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Cosmetics Chemicals a Source of Controversy

Study* A group of environmentalists says phthalates found in makeup are harmful, but some industry groups dispute their claim.


Is hair spray bad for your health? Could that body lotion, perfume, nail polish or deodorant you've been using lead to liver, lung and kidney damage or cause birth defects? A Washington, D.C., environmental advocacy group says yes. The chemical and cosmetics industries say the group's claims are alarmist and unfounded.

According to Not Too Pretty, a report released by Health Care Without Harm last week, a number of everyday cosmetics contain toxic chemicals called phthalates, a substance that is used to make plastics more flexible and that is commonly found in beauty products. Animal studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups have linked the chemical to health problems and birth defects.

The Centers for Disease Control's National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, released last year, found that the type of phthalates used in cosmetics showed up in higher concentrations in people than did phthalates used for other purposes. In a 1999 sample study of 290 people of all ages, the CDC found that some women between the ages of 20 and 40 had 20 times more Dibutyl--a phthalate used in many beauty products--in their systems than the average person, though the CDC doctors who performed the 1999 study caution that the sample is too small to extrapolate conclusions for the public.

"We were really concerned about where on Earth these women could be getting this exposure from," said Bryony Schwann, coordinator of Coming Clean, one of three environmental advocacy groups that joined forces for the Not Too Pretty study. "We started asking, what is it about these women that they would be more exposed than the general population? What do women between 20 and 40 do differently?"

The coalition suspected the difference was their use of cosmetics. Earlier this year, its members read 5,000 cosmetics labels looking for phthalates. They knew they were used in various beauty products from looking through government and chemical industry databases that outlined phthalates' usage but couldn't find the chemicals listed on most of the products, said Health Care Without Harm's executive director, Charlotte Brody.

"We decided we just had to spend some money doing testing," said Brody, who spearheaded the research.

Of the 72 top-selling, name-brand beauty products the group tested at an independent laboratory in Chicago, 52 came back positive for phthalates. Only one listed it on the label, Brody said.

"When you pick up a cosmetics bottle, there's a list of chemicals. Women don't have any idea what those chemicals do," Schwann said. "How would they know about phthalates when they're not even labeled on the bottle?

"There's a big disconnect between the products we purchase in our lives and how they're made," she added. "There's a great deal of trust in the government and government agencies that it's their job to monitor these chemicals and monitor industry to make sure the public is protected, but [that isn't happening]."

A number of industry groups say Health Care Without Harm is crying wolf. Marian Stanley, senior director of the American Chemistry Council and manager of its Phthalate Esters Panel, dismissed the group's claims, calling them "another rehash of old theories and guesswork" that "misuses government data" and "over-extends science."

In response to Health Care Without Harm's citation of at least one Procter & Gamble product in its phthalates list, a spokeswoman said, "All of our beauty care products, whether they contain phthalates or not, are absolutely safe, and we're committed to ensuring their safety."

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn. issued a statement on its Web site in response to the study. "The use of phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products is supported by an extensive body of scientific research and data that confirms safety," it reads. "Phthalates are widely used in many everyday products in modern society."

Phthalates are found not only in beauty products but in everything from shower curtains to baby bottles and toys. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 1998, asked toy makers to remove the chemicals from baby rattles and teething toys, fearing they could leach from soft vinyl toys into children's mouths. In 1999, the European Union banned their use in some baby toys for the same reason.

Schwann said the problem isn't that the phthalates are used, but their aggregate affect. "Say you use a hairspray with phthalates. The company will say there's not enough in that hair spray to harm you, but that isn't the only time you're exposed to [them]. You're exposed through many other companies....It's the aggregate exposure that's dangerous."

"Surprised" by phthalate levels in their earlier studies, the CDC is looking into the issue and will release an expanded, more detailed report on human exposure in the fall, said Jim Pirkle, the CDC's director of science for the environmental health lab that conducts the studies. The study will break down phthalate levels by age, race, ethnicity and gender and will be based on a survey of 2,500 people--a large enough sample to extrapolate the results for the population at large.

In the meantime, Health Care Without Harm plans to continue lobbying the cosmetics industry.

"Some of those products have phthalates and some don't," Schwann said. "So they could clearly make these products without the use of phthalates. We're not asking the industry to do an impossible thing here."

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