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More Than Cosmetic

August 18, 2004

California legislators sometimes try to fill gaps where federal regulators have fallen short, as with pollution controls. This year, the subject is cosmetics, not tailpipes. Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) is attempting to pry from cosmetic makers the names and amounts of possibly hazardous additives in creams, soaps, makeup and hair dyes.

Her first bill, introduced earlier this year, died from overreaching. It called for a blanket prohibition on certain chemicals, including phthalates, additives that among other things make nail polish stronger and the scent of air fresheners and perfumes last longer.

The chemical industry argued that although some animal studies suggested that phthalates could harm male reproductive organs, there was no evidence that the traces in personal care products caused harm. The bill correctly went nowhere.

Chu's back, with a watered-down version, AB 2012, that deserves passage. Under federal regulations, cosmetic companies aren't required to fully disclose the chemicals they use for fragrance and coloring, which are considered trade secrets and can be omitted from labels. Chu's bill would help close this loophole, at least in California, requiring companies to detail all ingredients to scientists in the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The state Senate may vote on it today.

The cosmetic industry still charges that the legislation could foment what it calls consumer chemo-phobia. And of course, cosmetic companies want to keep their formulas from competitors. That is why Chu would have companies send their data not to some public website but to the health hazard assessment office, which could then report the data to the Legislature. This is very small potatoes, but at least ingredients will have been reported to someone.

The hazard office already helps administer Proposition 65, a voter-passed law requiring posted warnings about the presence of cancer-causing pollutants. Such warnings are now so ubiquitous as to be invisible and are ignored. That, however, is no argument for concealing potential dangers.

There isn't a lot of research on cosmetic-product dangers. A 2001 report by USC researchers suggesting a link between bladder cancer and the frequent, long-term use of hair dyes containing coal tar is a solid scientific exception. The very scarcity of data argues for the improved reporting that the Chu bill would require.

Every year, U.S. taxpayers and drug companies spend billions of dollars seeking chemicals that could help cure cancer. Much less goes to identifying chemicals in the environment that may cause cancer in the first place. Chu's bill at least takes one small step toward improved epidemiology.

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