The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: “Natural” and “Organic” Labeling
A recent study by the Organic Consumer’s Association revealed the presence of the carcinogenic contaminant 1,4-Dioxane in widely available shampoos, body washes, lotions and other personal care and household cleaning products using the word “organic” or “natural” on the product label or ingredient list. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) defines 1,4-Dioxane as a clear liquid that easily dissolves in water and is used primarily as a solvent in the manufacture of chemicals or in various other uses that take advantage of its solvent properties. 1,4-Dioxane can be a trace contaminant in cosmetics, detergents, and shampoos which contain ethoxylated ingredients. Ethoxylation involves using the cancer-causing petrochemical ethylene oxide, which generates 1,4-Dioxane as a by-product. 1,4-dioxane is not listed with other ingredients on product labels, because it is formed as a ‘by-product’ of the ethoxylation process and is considered a ‘contaminant,’ rather than an ingredient.
1,4 dioxane is considered a probable human carcinogen by the EPA, due to demonstrated carcinogenity in several animal studies. Other harmful effects of 1, 4 dioxin in animal studies include liver and kidney damage in animals chronically exposed by inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact . Greater toxicity was observed in animals exposed by inhalation or dermal exposure than by ingestion. This is probably due to the first pass metabolism by the liver on substances which are ingested. Workers exposed to 1, 4 dioxin have exhibited acute symptoms such as irritation of the upper respiratory passages, coughing, irritation of eyes, drowsiness, vertigo, headache, anorexia, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, coma, and even death, but length of exposure these cases was not known. The EPA has not established standards for a safe exposure limit.
When 1,4 dioxane enters the environment, it does not degrade in water. Since it does not stick to soil particles, it can easily pass through soil to contaminate groundwater. 1, 4 dioxane has been detected in both surface and groundwater. Since the 1,4 dioxane contaminant in personal care products and household cleaners is not readily biodegradeable, there in the potential for it to contribute to groundwater contamination. Many of these products are washed down the drain after use, and the contaminant is challenging to remove from water, requiring advanced technologies such as oxidation with ultraviolet lights. This type of technology is not normally employed in community wastewater treatment plants. So 1,4 dioxane definately poses environmental risks for our future health.
One reason the word “organic” on a label does not guarantee the absence of harmful contaminants like 1,4 dioxane, is the creation of a new organic standard called OASIS. This standard allows companies to label a personal care product “organic” if it contains 85% organic ingredients. These types of products previously would have been labelled only as “made with organic ingredients.” The real problem with this kind of standard for personal care products is that products like shampoo or body wash can contain large amounts of water. So the use of the word “organic” using the OASIS standard could simply mean the product contains organic water with mostly non-organic ingredients. The USDA organic label offers slightly more protection for the consumer, but over time it also is becoming riddled with loopholes for the manufacturers. For example, a complaint was filed in 2004 against the company Bayliss Ranch for counting water extracts produced from ordinary tap water, as being organic. Bayliss Ranch sold these water extracts to companies producing foods and personal care products, such as JASON, Nature’s Gate, and Avalon Natural Products, some of these being the very same brands found to contain 1,4 dioxane. (For a more detailed explanation, see the Organic Consumer’s Association’s press release on QAI’s scheme to count tap water as organic.) Update: The State of California has filed a lawsuit against Whole Foods, Avalon, Beaumont and Nutribiotic because of the 1,4 dioxane contamination of their products in direct violation of California’s Proposition 65. Read here to learn more about the lawsuit.
For our family we buy most of our personal care and cleaning products from a company that does extensive safety and quality testing, far above what is required by law. The company tests raw materials that go into their products for contaminants with the requirement that they be present below the legal standard or not detectable at all. On a number of occasions, the company has ceased production of lucrative products because raw ingredients meeting their quality and safety standards were not available. For example, right now the company has temporarily suspended the production of their baby shampoo due to using a new supplier for a key ingredient. When safety and efficacy testing is completed and satisfactory, they will resume production of the product. It is this kind of integrity that we value in a manufacturer, along with supporting meaningful standards for the industry rather than lobbying against them. For more information visit http://www.shaklee.net/good_health/aboutScience. To learn more about choosing safe personal care and cleaning products, visit http://www.squidoo.com/safecleaning or http://www.squidoo.com/safecosmetics.
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