Oct 31, 2007

There's no standard, enforceable definition of a "non-toxic" or "environmentally friendly" household cleaner,


Unfortunately, experts say, deciphering the labels of personal and household products isn't as simple as selecting organic produce. There's no standard, enforceable definition of a "non-toxic" or "environmentally friendly" household cleaner, says Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union. Such terms don't provide consumers with any real guarantees about products' ingredients, she says.

There's no real standard for "natural" or "organic" cosmetics, either, says Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that cosmetics companies test their products for safety so consumers don't develop a rash or eye infection. But it doesn't require companies to study whether products contain chemicals such as endocrine disruptors.

These chemicals — which include preservatives called parabens that are found in many shampoos and conditioners — act like hormones and are linked to reproductive and development problems in infants, Houlihan says.



For chemicals that alter the hormone system, the timing of exposure is critical, says Richard Jirtle, a professor at Duke University Medical Center.

His work suggests that endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A, or BPA, may affect developing offspring in the earliest days of pregnancy.

In an experiment published in July in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jirtle found that feeding BPA to female mice changed the color of their babies' coats. BPA caused more than cosmetic changes. In this breed, brown mice grow up with healthy weights, while those with yellow coats grow up to be obese, with a higher susceptibility to cancer and diabetes.

In Jirtle's experiment, mothers fed BPA before, during and after pregnancy had twice as many yellow babies - which made up 21% of their litters - as mothers who weren't fed the chemicals.

In humans, endocrine disruptors are of most concern during critical windows of vulnerability, especially the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

The good news for moms-to-be is that, unlike toxins such as mercury and lead, which can remain in the body for years, these chemicals don't stick around. Tracey Woodruff, an obstetrician at the University of California-San Francisco, says because it won't be stored in bone or fat as some chemicals are, BPA quickly exits the body in urine.

By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY