Until labels declaring foods and other products free from dangerous chemicals are based on unequivocal science, they offer little more than confusion
The introduction of ecolabels, seals and green lists and guides has prompted major changes in industry and consumer buying practices. What progress has been made in addressing consumer concerns about chemicals in foods, packaging and household products?
Chemicals, of course, are ubiquitous; everything is made from them. But the question is what products are toxic and what are not. Are there labels available to help us distinguish what is safe and what could pose harm to us?
If advocacy groups are to be believed, the dangers from chemicals are increasing, cancer stalks us at every turn and our children are vulnerable.
A notion has developed that chemicals can be divided into “safe” and “unsafe”. But any substances can be harmful if we consume too much of them. Coffee contains more than two dozen carcinogenic chemicals, yet it’s considered harmless because the toxins are at low levels. Safety is relative, depending on the frequency, duration and magnitude of exposure.
So: are there any ecolabels to navigate us through the scientific minefields?
When it comes to foods, consumers can expect little helpful guidance. Some NGOs, particularly those such as the Center for Food Safety or the Organic Consumers Association in the United States that campaign against processed foods for containing “dangerous” chemicals, have pushed hard for labels and screens. But because of the complexity of food science, food labels have not caught on.
Many grocers and food manufacturers voluntarily label products “non toxic,” but that doesn’t mean much. Under US law, a product is toxic if it could lead to personal injury or illness when inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin, or could cause chronic illness.
However, because the “dose makes the poison”, determining toxicity is a judgment call. Consequently, there are no government or NGO standards for such terms. In other words, non-toxic and similar labels – “chemical free” or “no chemical additives” – are really little more than marketing terms.
There has also been a proliferation of labels targeting specific chemicals in packaging, with “BPA free” and “phthalate free” the two most prominent.
These chemicals are added to plastics that are often used in containers or toys to make them resilient or pliable. Although anti-chemical activists are convinced these substances are dangerous, the science by and large suggests that exposures are so minuscule and our bodies so expert at natural detoxification that they pose no danger.
But the European Union and countries whose laws are guided by the so-called precautionary principle – take action even in the absence of evidence, if the public is concerned – have instituted limited restrictions and bans.
So, should consumers feel safer buying a product labelled “BPA free”? No. Even if BPA was harmful – and the weight of evidence suggests it is not – manufacturers have to substitute the demonised chemical with another.
The most common replacement for BPA is BPS – a chemically similar ingredient whose only virtue is that it is less tested. Yet its profile is actually more toxic and, unlike BPA, it is non-biodegradable. In this case a “BPA free” label is utterly deceptive.
Chemical labelling is doomed to be confusing, complex and contradictory. There are no universal standards. Two years ago, chemical company BASF launched a website to help industry and consumers make their way through the morass of more than 400 labelling programmes, 47 on cleaning products alone. Called Select Eco-Label Manager (sustainability, eco-labelling and environmental certification tracking), the database is designed for the strategic management of labels, environmental claims, directories and rating systems.
There are a handful of design-related labels that address non-food chemical concerns. Canada launched EcoLogo in 1988, for example, while the Nordic Ecolabel, established in 1989, provides a labelling scheme tied to sustainable consumption. It’s based on ISO standards and is well recognised in northern Europe. Procter & Gamble and other consumer product companies actively pursue the label for their products.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has in place the Design for the Environment (DfE) Safer Product Labelling Program. This initiative, which takes into consideration the entire lifecycle of a product, is a global design movement to minimise health and environmental impacts. It targets product ingredients, and how they are processed and manufactured, but it also reviews packaging, disposability and overall energy efficiency.
According to the EPA the label is carried by more than 2,800 products made by hundreds of companies, including Starbucks, BMW, Philips, HP and IBM. In 2012, the EPA came out with a Safer Chemical Ingredients List of cleaning product raw materials as a companion to DfE certification. Plans are in the works to extend this label to personal care products.
EU Ecolabel, Europe’s version of DfE, launched in 1992, now covers 17,000 products, about a third of which are household cleaning products. Green Seal is a lifecycle based environmental sustainability label for products, services and companies that covers 11 categories, such as paints, coatings, printing and institutional cleaning products.
NGO labelling flop
For chemical ecolabels to work, they must be based on consistent, transparent, meaningful and verifiable standards. Attempts by activist companies or groups to come up with their own labels have invariably floundered because they draw as much from ideology as science. In 2011, Whole Foods debuted what it called Eco-Scale to evaluate products but it hasn’t achieved much traction.
In 2012, the Washington DC based anti-chemical NGO Environmental Working Group unveiled its online Guide to Healthy Living. As Ethical Corporation explained in March in the introduction to our ecolabelling series, Seventh Generation, the US-based household and personal care products company founded on a commitment to sustainability, has felt the wrath of EWG’s misplaced idealism.
The Vermont company’s name is derived from a traditional Iroquois Indian law requiring that people consider the next seven generations when they make decisions. A few years ago, it reformulated its laundry products to contain 97% renewable content, only to get bashed, receiving a “D” rating in EWG’s labelling scheme.
Seventh Generation’s detergents contain boric acid, a harmless chemical – as used – that stabilises its products. Boric acid is also an antiseptic used in vaginal douches and acne medicine. Like many other chemicals that regulatory agencies have determined to be safe, it’s been labelled an “endocrine disruptor” by anti-chemical campaigners – in this case on the basis of one study of borax mine workers exposed to industrial quantities.
The failure of improvised ecolabels such as EWG’s is tied to the issue of risk. Should products or ingredients be labelled dangerous because they pose a documentable health threat as determined by empirical science? Or should labels or restrictions be imposed as a precaution to accommodate wary consumers even if the risks are scientifically negligible?
“Deciding that one chemical is safer than another depends on how you set up your criteria and what’s important to you,” notes Paul DeLeo of the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group, in an interview with Chemical and Engineering News. “To get overly myopic on chemicals that are being used safety has the potential to be problematic.”
Jon Entine is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University, and founder of ESG MediaMetrics, a sustainability consultancy.