Last month I attended a meeting of women entrepreneurs. On the sidelines, we were invited to a breast cancer awareness campaign organized by one of the entrepreneurs who had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. This young lady is a passionate advocate of early diagnosis of breast cancer. As a part of the worldwide pink ribbon day, her team conducted awareness camps for women employed in the major IT parks in Chennai.
As she spoke, a palpable tremor ran through the women in the room. Many had some encounter with the dreaded “c” word, having watched a loved one suffer.
I lost a favourite aunt in 2009 to breast cancer, or perhaps the aggressive chemotherapy given to her. I watched my bright, active danseuse Aunt shrivel away, lose her hair, her energy and eventually her life after four repeated chemotherapy assaults on her body. Breast cancer is one of the most common and fast growing cancers in India today and forms nearly half of all the cancer detected in India . In 2012, 70,000 Indian women died due to breast cancer.
The Pink Ribbon movement
In 1985 in the US , the breast cancer awareness month (BCAM) was created as a partnership between American Cancer Society & a pharma company that is now part of Astra Zeneca. The main aim of the BCAM is to promote mammography as the weapon of choice to diagnose and fight breast cancer. Such partnerships are fraught with ethical dilemmas. Astra Zeneca is the manufacturer of the breast cancer blockbuster drugs Arimidex and Tamoxifen. Some have argued the overly visible and alarmist tone of breast cancer awareness pushes for over reporting and aggressive promotion of the treatment which are the drugs. Worse still, it is now understood that X-ray mammography to detect breast cancer is dangerous and is a carcinogen.
The breast cancer awareness movement came into its own in the early 1990’s with promotion of the pink ribbon as the symbol. In 1993, Evelyn Lauder, Senior Vice-president of Estee Lauder and a breast cancer survivor herself founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and widely popularized the pink ribbon as its symbol. In that year, Estee Lauder make up counters handed out 1.5 million pink ribbons with a information card describing the steps to construct a self breast exam.
Since then, the pink ribbon has become one of the most visible symbols of cause related marketing across the world. Research shows that given parity cost and quality, more than 50% of consumers would switch to a brand associated with a good cause. Going by the popularity of the pink ribbon, breast cancer certainly seems to be a popular and profitable cause for the brands piggybacking on this cause.
From NFL costumes to cosmetics, from shoe sellers to cricketers, the pink ribbon has engulfed them all during the awareness month. While many critics and naysayers tend to dismiss this as pink washing, there are positives. Millions of dollars have been raised from these campaigns due to which early warning signs are now part of the general lexicon.
But one critical issue continues to trouble the general public.
Despite the top management support, and marketing muscle thrown behind breast cancer awareness, several cosmetic companies who support this cause, continue to use ingredients that are suspected to be carcinogenic. In many cases these suspect ingredients have been found in breast cancer tissues. Think about it. The very brands that raise money for awareness continue to use suspected carcinogens in their products.
In 2013, 15 beauty brands devoted to defeating breast cancer got together to start an offshoot campaign called “we are stronger together”. But according to EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic database, 12 of these companies, including Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, and Estee Lauder & Origins sell a wide assortment of cosmetics that contain known carcinogens and other toxics.
The carcinogenic impact of these toxic ingredients is relevant to the study of what causes breast cancer. Research suggests that genetic causes form only 5 – 10 % to breast cancer develops. 90 – 95% of cancer exposure is thought to develop from a series of environmental causes including radiation exposure, excess alcohol consumption, and of course exposure to dozens of carcinogenic chemicals.
The Krya series on toxics
This Krya series on toxic chemicals in household products has been developed as a result of hundreds of queries from concerned users, very often in categories where Krya does not have any product yet. We are asked for our opinion on product categories on the potential hazards of chemicals and more importantly, recommendations for safer natural alternatives.
For the last 4 years on the krya blog, we have maintained our stand that the consumer products industry in India is dangerously under-regulated. Many products are sold widely with little understanding of long term human safety or environmental protection. In our personal experience, we have seen that R&D in global consumer products companies operates in silos, with a narrow focus on cost and immediate consumer gratification. Their safety standards are decades old. They continue to play with the boundaries of safety and often wait for a public outcry or a government order to cut back on toxic ingredients. This laissez-faire attitude has introduced to the trusting public a set of new, potentially dangerous, hydra headed monsters.
With October just gone by, we start our toxics series by examining common industrial chemicals that we could enter in our homes that are suspected to lead to breast cancer.
The Pink Predators
Parabens are a big family of preservatives found widely in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries. and have been around for nearly 100 years. They are the industry standard for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
Parabens have been detected in urine, serum, breast milk and seminal fluid, but the most worrying fact has been their detection in breast tissue from patients with breast cancer. In one important north American study, it was calculated that the average person is exposed to 76 mg of parabens every day, with 50 mg from cosmetics, 25 mg from pharmaceuticals and 1 mg from food.
Research from the CDC’s National Centre for Environmental Health found that the blood of over 60% of the children surveyed during the National Health and Nutrition examination survey was contaminated with more than 8 toxins including significant levels of 3 kinds of parabens.
One alarming property of parabens is their ability to enter the body through the skin, something that most people are not aware of. This has been widely studied in underarm cosmetics like deodorants and whiteners. Breast cancer research shows a higher concentration of parabens in the upper lateral breast near the armpit corresponding to the use of deodorants which contain parabens.
After the work of many consumer awareness groups like EWG, Johnson & Johnson pledged to remove both parabens and formaldehyde from its baby care and adult skin care products by 2015 including brands like Aveeno & Neutrogena. But Johnson & Johnson continues to re-assert the safety of parabens and made this decision to eliminate parabens only to assuage certain consumer groups.
Globally most governments have not re-examined the safety of parabens. Some outliers are the Danish government which has banned the use of products for children below 3 years. In Indian parabens are commonly used in cosmetic and other applications.
While we can go back and forth on the safety of parabens , we certainly do not want to be learn 30 or 40 years later that the early researchers who warned against the use of parabens were absolutely right. This is exactly what happened in the global debate on smoking and lung cancer. While the debate raged, many were smoking their way to cancer hoping that the warnings would turn out to be false alarms.
On the other hand it is important to note that parabens do not have any beneficial or therapeutic whatsoever to humans. So the question to ask is this, are there safe alternatives to parabens ? The answer is YES! Paraben free products are available globally and are waiting for you to discover them.
Phthalates are chemicals used as plasticizers, to make physical products pliant and flexible – they are widely found, in vinyl flooring, raincoats, adhesives, detergents, nail polishes, soaps, toys and skin care lotions. For example, DEHP, a common phthalate, is added to PVC at concentrations between 1 – 40% to make it soft and pliant. Unplasticized PVC without DEHP is hard and brittle.
Phthalates are physically bound into plastics using a heating process, which means that they are very easily released into the environment when this physical bond breaks. This happens in many innocuous ways when phthalate containing products are kept near heat or exposed to strong solvents. For example : when phthalate containing plastic dishes are washed with harsh chemical cleaners.
Phthalates are cheap and versatile: so they are found in products as diverse as children’s toys, and utensils, coatings in pills and nutritional supplements, emulsifying and suspending agents in lotions and shampoos, binders and gelling agents in liquid detergent and dishwash. Other personal care products that contain phthalates are liquid soap, perfumes, deodorant sprays, hair sprays, eye shadow, nail colours and moisturizers.
When used in vinyl flowing, phthalates like DEHP easily leach into the atmosphere, contaminating indoor household air. Once released this toxic air can be inhaled by babies crawling on the floor or pets. A 2008 Bulgarian study found that higher dust concentrations of DEHP was found in the homes of children with asthma and allergies compared to non- asthmatic children.
While a lot of the present phthalate research focuses on infants and children, it is believed women are at a much higher risk of phthalate exposure due to their higher consumption of cosmetic products and exposure to household cleaning products. Recent (2010) in-vivo and observational studies show an association between phthalate exposure and breast cancer. Also, phthalates like many other endocrine disrupters are both bio-accumulative and additive – when mixed with other classes of chemicals like BPA or nonyl-phenols, they exhibit a deadly chemical synergistic effect. Essentially this means that all these toxic chemicals gang up against your body with a multiplier effect.
A recent published study for the first time studied the positive correlation of DEP (diethyl phthalate), positive correlation with breast cancer. DEP is found in a high proportion of perfume carrying products like deodorants, hair sprays and moisturizing lotions because of its ability to make fragrance “linger” for a long time. DEP is also used as denaturant in alcohol and is found worryingly in products like mouthwash.
Why are phthalates dangerous to human health? Simply put, they are endocrine disruptors. Their behaviour can mimic endocrine hormones like estrogen , which really confuses our bodies , leading to disease.
In 2000, Puerto Rican scientists reported an association between DEHP & premature breast development in young girls signifying an early onset of puberty. At the same time the CDC in the United States tested blood samples of 289 Adult Americans and found phthalates in all of them. The levels of some phthalates, including DEHP in women of childbearing age far exceeded government mandated safe levels to prevent birth defects.
Two studies published in Environmental Health perspectives in 2003 found that pregnant women with phthalate exposure on average give birth one week earlier than those without significant phthalate exposure.
A 2006 study among Indian women with endometriosis showed a significantly high level of phthalates in their blood – this included phthalates which are restricted for use in the EU like DEHP, DBT, BBP and DnOP.
Regulations around Phthalates:
Most restriction around phthalates today focuses on children. The EU has restricted the use of certain phthalates like DEHP, DBP, in children’s toys from 1999. Phthalates like DINP, DIDP and DNOP are restricted in toys that can be put into a child’s mouth. The restriction allows these phthalates to be present only upto 0.1% of the plasticized mass of the toy.A similar act was passed in the United States in 2008.
Phthalates in the Cauvery river.
A study published this year studied water and sediment samples of the Cauvery River, one of South India’s major rivers. A two year soil sediment and water study found DEHP in 92% of the water samples and DEP and DMP in every water sample. Similarly 94% of soil sediment samples also contained DEHP. While the contamination percentage was said to be below USEPA guidelines for water, the soil concentration exceeded this guideline.
The Cauvery river basin covers Karnataka, Kerala , Tamilnadu and Pondicherry. It is the source for both an extensive irrigation and hydroelectric system and also supplies drinking water for many towns and villages. Bangalore, Mysore and Mandya depend almost completely on the Cauvery for their drinking water. In this situation, the fact that some of the most toxic phthalates like DEHP have so comprehensively contaminated this river cannot be ignored.
Nonylphenols (NP ) and Nonyl phenol ethoxylate (NPE)
Nonyl phenols come from a class of chemicals called Alkyphenols. Alkylphenols, including nonyl phenol are precursors to chemical detergents , and are used as additive to fuels, lubricants and other polymers.
All alkylphenols including Nonylphenol ethoxylate are xenoestrogens. They mimic the effect of estrogen in the body and they can disrupt the normal process of reproduction. Xenoestrogens can increase the growth of the endometrium, leading to endometriosis, and can also increase breast cancer tissue in tissue culture studies.
Precocious puberty or puberty among young girls below 8 years is one of the effects of Xeno estrogens. Studies across America, Europe and Asia suggest that irrespective of race and economic conditions, the earlier onset of puberty is attributed to the environmental chemical exposure. Precocious puberty has been studied to lead to significant psychological distress, poor self image and poor self esteem in a young girl. It has also shown to lead to reduced adult height, paediatric & adult obesity, gynaecological disorders like endometriosis, poly cystic ovarian disorder and infertility.
Nonylphenols are chemicals used in laundry and dish detergents, cleaners and emulsifiers, paints, pesticides and in personal wash products. Since the discovery of Nonyl phenol in 1940, its production has been growing every year – it is now a high production volume chemical, with 100 million- 500 million pounds of NPE being produced globally every year.
Nonylphenol persists in aquatic environments and can take months or longer to degrade in water and soil. Because Nonylphenol is used in so many cleaning products which “go down the drain” like dishwash products and detergent products, it is a ready contaminant into sewage and water supply. Nonyl phenol bio-accumulates inside the body, and is a potent endocrine disrupter.
As already mentioned, one of the most troubling problems of ingredients like Nonyl phenol which are used as filler in pesticides for their “inert” properties is their ability to work synergistically with other chemicals and multiply their toxic effect on humans.
The EU has eliminated the use of Nonyl Phenol and its ethoxylate in most industrial and product sectors. Canada has implemented a pollution prevention plant to drastically reduce the use of NP/NPE. The US EPA plans to encourage voluntary phase of using NP/NPE in industrial laundry detergents.
In India this is not yet regulated.
Products that contain NP / NPE:
Used as a surfactant in shaving creams, detergents, dishwash, hair dyes, hair styling products and pesticides. It is difficult to ascertain if your brand contains this chemical as it is a feedstock chemical which is usually unlisted.
Pink could be the colour of happiness
But it is not in the case of beauty or consumer products. Our article discusses just 3 kinds of toxic chemicals that are commonly found in Indian homes today in their cleaning, skin or hair care products. The US FDA lists over 100,000 industrial chemicals in use today!
This blog cannot cover all these chemicals in depth, but what we will do is to look at products and ingredients that are extremely toxic to you and suggest alternatives. Children and their toxic exposure is a grave concern for us at Krya, and one of our posts will examine the products that we surround our children with today , their current toxic load and examine better alternatives.
Having read this post, you may be left with a deep feeling of “why”. Why do companies use these chemicals? Is it out of malice? Are they out to get us? Are they as unaware as we are? Our next post will look at common myths and facts when formulating household products. Hopefully some more answers will emerge there.
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.