Week of 5/21/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Not Too Pretty” campaign pertaining to the use of cosmetics?

—Lucy Balzary, Los Angeles, CA

The non-profit Environmental Working Group launched the Not Too Pretty campaign in 2002 to raise awareness about the dangers of phthalates, industrial chemicals that are used as solvents in many cosmetics. Most of the mainstream hair sprays, deodorants, nail polishes and perfumes that millions of people use every day contain these harmful chemicals. Phthalates are also employed as plastic softeners in many different consumer products, including children’s toys and medical devices.

Shown to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems in animal studies, phthalates can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Scientists at government agencies in both the U.S. and Canada agree that exposure to the chemicals could cause a wide range of health and reproductive problems in people.

Manufacturers use phthalates because they cling to the skin and nails to give perfumes, hair gels and nail polishes more staying power. But a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that five percent of women between age 20 and 40 had up to 45 times more phthalates in their bodies than researchers initially hypothesized. CDC found phthalates in virtually person tested, but the largest concentrations—20 times higher than the rest of the population—were found in women of child-bearing age. Meanwhile, another study, led by Dr. Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri, identified developmental abnormalities in male infants correlating to high phthalate levels in their mothers’ bodies.

Meanwhile, the industry-backed Phthalate Information Center asserts, “There is no reliable evidence that any phthalate has ever caused a health problem for a human from its intended use.” The group accuses organizations of “cherry picking” results “showing impacts on test animals to create unwarranted concern about these products.” But EWG spokesperson Lauren E. Sucher urges people—especially women who are pregnant, nursing or planning on becoming pregnant—to avoid phthalates. EWG offers free online access to its “Skin Deep” database, which lists lotions, creams and polishes that contain phthalates. Health experts encourage women to consult the database before shopping for beauty products.

A 2003 European Union directive bans phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe, but U.S. and Canadian regulators have not been so proactive, despite mounting evidence of potential harm. Health advocates were temporarily relieved when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would begin enforcing a 1975 law requiring labels on products with ingredients that haven’t been safety tested. But such labels remain to be seen, even though 99 percent of cosmetics contain one or more untested ingredients.

Those interested in adding their voices to the chorus of environmental and health advocates opposed to the inclusion of phthalates in cosmetics can submit a customizable pre-written letter to the FDA expressing their concern via EWG’s NotTooPretty.org website. The website also provides pages and pages of information and research on the issue for those looking to learn more.

CONTACTS: Not Too Pretty, www.NotTooPretty.org ; Skin Deep, www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep.

Dear EarthTalk: What is causing the bird flu? Could it really kill millions of people?

—Steve Schlemmer, Andover, MA

Bird flu is a viral infection naturally carried by wild birds, notably ducks that can infect other birds but not get sick themselves. Domestic poultry, however, are very susceptible to the disease and usually get sick and die once infected. Humans, in turn, can catch the disease through close contact with infected birds.

When the influenza strain H5N1 appeared in humans in Hong Kong in 1997 and spread quickly to Asia, Africa and Europe, it sent shockwaves throughout the healthcare profession. The spread of the disease was not sufficient to be considered a pandemic (an epidemic worldwide in scope), but it did infect over 200 people and kill about half of them. There have been no documented cases so far of H5N1 moving from human to human, but experts fear that the virus could mutate into a strain that can—and accordingly kill millions of people. It wouldn’t be the first time: Many scientists now believe that the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed 50 million people (including 675,000 Americans and 43,000 Canadians), started as bird flu.

Some researchers see habitat loss as a key factor in the unusual spread of the disease between wild and domestic birds. A recently released United Nations (U.N.) Environment Programme report found that loss of wetlands around the world has forced migrating wild birds onto stopping points along their way—such as rice paddies and farms—that are ordinarily the domicile of domestic chickens, ducks and geese, with whom they normally don’t mix. “Wetland depletion has direct implications for migrating wild birds,” says David Rapport, a professor at the University of Western Ontario and a lead researcher on the U.N. study. “Wetland habitat worldwide continues to decline, owing to agricultural expansion and urban development, resulting in fewer staging areas for wild migrating birds.”

Rapport warns that “heroic efforts” like mass culling are not likely to appreciably slow the spread of bird flu. The best hope, he says, is to increase habitat for wild birds and avoid siting large-scale poultry operations along migratory bird routes. Minimizing human contact with domestic poultry is also key, but this would be a tall order given the prevalence of poultry in the human diet. Also, in many parts of Asia, separating poultry from people would be at odds with cultural traditions.

Many North Americans may not realize that the bird flu virus has already arrived here. In November 2005 two wild ducks tested positive for H5N1 in Canada, although not the same dangerous strain that affected Southeast Asia. The virus was also found on a domestic duck in British Columbia shortly thereafter. While no infected birds have been documented in the U.S. yet, researchers say it’s only a matter of time.

Just last year U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said that a bird flu pandemic was an “absolute certainty,” echoing repeated warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO). A recently released White House report warns that, if there were to be an outbreak, the nation is unprepared and as many as two million people could die. Meanwhile, Canada has earned kudos from WHO, which is using its billion-dollar preparedness plan as a model for other countries to follow.

CONTACTS: Wildlife Trust, www.wildlifetrust.org/enter.cgi?p=news/2006/0101_1_avian.htm ; Health Canada Avian Flu (Bird Flu) Website, www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dc-ma/avia/index_e.html .