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PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS – A RESEARCH JOURNEY

By Katherine Engel, Research Associate

Heal the Ocean

Researchers are sleuths of a sort – we look for answers behind every stone, bush and
website, and every answer poses three more questions, more calls and more people to talk
to until we arrive at a logarithmically huge pile of figures and facts. Sometimes those
figures and facts begin to create a horrifying picture that even I, a researcher, can’t believe
is emerging before my eyes. I think of that Erin Brockovich scene where she reaches into
an office drawer, pulls out a sheaf of medical records from a Hinkley, California, real
estate file, showing that local health problems were due to the leaching of a toxin into
local water supplies from a PG&E plant, and asks something like, “What’s all this?”

In my work as Research Associate at Heal the Ocean, a Santa Barbara citizens action
group focused on water quality, I have been working for a few years on a project
enumerating the volume of wastewater discharged from California treatment plants to the
Pacific Ocean. As this report, California Wastewater Discharge Inventory and Report,
was taking shape, I and my fellow researchers were amazed to discover the amount of
pollutants, collectively known as Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs), that are not
removed by standard wastewater treatment and that are making their way daily into our
waterways, oceans, and drinking water.

One category of CECs is a collection of “personal care products,” which certainly doesn’t
sound as evil as, say, “pesticide,” and so this category didn’t catch my immediate
attention. But as I set out to determine how people could help the situation by avoiding the
use of things that contain CECs (called “source control”), I kept coming back to personal
care products. I started reading labels and researching every single one of the ingredients,
and became astounded by the sheer number of chemicals substances all of us are
inundating ourselves with every day. The plethora of synthetic ingredients that go into a
single bottle of shampoo or lotion is mind-boggling. How can using these things be safe?

The answer is it’s not safe. The list of chemicals in various personal care products that
concern me the most are discussed in detail in Bad for the Ocean, Bad for You.

As I examined this Pandora’s Box of bad stuff, I think my biggest surprise was to learn
that the ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are not under the regulation
of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – or any government agency for that
matter. Companies do not need the FDA’s approval before they release a product to the
market, other than for a color additive. In fact, in order for the FDA to be able to test
products before they are released to the public, they would need congressional support to
change the law. The FDA is authorized to approve what you eat – but they are not
authorized to examine the ingredients contained in what women put on their lips nearly
every day!
Knowing of FDA authority over food safety, companies with questionable products look
for non-toxic alternatives even before the FDA has made a final decision on an
ingredient's safety. A recent example is the discovery of the toxic leaching of Bisphenol A
(BPA) from aluminum can linings into canned food. Despite the fact that the FDA has not
yet banned the use of BPA in these cans, food companies are already looking into
alternatives – whether it be cardboard cartons or aluminum cans with an alternative, non-
toxic lining – because they know future regulation is coming. Consumer concern is
another powerful reason companies move fast to look for an alternative: negative publicity
can make an entire line of products unsellable.

In the world of personal care products, companies are having a field day, putting anything
out there they choose. There is no threat of regulation, and most consumers have NO idea
they are bathing in toxins, smearing toxins on themselves, rubbing toxins into their hair,
and hey, who’s to know about the dose of lead women get every time they put on lipstick?
It is estimated that the average woman applying lipstick unknowingly consumes 4 pounds
in her lifetime. Lipstick is known to be contaminated with this poison, and the FDA is
currently looking into this matter.

In the case of personal care products, the fox is guarding the henhouse. The cosmetic
company itself is responsible for self-regulation of the safety of its products. Being a
researcher, I was not reassured by this finding, and decided to look further.

In general, a manufacturer may use any ingredients it wants to use, provided that the end
product is “safe.” What the manufacturer considers “safe” is anybody’s guess. The
manufacturer performs its own toxicity tests and determines that low levels of many of
these chemicals are not toxic, all the while ignoring the cumulative effects of using
multiple products with the same ingredient. On average, people use around 10 personal
care products a day, and many women like me probably use more. Between my shampoo,
conditioner, body wash, face wash, shaving cream and makeup, I probably put on and into
my body the same ingredient many times per day. Though these ingredients may be non-
toxic in low doses and a few doses, this “non-toxic” claim cannot be made when an
ingredient is used over and over again, ingested or absorbed from multiple sources.

The reason Heal the Ocean is so involved in this issue is because personal care products
affect the ocean. They go down the drain from your house to a wastewater treatment
plant, where for the most part they bypass the current treatment system and are discharged
straight into the ocean. Wastewater plants are not required to test for these chemicals.
Most secondary wastewater systems, approved by the State of California, don’t remove
these contaminants from the waste stream. Tertiary treatment methods, like microfiltration
or reverse osmosis, as well as extended secondary treatment, can properly degrade and
remove some contaminants and help decrease the pollutant load.

The truly scary part is that this problem is not just a threat for our oceans. If a wastewater
plant upstream discharges into a river or other water body, that water eventually mixes
with the supply that is your drinking water and you could be drinking these contaminants.
Though the water is treated before it comes out of your tap, it is impossible to assume that
these things come out with conventional treatment. Recent news articles have been
focusing on contaminants in drinking water, but CECs are not mentioned anywhere
because much of the news media doesn’t yet know about this problem. In general, even if
your water is legal, it may not necessarily be safe. Though there are laws to protect U.S.
citizens in the matter of their drinking water supplies, these laws are overwhelmingly
shortsighted: only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, while
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 60,000
chemicals are used within the United States alone.

The most effective and efficient way to get a handle on this runaway problem is to look to
the wastewater treatment plant. The sewer system is one of the most invisible and
underrated services in the country, and the most important environmental tool available to
remedy the situation. Using higher levels of processing, the sewer system could remove
these contaminants. However, the wastewater treatment plants require funding to pay for
such improvements, and ratepayers don’t want to pay more than they pay now – even
though most sewer rates are a fraction of other utilities. There are consumers who feel that
if their water is legal, then it is safe to drink without further treatment and that sewer
service rate increases are unnecessary. An engineer with the Sanitary Districts of Los
Angeles County told Heal the Ocean that their plants are reclaiming as much wastewater
as they can, to recycle and reuse, and that if they had just $5 more per month per
ratepayer, all their wastewater could be reclaimed. When asked why the agency simply
doesn’t get a $5 rate hike passed, the engineer said ratepayers would never go for it. Heal
the Ocean continues to ask citizens to consider how much they pay for sewer service. In
the city of Santa Barbara it’s approximately $30 dollars a month – whereas gas and
electricity are as much as three times more, and cable can be five times more! Wastewater
service, which is impossible to live without, is not valued enough.

As you read this, contaminants are making their way into the environment where they
bioaccumulate in the tissues of animals and humans, causing toxic effects. These effects
are difficult to measure in populations of animals and further research is required.
However, some observances are being made in sea life. In the Morro Bay mudflats, the
San Luis Obispo Science and Ecosystem Alliance (SLOSEA) is discovering many fish
with tumors in their reproductive organs. Of the more than 60 organic pollutants found in
fish liver tissue, nonylphenol is the most concentrated chemical. Nonylphenol, which is
already known to have endocrine disrupting properties, is used in detergents, surfactants,
emulsifiers and cosmetics. The European Union has banned nonylphenol, but in the U.S.,
we are still measuring “acceptable levels” for release into the environment. Here in the
U.S., causation of symptoms, and not correlation, must be determined before action is
taken to ban a chemical's use.

As a researcher and a consumer, I believe in the precautionary principle. The Wingspread


Statement on the Precautionary Principle states “When an activity raises threats of harm to
human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some
cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
The European Union and Japan abide by the precautionary principle, and have already
banned the production of many chemicals that the U.S. still allows. For example, selenium
sulfide, which can be found in some dandruff shampoos, is linked, but not proven, to
cause cancer and reproductive toxicity. Despite the lack of definitive evidence, both the
EU and Japan have banned its use. Why cause risk to citizens, when other, safer
alternatives exist?

Saying all this is not to imply a person is in imminent danger by using these products, as
many have been using them for decades. However, there are still diseases and medical
conditions for which causes are unknown. Some of the substances listed in Bad for the
Ocean, Bad for You are suspected of causing everything from cancer to hyperactivity in
children. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is one such compound that may lead to
hyperactivity, and which has not been banned in the U.S. How can we not wonder if
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is made worse by ingredients in personal care
products? What about diseases like autism, allergies, skin disorders, and cancers which
seem to become more prevalent every year? Every one of us should be concerned about
the insufficient data on the safety of these contaminants.

My biggest hope is that everyone reading this will stop and examine the products they
buy, consider the use of them, and limit the chemicals put onto their bodies – for their own
sake and for the sake of their children and the ocean. Be a choosy consumer! There are
many, easy alternatives to these chemicals – for instance, washing your hands with regular
soap is just as effective as soap containing Triclosan, a common antibacterial agent, that is
now found in every tissue sample taken – human and animal. It is found in our rivers,
lakes and ocean. It is omnipresent in the environment.

In general, read labels and look for products with fewer ingredients and those with names
you understand. Water, natural plant fibers, and essential oils are all good ingredients to
look for. Products containing multi-syllable, unpronounceable chemicals should be
avoided. Be aware of products that are called "green," "eco-friendly," "pure," or "natural,"
as these words have no regulated meaning in the personal care product industry – the best
way to check out these claims is to read the label. Contact your cosmetic company and
demand safer products, lobby your local representatives and government officials to do
something about the lack of FDA regulation on personal care products, and finally,
advocate for better treatment of water (including the support of a reasonable rate increase
for your sewer bill). You will be doing a tremendous service for your own health and our
oceans.

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