Three products demonstrate two different approaches to regulating chemicals.
True
Seventh Generation

Is it better to use precaution or to wait for proof?

That's a complex and contentious question in many ways — but especially when it comes to regulating chemicals.

In general, the European Union has taken a more public precautionary stance on these regulations, while the United States generally requires a stronger proof of harm to regulate or restrict chemicals.


In 2007, the 28 member nations of the European Union implemented a new screening system to regulate ingredients in cleaning products, food, cosmetics, and home goods. It’s a five-part program that essentially boils down to a "better safe than sorry" approach. In general, if scientific research shows that a product may be harmful to humans, animals, or the environment, the EU doesn’t allow it.

In Europe, peer-reviewed science is a tasty part of every government's policy making.

In the U.S., the law governing chemicals is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. You read that right — the act hasn’t been updated for 40 years. The Environmental Protection Agency as well as many Americans would like to see it strengthened, but in the past it’s been, to put it mildly, difficult to get any updates passed.

For a chemical to be restricted or banned in the U.S., there has to be strong proof of harm. The EPA generally identifies potential risks after a chemical is at market. Testing of new chemicals isn’t required unless there’s believed to be a risk of harm, and even then, it’s rare for the EPA to outright ban a product.

So wait ... does this mean American products are less safe than their European counterparts? Not necessarily. Does it mean the European Union needs to lighten up? Again, not necessarily. Both approaches are complex, and it's no easy job for anyone to balance all of the interests at play.

Let's look at three examples that highlight the complexities of these regulations.

When a product contains formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, should it be restricted or get a warning?

Pictured: Formaldehyde. Image by iStock.

Formaldehyde, also known as the stuff your creepy ninth grade biology teacher used to preserve dead animal specimens, is one of the 61 chemical groups regulated/restricted by the European Union.

Aside from its Frankenstein-y uses, formaldehyde is also a popular ingredient in laminate floors, resin, industrial antibacterial cleaners, and chemical hair straighteners. Unfortunately, it is also a “probable human carcinogen” (according to the EPA). Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde fumes can also exacerbate asthma and cause headaches, among other health effects.

Since 2014, the European Union has used its carcinogenic risk as a reason to strongly restrict the use of formaldehyde in industrial and consumer products.

The U.S. EPA limits the amount of formaldehyde that can be present in some construction materials, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't restrict the use of formaldehyde-releasers, or "donors," in cosmetics or personal care products because these may not be harmful.

What the FDA does instead is require all cosmetic or personal care products that contain formaldehyde (or formaldehyde-releasing chemicals like those in Brazilian blowout hair treatments) to disclose that information on their ingredient labels. Consumers can find out the risks associated with a specific product and make the decision themselves whether to use it or not.

Under regulations from the United States Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), industrial cleaning products that include formaldehyde are required to state so clearly on the label, along with the possible risks of use.

Is the buzz about neonicotinoids killing bees for real? The EU isn't waiting to find out.

Image by iStock.

The global food system depends on our insect pals, the bees, helping plants pollinate. When scientific research started to indicate that popular neonicotinoid (aka neonic) insecticides could be causing bee colonies to die off in record numbers, the European Union took action.

In 2013, it set in place a temporary two-year ban on the pesticide (not completely observed in the U.K.) to allow researchers more time to study impacts and make a decision on whether the ban should be made permanent.

While further decisions from the European Union are still pending, French lawmakers recently adopted a bill that would ban neonics in their nation starting in 2018 if it passes votes in their Senate and National Assembly later this year.

In the United States, regulators are taking a wait-and-see approach. The EPA has approved several neonicotinoid pesticides for use in the U.S.

Though there appears to be growing consensus that bees are exposed to neonics and some harm is caused to them, it’s not yet known if neonics are responsible for significantly damaging honeybee populations. The EPA says it is spending 2016 and 2017 compiling research on four popular neonics, promising to review regulations once that work is done.

In the interim, the EPA requires that all pesticides sold and used in the United States list all ingredients — along with associated risks to humans or animals and recommendations for safe storage/accidental exposure — on their product label.

Triclosan: the antibacterial cleaner banned in Europe. And Minnesota.

Image by iStock.

If you've used antibacterial soap any time over the last decade, chances are you've come in contact with triclosan. This popular antibacterial and antifungal chemical is most commonly found in hospitals, but it has also been used in everything from dish soap to toothpaste to children's toys.

It is extremely effective, but science shows it's also pervasive — research shows it sticks around in the environment long after we've finished using it, and scientists have observed that it can kill helpful algae while accumulating in the bodies of other organisms, including earthworms and even dolphins.

Because there's still so much unknown about triclosan, the European Union banned its use as a personal care product on Jan. 1 this year.

In the U.S, both the FDA and the EPA require products that contain triclosan as an active ingredient to disclose that on the label. As for its other potential health risks, the FDA's stance is that "FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time." It does note, though, that "several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review."

In 2010 the Natural Resource Defense Council sued the EPA for inaction on regulating triclosan. It has been under review since 2013, except in Minnesota where a 2014 law has banned its use beginning Jan. 1, 2017.

While government agencies in America study whether certain chemicals should be banned or restricted, some companies are making voluntary updates to their ingredients.

In 2013, Procter & Gamble announced it would be removing triclosan from most of its products by the end of 2014. Many garden supply companies and retailers are voluntarily phasing out neonics.

Rather than wait for regulations to catch up, they are being proactive and transparent — something that's always comforting to see from the products we trust with our health and our homes.

While there are pros and cons to both precaution and waiting for definitive proof, there's one thing we know for sure: Basing decisions on good, thorough, peer-reviewed science, and continuously reviewing the guidelines that govern chemical regulation, is never a bad idea — no matter how long it takes to get there.

True

Anne Hebert, a marketing writer living in Austin, TX, jokes that her closest friends think that her hobby is "low-key harassment for social good". She authors a website devoted entirely to People Doing Good Things. She's hosted a yearly canned food drive with up to 150 people stopping by to donate, resulting in hundreds of pounds of donations to take to the food bank for the past decade.

"I try to share info in a positive way that gives people hope and makes them aware of solutions or things they can do to try to make the world a little better," she said.

For now, she's encouraging people through a barrage of persistent, informative, and entertaining emails with one goal in mind: getting people to VOTE. The thing about emailing people and talking about politics, according to Hebert, is to catch their attention—which is how lice got involved.

"When my kids were in elementary school, I was class parent for a year, which meant I had to send the emails to the other parents. As I've learned over the years, a good intro will trick your audience into reading the rest of the email. In fact, another parent told me that my emails always stood out, especially the one that started: 'We need volunteers for the Valentine's Party...oh, and LICE.'"

Hebert isn't working with a specific organization. She is simply trying to motivate others to find ways to plug in to help get out the vote.

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

Keep Reading Show less

Part of the problem with debating abortion legislation is that there is no clear definition of what it even is. Some might say it's the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, but sometimes a pregnancy that ends in abortion was very much wanted. Some might say it's the killing of a baby in the womb, but plenty of abortions take place after a baby has already died in utero.

Merriam-Webster defines abortion as "the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus"—a definition that points to the following heartbreaking story and the reason why abortion is not as cut and dry an issue as many make it out to be.

Haylie Grammer shared her family's experience with "late-term abortion" in the death of her daughter, Embree, at 25 weeks, and it illustrates how abortion can look very, very different than what people imagine it to be.

Grammer wrote:

Keep Reading Show less
Courtesy of FIELDTRIP
True

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected diverse communities due largely in part to social factors such as inadequate access to housing, income, dietary options, education and employment — all of which have been shown to affect people's physical health.

Recognizing that inequity, Harlem-based chef JJ Johnson sought out to help his community maximize its health during the pandemic — one grain at a time.

Johnson manages FIELDTRIP, a health-focused restaurant that strives to bring people together through the celebration of rice, a grain found in cuisines of countless cultures.

"It was very important for me to show the world that places like Harlem want access to more health-conscious foods," Johnson said. "The people who live in Harlem should have the option to eat fresh, locally farmed and delicious food that other communities have access to."

Lack of education and access to those healthy food options is a primary driver of why 31% of adults in Harlem are struggling with obesity — the highest rate of any neighborhood in New York City and 7% higher than the average adult obesity rate across the five boroughs.

Obesity increases risk for heart disease or diabetes, which in turn leaves Harlem's residents — who are 76% Black or LatinX — at heightened risk for complications with COVID-19.

Keep Reading Show less

Most of us had one of those neighbors growing up—the one who gave us the stink eye if we so much as looked at their perfectly mowed lawn and shooed us away if even our shadows crept onto their flower beds. There's a reason "Get off my lawn!" was a meme before memes were even a thing.

Then there are neighbors who rock. The ones who smile and wave through the window and share their fresh-baked cookies with the neighborhood kids. The folks who genuinely enjoy the vibrant energy that children bring to the block and embrace the idea of "it takes a village."

When one of the guys behind Canyon Chasers, a motorcycle enthusiast website, shared a video of how he handled a kid who kept playing in his driveway when he wasn't home, it wasn't clear at first which kind of neighbor he was going to be. But then he explains how his security footage showed a preschooler riding his bike around his flat concrete driveway every evening, and how he decided to do something about it.

Keep Reading Show less

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended education in every way imaginable. While it's great that modern technology allows us to attend classes through Zoom or Google Meets, it's just not the same as in-person interaction.

It's also tough to recreate the camaraderie that can develop in a classroom.

The impenetrable distance that exists between teachers and students in the COVID-19 era was bridged recently when a group of students came together to tell their professor how much he really means to them.

Keep Reading Show less