Thursday, September 10, 2009

When Will Our Bodies Matter?

Thinking about the toxins in our environment and in our bodies can be overwhelming. It seems that everything -- our food, air, water, breastmilk, couches, shower curtains and even sippy cups are fraught with evil, unseeable toxins that are quietly wrecking our bodies. Some of us think about it for a minute and let it go, others become mad fanatics who buy organic & locally sourced food, only use glass and steel containers, refuse to breathe if it smells like PVC or VOCs, and trace the origins of the materials in every consumer product.

I am of the latter, borderline fanatic camp. Having a preemie daughter years ago turned me into somewhat of an antitoxicity junkie. My daily mommy routine was to monitor religiously the levels of soot, particulate smog matter, pesticides, and homeless-man-urine that could be present somewhere on my daughter's knees/fingers/feet/face after a day at the city park. There were phases of extreme vigilance, when nary a non-organic fruit would touch the lips of my pure child. There were phases of blissful ambivalence, when I would recklessly buy phthalate-releasing, PCB/PBDE-drenched products with non-recyclable packaging. The battle against toxicity in my household rages on, as my dear husband and my daughter (now 5-years-old) quietly tolerate my compulsive label-reading and life-greening...yet, lately, I have begun to wonder...why do I have to do this? What am I fighting against?

As it turns out, my womb has something to do with it. It all started when I wanted to plan a new baby -- but I wanted a non-toxic house first, and, of course, a de-toxed body, too. In my quest, I began to research women's bodies and the effects of toxins. I discovered a 2005 landmark study called Body Burden - The Pollution in Newborns, which reported on the high levels of toxins present in the umbilical cords of babies. This means our children are born pre-polluted-- with over 287 man-made chemicals already present in their bodies at birth. Those chemicals were traced to the perfluorochemicals used as stain and oil repellants in fast food packaging, clothes and Teflon, numerous pesticides, wastes from burning coal, gasoline, garbage, and consumer product ingredients. Of the 287 chemicals found, 180 are known carcinogens in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests, and 212 are banned or severely restricted in the United States. Infants' bodies are rapidly developing and extremely vulnerable, and scientists have no idea how the presence of these chemicals affect them in utero and throughout development. After reading this study, I quickly wondered, why isn't this on the front page news, every single day?

It is disturbing to think that our wombs are not a safeharbor, but carriers of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides that cross the placenta and welcome our babies into a world that is toxic before birth. There are chemicals that are present in our environment that we cannot control -- but I quickly discovered that there are many, many chemicals that we can control and limit, and we use them every day: our makeup, deodorants, lotions, shampoos, soaps, and sunscreens are full of toxic chemicals that absorb into our bodies. As I have only recently learned, little is being done to regulate the content or safety of these personal care products. In fact, I believed that somebody must be making sure that every product on the market has to have been tested for safety prior to making it to the shelf at the store.

As it turns out, no one is watching out for us to make sure our cosmetics are safe, and that means we have to watch our for ourselves: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the health of consumers and workers in the cosmetics industry by requiring the multi-billion dollar personal care products industry to phase out the use of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and other harms, and replace them with safer alternatives. While the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has created more buzz around the lack of regulation for cosmetics products, this post is a small plea to let law students and lawyers know that this is a place where we can make a difference.

If you thought that the makeup or skin lotion that you bought the other day that said "pure" "natural" and "organic" on it was safe for your body, think again. Our skin is our largest organ. What we put on our bodies, goes into our bodies. This includes the lead that is in lipstick, the alarming toxicity of nailpolish, the unpredictable carcinogenic nanoparticles in sunscreens, and the neurotoxins in fragrances. Their advocacy efforts inform the public about the lack of FDA oversight over cosmetics, lack of pre-market testing requirements, and the cosmetics industry's extensive use of chemicals not yet tested appropriately for safety or the effects of accumulation in the body.

Today, FDA authority over cosmetics remains reliant on industry self-regulation, and is focused on supporting both economic and public interests. The FDA formally began to regulate cosmetics in 1938. The definition of a cosmetic has been unchanged since then, despite the fact that cosmetics are now comprised of hundreds of thousands of highly toxic chemicals created in the past century, chemicals with unknown long-term effects on our bodies.

While the European Union and Canada have banned an extensive list of chemicals with known risks and harm from use in cosmetics under the precautionary principle, the United States has been slow to reform cosmetics regulation. Once the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics created national controversy after discovering lead in major brands of lipstick, the FDA response to "lead in lipstick" was lackluster at best. Why doesn't the FDA seem to care about the health of women, who are arguably the largest population affected by chemicals in cosmetics? I could not help but wonder whether this issue would get more press if it was less of a "woman issue."

Activism for cosmetics safety is making some waves. Baby care products are increasingly under scrutiny, following a recent study confirming that chemicals such as phthalates absorb into the bodies of babies. Product testing of baby care products found carcinogens present but not disclosed on the label, inciting more controversy about the safety of baby shampoos and soaps. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics study on the toxins present in baby shampoo sparked a class action suit against major baby shampoo manufacturers, and inspired the Safe Baby Products Act. A great book on this incredible movement is Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan. It is a quick read that outlines the beginning of the movement and profiles the effects of toxins in cosmetics with alarming detail and clarity.

Until cosmetics become safer and effectively regulated, the best way to protect ourselves and others is to support companies that voluntary choose to use safer ingredients in their cosmetic products. The Skin Deep Database gives a "toxicity read-out" of your personal care products. It is amazingly helpful, but also sometimes amazingly depressing when you find out that you've been using a product for the past ten years that scores high on the scale of toxicity...with red alerts. After learning about products with excessive toxicity in my life, I began to simplify things and now just use only Dr. Bronners Magic Soap for almost all of its 18-in-1 uses.

As women lawyers, scholars and law students, we have the opportunity to change policies and laws in order to stop cosmetic toxicity from causing further harm to our bodies. We are wise enough to know that the issue of cosmetic toxicity is not limited to women only--men use personal care products (hair products, shaving cream, soaps, lotions, fragrances) with equal reckless abandon as women. We have the ability to make this a human issue that affects women, men, babies in the womb, and our children. We should support research that considers how chemicals accumulate and affect our bodies over time. We should create more organizations such as Women's Health and the Environment in order to support activism at a community level. Our bodies deserve protection, and it is up to us to make sure that our bodies matter.


Anon5 said...

I thought you made a really good point about how the cosmetic industry is geared towards women and therefore women face greater risk from the use of these products. I remember reading an article discussing whether women's use of makeup is something that they have a natural desire to do, or if it has been foisted on them by men and the cosmetic product industry.

Whatever the reason why women wear makeup, as we discussed in class, women can choose to wear makeup and embrace certain aspects of traditional femininity without somehow setting women back. So the fight doesn't necessarily need to be against the use of beauty products themselves; as you said, we should pressure cosmetic companies to make products that are safe for all of us.

Eve said...

It seems that women end up disproportionately responsible for the chemicals we ingest or are exposed to during pregnancy. Women tend to be blamed for premature births or "birth defects" even if they were unaware that the pill that they were prescribed or the substances they were ingesting were toxic.

It is interesting, and perhaps empowering, to think of the organic movement as one in which pregnant women have a unique investment. However, I think it is also important to recognize how problematic it is to mandate - or even suggest - that women should do certain things with their bodies while pregnant. I think one should be cautious not to engage in a discourse which feeds into societal blaming of pregnant women who choose, either because of financial constraints or otherwise, not to be organic. It may need to become a broader discussion of why organic products are not affordable, or whether fetal health is only a woman’s issue.

Kathleen said...

I think Eve touched on a nice point regarding the imbalanced level of responsibility that lands on women. This attitude extends beyond pregnancy - if women are expected to do most of the shopping, should women shoulder the blame for the toxicity levels of home products they purchase? Are women the only members of a family responsible for what all the other members put on/in their bodies?

Around 2:17 in the video, one of the men interviewed says "I'm a typical guy shopping - it's like, you tell me baby shampoo and it says baby shampoo, that's what I grab. There is another implied actor in his scenario that allows him to shift the blame. He shouldn't have to read the labels, right? He's a "typical guy". Who might he think is responsible for checking the content of products used on his infant? On the one hand, maybe he thinks it should be the government, but the way he speaks suggests he thinks whoever told him to get the shampoo should know better too. Either way, it certainly isn't something he should have to worry about.