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Group Wins Lawsuit Against Personal Care Cos. To Remove Cancer Causing Ingredient

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) has finalized settlement agreements with 14 personal care companies, including Colgate-Palmolive Co., Avlon Industries Inc., and House of Cheatham Inc., to remove a chemical called cocamide DEA from their products in California. The settlements are expected to have national implications.

Graphic courtesy of ameliebeaute.com.

Cocamide DEA is a synthetic chemical made by a reaction between coconut oils and diethanolamine.  The chemical is frequently used in shampoos, soaps, bubble baths, and shower gels as a foaming agent, and as a thickener, says the CEH, which has also found it in shaving creams and some dishwashing detergents.

The concern is that the chemical is a possible human carcinogen and is known to cause cancer in lab animals.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) tested the chemical by applying it to the skins of 100 mice, for five-days-a-week for two years, which resulted in a high incidence of tumors forming on their kidneys and livers.

The IARC said that the increased incidence in mice was “associated with the high level of free diethanolamine that was present in the solutions.”

In addition, the Environmental Working Group said there is strong evidence that the chemical can trigger skin allergies.

The CEH used California’s Prop 65, also called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, as a pretext for its litigation. As the CEH explained, the law requires businesses to warn California consumers if their products will expose them to “significant amounts of toxic chemicals.”

The law covers two types of toxic chemicals: those that cause cancer and those that cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. California’s governor is charged with maintaining a list of these toxic chemicals, which is updated at least annually.

In 2012, cocamide DEA was identified by California as a cancer-causing chemical. The CEH explained that under Prop 65, businesses were given a one-year grace period, after which they would be required to either warn their customers about the presence of the chemical or remove it from their products.

Beginning last summer, the CEH began an investigation in which it purchased hundreds of shampoos and other products from major national stores around California and from online retailers. The group looked for products than contained cocamide DEA without any warning labels, which is a violation of Prop 65.

The investigation resulted in the CEH initiating litigation against over 150 companies which either make or sell the violating products.

The products found in violation of the law ranged from expensive to discount brands of personal care products for both children and adults across ethnicities.

Last month in California, the Alameda County Superior Court approved the first 14 consent judgments resulting from the litigation, with the companies agreeing to stop using cocamide DEA in their products.

 “While our litigation is binding only in California, we expect the companies will stop making and selling the products with cocamide DEA nationwide. Given the size of the California market and the nationwide demand for safer products, it is usually neither cost-effective nor consumer-friendly for companies to use safer ingredients in California only,” said the CEH.

The group added that it expects the court to approve more pending legal agreements with 12 other companies this month, as it continues ongoing cases with over 100 other companies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t currently have the authority to prohibit legal chemicals (even if they are considered cancer causing) as long as they are properly labeled on product packaging.

The FDA explains that, “Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives.” The agency says it only has the power to prohibit “the marketing of adulterated or misbranded cosmetics in interstate commerce.”

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics complains that the FDA “has very limited authority under the law,” which both prohibits it from requiring cosmetics companies to conduct premarket safety assessments and can’t require product recalls in these matters.

“The law has left the industry virtually self-regulated and resulted in cancer-causing chemicals in baby shampoos and hormone disrupting substances in fragrances, among other cosmetics health hazards,” adds the group.

The CEH and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have been urging Congress to pass updated rules, including proposing the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013.

The proposed law is designed to expand existing federal regulations, including giving the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) the power to establish increased labeling requirements. This would require brand owners to submit to the Secretary safety data for ingredients listed on the cosmetics labels, which would be published in a database.

The law would also require manufacturers to “provide a reasonable certainty” that their products and their ingredients are safe, and that there are no “known or anticipated adverse health effects associated with the cosmetics or ingredient(s).”

In addition, the law would establish an Interagency Council on Cosmetic Safety, and require brand owners to report “any serious adverse events associated with [their] cosmetics.”

Unfortunately, right now the bill is stuck in committee with little hope of moving past. To help consumers make safer and healthier choices in choosing cosmetics in light of lacking regulations, the Breast Cancer Fund makes several recommendations. Among them are:

  • Avoid Fragrances – They can contain dozens, even hundreds of chemicals, including hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic musks, and ethylene oxide.

The Breast Cancer Fund says, “Fragrance manufacturers claim their formulas are confidential business information. So, until we change the law so consumers have the right to know what’s in our products, it’s best to avoid synthetic fragrances and opt for products that are fragrance-free or contain natural fragrances like essential oils.”

  • Beware of Empty Organic & Natural Claims – Read labels for specific information on a product’s ingredients, rather than relying on claims like organic or natural. A USDA-certified organic seal means that 95 percent or more of the ingredients in a product are organic.

The Breast Cancer Fund warns that, “A claim of ‘made with organic ingredients’ or ‘made with natural ingredients’ still leaves plenty of room for harmful synthetics.”

  • Read the Labels to Avoid Synthetic Ingredients – The Breast Cancer Fund says to look for good words that you’ve heard before including aloe and lavender. Avoid bad words that you can’t even pronounce, including chemical-sounding words like imidazolidiny urea; parabens or any words ending in ‘-paraben’; ‘PEG’ compounds and words ending in ‘-eth’; triclosan and triclocarban; triethanolamine (TEA); hydroquinone and oxybenzone.

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