Deadly Beauty, Nontoxic News and Corporate Conscience

Chris Murphy

Do major brand perfumes contain toxic chemicals?

—Sara Morris, Houston, TX

One rarely thinks of cosmetics as toxic substances. However, as author Kim Erickson writes in Drop-Dead Gorgeous, "Many of the poisons that pollute our environment—from dioxin to petrochemicals—can be found in the jars and bottles that line our bathroom shelves." While there has not yet been sufficient research to determine the full effect this might have on human health, the Environmental Protection Agency has already labeled as "hazardous" many common substances used by the mainstream cosmetic industry. Bryony Schwan, coordinator of the Coming Clean campaign, argues, "Chemicals that could potentially harm the development of babies don’t belong in products marketed to women." Erickson estimates fragrance-related chemical sensitivity to be a problem for 15 percent of the general population. Absorption of fragrance through the skin or inhalation may cause sneezing, migraines or even severe respiratory and neurological disturbances in sensitive people. The Coming Clean campaign is also raising the alarm about the use of phthalates in many cosmetics, since these chemicals have been linked to birth defects in animals. The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association maintains phthalate use "is no public health concern." Many companies, such as Erbaviva and Aveda, now offer alternative fragrances that contain no synthetic or petroleum-based chemicals.


Tel: (866) 823-1425

Coming Clean

—R.B. and C.L.

Do newspapers still contain dioxin, and is it safe to use papers in my garden?

—Karen Brewster, Cincinnati, OH

The chemical dioxin, which has drawn widespread concern since the late 1980s, is produced through a variety of industrial processes, including paper-making methods that use chlorine as a bleaching agent. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its 1994 three-volume Dioxin Reassessment, concluded that the chemical can have harmful effects on the immune, nervous and reproductive systems in humans, and can cause cancer. Since then, dioxin generation by the paper industry has been virtually eliminated in the United States by new bleaching technology, says the international, web-based Science Advisory Board. Daily newspapers are now made from thermo-mechanical paper, and are not toxic.

Award-winning garden writer Frances Tenenbaum says, "Newspaper, far from being a threat, will improve the soil in your garden." As mulch, says Tenenbaum, newspaper conserves more water than peat moss, and does not, like bark chips, deplete the soil of nitrogen. She suggests using about 10 sheets of newspaper, overlapping them to be sure no weeds can sneak through. Then, she says, top the newspapers with organic mulch, such as chopped leaves or compost.




How can I find out about a company’s philanthropic record?

—Emily Parker, San Francisco, CA

To find out about a specific company, start at the group’s website or call its headquarters. You may not know, for example, that Ford supported the now-defunct anti-environmental Global Climate Coalition. Denny’s Restaurant, however, is proud to be Save the Children’s largest corporate partner, and Johnson & Johnson donates annually to the International Pediatric Institute. Business owners have learned that "good corporate citizenship polishes a good name," says Don DeBolt, president of the International Franchise Association. The result has been a plethora of Corporate Community Investment (CCI) programs, in which thousands of companies donate millions of dollars in cash, services and merchandise.

Though CCI programs can be difficult to compare, there are good resources for consumers. The Charities Aid Foundation maintains the CCInetwork (, which offers links to hundreds of company philanthropy pages. The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance ( is another great resource. Also, for $65, you can purchase the annual report Giving USA from the American Association of Fundraising Council (AAFRC).


Tel: (800) 46-AAFRC


Chris Murphy