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Cosmetics & Household Cleaning Products: 'Endocrine Disruptor' Won't Be On Label

Though scientists, environmentalists and manufacturers probably will debate the dangers of chemicals in popular products for years to come, many consumers wonder what they can do today to make "greener" choices at the store.

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.

Because scents can be considered trade secrets, hundreds of ingredients can be lumped together under the heading of "fragrance." Some fragrances are made with endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, several of which are listed as reproductive or developmental toxins by California and have been banned in cosmetics by the European Union.

For household cleaners, companies must disclose certain active ingredients, or substances that the government considers "chemicals of known concern," Rangan says. But manufacturers don't need to list everything that they put in their products, Rangan says. Consumers may want to avoid products with a "danger" or "warning" label, which probably include stronger chemicals.

John Bailey, executive vice president for science at the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, says manufacturers have confidence in their products' safety. He says phthalates used in cosmetics have been extensively tested and pose no health risks.

The Environmental Working Group recommends that consumers adopt a "better safe than sorry" approach. The group says consumers may want to watch out for certain products and ingredients:

*Fragrance, which often is included in ingredient lists as a catch-all term for dozens of chemicals, including phthalates.

*Sunscreens, which may contain estrogen-like chemicals. Houlihan recommends that consumers choose sunscreens made with zinc or titanium, which don't appear to pose this threat.

*Sodium laurel/laureth sulfate, a surfactant that Houlihan says is often contaminated with the carcinogenic substance 1,4 dioxane.

Some potentially risky chemicals aren't listed on labels, Houlihan says, because they're found in packaging. Manufacturers use a hormone-like substance called bisphenol A to line metal cans and add flexibility to plastics, such as baby bottles made with polycarbonate plastic, says Stanford University pediatrician Alan Greene, author of Raising Baby Green.

Although manufacturers say bisphenol A is safe and there are no human studies showing it poses a threat, tests in animals have linked the chemical to early puberty and cancer. Greene recommends avoiding plastics with certain recycling codes: #7 may include bisphenol A, and #3 may contain phthalates. Plastics with recycling codes 1, 2 and 5 are safer, he says...

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