Consumers becoming more critical of personal products
by Kristine Berey
Last year when Breast Cancer Action Montreal invited renowned activist Elizabeth May to talk about environmental links to cancer, she spoke to a full house. At this year’s lecture, organized jointly by BCAM, the McGill Women’s Alumnae Association and The McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women, the speaker Jeanne Rizzo, was less well known than May – but the house was still full. “Last time people came because of the name,” said Janine O’Leary Cobb of BCAM. “This time it was for the topic.”
Rizzo is the Executive Director of the Breast Cancer Fund based in San Francisco. The registered nurse, who is also a music and film-producer, spoke about “the issue that knows no boundaries, the epidemic of breast cancer,” of which 50 to 70% can not be attributed to known risks or genetic factors. “Far too many of us will be diagnosed with the disease,” Rizzo said, citing one in nine in Canada, and one in eight in the US - a stark increase from one in 22 in the early 1940s.
Activists believe that, besides ionizing radiation, the flood of synthetic chemicals released into the environment since then has significantly contributed to the fast rising incidence of cancer and other diseases. “There are 100,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S. with fewer than 10% tested [for their effects on human health],” Rizzo said. Even when ingredients are assessed, long-term low-dose exposure, exposure at critical times of development and interactions with other chemicals are not accounted for. Of special concern are personal products and cosmetics, including toothpaste, lip balm, shampoo, make-up and more, often marketed to young people. “The industry is obscenely under-regulated in the US,” Rizzo said. In contrast, since 2003, the European Union has amended its cosmetics directive, banning the use of known and suspected carcinogens. Groups of activists are now asking that North American companies work to meet European standards.
As people become better informed, the demand for access to information and safer products becomes greater, Rizzo suggested. With knowledge garnered from solid science combined with the art of publicity, activists have raised public awareness while inviting companies to benefit from customer loyalty by signing the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
To date, hundreds of companies, including 41 Canadian ones, have signed the pledge to substitute potentially dangerous chemicals in their products with safer alternatives.
In the yearly report State of the Evidence, published since 2001, consumers can find an update on the latest research linking cancer to environmental toxins. “It’s a 100 page report including 350 peer-reviewed studies,” Rizzo said.
Since last year, labeling of cosmetics in Canada has become mandatory, using only one name for one chemical. “The 2004 amendment went into effect last November, with full compliance required by next November,” Rizzo said. Health Canada has created a “Hotlist” of ingredients of concern, easily available by Googling “Health Canada, hot list”. To understand the effects of these or other chemicals on a label, searching Google for “EWG, skindeep” brings the consumer to a report by the Environmental Working Group, rating the safety of personal care products based on their ingredients. Information is also available on whether the company has signed the pledge, and on safer alternatives to a particular product.
The evening marked the official release of four pamphlets published by The Health and Environment Awareness Project, a joint initiative by BCAM and The McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women. Written and researched by Madeleine Bird, the pamphlets explain in concise but easily accessible language the day to day effects of toxins in the environment.
For more information on the Health and Environment Awareness Project, visit www.bcam.qc.ca/heap
For more information on consumer safety visit www.ewg.org and www.hc-sc.gc.ca
To download State of Evidence see www.breastcancerfund.org