NEW YORK NURSE: July/August 2008
Q.: As a nurse I take pride in the fact that I keep my family, myself, and my patients safe from harmful products. But lately it seems that almost everything is either toxic or unsafe! Why is that, and can you provide me with some helpful resources so I can be more informed and better able to make “safe” choices?
A.: Let’s begin by looking at why, in part, we do not have good information on product safety: Many people in the U.S. believe that if it is on the market, it must be safe. Recent news of toxic toys, dangerous cosmetics, and contaminated properties, along with reports that certain chemicals in everyday products may be responsible for some of the illnesses prevalent today have shaken that belief.
As an example, let’s take the cosmetics industry. The FDA is responsible for regulating the safety of cosmetics. The FDA regulates chemicals on a “risk assessment” basis. This is a process whereby they try to measure the harm caused by a specific hazard. It requires scientific proof of harm before it can recommend that the manufacturer use another chemical. In the meantime, the product is already on the market. The cosmetology industry uses more than 10,000 chemicals in its products and the FDA does not have the staffing to test all chemicals brought to market to scientific certainty. To solve this problem, it relies on the industry that depends on the market for it’s business to provide the data! To date, 89 percent of chemicals used in products already on the market have not been evaluated for safety.
Manufacturers point to the regulators as proof that the products on the market are safe. The EPA and OSHA regulate toxic exposures based on permissible exposure limits. However, the permissible exposure limits are mostly based on studies of healthy individuals or animal studies extrapolated to a human exposure. They set limits that should prevent acute toxic exposures. They do not consider cumulative effects of long-term, low dose exposures, nor do they consider combined exposures from multiple chemicals, nor do they account for cumulative exposures from multiple sources or exposures to compromised individuals! So, just because there is a standard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is protective of those exposed.
Here are some valuable resources where you can find out more about the safety of products and the problems with our current system that is supposed to protect us:
The nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which compiles available evidence in its Skin Deep searchable database, has a wealth of information about cosmetics.
Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition of 473 organizations in more than 50 countries, working to transform the healthcare sector so it is no longer a source of harm to people and the environment. An excellent resource for environmental health information.
The New York Public Interest Research Group is New York State’s largest non-profit research and advocacy organization primarily focused on environmental preservation, consumer protection, government reform, and public health issues.
The group focuses on how chemicals are regulated and marketed in New York. The goal is to transform chemical policy or shift market behavior in order to build a better movement for health and environmental justice in this state.
The NYSNA EGW Program receives many inquiries each month from members who have problems in their workplaces. If you have a question about labor relations at your facility, contact your NYSNA nursing representative. If you have a question you think should be featured in this column, send it to: RNs at Work, NYSNA, 120 Wall Street, 23rd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10005.