As the Environmental Protection Agency dusts off its cogs after years of inactivity, a consumer watchdog group has given us yet another reason to believe that the global manufacturing sector is trying to kill us. Their chief weapon this time?
Vinyl and faux leather handbags in an array of bright colors.
Data released by healthystuff.org found that 75 percent of handbags tested by the group contained lead, with some bags hitting levels up to 19 times the federal standard for children's toys. Many bags, including some bearing popular brands such as Candie's, Guess, Nine West, Aldo, and French Connection (notice that buying an expensive bag doesn't necessarily afford any protection), also contained arsenic, mercury, and other materials that can sicken people in cases of long-term exposure.
There are no requirements for testing on most consumer products that aren't marketed for children, including apparel and accessories, said Jeff Gearheart, research director at the Ecology Center, which created healthystuff.org.
The lack of regulation fails to keep both adults and children safe from materials such as lead, which can cause cancer and has been linked to IQ impairment in children.
How dangerous are hazardous substances in purses? "A kid doesn't care if they're going to chew on their mom's purse or if they're chewing on a toy," said Gearheart, adding, "People should realize that some of the [chemicals] that go into these products don't stay in the products. They come out of the products, they're released into the air, they're released into the environment."
The data adds to growing concern in the United States over chemicals found in consumer goods, from baby bottles to frying pans. A September 29 announcement by Obama-appointed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson may indicate that federal regulators are finally responding to that concern.
Speaking in San Francisco, Jackson announced plans to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the first and only comprehensive piece of U.S. legislation to require testing on chemicals in consumer products. TSCA exempted everything on the market before 1981, meaning that only a small number of chemicals were subject to testing and regulation under the law.
"Over the years, not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it's supposed to regulate—it's been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects," said Jackson.
Referring to a 2005 study that found 287 different chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborn babies, Jackson noted, "As more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused."
Jackson also said the federal agency will review six common chemicals that have raised concern lately, including bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. While not all chemicals found in consumer products are dangerous, almost no effort has been made in the United States to identify which chemicals are harmful, or to eliminate those that are known to pose a health risk during long-term exposure.
"People still have this presumption in the United States that the government is looking out for their interests and that the government is going to determine whether something is safe or not. That, unfortunately, is an illusion," said Mark Schapiro, author of the book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's At Stake for American Power and editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
If the EPA and Congress follow through with regulating toxic chemicals, the impact would extend beyond protecting American consumers. Legislation passed in the United States could also help factory workers in countries such as China by forcing manufacturers to stop using banned chemicals.
"There is no question that law will be heard deep in the outposts of the global economy, where these goods are produced," said Schapiro. Most of the handbags tested by healthystuff.org were produced in Asia, largely in China. But Schapiro said pointing the finger at China lets U.S. regulators off the hook.
"The notion that the Chinese are somehow responsible for poisoning Americans totally misses the point of what it is that America legally permits to be sold in the United States," he said.
While the United States has lagged behind, the European Union has tested and regulated thousands of chemicals commonly found in consumer goods. In some cases, the U.S. consumer is the "accidental beneficiary" of these regulations, Schapiro said, since larger global companies may change their practices to meet the European standard.
But with smaller manufacturers, the opposite can happen. For example, the U.S. government provides no restrictions on the chemical content of makeup sold in this country. So what happens when a small makeup manufacturer in Malaysia can no longer sell its lead-laden lipstick in Europe? "You can actually just dump whatever you want on the U.S. cosmetics market," Schapiro said.
In the absence of federal protection, some states have written legislation that would help phase out toxic chemicals. In Massachusetts, the Safer Alternatives bill has been pending for several years.
"It would create a program to systematically replace toxic chemicals whenever possible," said Elizabeth Saunders, Environmental Health Legislative Director at Clean Water Action, which worked on the bill. Saunders said the law would protect workers and children by forcing industry to find alternatives to toxic chemicals. Supporters also claim the bill would help Massachusetts businesses compete with European companies that have already found alternatives.
While state and federal regulators struggle to catch up, many U.S. consumers are taking their health into their own hands. Suki Kramer, founder of the Northampton-based natural cosmetics and skincare company suki, said her company has attracted a growing number of consumers seeking an alternative to conventional cosmetics.
"We're starting to get more people from the department stores," said Kramer, noting that her company has always attracted the "hardcore" types who compost, bike, and follow the trends of greener living. Kramer said she tries to promote awareness about the cosmetics industry by posting information on her website about chemicals found in makeup that can disrupt hormones or lead to cancer and respiratory problems.
"I really want people to take things into their own hands and not trust marketers to take care of them," said Kramer. "You'd think as a society, as cynical as we are, that we would know that."
Changes in consumer spending habits may provide the necessary push to eliminate toxic chemicals from the global market. After all, it was concerned moms who led the charge to get baby bottles containing the hormone disrupter BPA removed from the shelves. When many parents switched to glass, some retailers stopped carrying bottles containing BPA, which has been linked to cancer and behavioral problems.
As we wait for government regulators to bargain with the manufacturing powers that be, protecting our long-term health may largely be up to us. The first step may be to ditch that bright orange handbag and the makeup inside it.