EarthTalk: What is the "Not Too Pretty"
campaign pertaining to the use of cosmetics? -- Lucy
Balzary, Los Angeles, CA
Environmental Working Group launched the Not Too Pretty campaign
in 2002 to raise awareness about the dangers of phthalates,
industrial chemicals that are used as solvents in many cosmetics.
Most of the mainstream hair sprays, deodorants, nail polishes
and perfumes that millions of people use every day contain
these harmful chemicals. Phthalates are also employed as plastic
softeners in many different consumer products, including children?s
toys and medical devices.
Shown to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive
systems in animal studies, phthalates can be absorbed through
the skin or inhaled. Scientists at government agencies in
both the U.S. and Canada agree that exposure to the chemicals
could cause a wide range of health and reproductive problems
Manufacturers use phthalates because they cling to the skin
and nails to give perfumes, hair gels and nail polishes more
staying power. But a recent study by the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that five percent
of women between age 20 and 40 had up to 45 times more phthalates
in their bodies than researchers initially hypothesized. CDC
found phthalates in virtually person tested, but the largest
concentrations--20 times higher than the rest of the population--were
found in women of child-bearing age. Meanwhile, another study,
led by Dr. Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri, identified
developmental abnormalities in male infants correlating to
high phthalate levels in their mothers? bodies.
Meanwhile, the industry-backed Phthalate Information Center
asserts, "There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate
has ever caused a health problem for a human from its intended
use." The group accuses organizations of "cherry
picking" results "showing impacts on test animals
to create unwarranted concern about these products."
But EWG spokesperson Lauren E. Sucher urges people--especially
women who are pregnant, nursing or planning on becoming pregnant--to
avoid phthalates. EWG offers free online access to its "Skin
Deep" database, which lists lotions, creams and polishes
that contain phthalates. Health experts encourage women to
consult the database before shopping for beauty products.
A 2003 European Union directive bans phthalates in cosmetics
sold in Europe, but U.S. and Canadian regulators have not
been so proactive, despite mounting evidence of potential
harm. Health advocates were temporarily relieved when the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it
would begin enforcing a 1975 law requiring labels on products
with ingredients that haven't been safety tested. But such
labels remain to be seen, even though 99 percent of cosmetics
contain one or more untested ingredients.
Those interested in adding their voices to the chorus of environmental
and health advocates opposed to the inclusion of phthalates
in cosmetics can submit a customizable pre-written letter
to the FDA expressing their concern via EWG's NotTooPretty.org
website. The website also provides pages and pages of information
and research on the issue for those looking to learn more.
CONTACTS: Not Too Pretty, www.NotTooPretty.org
; Skin Deep, www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep
Dear EarthTalk: What is causing the bird
flu? Could it really kill millions of people?
-- Steve Schlemmer, Andover, MA
Bird flu is a viral
infection naturally carried by wild birds, notably ducks that
can infect other birds but not get sick themselves. Domestic
poultry, however, are very susceptible to the disease and
usually get sick and die once infected. Humans, in turn, can
catch the disease through close contact with infected birds.
When the influenza strain H5N1 appeared in humans in Hong
Kong in 1997 and spread quickly to Asia, Africa and Europe,
it sent shockwaves throughout the healthcare profession. The
spread of the disease was not sufficient to be considered
a pandemic (an epidemic worldwide in scope), but it did infect
over 200 people and kill about half of them. There have been
no documented cases so far of H5N1 moving from human to human,
but experts fear that the virus could mutate into a strain
that can--and accordingly kill millions of people. It wouldn't
be the first time: Many scientists now believe that the Spanish
Flu of 1918, which killed 50 million people (including 675,000
Americans and 43,000 Canadians), started as bird flu.
Some researchers see habitat loss as a key factor in the unusual
spread of the disease between wild and domestic birds. A recently
released United Nations (U.N.) Environment Programme report
found that loss of wetlands around the world has forced migrating
wild birds onto stopping points along their way--such as rice
paddies and farms--that are ordinarily the domicile of domestic
chickens, ducks and geese, with whom they normally don't mix.
"Wetland depletion has direct implications for migrating
wild birds," says David Rapport, a professor at the University
of Western Ontario and a lead researcher on the U.N. study.
"Wetland habitat worldwide continues to decline, owing
to agricultural expansion and urban development, resulting
in fewer staging areas for wild migrating birds."
Rapport warns that "heroic efforts" like mass culling
are not likely to appreciably slow the spread of bird flu.
The best hope, he says, is to increase habitat for wild birds
and avoid siting large-scale poultry operations along migratory
bird routes. Minimizing human contact with domestic poultry
is also key, but this would be a tall order given the prevalence
of poultry in the human diet. Also, in many parts of Asia,
separating poultry from people would be at odds with cultural
Many North Americans may not realize that the bird flu virus
has already arrived here. In November 2005 two wild ducks
tested positive for H5N1 in Canada, although not the same
dangerous strain that affected Southeast Asia. The virus was
also found on a domestic duck in British Columbia shortly
thereafter. While no infected birds have been documented in
the U.S. yet, researchers say it's only a matter of time.
Just last year U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike
Leavitt said that a bird flu pandemic was an "absolute
certainty," echoing repeated warnings from the World
Health Organization (WHO). A recently released White House
report warns that, if there were to be an outbreak, the nation
is unprepared and as many as two million people could die.
Meanwhile, Canada has earned kudos from WHO, which is using
its billion-dollar preparedness plan as a model for other
countries to follow.
CONTACTS: Wildlife Trust, www.wildlifetrust.org/enter.cgi?p=news/2006/0101_1_avian.htm
; Health Canada Avian Flu (Bird Flu) Website, www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dc-ma/avia/index_e.html