Safer Chemicals: why everyone should be safe, not sorry
There should be no need to fight for healthy products and healthy homes, free from chronic toxicants. Product safety should be mandatory, not optional. Yet current EU regulations offer no guarantee of this. At Seventh Generation, we apply a Principle of Precaution to all product development in order to safeguard you and our environment from potential harm.
This isn’t about irresponsible chemical bashing and fuelling the flames of chemophobia. Chemicals, both man-made & naturally-occurring, play a critical role in our everyday lives. Chemicals are the substance of life. There is no black and white rule that all naturally-occurring chemicals are good and man-made chemicals are bad. The difference comes in what we have done with them and our understanding of them.
The evolution of scientific understanding means people are much more aware of the risks of naturally-occurring chemicals. Thankfully, we don’t tend to see women painting their faces with poisonous, life-threatening quantities of lead any more.
Yet the world of man-made chemicals has become ever more creative and with it ever more complex. Experimentation is key in the world of science. Without chemical experimentation we would not have antibiotics. But control is critical. This is not an area for public risk-taking.
THE RIGHT TO SAFE PRODUCTS & THE PRINCIPLE OF PRECAUTION
It is critical that we approach new chemistry with caution. There are still far too many unknowns out there. This is why Seventh Generation applies a Principle of Precaution to our formulation development. Safeguarding people and our planet from harm is a non-negotiable in our Research & Development labs.
We believe in the right to safe products. It should be a given, everywhere. But it’s not.
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WHY IT’S BETTER TO BE SAFE THAN SORRY
Whilst there can sometimes be differences of opinion and contradicting evidence in the world of science, we know when we have seen enough research to enact our Principle of Precaution.
Here are just a couple of the landmark studies that have influenced us along our journey to a Principle of Precaution:
- The HERMOSA Study run by UC Berkeley in 2016 showed that chemicals in personal care products that teenage girls put on their bodies get in their bodies. After just 3 days of using lower-chemical personal care products, the teenagers saw drops of between 27% and 45% in levels of phthalates, parabens and triclosan in urine samples.
- The 2012 study by the Silent Spring Institute tested for the presence of a large number of Hormone Disrupting Chemicals (HDCs) and asthma-related chemicals in household products. Of the 66 chemicals they screened for, scientists found 55 of these chemicals present in products. Only 11 of the 50 products had none of the chemicals detectable.
A note on HDCs - Hormone Disrupting Chemicals. Scientists believe HDCs can interfere with the body’s natural chemical messages, either by blocking or mimicking the action of hormones. They have been linked to cancers, adrenal and bone disorders, increased susceptibility to infection, neurotoxicity and thyroid problems.
REGULATIONS MUST CHANGE TO ADOPT A PRINCIPLE OF PRECAUTION
Since 2007 the European Union has managed chemical safety through REACH Regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals). In ten years, more than 13,000 companies have submitted nearly 90,000 chemical registration dossiers. Yet 3,000 substances remain in the ‘grey zone’, meaning REACH has insufficient information to determine the risks they pose.
Non-Governmental Organisations have criticised REACH for adding only 191 substances to the list of ‘substances of very high concern’ in ten years. In a REACH Review, the European Commission acknowledged that the process for identifying substances of very high concern is ‘extremely slow’, requiring unanimous agreement from all member states.
Let’s take PFASs (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) as an example. PFASs are man-made chemicals used in products like non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing and stain resistant fabrics and carpets. Studies found that animals exposed to PFASs at high levels caused changes in the function of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and hormone levels.
Despite companies like The Body Shop, L’Oreal & H&M banning them (can we say that Unilever banned them? Couldn’t find anything on Unilever website), 9 PFASs are on the REACH list of ‘substances of very high concern’ and only one (PFOS) is restricted and another (PFOA) set to be restricted by 2020. It’s just not good enough.
A WATCH LIST
The world of chemicals is clearly a tricky but important place to navigate. Here are some of the main culprits that we avoid in our products and would advise you to avoid or minimise wherever you can.
Please note, we absolutely do NOT want to scaremonger or panic you. We just think the more we all know, the more we can keep our eyes open and be more watchful to make safer choices for ourselves, our families and our environment.
Creative – to add a small icon box on the left as a bullet point starter containing the name of the chemical.
Boric Acid – Also known as Borax or Borates - Found in some home care products, although at levels considered safe. A known reproductive toxicant. Borax is banned as a food additive and on the list of ‘substances of very high concern’ by the European Chemicals Agency. Seventh Generation eliminated Boric Acid from products in 2016.
BPA – Bisphenol-A – A common chemical used to make plastics, including baby bottles and children’s toys. BPA is a suspected HDC. Whilst the European Food Safety Authority has declared that dietary exposure to BPA is not a health concern for any age group, a number of U.S. States have passed laws banning the sale of certain products containing BPA.
Phthalates – widely used in household cleaners, food packaging, fragrance, cosmetics and personal care products. Researchers have linked phthalates to many problems including asthma, breast cancer, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, and altered reproductive development. In the U.S., the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Bill banned the use of some phthalates in children’s products. Yet despite these known risks, companies are not yet required to list phthalates on product labels.
Triclosan – An ingredient added to products like soaps, body washes, toothpastes and cosmetics to prevent bacterial contamination. Some short-term animal studies have shown that exposure to high doses of triclosan can be linked to a decrease in levels of thyroid hormones. There are also concerns that exposure to triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It has been banned in the EU & U.S. from use in certain products and limited in concentrations in others.
Phosphates – Used in detergents. Can have harmful effects on the environment such as water eutrophication (excessive marine plant growth which kills fish-life) and has a higher CO2 contribution. More sustainable alternatives are available. Seventh Generation uses citrates, gluconates and carbonates as natural and effective alternatives.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Stick with us! We are impressed you have made it this far through an article on such a heavy and serious topic. You are clearly passionate about building a safer chemical life. Please, read on! This is your chance to start making some changes for the better.
Here’s 5 kick-starter ideas for your safer chemical world:
- Prioritise those most vulnerable. Research has shown that pregnant women and children are amongst the most at risk so these are times to be extra vigilant.
- Think plant first. Plant-based products are a good first signal that products may contain less hazardous chemicals.
- Stay informed, especially in the transformational and uncertain times pre- and post-Brexit. Let’s put pressure on our MPs to make sure Brexit brings more rigour, efficiency and pace to regulation.
- Look beyond your cleaning cupboards. Greenpeace have been campaigning since 2011 to Detox the fashion industry and put an end to the dumping of hazardous chemicals in our rivers and oceans.
- Focus. Take on the big challenges that you have alternatives for. Eg, DEHP is a common phthalate used to make soft, squeezable plastic. Robin Whyatt, a lead author of several landmark phthalate studies, recommends removing food packaged in plastic and switching it into glass, as DEHP continues to leech over time so switching storage containers can help reduce exposure.
- App It! A number of helpful Apps now exist to help you understand what’s in your product and how safe it is. Most simply involve taking a pic of your product barcode and the app does the rest. Here’s a few to give a whirl and see which one works for you: Think Dirty, EWG's Healthy Living App or Skin Ninja App
- Keep researching. It’s all about what we know. If you’d like to do some more research into the chemicals that may be lurking in your life, we found the Campaign For Safe Cosmetics a good place to start.
FINALLY, WHAT SEVENTH GENERATION HAS COMMITTED TO DO
Not only do we apply stringent rules to our own product development processes to ensure every Seventh Generation product that reaches your home is chemically safe, but we also champion the Principle of Precaution outside of our own business. Typically four out of five chemicals used in a conventional laundry detergent wouldn’t be allowed in a Seventh Generation product. This is a point of difference we don’t want to hang on to.
In the US, we have presented 120,000 signatures to Congress to urge an upgrade of the inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act, rallied support for Vermont’s passage of the Toxic-Free Families Act and partnered to push for a toxics law in New York State.
We helped pilot the Chemical Footprint Project – the first third-party independent standard to evaluate safer corporate chemicals management. We were very proud to participate in its annual survey and receive 88 out of 100 – the second highest overall score for the project.
ADOPTING THE PRINCIPLE OF PRECAUTION FOR THE NEXT SEVEN GENERATIONS
We want to work with you to spread the word on the Principle of Precaution and together create a safer chemical world for the next seven generations.
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