Read Nancy's Part 1 here.
By Nancy Hokkanen
When we fix one problem, we sometimes create another – that’s a frustrating paradox in today’s society. Product manufacturers’ risky use of potentially harmful chemicals in our food, clothing, care products and furnishings mirrors the ethical tradeoffs and fraud in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s one-size-fits-all vaccine program. By ignoring reports of vaccine adverse reactions due to mutagenic metals and toxic chemicals at extremely low doses, public health policymakers perversely allow autism and chronic disease rates to rise.
As consumers’ injuries and deaths increase due to unregulated chemical poisoning from myriad products, more parents are becoming vocal advocates working to improve people’s health and safety. My 2014 Age of Autism article described profiteering corporations, chemicals and fabricated advocates that harm the public’s health by lying about the toxicity of flame retardants. Victims and families are creating their own potent cumulative synergism when vocally pushing back against institutional denials of health harm from chronic low-dose exposure to poisonous chemicals.
Case in point – the 2015 documentary Stink. The film begins with one parent’s look at flame retardants in a child’s pajamas, then expands into an investigation of the huge fragrance industry – merchandise, companies, executives, trade groups, regulatory agencies and politicians.
Stink was produced and narrated by Jon Whelan, a father of two and former co-CEO of Afternic.com. In 2009 Whelan’s wife died of breast cancer, a heartbreaking experience and catalyst for his research on chemicals in everyday consumer products. As a single parent he was now solely responsible to protect his daughters… even, as it turned out, from their sleepwear.
After Whelan noticed a “noxious synthetic odor” emanating from pajamas he’d purchased from the tween store Justice, he contacted their staff – but got no definitive answers about the stink’s source. So he had the pajamas analyzed by a lab, which detected “potentially problematic” chemicals including a carcinogenic flame retardant similar to Tris [Tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate], and phthalates, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) that cause systemic malfunction by mimicking natural hormones. Like ethylmercury in the vaccine preservative Thimerosal, EDC’s are hazardous at very low levels and are linked to birth defects.
Thus the choice of “Justice” as a brand name seems a misnomer, given that the company sells products containing endocrine-disrupting chemicals to pubescent children. And in 2010 the chain was forced to recall jewelry that contained cadmium, a toxic heavy metal OSHA says is “known to cause cancer and targets the body’s cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems.”
In one scene Whelan raises a stink with Tween Brands Inc. CEO Michael Rayden, confronting him outside a shareholders’ meeting. When Whelan tells Rayden that by not listing his products’ chemicals he is not doing the right thing by consumers, Rayden evasively replies, “Who is?”
Just what is the definition of “fragrance”? Manufacturers’ ingredient labels use that word as an umbrella term for up to 100 synthetic chemicals. Because these formulas are considered proprietary, they are government-protected trade secrets – like the recipes for soda pop or fast food. “Fracking fluids and fragrance share many of the same toxic ingredients,” Whelan said.
Consumers know fragrance is found in perfumes and colognes, shampoo, deodorant, lotion and makeup. And it’s easy to detect noxious chemical scents from fingernail polish, cleaning fluids or dryer sheets. But chemical fragrance can also be found in the food we eat, the toys our children handle, the paper products we use – and all those smaller exposures add up.
Tuolene, styrene, parabens and formaldehyde are just a few of the chemicals allowed to be in Health & Beauty Care (HBC) products without warning labels. Unfair, said Whelan, who believes requiring explicit labeling gives consumers data necessary for truly informed choice. “If these chemicals are safe, then why is industry so afraid of disclosing them?” he asked. “They are testing their products on us… we are guinea pigs.”
According to Whelan, women and teenaged girls use up to 20 scented personal care products a day, while men use about half that. Routes of toxic chemical and metals exposures include absorption through skin, inhalation, ingestion and the most direct route, injection. Over time, daily low exposures to chemicals and metals result in bioaccumulations in our tissues… until our body burden reaches its unique toxic tipping point.
Because everyone reacts differently to chemical exposures, debate continues over whether the toxicity science is truly settled. Doubt permits the chemical industry to ignore the precautionary principle, often with detrimental or even lethal results for consumers. “They’re sick people, they’re dying people, they’re people that have birth defects or learning disabilities,” said Dr. Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With toxic chemicals, we keep being exposed – until we’re certain that it might cause harm. That means waiting for data, and those data are body bags.”
Stink spotlights the frightening near-fatal experiences of New Jersey teen Brandon Silk, who suffered an anaphylactic reaction to Axe body spray. After a hospital challenge test confirmed Axe was the culprit, Brandon’s mother asked Unilever for a list of the pungent cologne’s ingredients – but initially the company refused. Eventually the boy’s doctors were given a list of Axe’s ingredients, but not until they had signed a medical gag order. (New Jersey is also home to many companies such as BASF, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor and Gamble, Revlon and L’Oreal, all heavy chemical users.)
Preventing such life-threatening reactions was a government priority forty years ago. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976. But it wasn’t long before chemical industry trade associations stepped up lobbying to avoid government regulations. Starting in the 1980s, state governments began passing laws to counteract lack of federal enforcement of TSCA – so trade unions expanded their lobbying efforts to the states.
Though 80,000 chemicals are now in use worldwide, the strong federal laws and central agency needed to carefully monitor and regulate use do not truly exist. The combined efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (criticized as captured agencies controlled by industry) only provide an ineffective scattershot approach to chemical regulation.
“The law has not given the EPA the authority it needs to identify the chemicals that may be problematic, and secondly, even where we do get info that indicates a chemical is of high concern, EPA lacks the authority to regulate that chemical,” said Dr. Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Globally the World Health Organization issues reports on human biomonitoring of toxic exposures, but its inability to enforce policy implementation by industry renders it nearly toothless.
Non-government consumer advocacy groups such as the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics work hard to engage the consciences and votes of legislators, activists and the under-informed general public. According to Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, “Most people don’t quite realize that chemicals that are used in the products that you buy that you take into your home are not really regulated by the federal government.” That lack of a regulating agency is, he says, “by design.”
Like vaccines and adverse reactions to them, other chemical solutions to society’s problems have had a history of backfiring. After a tragic series of children’s deaths linked to burning sleepwear, the Flammable Fabrics Act was created in 1953. It first operated under the auspices of the Federal Trade Commission, then later was shifted to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The flame retardant Tris was once used to make children’s sleepwear fire-resistant. Then Dr. Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute and her 1970s research team discovered Tris was capable of mutating genes. The CPSC’s subsequent ban of Tris was overturned by a court decision, yet manufacturers stopped using it anyway. But Dr. Blum said manufacturers simply replaced it with chlorinated Tris, a form now used in mattresses and sofas. It’s estimated that every U.S. home now contains four lbs. of flame retardant chemicals.
“The rise in autism… the rise in certain childhood cancers… all have to be due to environmental factors,” EDF’s Dr. Denison said. His line graph showed that the recent steep jump in chemical use parallels the spike in infant and childhood disorders such as autism. However years ago Safeminds produced a similar chart showing matching sharp increases in autism concurrent with an increase in Thimerosal-containing childhood vaccines. Though both toxic sources could be causing neurological damage, the chemical and vaccine industries use such duplicative data explications to instead obfuscate the causality issue.
In 2003 UC-Davis’s MIND Institute launched CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment), “the first comprehensive study of environmental causes and risk factors for autism and developmental delay.” However CHARGE has been criticized for avoiding study of vaccine causality and for affiliating with Autism Speaks, whose focus is awareness and searching for “the autism gene.”
The same utilitarian “greater good” arguments extolled by vaccine researchers to rationalize vaccine injury and lifelong chronic illness to consumers are also leveraged by chemical companies. Said Dr. Blum, “I’ve heard statements, ‘If even one life is saved, it’s worth putting these chemicals in their products.’ [But] there is a mountain of science showing harm.”
On September 6, 2012, Jon Whelan drove to the New York State Assembly’s public hearing on flame retardant chemicals in children’s products. There an American Chemistry Council lobbyist, well-funded ACC president & CEO Cal Dooley, testified against the ban. Dooley stated that the industry should not have to start using the precautionary principle because “you would never be able to prove with certainty that anything is perfectly safe.”
Denouncing Dooley’s phrasing as “political doublespeak,” Whelan later intercepted him in the hallway after a Congressional hearing. When asked whether consumers should be told about undisclosed carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals for safety and transparency, Dooley again avoided the question by saying, “We place a great deal of confidence in our regulatory agencies.”
Whelan is working toward two key changes in U.S. chemical use laws:
- Companies disclose all ingredients in their products;
- Congress fixes TSCA.
He may get part of his wish: In 2016 Congress passed a bill to reform TSCA, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LCSA). However the bill is a mixed bag; like this country’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, LCSA may eventually hamstring the EPA and limit state rights. And like VICP, it ends up perpetuating secrecy.
In addition Jon Whelan wants the U.S. to prevent the personal care product industry from using chemicals that have been banned by other countries. The European Union has banned more than 1,200 chemicals it considers harmful to human health. Their law regulating chemicals in commerce is known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals). REACH requires that before a chemical can be approved for use, manufacturers must submit toxicity data in full to the European Chemical Agency.
But enacting a similar federal law will likely be a hard sell in Washington, DC. “Business is writing the rules” for chemical use, said Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender. “When I go shopping in a store, I assume… someone’s made sure that it’s safe… that if a product was dangerous, toxic, carcinogenic – [it] wouldn’t be allowed to be sold. And that’s a fundamentally inaccurate assumption. No one’s made sure that it’s safe.”
“We’ve been fooled into thinking that all the products in our homes are safe,” Whelan said. “I’m trying to do the right thing for my kids, but because companies are hiding what’s in their products, I can’t… We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals.”
Like the many parents of vaccine-injured children, Jon Whelan’s life became transformed by a health-related tragedy. At the crossroads of complacency and action, he saw only one ethical choice.
“Once you know, you look at things through a different lens,” Whelan said. “And then you’re left with two choices: Help fix what’s broken, or live with the status quo.”
Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Health of the Committee on
Energy and Commerce House of Representatives, March 27, 2012
Rep. Edward Markey (Massachusetts) and Michael M. Landa, FDA:
Mr. MARKEY. If a company decided to include arsenic in 2012 as a component of a face cream, would they even have to notify the FDA first?
Mr. LANDA. It would not.
Mr. MARKEY. Now, if the arsenic was used as a component of a fragrance mixture, would the company be required to list arsenic on the product label?
Mr. LANDA. As a component of a fragrance, it would not.
Mr. MARKEY. It would not. So that would come, I think, as a shock to most people… The FDA does not have the authority to require that to be disclosed to the public, and I think therein lies the problem…. [F]rom my perspective… everyone has a right to be protected, everyone has a right to know what could happen to them because of exposure to these chemicals.
Nancy Hokkanen is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.