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Don’t Lick Your Lips

Is lead in lipstick okay?

In October 2007, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics caused a stir with its release of test results for 33 brands of lipstick that revealed that 61 percent of all those tested contained measurable levels of lead and that about a third of those 33 – bright red shades were the worst offenders – contained lead at levels above 0.1 ppm (parts per million), higher than the level of lead the U.S. FDA allows in candy. Release of the report prompted Senators Barabara Boxer, Diane Feinstein and John Kerry to request that the FDA conduct comparable tests. Some eighteen months later, the FDA has not released results of its testing but has responded with a Q&A on its website.

Of the many substances that go into – or end up in – consumer products that may produce adverse health effects, there is now little disagreement among medical experts that lead is toxic – particularly to children. So it may come as surprise to learn that the FDA has a recommended level for lead in candy, yet it does. This despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for children there “is no evidence of a threshold below which adverse effects are not experienced.” In other words, any amount of exposure, no matter how small, can have a negative impact.

Recent research also indicates that maternal exposure to minute amounts of lead may adversely impact a developing fetus, affecting neurological development and predisposing the exposed infant to future health risks. According to one study that investigated the impact of prenatal lead exposure on intellectual development, no amount appeared too small to have an adverse impact – effects that could be permanent – with a critical exposure window occurring around the 28th week of pregnancy.

Thus it seems small comfort that the FDA – that does not routinely test such products and has no set rules about lead in lipstick – has responded to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ study by saying, “it is not valid to compare the FDA-recommended level for lead in candy, a product intended for ingestion and which may be consumed on a regular basis, with lead levels in lipstick, a product intended for topical use and which is ingested in much smaller quantities than candy.”

The debate prompted by the lipstick study surfaced again this past week in a New York Times “Style” section story, “A Simple Smooch or a Toxic Smack?” To present a spectrum of views, the Times spoke to cosmetic industry representatives, medical doctors and researchers, the FDA, and environmental health advocates. To counter a Harvard Medical School researcher who cited the CDC view – that no level of lead exposure is safe – the piece quotes a senior doctor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston saying that lead has not been linked to cancer.

The problem with this effort at balance is that lead’s primary toxicity is to the nervous system and kidneys rather than as a carcinogen although the U.S. EPA, Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer all consider lead a possible or probable carcinogen. Mercury is also a potent neurotoxin with possible carcinogenic effects but would exposure to mercury be discounted in the absence of conclusive human cancer effects? In fact the FDA specifically restricts mercury in cosmetics although not 100 percent. Lead, however, is only addressed in detailed formulations of color additives - except for a substance called lead acetate that can be used in hair-dye. A scan through the FDA allowed formulations of color additives used in cosmetics reveals that a number – including reds permitted in lipstick – can contain up to 20 ppm of lead, along with 3 ppm of arsenic and 1 ppm of mercury.

I’m not opposed to cosmetics; I use them and happen to own several reddish lipsticks myself. The point is that when it comes to lead exposure, given the latest health science, it’s hard to discern how any lead in a product designed for the lips could be permissible. And given the well-documented possibility of manufacturing mishaps (and worse) why not err on the side of caution. These tiny amounts of lead will not kill anyone but wouldn’t it be better never to have to worry that the lipstick you used while pregnant might impair your child’s future?

Elizabeth Grossman, Contributing Writer, Earth Island Journal
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, Watershed: The Undamming of America, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, Earth Island Journal, and other publications.

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Thank you very much…

By Tarot on Sat, June 20, 2009 at 7:20 am

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