Week of 10/8/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any environmental or human health risks to using nail polish?

—Deborah Lynn, Milford, CT

Conventional nail polishes dispensed at most drugstores and nail salons contain a veritable witch's brew of chemicals, including toluene, which has been linked to a wide range of health issues from simple headaches and eye, ear, nose and throat irritation to nervous system disorders and damage to the liver and kidneys.

Another common yet toxic ingredient in conventional nail polish is a chemical plasticizer known as dibutyl phthalate (DBP). According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research and advocacy organization that campaigns to educate consumers about the health risks of cosmetics, studies have linked DBP to underdeveloped genitals and other reproductive system problems in newborn boys.

As such, DBP is banned from cosmetics in the European Union but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has taken no such action, even though a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found DBP and other toxic phthalates in the bloodstreams of every person they tested. Further, five percent of women tested who were of childbearing age (ages 20-40) had up to 45 times more of the chemicals in their bodies than researchers had expected to find.

EWG attributes the prevalence of DBP in young women to widespread use of nail polish. "Women of childbearing age should avoid all exposure to DBP when they're considering becoming pregnant, when they're pregnant, or when they're nursing," says Jane Houlihan, EWG's Vice President for Research.

Luckily, safer nail polishes do exist and are readily available at natural health and beauty supply stores as well as from online outlets such as Natural Solutions and Infinite Health Resources. These products, from such makers as Honeybee Gardens, PeaceKeeper, Jerrie, Visage Naturel and Sante, rely on naturally occurring minerals and plant extracts to beautify nails without the need for toxic ingredients.

Major nail polish manufacturers are also now getting in on the act. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of organizations that includes EWG and the Breast Cancer Fund, Avon, Estee Lauder, Revlon and L"Oreal confirmed last year that they would begin removing DBP from products. And leading drugstore brand Sally Hansen has said it is reformulating all of its products to remove DBP and toluene as well as formaldehyde, which is also known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.

Exposure to toxic chemicals is not the only health concern associated with nail salons, where nail fungus and bacteria can lurk on the underside of any emery board. Women's health advocate Tracee Cornforth suggests checking out a salon for cleanliness before signing up for services. She also says to make sure attendants disinfect all tools and equipment between customers, and even recommends bringing in one's own manicure or pedicure kit so as to minimize the transmission of any unsightly or painful maladies.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org; Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.SafeCosmetics.org; Natural Solutions, www.bewellstaywell.com; Infinite Health Resources, www.infinitehealthresources.com.


Dear EarthTalk: I read a disturbing report recently that the long-banned pesticide, DDT, was being used in Mozambique to combat malaria. Malaria is a killer, but isn't a return to DDT even scarier?

—Graeme Campbell, South Africa

Much of the developed world banned the use of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) within about 10 years of the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring." Carson's book, which is credited by many as having spurred the creation of the modern environmental movement, documented the ecosystem damage caused by DDT crop spraying throughout the United States and linked the pesticide's use to the disappearance of songbirds and raptors.

Health officials at the time also linked DDT exposure to nerve damage in humans, and blamed DDT for causing cancer in people who had applied it recklessly. Today, because of widespread indiscriminate use up through the 1960s, most people have traces of DDT in their bodies. DDT has since become increasingly associated with childhood developmental problems, according to the organization, Beyond Pesticides (BP).

Today, two dozen countries—including Mozambique and nine other African nations—permit the use of small amounts of DDT for controlling specific insect-borne diseases, including malaria. Malaria kills one million people, including 800,000 African children, every year. Dr. Arata Kochi, leader of the World Health Organization's (WHO"s) global malaria program, strongly advocates using DDT to fight malaria, claiming that it poses little or no health risk when sprayed in small amounts on the inner walls of people's homes.

"Indoor residual spraying is useful to quickly reduce the number of infections caused by malaria-carrying mosquitoes
and presents no health risk when used properly," agrees Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO's assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Asamoa-Baah insists that DDT's public health benefits far outweigh its risks.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, disagrees and advocates for techniques that do not rely on pesticides like DDT. "The international community has a social responsibility to reject the use of this chemical and to practice sound and safe pest management practices," he says. Feldman cites a recent study showing South African women living in DDT-treated dwellings to have 77 times the internationally accepted limit of the chemical in their breast milk. Researchers postulate that large amounts of DDT may have contaminated drinking water, exposing entire villages. "This highlights why no society can be unconcerned with DDT's impact" on health and the worldwide ecosystem, Feldman says.

Feldman is calling for alternative strategies for disease control, including addressing the conditions of poverty that lead to mosquito breeding. We should "no longer treat poverty and development with poisonous band-aids, but join together to address the root causes of insect-borne disease, because the chemical-dependent alternatives are ultimately deadly for everyone," says Feldman.

CONTACTS: Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org; World Health Organization Malaria Information, www.who.int/topics/malaria/en.