Why has the incidence of childhood cancers increased by about 40 percent over the past three decades? Could it have anything to do with the cancer causing (carcinogenic) ingredients in personal care products targeting infants and children which have crowded supermarket and other store shelves over the same period?
Most of us would like to believe that any products, especially those marketed for infants and children, must be safe or they would never be sold. Surely, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the responsible agency of government, besides the industry concerned, must be looking out for the health of our most vulnerable citizens. Right? Wrong!
In fact, babies are about 100 times more sensitive to carcinogens than adults. Infants and young children have immature liver enzymes, which give them only limited ability to detoxify the carcinogens and other toxic ingredients in products which are applied to their skin.
Also, as children's cells divide much more rapidly than those of adults, they are much more sensitive to carcinogens, and more vulnerable to developing cancer later in their lives.
Added to all of that is the fact that the ingredients in the products we apply to the skin of our infants and children are readily absorbed into their bodies. Also, they are retained for much longer than any chemicals absorbed from food or from the air.
So, there is every reason why we should be highly cautious about the personal care products that we buy for our children.
As detailed in my new book, Toxic Beauty, most of the infant and childhood products on the market are dangerous. They pose a threat to our children's lifetime health.
Worse still, that threat begins even before birth. Once a pregnant woman absorbs ingredients from the cosmetics and personal care products that she uses, they penetrate through her skin to varying degrees. They then reach the fetus through the approximately 300 quarts of blood pumped daily between the placenta and fetus.
Studies on umbilical and blood cord samples have identified antibacterial ingredients, such as triclosan, often added to deodorants, toothpaste, and cosmetics. Based on rodent tests, triclosan has also been shown to have toxic effects on liver enzymes.
These umbilical and blood cord studies have also identified hormonal ingredients such as phthalates, which are used as solvents in perfumes, lotions and other cosmetics.
Of major concern, exposure to some phthalates has been shown to disturb the hormonal and sexual development of boys, even at relatively low levels.
University of Liverpool toxico-pathologist Dr. Vyvyan Howard describes the significance of these findings for the fetal stage of life, warning, "Changes occur at exposure levels thousands of times lower than the safety limits that were set a few years ago."
"New studies show that many bulk chemicals that we thought were safe are actually biologically active and disrupt human systems. They don't work by having an acute toxicity effect. They work by hijacking development in the uterus. These chemicals can disrupt important cell signaling functions in the developing body," Dr. Howard says.
Once a child is born, this susceptibility to hormonal ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products persists. One of the biggest culprits, incriminated for disrupting sex hormones in boys, is Bisphenol-A (BPA). This is a plasticizer which mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen, and is a common ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products.
Males, both human and rodent, have been shown to be more sensitive to these hormonal ingredients than females. Male rodents exposed to BPA and other related ingredients have developed testicular atrophy, undescended or absent testes, infertility, an absent or malformed prostate and seminal vesicles, and also cancer. Decreased sperm production and a decrease in the distance between the anus and genitals in infant boys have also been documented over the past few decades.
Women are also adversely affected by exposure to BPA. Tests on rodents, as reported in the journal "Reproductive Toxicology" and elsewhere, have revealed that BPA may be responsible for reproductive disorders later in life, decades after their exposure to the chemical in the womb or as infants.
We know that babies being born today have elevated levels of hormonal phthalates in their bodies. A 2008 study in the journal "Pediatrics" confirmed this by testing the urine of babies who had just been shampooed, lotioned or powdered with brand-name baby products. Similar results came from studies done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Based on this disturbing data, in 2008 Health Canada ruled that BPA is a toxic ingredient. However, no such warning has yet come from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Besides toxic hormonal effects, there are other dangers posed by products marketed for infants and children. Here are a few examples:
--Allergens such as benzyl alcohol and lanolin commonly appear.
--Carcinogens such as formaldehyde appears when product ingredients DMDM Hydantoin and Quaternium-15 break down
--Carcinogens found in shampoos and conditioners include the laureths as well as dioxane and ethylene oxide.
--Penetration enhancer ingredients that drive other ingredients deeper through the skin into the body are common. These include sodium lauryl sulfate and EDTA.
Nevertheless, the mainstream cosmetics industry continues to insist that none of their products are harmful, as their levels of toxic ingredients are claimed to be too low to pose any dangers.
Even if this were true, it's a flawed argument. It ignores how infants and children are subjected to multiple assaults of multiple toxic ingredients from a wide range of personal care products applied to their skin each day.
Importantly, we must consider the additive and multiplistic effects of all these chemicals interacting together.
Safe skin products for infants and children are now increasingly available on store shelves for responsible parents. These include USDA certified organic products. These leading products are detailed in the 2009 Toxic Beauty book.
Additionally, the Environmental Working Group maintains a database at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/special/parentsguide/ which provides information on toxic ingredients in children's products, and on safer products.
Under the explicit provisions of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it is anticipated that Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the newly appointed FDA Commissioner and inspiring public health advocate, will prohibit the sale of toxic personal care products for children.
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; The Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medalist for International Contributions to Cancer Prevention; and author of over 200 scientific articles and 15 books on cancer, including the groundbreaking The Politics of Cancer (1979), and Toxic Beauty (2009).
Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Organic Consumers Association.