPA has primary regulatory oversight of cleaning products, and only when these products are pesticide products (e.g., products that will kill bacteria and viruses) is active ingredient labeling required. Many consumer products call themselves “natural,” “non-toxic,” and “green;” however, the Institute contends that these terms are unregulated and the chemical contents of such products do not necessarily differ from comparable products.
The Institute also argues that gaps in ingredient information are also problematic for regulators. It argues that EPA, for example, relies on ingredient concentrations in products for exposure modeling.
And lastly, the researchers conclude that further study of the risks posed by the types of chemical mixtures that are found in personal care products, cleaning products, etc. are needed to understand their effects on human health.