Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Know if a Product is Safe

People often ask me about the safety or toxicity of various products. Sometimes I know the answer and sometimes I don't. It isn't easy to keep up with the barrage of new offerings continually entering the marketplace, and since formulations change constantly, even a product that was safe one week may not be so the next.

It's important for consumers to be aware of the chemical safety of the products they use, but manufacturers certainly don't make that task easy. There are large loopholes in labeling laws, and a great deal of marketing hype that is often difficult to decipher. Manufacturers have responded to the rising demand for safer products in varying ways. Some have introduced less toxic products into their consumer lines (while generally continuing to sell their toxic standard-bearers) and others have simply re-branded products as "all-natural," "non-toxic," or "green." These terms are used indiscriminately and have very little meaning. Consumer Reports' Greener Choices website has a helpful label search function which notes, for example, that the "non-toxic" label is not meaningful, verified, consistent, or free from conflict of interest.

The term "green" is especially problematic. A green product is purported to be better for the environment than standard fare, but better for the environment does not necessarily mean better for human health. Recycling a toxic product, for example, does not make it less toxic. People who are chemically sensitive often call themselves "canaries" after the birds that miners once took with them to warn of harmful gases. Perhaps we should adopt the color of the canary as a new standard and look for products that are not just green, but also yellow, or safe for human use.

Although it is difficult to get all the information needed to make truly informed product choices, there are some general rules of thumb. Products purchased at health food stores or from companies that cater to the health-conscious are generally safer than products purchased at major retail outlets, although there may be exceptions. There are also websites that help provide information and there are clues to toxicity even on imperfect labels. Reading labels is important and it is wise to note the following warnings or listed ingredients:

  • Fragrance - Products do not have to have any odor at all to be toxic (carbon monoxide, for example, is both odorless and deadly), but synthetic fragrances are almost always problematic. (For more information, see the previous post entitled Fragrance Facts.) Heavy fragrances are often added to a product to cover the odor of other objectionable chemicals. I've recently begun seeing the word "aroma" in ingredient lists and assume it is simply another term for synthetic fragrance. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know.

  • Keep out of reach of children - A product containing this warning is obviously hazardous to some degree, and is likely to be harmful for adults as well.

  • Use in a well ventilated area  - Abundant ventilation is always a good idea, but seeing the advice on a product label may indicate that another product is a safer choice.

  • Wash hands well after using - Obviously, washing hands frequently is a good idea for many reasons, but seeing the advice on a product label may mean that the product contains toxic chemicals likely to be absorbed through the skin.

The following websites are helpful (though sometimes hard to navigate) resources for evaluating aspects of safety for certain products:

  • evaluates the safety of products in many categories, including children’s goods, pets, cars, and apparel.

  • The Household Products Database is offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and  provides health and safety information on household products of many kinds, including yard, home maintenance, auto, home office, and arts and crafts.

  • Skin Deep is a searchable safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products.

Making informed product choices is more challenging that it needs to be, but it isn't impossible. Sometimes a quick internet search using the product name and the word "toxic" is all that is needed to obtain good information. A search for "non-toxic alternatives to . . ." can also yield helpful results at times. No matter the inconvenience, educating ourselves about product toxicity and making safer choices is worth the effort. The seemingly small choices we make in the products we use can have profound and life-altering consequences, not only for ourselves, but also for those around us. Let's value our health and the health of those who share the air enough to take this issue seriously.

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