Toxic Spritz? EU Sniffs at Everyday Chemicals
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
The International Herald Tribune
Thursday 28 April 2005
When a small Dutch laboratory announced in February that it had measured high levels of chemicals potentially harmful to human health in some of the world's most popular perfumes, the results were meant to inflame. And they did.
Commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace, and published under the alarmist subtitle "L'Eau de Toxines," the report suggested that women and men may be spraying themselves with toxic substances. The French Perfume Manufacturers Association reacted immediately with a terse statement blaming environmentalists for "throwing doubt on the innocence of perfumes."
The angry exchange illustrated just how high the stakes are in a debate that goes far beyond perfume. The European Union is preparing landmark legislation that would require companies for the first time to study and report on the safety of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals they put into consumer goods - from cars and computers to beauty products.
The legislation, known as Reach, for Research, Evaluation and Approval of Chemicals, which is expected to be adopted by early next year, will dramatically change the way Europe regulates household chemicals - and may also vastly improve understanding of the hazards posed by the soup of low-level chemicals in the backdrop of contemporary life.
"There was growing concern about the linkage between chemicals and disease, but really the biggest concern was the general lack of overall information," said Yvon Slingenberg, acting head of the chemical unit of the European Commission's Environment Director- ate General. "There are all these substances out there having an impact, but we don't know what it is."
The European commissioner for environmental affairs, Stavros Dimas, noted this week that legislation is the only way to force all companies to pay attention to chemical safety. These firms should be prepared "to preempt scares and scandals by replacing dangerous substances up front," he said.
Chemicals developed since 1981 have already had to undergo intensive scrutiny in Europe. Older, widely used compounds - like some of the ingredients in perfume, flame retardants and hair dyes - have been less widely studied. As scientists struggle to explain rises in diseases like breast cancer and brain tumors, as well as declining male fertility rates, many wonder if low-level exposure to certain substances may hold the key.
For its report, Greenpeace had the Dutch chemistry lab TNO Environment and Geosciences analyze a "random selection" of 36 perfumes for the presence of two groups of chemicals: phthalates and synthetic musks. The results showed, for example, that Calvin Klein's Eternity for Women contained 2.2 percent by weight of the chemical diethyl phthalate. Jean-Paul Gaultier's perfume Le Male was more than 6 percent synthetic musk. The White Musk from The Body Shop, which trumpets its eco-friendliness, contained nearly 10 percent synthetic musk.
There is no direct evidence that the phthalates or synthetic musks pose a risk to human health. But much remains unknown, and there are recent indica- tions that these chemicals may not be innocuous. It is unclear, for example, how much of these compounds is absorbed through the skin and how dangerous such doses are to humans.
Animal models are providing emerging evidence of potential danger. According to extensive research in the past decade, phthalates interfere with the development of male fetuses. Synthetic musks inhibit a newly discovered enzyme system that keeps other toxins out of cells.
The French perfume manufacturers noted in their statement that "many scientific authorities have confirmed that these compounds are safe under the conditions used in perfumes."
"Consumers can continue to use them in total confidence," the statement added. However, some companies are already hedging bets. The Body Shop has stopped using phthalates and synthetic musks in new product development "as a precaution," said Shelley Simmonds, a company spokeswoman, and is attempting to find other ingredients to substitute in established brands.
On a broader front, resistance to the Reach legislation has been fierce. Chemical manufacturers argue that the costs of safety testing on hundreds of thousands of chemicals would be prohibitive; consumer product companies fear a huge rise in prices of raw materials and finished products.
Opponents of the legislation say that many of the products that would come under scrutiny have been in use for de- cades and that deleterious health effects would long have become obvious. Under current European and U.S. regulations, consumer products are put on the market, then withdrawn if evidence later arises that they contain a substance harmful to heath.
Now Europe is poised to adopt what legislators and environmentalists like to call the "precautionary principle," demanding extensive study before chemicals are approved for use. "We know that we have an exposure problem and that there are potential risks," said Helen PerIvier of Greenpeace in Brussels.
Phthalates, which are widely used in a variety of industries, can now be found at low levels in almost all human blood samples from industrialized countries. These compounds are used to make plastics pliable, as in intravenous tubing or bags for intravenous medicine. They are also used to make the scent of perfumes evaporate more slowly.
Two years ago, a U.S. expert panel convened to study the emerging data said it was "highly concerned" about phthalate exposure in hospitalized infants. But the panel said it had "minimal concern" about the levels of phthalates to which adults are normally exposed. Concern has increased a bit since then, said Robert Kavlock, a scientist at the United States' National Institutes of Health who was on the panel.
Analysis of phthalate levels in blood and urine in the general population are higher than scientists had anticipated, and are especially higher in women of childbearing age, he said.
That is of particular concern because scientists have now found that the most potent effect of phthalates, at relatively low doses, is to interfere with the sexual development of male fetuses.
"I don't think that the levels in personal care products should be a health concern," Kavlock said. "On the other hand, pregnant women are told to avoid unnecessary exposures. And you don't have to wear perfume."
Also, as scientists turn their attention to compounds spread in the environment, they are finding subtle but consequential health effects. Scientists in Croatia and the United States have found that the synthetic musks disrupt a system used by many animals to keep toxins out of cells. Although this early research is on mussels, virtually all creatures, including humans, use similar transport systems to keep foreign chemicals at bay.
"There are all these personal care products that have never been considered dangerous because they do O.K. on conventional toxicity tests," said Tvertko Smitar of the Ecotoxicology Lab in Zagreb. "But this could be a new kind of hazardous chemical. They could be quite dangerous to the environment and human health. So they should be tested more."
In collaboration with researchers at Stanford University in California, his lab is planning further study on the effects of synthetic musks in humans.
"There is lots of work in Europe to suggest that these chemicals in person- al products don't just go down the drain," said David Epel of Stanford. "Some stay in the body. They get into the environment and hang around in low levels. And the question is, what effects does that have?"
The Reach proposal does not prohibit the use of such compounds, merely says they should be studied and registered. If health risks are found, the producer must seek authorization from EU authorities to distribute the product and provide a plan to minimize the potential danger. There is currently no proposal to mandate the replacement of questionable compounds with provably safer alternatives.
"Most substances will turn out to be fine," Slingenberg of the European environment directorate said. "Some will not. But then at least we will know what we're up against."