In my earlier life, I worked in one of India’s leading biscuit and confectionary companies. My office was near the production facility, so 4 pm would have the odours of baking biscuits and vanilla essence wafting into my room. In the short 6 months that I was there, I came to heartily hate the smell of industrial baking. The stocks of hydrogenated vegetable oil, refined wheat flour and white sugar that went into the facility every single day firmly quashed any notions I had of eating something reasonably healthy every time I opened a freely available pack of biscuits.
Sugar is one of the largest volume ingredients in any food product. Whenever a food product is formulated, especially for children, sugar is the Hail Mary pass – when in doubt, you simply increase the sugar to make sure your consumers love the product.
A recent conversation with a friend who works in another food company had us discussing a popular children’s beverage that is marketed on the promise of giving children a “healthy fruit drink” in the evening. My friend, who is a father himself, spoke to me with some horror about his discussion with his R&D team about the contents of this drink. “They told me it contained 96% sugar, Preethi”, he said with dismay.
And this brings home one of the myths of the food industry. It isn’t “tasty” or going to “appeal to our consumers” unless we super load it with sugar or fat. Most food industry marketers do not have the confidence to launch a product that is not over loaded with sugar or fat. They believe that they cannot achieve a profitable product with mass appeals with less sugar and less oil. Contrary to overwhelming public belief that excess sugar and fat is unnecessary and in fact dangerous, the industry believes that we indiscriminately want high sugar and high fat laden treats.
Similar myths and facts abound in household chemicals. This is why, despite them being researched and found to be dangerous, they continue to be used blithely to create products that you & I use every day.
6 myths and 3 facts in the consumer product industry : or why toxic chemicals continue to enter our homes
Myth 1: There is a safe permissible limit for toxic chemicals (below which they are harmless)
The general rule followed in establishing safety standards in industrial chemicals is that a higher percentage means more harm. Therefore the assumption is that it is possible to find a level below which even a toxic chemical can be used safely.
Truth 1: There is no safe level for a toxic chemical
This logic has repeatedly failed us in several industrial chemicals. For example, petrochemical derived benzene is considered toxic even in the parts per trillion range. Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide was found to exhibit estrogenecity (the ability to mimic estrogens within the body and replace it) even in the very very low parts per trillion concentration range.
Certain endocrine disrupters like Bisphenol A, found in plastics, and parabens found in several cosmetic products paradoxically have a greater hormone mimicking action as their concentrations decrease.
Nano technology: growing concern
A growing trend which is of concern to us as consumers and parents is the use of Nano technology in industrial chemicals. Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring oxide and is widely used as a whitening pigment in plastics, and ceramics. Because of its high refractive index it is commonly used in sunscreens to enhance the SPF factor. Titanium dioxide is now being used as nano particles in several applications including food and cosmetic products.
We are also constantly eating nano titanium dioxide as it is now finding its way into making milk whiter, dazzling white toothpastes and in several food products that are marketed to children including cup cakes, hard candy and mints and those meant for adults like coffee creamers and even oatmeal. Researchers at Birmingham and Cornell University report that an average consumer could be ingesting 100 trillion nanoparticles of Titanium dioxide every single day.
Previous cell research has already established that Titanium dioxide is cytotoxic – this means that it damages cells. A new study now reports that Titanium dioxide not only damages cells but is capable of inducing tumour like changes in exposed human cells with an increased rate of cell proliferation and a decrease in programmed cell death (both of which are traits of precancerous or cancerous cells).
Because nanotechnology is relatively new, the existing bio safety norms do not cover the effects of using Nano particles of what were considered generally safe ingredients. A Nano particle is sized between 1 – 100 billionth of a meter in diameter – at this size, their absorption rate into the skin significantly increases and they have extremely potent effects on our body as compared to the larger, non Nano particle size of the same ingredient.
Non traditional dose response dynamics : or how toxic chemicals bamboozle us
The Endocrine society states that one of the most worrying properties of Endocrine disrupter chemicals is their ability to cause reproductive abnormalities at “even infinitesimally low levels of exposure, indeed any level of exposure” particularly if this exposure occurs at a critical developmental phase. They have also stated that low doses often exert more potent damage compared to high doses.
Myth 2: A toxic chemical is toxic only if ingested. Your risk is less if it is applied on skin
Truth 2: The skin is a living organ. It can absorb a wide variety of substances and pass it on to the bloodstream inside.
We continue to believe that the skin is a non porous physical barrier. Nothing else explains why we continue to carelessly apply extremely toxic substances directly on our skin.
Nicotine patches and contraceptive patches are marketed and have been used by millions of consumers. The route here of absorption is direct dermal absorption, i.e. the skin.
The dermal route of chemical absorption is often faster and more deadly compared to the oral route where you swallow the ingredient in question. The body’s digestive system with its strong acid barrier can help filter out many deadly toxins. However the skin application route has no digestive system to filter out potential toxins. When we use nano particles to further reduce the size of our toxic ingredients, they are able to penetrate faster into the body through the skin, and directly enter the blood and lymphatic systems and our fat reserves where they can bio accumulate and persist.
Myth 3: Something that has been advertised on television, and is available in supermarkets, is not a toxic chemical: it is probably safe and has been tested
The U.S FDA lists that household and personal care products use over 100,000 industrial chemicals. In its entire functioning history, the US EPA has managed to ban or restrict only 5 substances and that too only in specific applications.
Industrial chemical do not need to be tested before combined with other chemicals and launched as products into the market. If a new chemical is used, companies are rarely required by law to disclose safety data, and voluntary disclosure is almost never practised. In the U.S the burden of safety testing is put on the FDA. If the understaffed and stretched FDA does not block a new chemical within 90 days or ask for safety data, then the chemical is cleared by default.
Truth 3: Product testing by companies or the government is not fool proof. It is rarely able to simulate the effect of toxic chemicals over a long period.
Pharmaceutical history is rife with instances of companies learning after launch that the products they marketed were actually toxic and dangerous.
The tragic history of DES – how a drug marketed to protect pregnancies caused vaginal cancer
Diethylstilbestrol (DES), was routinely given to pregnant women between 1940 – 1971 (for more than 30 years!), to help reduce the risk of pregnancy complications and losses. Originally considered safe for both pregnant women and their foetuses, DES was aggressively marketed and routinely prescribed.
In 1971, DES was found to cause a rare form of vaginal tumour among girls and women who had been exposed to the drug in their mother’s womb. It is to be noted that this research was first reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and action was taken by the FDA. The companies involved in marketing the drug neither funded nor did this research or took the effort to withdraw the drug.
Subsequently the US FDA withdrew DES for use on pregnant women. The drug itself was only very slowly taken off the market. It continued to be prescribed for different medical conditions some of which were later found to be not approved at all by the FDA. During the 1960s, it was even used as a growth hormone in the beef and poultry industry until it was phased out in the late 1970s after its carcinogenic properties came to light. The last remaining manufacturer and marketer of DES in the U.S, Eli Lilly, finally stopped making it in 1997; a full 26 years after the FDA banned its use on pregnant women.
Estimates suggest that more than 2 million people may have been exposed to DES across the United States, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the period between 1940 – 1971. DES is one of the first transplacental carcinogens discovered in human beings, a toxin that could actually cross the placenta and harm the foetus. Besides vaginal cancer, daughters exposed in utero were also found to have “an increased risk of moderate to severe cervical squamous cell dysplasia and an increased risk of breast cancer”.
The most recent published research in 2011, lists the cumulative risks of women exposed to DES as follows: 33.3% infertility rates compared to 1% in the general population, spontaneous abortion 50.3% vs. 38.6%, preterm delivery, 53.3% vs. 17.8%; loss of second-trimester pregnancy, 16.4% vs. 1.7%; ectopic pregnancy, 14.6% vs. 2.9%; preeclampsia, 26.4% vs. 13.7%; stillbirth, 8.9% vs. 2.6%; early menopause, 5.1% vs. 1.7%; grade 2 or higher cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, 6.9% vs. 3.4%; and breast cancer at 40 years of age or older, 3.9% vs. 2.2%.
The study also states that Daughters with prenatal exposure to DES may also have an increased risk of uterine fibroids, and incompetent cervix in adulthood. In the 1970s and early 1980s, studies published on prenatally DES-exposed males investigated increased risk of testicular cancer, infertility and urogenital abnormalities in development, such as cryptorchidism and hypospadias.
By studying the history and tragic consequences of just one drug, we are able to see how ill informed and unprepared governments and the companies are. This extends to both understanding the consequences of the chemicals they use and their efforts to make amends once they understand these consequences.
If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we will be condemned to repeat it.
Myth 4: It is impossible to formulate without synthetic or toxic chemicals
Although the cosmetics industry is more than 4500 years old, today, we entirely depend upon industrial chemicals synthesized in the last 100 years for all our daily products.
Methyl, ethyl and propyl paraben, are common preservatives used in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. They are found in shampoos, moisturizing products, shaving gels, toothpaste and make-up.
However, the ester bearing form of parabens have been found in breast cancer tumours indicating that they have migrated from a product that has been applied on the skin (deodorants, creams) into the body.
Most cosmetic and personal care products available today use paraben preservatives. Even products marketed under the guise of being natural or sometimes even organic use these deadly chemicals.
Truth 4: Natural alternatives are available & have always been used
Natural alternatives have always existed. It is the responsibility of companies to use them and protect the health of their consumers. Some of the exciting options include grapefruit seed extract, vitamin e and extracts of plants with powerful anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties like neem, turmeric, thyme and rosemary.
Formulation path followed at Krya
The more water a product contains, the shorter its shelf life becomes, necessitating the use of cheap and dangerous preservatives like the paraben family. A powder or a solid formulation is more stable and depending on the ingredients used does not need synthetic preservatives.
When we formulate our skin and hair care line at Krya, we eliminate water. Our consumers add water when using our products. Therefore, we are able to create formulations without synthetic preservatives. We also use plant ingredients that offer powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungicidal properties – for example, rosemary goes into the Krya Kids body wash, and thyme and peppermint go into the Krya hair wash.
Myth 5: There are no long term ill effects in the products I use everyday
Truth 5: There are many long term ill effects caused by everyday products
Gene disruption, bio accumulation , transplacental migration & latency of exposure are some of the ways products as innocuous as a sunscreen can affect you in the long term.
As we saw in the case of DES, the exposure of the first generation affected not just the second generation but also continued to have effect on the third generation or the grand children of those who had been exposed to DES. This makes chemicals like DES epigenetic disrupters- where they modify gene copies ensuring that these modified / mutant genes get passed down from generation to generation with the same tragic consequences.
Persistent endocrine disrupters have a high lipid solubility, therefore they bio accumulate in fat tissue. No endocrine system is immune to this class of chemicals so every one of us is likely to have this class of chemicals in our body.
Latency of exposure
The Endocrine Society refers to Chemical endocrine disrupters as having “latency” of exposure”. This means that there is a lag between the time someone has been exposed to the chemical to the manifestation of a disorder.
So we would not be able to observe the effects of this exposure immediately. It may manifest as we become adults or as we age.
Myth 6: I have been using these products for years; I cannot see any ill effects, so I must be safe.
Endocrine disrupter chemicals (EDCs) have extremely diverse and complex mechanisms of acting out in the body. A single EDC could be both estrogenic and androgenic. Some could break down or metabolise to generate sub products with different properties. Sex steroids target many organ systems in the body including the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal system, the breast, uterus, cervix, vagina and other non reproductive tissues like the bone, muscle, and skin.
Truth 6: You could have several ill effects later that could never be traced back to the detergent or face wash you once used.
The many organs targeted and the long gestation may lead to a diverse set of symptoms that could never get traced back to the toxic chemicals we have been exposed to.
We looked at some myths. Now here are some facts.
Fact 1: There is too much money at stake
We discussed the effect of several human carcinogens which are implicated in breast cancer in our last post. In 2004, a tally of all the research done on BPA showed that of the 104 independent studies done, 94 found adverse effects and 10 found no effects.
However, of the 11 studies conducted or funded by the manufacturers of BPA, none showed BPA to have any adverse effects.
Let’s understand the economics behind this.
In 2002, U.S companies produce 2.8 million tons of Bisphenol A. The value of BPA sales in 2002 in the US was 5.3 billion dollars, in a single year.
In the presence of high financial stakes, and strong stakeholder pressure, it is extremely difficult for paid employees to put an end to the gravy train, especially if they are not presented with overwhelmingly alarming facts about the chemical they use.
As human beings, the tendency is to justify our world view by clinging on to small shards of probable positive evidence. These high stakes are applicable to all industrial chemicals especially the highly carcinogenic toxic chemicals.
Fact 2: Depending on how the tests were conducted, the results can vary
Why is it that independent studies and industry funded studies always differ?
3 straight explanations exist for this:
- Lab animal diet – If the rates / mice in question have been fed on a diet of soy, which can itself be mildly estrogenic, the results are skewed in endocrine disrupter studies. For example in a study testing the effect of paraben on cancer, the lab rats should not be fed soy.
- Housing rats in plastic cages or stainless steel cages can again skew results as plastics disrupt endocrine levels but metals do not. So a study on Bisphenol A should house a rat only in metal cages and not the cheaper plastic cages.
- The results also vary depending upon the breed of rat that was used in the study.
Independent researchers have found that industry funded research almost always uses the Sprague Dawley rat supplied by one particular company.
Apart from being chosen for its calmness and ease of handling, this breed of rat is so tough that its response to estrogenic compounds is extremely muted. This practice obviously severely tones down the results of endocrine disrupter studies resulting in claims that these chemicals are extremely safe.
Hence, it is entirely probable that industry funded studies in the potential effects of estrogenic mimicking compounds and endocrine disrupters like BPA throws up an entirely different set of findings from independently funded studies: it all lies in the choice of Rat breed that has been “plugged” into the study.
Fact 3: Industrial chemicals need to be studied as a system and not in isolation
In 2005, Kevin Croft an EPA researcher published a chilling finding. Kevin Croft gave rats different doses of mixtures of 3 classes of common industrial chemicals – dioxins, PCBs and dibenzofurans at different concentrations, from those commonly found in human exposure to 100 times higher. At the time of his research, even the highest dose was considered safe when studied in isolation.
These chemicals were chosen as they are common industrial contaminants found in human foods from fish to breast milk.
At the lower doses, the researchers found that the effect of the mixture was additive and it significantly reduced the animal’s thyroxine levels, which is the most common thyroid hormone. At higher doses, the thyroxine reduction had a stronger multiplicative effect – the sum of their effect was greater than simple addition.
This means that any study that singly examines an industrial chemical is not sufficient. Neither is a ban or elimination of one type of chemical enough to guarantee our safety. We have to look a radical new products that completely eliminate the use of ALL harmful chemicals.
We need a new way of thinking about things
There is grudging and reluctant response from the industry to consumer protests on safety. It is appalling to read the official statements given by companies when they commit to removing toxins like parabens. They give themselves atleast a 2 – 3 year window to “phase out” something that is toxic.
It is not practical to depend on governments to look after what goes into our detergents or moisturizers. Our government is still working on basic sustenance issues like food, water and sanitation and do not have the resources or the bandwidth to get into the complications caused by industrial chemicals. Investigative reports suggest that cosmetics and skin care products sold in India are still fighting basic norms like heavy metal contamination. We have not begun to go into the effects of leachates and feedstock industrial chemicals like parabens, phthalates, etc.
Our education today should not end with subjects like Mathematics, Physics and Geography. We have to expand our mind and begin exploring the connections our health has to food, and the products we use around ourselves.
We end this piece with a quote by Masanobu Fukuoka.
This article is a part of Krya’s series on toxics in household and personal care products. Through this series, we hope to inform, educate and inspire you to look around your home and detox it and yourself from the harmful action of more than 100,000 suspect industrial chemicals that surround human life today. The natural world is full of safe, environmentally sustainable, cruelty free options to care for yourself and your home, and our series will try to present atleast a small part of this exciting world to you.
If you would like to explore our series further, here’s what We’ve written before this piece:
- An introduction to the series
- Common carcinogens implicated in breast cancer found in your home
- Holiday Eco spring Cleaning Purge: Parts 1 & 2
- Mosquito Monogatari
- Ant Attacks: a short post inspired by the Morphic resonance theory
- Is my shampoo truly natural?
- Ingredients in a Baby soap