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Mae Wu’s Blog

Dateline TV Producer Tested for Chemicals - What She Finds Will Shock You!

Mae Wu

Posted March 25, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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Did you catch the Dateline episode yesterday? It was a great report – a real life look at some of the chemicals that we, in the NRDC Health program, have been working on for years. The producer Andrea Canning wanted to see how her daily behavior could affect the levels of bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and triclosan in her urine. First, she found her baseline numbers, which were around the national average. Then she tried to eliminate these chemicals from her daily use – ate fresh fruits and veggies, used unscented cosmetics, avoided antibacterial soap, and avoided plastic with the #7 recycling symbol. When she was tested again, her levels fell to almost zero. The next day, she tried to boost her numbers again by doing normal everyday things – microwaved her oatmeal in a plastic cup,had canned soup and vegetables for lunch and dinner, put on make-up with fragrance, drank a V-8 and a diet Coke in a can, washed her hands with Dial soap, and brushed her teeth with Colgate Total. The result? Her numbers spiked.

She also tested levels in her kids. Her 6 month old baby had levels of triclosan that were 10 times higher than the national average; her toddler had levels of triclosan that were 100 times higher than the national average. Presumably her baby isn’t washing her hands with antibacterial soap or brushing her teeth with Colgate Total. When I asked Andrea Canning (via twitter) where she thought the high levels of triclosan came from, she didn’t know.

Triclosan is a stupid use of a toxic chemical. As my colleagues Gina Solomon and I and have blogged before, antibacterial soap containing triclosan is neither safe nor effective.  (See our factsheet here and other materials here.)

But here's a little good news on triclosan. Last week, we got an important win in court on our lawsuit against FDA on triclosan. As my colleague Sarah Janssen explained, in 1978, the FDA proposed a rule that would have prohibited triclosan (and other chemicals) from being used in hand soaps because it was not shown to be safe or effective. But companies were allowed to keep selling soap containing triclosan until the rule was finalized. Fast forward 35 years: FDA still has not finalized the rule, and the antibacterial soap industry has exploded. NRDC sued FDA for its failure to protect the public health. The District Court in the Southern District of New York found that NRDC members who were exposed to triclosan soap at work could simply avoid triclosan by carrying soap in their pockets and dismissed the case. Fortunately, this week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court. This means that our case gets to continue and we may just finally get a final rule by FDA.

The news on BPA isn’t as good. Check out the science on BPA. We are all eating it when we eat or drink anything that comes out of a can. People are also likely being exposed from thermal paper receipts which are coated with BPA. The FDA did ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, but that was at the behest of the chemical industry. Tellingly, it only took FDA 9 months to agree to industry’s request. But public interest groups ask FDA to take steps to protect public health, the only response is silence.

In the meantime, in response to public’s demands, more and more manufacturers are moving away from BPA. Unfortunately, "BPA-free" doesn't necessarily mean safe. One of the most common replacements is BPS – a chemical cousin to BPA which is also estrogenic.This just highlights the fact that FDA is failing to identify and regulate sources of exposure to chemicals which have been identified as being harmful to human health.

And finally, phthalates: a new study finding phthalates in our food shows that even when you do the “right” thing, it is exceeding difficult to eliminate phthalate exposure. 

Hopefully, with last night’s coverage on Dateline, more people will be wary of all the chemicals we are being exposed to through our common everyday products. And they will see that the federal agency whose mission is to protect public health has done nothing to step in and help us. FIX FDA.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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