You may have seen toxic products in the news a lot lately – from cancer-causing benzene in dry shampoo to carcinogenic formaldehyde in hair straighteners and PFAS’ forever chemicals’ in school uniforms. Since the dry shampoo recall, dozens of injuries have been reported. These upsetting incidents highlight the disproportionate impact of toxic exposures on vulnerable and marginalized communities and the dire need for increased disclosure and transparency in our toxics laws.
This happens in three ways:
- Manufacturers don’t disclose ingredients
- Retailers don’t ensure product safety
- Government doesn’t test products for known hazards before they go on shelves
Let’s take a look at each of these issues and how we got here:
PFAS in school uniforms: no labelling, industry on the defensive
A recent study found elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in school uniforms in the US and Canada. This finding is significant because children who are required to wear uniforms are being exposed to these hazardous substances. Particularly the low-income kids who are required to wear uniforms by their schools. Our latest report on toxics in dollar store products reminds us that “PFAS exposure has been linked to endocrine disruption and other negative health outcomes including altered metabolism, decreased fertility, impaired fetal development, obesity, and weakened immune systems.”
The American Chemistry Council claims that PFAS is not a big deal, yet the science has demonstrated the legacy, and current contamination harms from these substances. These attempts to minimize these harms are just delaying the much-need regulatory action to tackle the problem.
Our recent study found PFAS in dollar store items, including in food packaging such as popcorn bags. Racialized and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to PFAS, and families in these communities can’t always buy their way out of these exposures. Because these substances aren’t labelled, parents and schools have no way of knowing what’s in these kids’ products. This is a serious gap in transparency, disclosure and a consumer’s “right to know.” People shouldn’t have to do their testing to know what products are safe.
Despite the toxicity and widespread use of PFAS, Canada’s toxics laws are not meaningfully dealing with this class of chemicals. Only two PFAS substances (PFOS, PFOA) have been regulated thus far. Thousands remain unassessed and are used in many products, from cookware to cosmetics and food packaging. Highly toxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals in items used daily are creating a toxic legacy for kids and all of us. Sadly, this is just another example of the failure of our toxics laws to protect us, particularly the most vulnerable.
There’s a class-based assessment underway to update our federal chemicals assessment and management tools to deal with PFAS as a class, not substance-by-substance. We hope to see a strong, precautionary decision coming out of that process soon. The US EPA just set a drinking water standard for PFAS where detection levels equal exceedance – and many systems are exceeding this limit.
Most action on PFAS as a class has been voluntary, with retailers like Patagonia committing to a phase-out. However, we cannot rely on voluntary measures to protect consumers. At a minimum, we need PFAS to be disclosed on product labels and mandatory regulatory action to ban the use of this toxic class of chemicals from our products altogether.
Carcinogens in chemical hair straighteners: weak oversight and disproportionate impacts on racialized women
Racialized women are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals in the cosmetic products they use daily. Products marketed to Black women and girls are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, uterine fibroids, early puberty, reproductive harm, and more. Most recently, the use of hair straighteners and other hair products has been linked to causing uterine cancer.
Black women purchase nine times more hair care products than any other demographic, and those who use chemical hair straighteners are 30 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer. Furthermore, 70 to 90 per cent of all breast cancers are related to environmental exposure. This staggering statistic points to the dire need for toxics law reform.
Benzene in dry shampoo: no product testing or transparency
Similar to the aerosol sunscreen and antiperspirant recalls last year, dry shampoo products are being pulled off the shelves because of benzene contamination. This highly-potent carcinogen was only discovered because of product testing by a third-party lab – even though benzene is a known contaminant of the butane and propane propellants found in these sprays.
Because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose these harmful substances, retailers are not held accountable, and governments aren’t doing enough to strengthen our laws, we’re getting flooded with all of these scary stories without a real remedy.
The common thread in all of the stories shared above is the need for a strengthened Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to better protect children, ecosystems and future generations from these hazards. At a minimum, we must have mandatory labelling of these substances. More importantly, we need to assess and manage the cumulative impact of these chemicals and get them out of our products.
Legislation to modernize CEPA is currently in the House of Commons as Bill S-5, and unfortunately, industry groups are fighting against any improvements to the bill. We are pushing back with allies and supportive MPs in the House of Commons, but we need your help to ensure that Parliamentarians know their constituents care deeply about this issue. You can send a letter and tell the government to increase transparency and better protect us from toxic exposures.
If a consumer product has harmed you or a loved one, you can report it to Health Canada’s Consumer and Hazardous Products Safety Directorate.