The Environmental Working Group looked at nearly 1,000 sunscreen products and found that “4 out of 5 contain chemicals that may pose health hazards or don’t adequately protect skin from the sun’s damaging rays.
The Natural Resources Defense Council analyzed household air fresheners and found that “most contain chemicals that may affect hormones and reproductive development, particularly in babies.
The EPA was so concerned about keeping rodenticides—rat and mouse poisons—out of the hands of children that the agency ruled this spring that four of the most most hazardous types of pesticides will no longer be sold for personal use
These days, it seems like you can’t open the newspaper or, worse, search the Internet without hearing about the dangers of ordinary household products. Even shower curtains are said to give off toxic chemicals.
And here’s my question: Are these risks worth worrying about? I’m not a scientist, and I’m keeping my mind open, but I can’t say I’m concerned about these so-called dangers to human health. Instead, I worry about people in poor neighborhoods who can’t get access to the most potent rat poisons. (You now need a trained expert to apply them.) And I worry about people who decide not to use sun screen because they don’t want to expose their skin to “chemicals.”
I’ve been thinking about risk, science and emotion since last month when I wrote about the controversy over Bisphenol-A (BPA). Then, this week, in the aftermath story, I met with Chris Cathcart, the chief executive of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, and Gretchen Schaefer, the group’s communications director. They have the unenviable job of defending the safety of lots of the stuff under your kitchen sink, in your laundry room, in your garage and maybe in your purse—household cleaners, laundry detergent, bug spray, air fresheners, hand sanitizers and the like.
Cathcart, who is 57, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an Air Force veteran, has worked in the chemical industry since the 1980s. The members of his association include such widely admired companies as SC Johnson and Procter & Gamble.
And he says something that I have long believed—that no well-run public company can afford to knowingly sell unsafe products, risking the health of its customers and its reputation, let alone the inevitable lawsuits that would result if it could be shown that their products made people sick.
“They can’t risk putting something out there that would create a dire health consequence, knowing how litigious everyone is,” Cathcart told me. I agree—it would be an incredibly stupid thing to do.
Right about now, you may be thinking: What about the tobacco industry? What about asbestos? If you pay really close attention to these issues, you may even be wondering, what about the dangers of microwave popcorn
I’d argue that each of these examples is sui generis. The tobacco-industry story is horrifying, of course, and well-documented, but atypical, to say the least, of corporate America in the 21st century. Asbestos and microwave popcorn posed sworkplace hazards—a serious matter, but entirely different from selling risky products to the public.
This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of unsafe products being sold by well-managed, even responsible companies. Think fast-food, soft drinks, snacks or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. These products will make you sick if you consume too much of them. Think guns. Or even oversized SUVs, which pose a long-term risk to the planet because they fuel global warming. But there’s nothing hidden about their dangers.
Cathcart, meanwhile, argues that there’s a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation out there about what’s “green,” what’s natural and what’s chemical. In his blog, he writes:
It is … a common misbelief that naturally occurring or naturally derived substances are always less toxic and better for the environment than synthetically derived ingredients. In actuality, scientists have found no connection between “naturalness” and toxicity.
Lest he come across as a knee-jerk advocate for his industry, Cathcart admits that some household cleaning products may be a cause for worry—not because they they are unhealthy but because of their environmental impact. How are they made? How are they packaged? What happens after they are thrown away? (I washed my new car over the weekend and surely sent some bad stuff into the storm sewers, and from there to Chesapeake Bay.) Smart companies are examining these issues, using science: S.C. Johnson, for example, has worked for years on a classification system, known as Greenlist, that evaluates the impact of thousands of raw materials on human and environmental health.
Clearly, I’m just starting to learn about these issues, mostly by listening to smart people on all sides. I’m looking forward to reading a controversial new book called Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, by former New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff and his wife, consumer advocate Alice Shabecoff. Thoughtful critics of business like author and scholar David Michaels and Richard Liroff, who leads the Investor Environmental Health Network, also have a lot to add to this conversation.
But whatever your tolerance for risk, next time you read or hear about the dangers of a consumer product, do me a favor–be skeptical, whether it’s industry or a nonprofit group doing the talking.