Toxics and our failed regulatory system

The Globe and Mail deserves full credit for continuing to publish stories on environmental toxins. After being in circulation for decades, many chemicals are now (slowly) being put to the test, and some may even be taken out of circulation some time in the next decade.

A first step being taken by the feds is labelling of what is in our consumer products, although this is clearly inadequate, as most people will generally assume that if it is for sale in the marketplace someone must have made sure it is safe. Information is costly to acquire, and only a small percentage of people are going to bother going through the motions to figure out which ten-syllable chemicals are toxic and which are not (to the extent that they think about these things at all).

A better solution is for governments to regulate in the public interest, with the onus on manufacturers to prove that their chemicals are safe prior to introduction in the marketplace. This is a key aspect of a “precautionary” approach.

Our current “wait and see” system ensures that there are substantial negative externalities – harms not accounted for in the original market transaction – by making chemicals innocent until proven guilty, a process that can take decades. And even when proof of harm is relatively conclusive, as in the case of tobacco for example, there will always be hold-outs that claim the opposite (usually in the pay of the affected vested interest). Standard economic theory recognizes externalities but generally presumes that they are the exception not the rule. And in the law and economics tradition, Coase made the argument that such matters can be corrected through legal means as long as property rights are clear. In the real world, neither of these approaches is satisfactory: externalities, positive and negative, are pervasive; and legal avenues of redress are costly in terms of both time and money for widely distributed parties, and can only work after the harm has been done.

Cancer and cosmetics

… While Canadians have become savvy about chemicals in their food — scanning package labels and paying premium prices for organic produce — little mention has been made of the chemicals that clean our hair and moisturize our skin day in and day out.Yet some of the 10,000 ingredients in beauty products are suspected or confirmed carcinogens, hormone-mimicking chemicals or substances linked to birth defects. And in an age of increasing fear over chemical exposures, the $5.3-billion cosmetics industry is poised to become the new frontier for health and eco-minded consumers.Under new federal rules that came into force late last year, cosmetics companies selling products in Canada are compelled to list ingredients on their packages — a move that has brought this country closer into line with Europe and the United States, where, for some, checking the label on a lipstick is as routine as reading a cereal box.

Some cosmetics ingredients will also go under the microscope when Ottawa begins a massive safety review of thousands of chemicals in widespread use that was announced last winter.

And later this month hearings will begin in Ontario on a private member’s bill tabled by NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns that would slap warnings on all cosmetics and other products containing known and suspected carcinogens.

Outside Canada, a law just passed in California placing the onus on cosmetics companies to disclose to health authorities the details of toxic ingredients linked to cancer or reproductive problems.

… But while even those in the Canadian cosmetics industry laud the move to list contents on packaging, many consumers are discovering that these labels are hardly founts of information. Ingredients are listed by unfamiliar Latin names that obscure even benign substances — shea butter becomes butyrospermum parkii.

Unless shoppers splurge on an $1,100 dictionary to cross-reference ingredients, they are left no wiser than they were before the new rules. This is why the Canadian Cancer Society is tossing around the idea of a colour-coded logo that would flag possible carcinogens. The Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control committee also has product labelling on their agenda. …

Pretty dangerous

Some compounds in personal-care products are worth watching out for.

Lead acetate: A known reproductive toxin banned in the European Union but found in some hair dyes and cleansers in North America.

Formaldehyde: A known carcinogen found in some nail products.

Toluene: A possible reproductive or developmental toxin found in some nail polishes.

Petroleum distillates: Possible carcinogen prohibited in the EU, but found in some mascara, perfume and lipstick in North America.

Ethyl acrylate: A possible carcinogen found in some mascara.

Coal tar: A known carcinogen found in dandruff shampoos, anti-itch creams and hair dyes.

Dibutyl phthalate: An endocrine disruptor and possible reproductive or developmental toxin found in some nail polish, perfume and hair spray.

Sodium lauryl sulfate: A skin irritant prone to contamination by a probable carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane used in many soaps and shampoos for its foaming properties.

Methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl paraben: Endocrine disruptors and possible breast carcinogens used as a preservative in cosmetics such as lotions and shampoos.

— Margaret Philp

Source: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Environmental Working Group

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