Household products could be hiding toxic chemicals

"Natural" or "organic" doesn't always mean "safe"
Posted at 10:40 PM, Jan 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-18 18:11:02-05

Toxic chemicals could be in the products you use every day -- even if the labels say natural or organic.

Different products have different standards for what they are required to put on the label. Even if all the ingredients are on the bottle, it's hard to know what they mean or what they could do to your health.

We did some research and talked to the experts, starting with Milwaukee mother Cindy Lanman.

"We want to be healthy and we try to be environmentally conscious," Lanman said.

Lanman let the I-Team into her home to go through some of the items her family uses. While she explains she likes to buy products labeled "natural" and "cruelty-free," she says she doesn't usually look past those terms. 

"I never actually read the ingredient list. This is the first time," she said as the I-Team looked through the products in her home. "What are they anyway? Coca-medipropyl, hydroxi-sultane, like I don't know what that is."

After looking up some of the ingredients, the I-Team found chemicals linked to neurotoxicity, harmful irritation, damage to DNA and the potential for cancer. Even in products claiming to be natural or organic.

"[I] assumed that if it's made for your body it's OK," said Lanman.

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It's something many people assume. But in the United States there are only 11 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics. Canada has a hotlist of 800 banned or restricted chemicals and the European Union regulates more than 1,300 chemicals.

In the US, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetics before they go to market," according to their website.

"It has very weak authority to even institute a recall," explained Sonya Lunder from the Environmental Working Group. "Some of these fixes will only come through Congress."

The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit that creates product guides to help consumers. They comb through studies and regulations on chemicals used in personal and household items.

"Our mission is to help and interpret that new science, tell people about products that may be posing risks to their health and also make it easy for people to find alternatives," Lunder said.

She explained many of the chemicals, even in products labeled natural or organic, can cause allergic reactions. And some chemicals act like hormones in the body. But, she said the unknown causes the most concern.

"Something like fragrance that's in cleaning products or cosmetics could be a real mix of things," Lunder said. "It's really hard to pinpoint what the likely outcomes of these exposures are in people."

Even when companies list "fragrance" on their products, they don't have to say exactly what's in their fragrance.

That's one reason the FDA said it's hard for the agency to take action after a product is on the market. According to their website, "the burden is on FDA to prove that a particular product or ingredient is harmful when used as intended." 

The EWG pushes for companies to disclose everything they use in products so people, like Lanman, can make more informed decisions.

"Now I feel like I need to start over," said Lanman after we spoke to her.

Current law in the U.S. doesn't allow the FDA to step in until after a product is on the market. There are bills in Washington that would require companies to share information about ingredients with the FDA before they're sold. 

The Environmental Working Group offers several resources for consumers to check their products.

They have the Skin Deep Database, the Healthy Living App and a Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

The Personal Care Products Council issued the following statement: 

“Cosmetics and personal care products companies’ long-standing commitment to consumer safety makes these products one of the safest categories regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. U.S. federal law requires that manufacturers substantiate the safety of their products and the ingredients used in them before they are marketed. A commitment to safety and sound science is the industry’s cornerstone. Companies employ thousands of scientific experts and medical professionals to provide safe products that consumers trust and enjoy each day.”