Precaution, Policy, and Profit: Exploring US Regulations for Chemicals

by Vivian Anigbogu

Chemicals are all around us—they are used to make our furniture fire-resistant, they are used to make our laundry detergent, and they even make up the interior coating of our old reusable water bottles! Since chemicals are so involved in our lives and come in so many forms, it is reasonable for us to believe these chemicals are safe and regulated—otherwise, why would their use be so widespread? Unfortunately, while some chemicals, like food preservatives, are actively monitored and regulated, other omnipresent chemicals are not monitored or banned until they cause someone to become very sick, or even die. Thus, this article will explore the inner-workings of the chemical regulation system by looking at the poor regulation of a chemically-derived ingredient commonly listed on household products: fragrance.

FDA & Fragrance

Fragrance. It’s listed in the ingredients of of soaps, lotions, candles, cleaning products and so much more. These products can be purchased by anyone; however, it is known that advertising for these products is disproportionately targeted towards women. Thus women—who are more likely to use various scented grooming products and household cleaners—are at a higher risk of exposure to the harmful chemicals put into these products.

While reading this one may ask, what exactly makes fragrance so harmful? Fragrance, as defined by the Environmental Working Group organization, “represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate,” that have been “associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.”1 Thus, while Gain laundry detergent and Bath & Body Works cupcake-scented body lotion simply list “fragrance” as the ingredient responsible for their scent, the clear difference between these products is due to a slew of different chemicals and not just a single ingredient.

How is this possible? Well, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed companies to list any combo of chemicals, added to products for the purpose of creating certain smells, simply under the title of “fragrance.” The FDA instated this rule in order to protect the fragrance industry from cases of fraud and replication of proprietary (trade-secret) fragrance recipes.2 Thus, corporations are allowed to hide additional chemicals they use—even if they are harmful or irritating—as long as they claim such chemicals are a part of their secret formula.

This raises the question: if the FDA is sponsoring efforts to hide the chemical formulations from the general public, do they screen these chemical recipes in order to equally protect the consumer? Unfortunately, corporations are more in control of the fragrance industry than the FDA. Ironically, the FDA states that “companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products,” thus fragrance products are not required to undergo testing or even have their safety information disclosed to the FDA.3 If another individual wanted to challenge the safety of any fragrance-filled product, they would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that such chemicals actually cause harm.

Other Models & the Future

Currently, United States follows an unpredictable model regarding fragrance and chemical safety—one that is based on producing profits first and asking questions later. Fortunately, some efforts have been made by the Obama Administration in order to curtail the harmful effects of future chemicals. In June of 2016, “the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act,” was added as an amendment to the “Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Nation’s primary chemicals management law.”4 Under this amendment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been given more funding and resources in order to evaluate new and existing chemicals, and disclose information about their potential harm to the general public. However, it is still unclear whether this law will prevent companies from hiding chemicals within their products, or if this law—and the EPA itself—will move forward under the Trump Administration.

Other countries have chosen to actively take on the issue of dangerous chemicals in fragrance and unequal chemical exposure by enforcing the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle bans the use of specific or related chemicals which have the potential to do harm later. This has led the European Union (EU) to ban thousands of chemicals from use as fragrance or use in other common products.5 The EU also has required that companies disclosure of any chemicals that “have been identified as an important cause of contact-allergy reactions,” or any other health issue on their ingredients list, so that consumers can choose whether or not they are exposed to such agents before buying the products.6 In the future, the United States should shift it its regulations to align more with the precautionary principle; however, it is up to the general public to become advocates for such changes, and up to politicians to respond to the voices of consumers, rather than the desires of major corporations.

Vivian Anigbogu is an undergraduate student majoring in Human Biology and Society and Public Health at UCLA. She was a member of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Group in 2016 and 2017.

  1. FRAGRANCE.” FRAGRANCE || Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2017; “Fragrance.” Safe Cosmetics. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, d. Web. 16 June 2017.
  2. Center for Food Safety and Applied “Ingredients – Fragrances in Cosmetics.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, n.d. Web. 16 June 2017.
  3. Center for Food Safety and Applied “Laws & Regulations – FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved, but Are FDA-Regulated.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, n.d. Web. 16 June 2017.
  4. “Summary of the Toxic Substances Control ” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 Dec. 2016. Web. 16 June 2017.
  5. “Banned in Europe, Safe in the US.” Ensia. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 June 2017. <https://ensia.com/features/banned-in-europe-safe-in-the-u-s/>.
  6. “EUR-Lex Access to European Union ” EUR-Lex – 32003L0015 – EN – EUR-Lex. EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL OF THE EUROPEAN UNION,, n.d. Web. 16 June 2017. <http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX%3A32003L0015>
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