What do climate-science deniers and “spin doctors” who attack environmental health protections have in common?  They’re like moths to the flame of an activist victory for safer products. Ever since my organization succeeded in pressuring Johnson & Johnson to get carcinogens out of its baby products,   the “boys who know best” are coming round to tell us not to worry our pretty little heads about cancer-causing chemicals in baby shampoo.

David Ropeik wins the prize for paternalistic, condescending framing in his Scientific American blog: “Warning! Health Hazards May be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Ropeik warns that “frightened, worried, scared, concerned” moms are at greater risk of stress-related illnesses (irritable bowel syndrome, clinical depression) than babies are at risk from getting cancer from formaldehyde in the bathtub; as if the only choice here is between soaking kids in toxic substances or making mothers sick with worry.

How about if America’s “most-trusted brand” just gets the carcinogens out of baby shampoo? And hey, guess what, Johnson & Johnson has already done that in other countries, where they have better laws, just not here! That’s the kind of thing that really makes moms sick to their stomachs.

Ropeik is described in the article as an instructor at Harvard Extension School, but there’s no mention of his role as a “risk communications” expert; one of those people who gets hired to help corporations spin themselves out of trouble – and spin he has, for clients that include Dow Chemical, DuPont and others working against environmental health protections.

Ropeik may want to pay more attention to the science than the talking points if he’s going to write for Scientific American. The concern about quaternium-15 isn’t just that it emits formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen); dermatologists have been warning for years that the chemical is contributing to higher rates of contact dermatitis.

This sort of detail doesn’t fit with the “how dare you worry moms about chemicals” narrative of folks like Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, who used the space so generously provided him by the Montreal Gazette to make the “Case to Keep Chemical Soup in Baby’s Soap.”

Schwarcz was keynote speaker for this year’s meeting of the Personal Care Products Council (which counts Johnson & Johnson among its members), and is also a consultant for industry who, as described in his bio, “interprets science” for the public.

Joe, I urge you to try out your 2 cubic meter theory on the nearest mom, and ask her if she wouldn’t just rather that her baby’s shampoo contained no formaldehyde at all.

At least Schwarcz admits it’s time to get formaldehyde out of Brazilian Blowout hair straighteners. A recent attack report by the better known and notorious industry front group Competitive Enterprises Institute — leading opponents of the overwhelming science on climate change — starts off on a dubious foot by claiming that the Brazilian Blowout problem was “quickly resolved” (except that it’s still not resolved). And that’s not the only detail in the report that’s opposite of true.

Ah well, consider the source: a group with funding ties to Exxon, Texaco and the Koch family foundation…

As Nicole Abene points out in “Industry-Funded Watchdog Group Says Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics Are Good for You, ” the authors of the report attacking the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are the same folks who produced a TV commercial advocating for increased carbon-dioxide emissions because it’s “what plants breathe in.”

Following the logic of the chemical industry talking points, a little bit of carcinogen on the head might be just what the baby really needs.

And for moms who disagree, well, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that: We’re winning! Companies are responding to our demands and cleaning up their products, and it isn’t even all that hard for them to do.

As Abene writes, “It was only under significant public pressure that Johnson & Johnson agreed to no longer introduce new products with formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. No one was asking Johnson & Johnson to pull a hat trick—a safer alternative was already available and in production, so why the double standard?”

Here’s hoping the Corporations of America get it that it’s time to invest in a toxic-free future and give the spin doctors a rest.

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10 Responses to “”

  1. linda Says:

    Thank you!

  2. Sandra Says:

    Well put Stacy. As a mom (albeit an older mom whose kids are mostly grown now) it offends my sensibilities that he would take that approach. Fact is, all the moms I know would rather sacrifice their own health than the health of their child. When you’re a mom, you would rather it was you that was ill than your child… it’s part of what makes us who we are. If I have to choose whether to be ‘sick with worry’ or be ‘well with ignorance’ at the expense of my child, I will choose to be sick with worry.

    That point aside, his comments really only show his own ignorance. I’m smart enough to know that a tiny exposure to a carcinogen may not cause cancer, but that it’s the accumulated exposure that will do us in. If each company only contaminates us a little… are we supposed to then decide to use only one product? And here’s where I love to throw in my ‘brownie’ example. Say I make brownies and I choose to throw in a wee bit of dog poo as an ingredient. Sure, I don’t *have* to use that ingredient, but I choose to and frankly… it’s such a small amount it’s not going to harm anyone. No problem, right? Well we’re having a potluck, and guess what… everyone I know also throws in a wee bit of dog poo into their dishes. By the end of the meal, would he not consider how much dog poo he’d consumed? But… don’t worry his silly little head about it… after all, the stress of worrying about that is probably way worse than any ill health he might suffer from all the dog poo he’s consumed that day.

    “As Abene writes, “It was only under significant public pressure that Johnson & Johnson agreed to no longer introduce new products with formaldehyde-releasing ingredients.”

    Absolutely. Pressure is the trick. I vote for more of it, and to widen the scope of who we (all) apply pressure to. Thanks for the role you play in this!

  3. Kimberly Rose Smith Says:

    that’s disgusting! Ropeik stops short of calling us hysterical little women… how nice.
    Shouldn’t we demand some equal space in this media?
    With 1 in 3 Americans getting cancer… it’s time to call a spade a spade – and an epidemic.

  4. Dona yancey Says:

    It says it all when we know countries with more strict laws are able to get the chemicals out of their body care products.
    I agree with Sandra, we have to do it by putting public pressure. I boycott all those products with chemicals, and buy only chemical free shampoos, lotions, as well as cleaning products and foods. Makes me feel good, but I know this is not enough. I look for petitions to sign, inform friends, and any other suggestions!?

  5. Colin Says:

    Just a few easily checkable facts. Both old and new Johnsons Baby Shampoos formulations are completely legal in both the EU and the US. It is clearly not the case that the change in formulations has anything to do with regulations. It is also pretty clearly not a victory for a US based pressure group either, or the change would have been made in the US first.

    I don’t know why J&J have chosen to make this particular change right now. It may have been due to pressure from consumers, but I can think of other reasons that are just as plausible.

  6. Stacy Malkan Says:

    Colin, Not quite. Formaldehyde releasing preservatives are banned from cosmetics in Sweden and Japan. Also, French authorities have recently proposed that the European Union reclassify formaldehyde with a stricter designation as carcinogenic to humans, which could change the way formaldehyde is regulated in cosmetics. It seems that Johnson & Johnson made the decision to formulate its baby shampoo to the highest standards in the region. The U.S., as usual, is far behind what other countries are doing in terms of chemical and cosmetic safety.

  7. Colin Says:

    Stacy, I am not sure you have any of that right. Sweden is a member of the EU and so has exactly the same cosmetic regulations. I confess that I don’t know Japanese regulations very well, but at least one formaldehyde donor is positively listed in Japan. Japan does not permit formaldehyde itself but it defines the test to be used. That test would not detect formaldehyde in Johnson’s Baby shampoo with the old preservative, so it would be considered formaldehyde free in Japan. Not many tests would come to that. The level would be way way lower than you would find in say an apple. I really think that even the calculations in that Scientific American article vastly overstate how much formaldehyde you would actually find if you looked for it. It really is a non-issue.

  8. Stacy Malkan Says:

    Colin, Take a closer look and you will see that I do have it right. EU countries are required to follow the EU Cosmetics Directive, yes, but they are also allowed to have their own stricter regulations (obviously). That’s the case in Sweden, where they do not allow formaldehyde releasing preservatives in cosmetics. Similarly, triclosan is not allowed in Sweden. Johnson & Johnson fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Sweden for their “right” to put triclosan in bandage wraps (as if putting pesticides on open wounds is a good idea); J&J lost that case. RE: Japan, for whatever reason, and my guess is to be on the safe side of the stricter regulations, Johnson & Johnson does not use formaldehyde-releasing preservatives there.

  9. Rachael Says:

    I have heard the “stress causing more health problems than the chemicals” defense from people before. This comes from people who are in denial or who are just afraid of change…and also people who just don’t want to face the facts that our government and big cosmetics/pharmaceutical companies just don’t have the health and safety of the American people as their top priority. In essence, it is really just another excuse to not do the right thing.

  10. world clock Says:

    Not Just A Pretty Face » Blog Archive » Corporations: Invest in Safer Products, Not Spin Doctors! – just great!

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