A family-oriented documentary called “Stink!” shines a bright light on the unregulated use of toxic chemicals in U.S. consumer products, from baby wipes and shampoo to floor cleaners and laundry detergents.
The idea for the film originated from director Jon Whelan’s experience in tracking down the source of a strong chemical odor that wafted off new pajamas he’d purchased for his two young daughters.
After discovering the toxic stench was a trade secret held by the parent company of popular American tween store Justice, Whelan began investigating the fragrance industry, which he suggests is valued at $100 billion.
What Whelan found is that manufacturers, with the aggressive backing of the chemical industry, routinely conceal thousands of potentially toxic ingredients in the baby care, household and personal care products you and your family use every day.
They do so by using the term “fragrance,” which is entirely free of government oversight and safety regulations.
Lack of regulation means that when you see the word fragrance on product labels, it does not refer to a single ingredient, but likely dozens of toxic chemicals in combination.
For example, S.C. Johnson’s fresh citrus blossom-scented Glade PlugIns oil refill contains a whopping 60 chemical components, which are encompassed under a single word on the product label: fragrance.
According to the Geneva-based International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the self-regulating body of the global fragrance industry, about 3,000 specific chemicals fall under the term fragrance.
When you purchase a product that lists fragrance as one of the ingredients, you have no way of knowing how many chemicals reside within, or how those chemicals might interact with each other. Many of the chemicals are synthetic — often petroleum based — and increasingly linked to chronic health conditions.
Safety and Regulation of US Consumer Goods Is Weak
You may be surprised to know that legislation put in place in the U.S. in 1976 — a measure called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — has perhaps done more harm than good in terms of regulating the chemicals used in products that you use daily.
Notably, TSCA grandfathered in some 80,000 chemicals that are ready available and can be easily incorporated into all kinds of consumer products manufactured and sold in the U.S.
As such, these chemicals bypass safety testing and remain free of federal government regulation and oversight. Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics comments:
“The chemical industry has gotten away with producing billions of tons of chemicals without doing safety studies, putting them out into the environment … and into products that are … in our homes. Basically we are living in a ‘toxic soup,’ and it’s a giant experiment on human health.”
It may surprise you to learn that U.S. regulatory agencies such as the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration have limited authority to regulate manufacturers who add toxic ingredients to their products.
“I think that most people’s perception is that somewhere, someone is testing all the products,” says Whelan. But, they’re not.
This lack of oversight allows manufacturers of baby-care, household and personal-care products — with the support of powerful and well-funded trade associations — to add thousands of toxic chemicals to products you use every day. Whelan states:
“The American Chemistry Council is the most powerful trade association anywhere, and it spends hundreds of millions of dollars to influence public opinion, fund political campaigns and underwrite aggressive lobbying efforts.
Their goal is to avoid regulation that would impact profits of the largest chemical companies in the world, such as BASF, ConAgra Foods, Dow, DuPont, General Mills, Monsanto, Nestle, Pepsico and Unilever.”
Due to the tremendous amount of chemicals coming at you from multiple sources, some of the fragrances that you are exposed to daily may be damaging your health and putting you at risk for serious illness.
The ‘Fragrance Loophole’ and Why Should It Concern You
Jane Houlihan, vice president of research for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), notes that the lack of U.S. government oversight with respect to added chemicals in consumer products is referred to as the “fragrance loophole:”
“One big loophole in the labeling law is “fragrance.” Manufacturers don’t have to list their ingredients. So whether you hold a perfume, cologne, shampoo or shaving cream — whatever the product is — normally the fragrance components aren’t disclosed.
There can literally be a mixture of hundreds of different chemicals hidden in that one ingredient.”
Adds Green Living Expert Alexandra Zissu, “You’re eating fragrance, wearing fragrance, washing your hands with fragrance and even blowing your nose with fragrance.”
Among the undisclosed ingredients are several known or suspected allergens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, environmental pollutants, neurotoxic chemicals and respiratory irritants.
Because these toxins are responsible for the spike in chronic diseases from asthma and birth defects to infertility and cancer, “The sooner you get this stuff out of your life, the better,” says Zissu.
Worse, due to the lack of product testing and safety measures, the interaction of fragrance chemicals across multiple products cannot be known. No one stops to ask what kind of interaction might take place when chemicals from your body spray interact with your acne cream.
By the way, did you know the average American female uses up to 20 products, and the average male up to 10 products, per day that have hidden ingredients linked to a variety of adverse health issues?
Tests conducted by the EWG revealed the average fragrance product contains at least 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. This secrecy and lack of transparency make it impossible for you to make an informed choice about the products you buy.
Transparency in Labeling Is Needed to Rein in Use of Toxic Chemicals
Whelan provides common-sense advice for addressing the U.S. system with respect to your everyday products and the handling of fragrance