Over the past few years I have become increasingly interested in the issues around toxicity in products. Originally, whilst managing director of Heath Avery Architects, it was the scourge of toxins in the built environment especially where shiny new buildings, often labelled ‘green’ were hiding secrets of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and other airborne contaminants which are known carcinogens and linked to a long list of ailments simplistically referred to as ‘sick building syndrome’. But it wasn’t the buildings that were feeling sick, of course, it was the people. More recently poor indoor air quality has been exacerbated by higher standards of airtightness, which means that the intensity of toxins creates a very unpleasant legacy. Thankfully many of the manufacturers have responded; most paints are now water-based and greater care is taken with other material specifications. There is still work to be done but awareness is now much higher and the sector itself is taking responsibility and innovating for better solutions.
However, the more I looked into the issue of toxicity in everything from vehicle emissions to ‘off-gassing’ from Teflon-coated school uniforms, it has become clear that our 21st century developed world has a lot to answer for. Indeed scientists believe cancer rates will increase by 75% by 2030.
Whilst it is clear that causes include lifestyle factors and genetics, there are also many silent factors; the toxins which create chemical cocktails in our bodies which can lead to devastating health consequences. Individually they may be in such tiny quantities that manufacturers can say that their presence is statistically insignificant in their products. But taken across decades of consumption and with the cumulative effects of different chemicals, it is widely believed that toxic build up is responsible for the acceleration of many cancers as well as potentially, the cause.
The toxins come in the form of insecticides in foods but also ingredients in every day products like soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, cleaning products, fragrances …. pretty much everything we use will have chemicals and additives. Non-food products are not subjected to the same degree of testing as food products – yet we know that many grams per year can be ingested via hand to mouth contact which is especially concerning in vulnerable babies and young children. This is in addition to all the chemicals which are absorbed via the skin – which is, after all, the largest organ in the body onto which we slaver chemicals in lotions and potions every day. Scarily some of the most chemically-laden products are sun protection creams which could well be contributing to some cancers whilst being promoted to prevent skin cancer!
Chemicals like BPAs, Phthalates and Formaldehyde have strong links to cancer yet are still included in many products. And sulphates which are found in virtually all shampoos, beauty creams and toothpastes have an equally scary story often turning up in products labelled ‘natural’ and sold in health food shops. Most even appear in baby products.
Despite aggressive campaigning, many highly suspect ingredients still continue to go under the radar because these chemicals have yet to be formally banned. There are currently around 1600 such chemicals under deep scrutiny in the USA, where it is hoped action will soon be taken to ban them, even if under the precautionary principle. The Safe Chemicals Act in the USA should go a long way to eliminating some of the worst toxins, though the US has lagged behind European safety standards for some time.
So what is the answer? A three-pronged approach is needed: firstly we need brands and manufacturers to take responsibility and ensure their products really are safe, regardless of whether they can slip under the wire at the moment in terms of substances which have not been explicitly banned. All suspect chemicals should be immediately replaced with safe, preferably natural alternatives. Secondly we need retailers to take a stand. Walmart and Target in the USA have both recently announced they are ‘working with suppliers’ to replace some of the most dangerous ingredients. Target goes further with a Sustainable Product Standard which will form an invaluable guide for brands in the fug of confusion – should they be in any doubt. Thirdly, we need to increase awareness amongst consumers. This is incredibly difficult as the list of toxic chemicals is extensive and many of them do not trip off the tongue, especially for those of us not well-versed in the periodic tables. Added to that the names and abbreviations frequently change and there are derivatives which masquerade under completely different names. However, even if consumers can start to reject the most dangerous or frequently occurring ones like sulphates, triclosan and BPAs then brands will soon realise that dangerous behaviour simply won’t wash!
The GoodGuide is an excellent place to start to create a list of the safest brands; but really? Should we be expecting consumers to literally scour every ingredient in every product to ensure it won’t make them ill or kill them? Most consumers have no idea whatsoever that this litany of health issues is part of their most mundane purchases. The Soil Association, which also provides organic certification is also a good source for food, health and beauty product guidance. US lobbying organisation Women’s Voices for the Earth is also becoming increasingly influential as brands realise that dissenting consumers are not good for business – especially as 70% of these products are purchased by women for themselves or their families.
Legislation has a place too – but actually it shouldn’t be necessary if retailers and consumers make it clear that we do not want to be part of the brand’s low rating soap opera!
The final insult, however is that many brands which are actively displaying their ‘caring side’ through on-pack Pink Ribbon breast cancer promotions are the very same brands whose products are packed with toxins which are strongly linked to breast cancer. This ‘pink-washing’ is the ultimate insult to consumers who trust the big brands to create safe products.
What I personally find most upsetting is that about £350 million per annum is spent by Cancer Research UK alone on cancer research. They say “Every year we’re discovering and developing newer, kinder treatments and getting closer to cures.” These sums are raised by friends and families of those touched by cancer and often survivors themselves….. but surely we should be working harder to eliminate risks to prevent people getting sick in the first place? Certainly there will be many people for whom the die is cast as 1 in 3 will get cancer so we still need to search for cures. But at what point will we stop becoming collective victims and turn our attention to the causes and take strong and unequivocal action to stop brands that seem intent on cleaning us to death?