Consumers should not be in dark on dangers
If you haven’t been following the news about Johnson & Johnson, you’re missing out. A brief summary: Since 1971 J&J has known their baby powder contained cancer-causing asbestos. Executives knew. Mine managers knew. Lawyers knew. Literally everyone knew. Except consumers.
This past summer, 22 women with ovarian cancer won a $4.69 billion lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, exposing this fact. Just before the new year, another report emerged, revealing an intricate and in-depth conspiracy to cover up who knew what and when.
Many consumers think, how could this happen? The answer: It’s the law. A quirk in federal law actually allows companies to knowingly sell products with carcinogens. Manufacturers of personal care products are required to list ingredients on labels, but if something wasn’t intentionally added, like asbestos, it does not have to be disclosed to consumers on the label. This is an open secret, a labeling loophole.
Johnson & Johnson had no incentive to remove asbestos from their powder or warn anyone because they didn’t have to. It stands to reason that someone shopping for baby powder would refuse to purchase one labeled “talc, fragrance, and asbestos.” And no manufacturer wants to admit that they’re selling unintended ingredients. But how can we avoid buying talc that contains asbestos if asbestos isn’t on the label?
Consumers following the news are now being careful about their baby powder purchases. But we should broaden our scope. There are many more products on the market that contain undisclosed cancer-causing ingredients. It’s like playing whack-a-mole.
Fact: There is lead in your lipstick. Fact: There is formaldehyde in your shampoo.
Fact: There is 1,4-Dioxane in your laundry detergent.
None of these ingredients are labeled; all of them are “unintentional” contaminants. And all are indisputably harmful to health. Low-income communities are disproportionately affected. A survey found that 81 percent of Dollar Store products contained chemicals linked to cancer, early puberty and learning disabilities.
Of course, consumers can always call companies to ask questions about their product ingredients. But answers will be limited to what’s disclosed on the label. It’s plausible that customer support representatives aren’t aware of unintentional carcinogens but the company’s lobbyists in D.C. sure are.
I know this because I make these calls.
I called a leading lipstick maker and asked if there was lead in their blockbuster lipstick. The woman on the phone said no. I explained lab results revealed otherwise. Her story changed: “If there is lead, we didn’t add it,” she said.
I called a top-selling laundry detergent brand. Surprisingly, their customer service rep agreed there was an off-label carcinogen in the product, then assured me it was at a safe — undisclosed — level. She added, “Everything causes cancer nowadays.”
This did not reassure me. Only full ingredient disclosure supported by laws could. We must close the loophole and require that all ingredients be listed on
The fact remains that the FDA does not currently have the authority to ensure personal care products are free from known toxic chemicals.
products, even ones unintentionally added by manufacturers. Consumers have the right to avoid things that cause cancer.
Meanwhile, cancer rates continue to rise: 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.
I suspect that the consumer rage being leveled against Johnson & Johnson is due, in part, to the fact that most people know asbestos is indisputably deadly. It even has its own signature cancer. The only way to get mesothelioma is through asbestos exposure. And yet, it’s in powder meant for babies and used by millions of American consumers, young and old.
The fact remains that the
FDA does not currently have the authority to ensure personal care products are free from known toxic chemicals. There is no pre-market approval requirement. There are several labeling loopholes, including this absurd unintentional ingredient one, that protect product manufacturers and leave consumers exposed to chemicals known to be toxic.
Can something as iconic as baby powder fuel a movement and lead to change? I think so. J&J’S settlement has shaken up the business community. Watch — ingredient disclosure will be a critical fight in 2019. And New York state is primed to lead this fight.
By all accounts, those of us who live in New York state care deeply about human health, the environment, and good jobs. In 2019, thanks to committed advocates and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, we will become the first state in the nation to require cleaning product makers to disclose ingredients and hazards. The governor’s agenda for his first 100 days of the 2019 legislative session includes launching a Green New Deal. Closing this undisclosed ingredient loophole ties in nicely to his plans and would set New York up to lead the nation in chemical innovation. When companies are forced to disclose unintended ingredients, I believe they will reformulate instead.
New York can be a catalyst for a green chemistry revolution for a more sustainable future. Time to go back to the drawing board: Let’s rethink the decades-old product formulas based on dirty petrochemicals and create transparency. Governor Cuomo, all eyes are on you.
Jon Whelan is a board member of Clean and Healthy New York, a card-carrying capitalist, an angel investor and the director of the Netf lix documentary “Stink!”