Corporations Should be Investing in Safer Products Instead of Spin Doctors

What do climate-science deniers and “spin doctors” who attack environmental health protections have in common?  They’re like moths to the flame of an activist victory for safer products. Ever since my organization succeeded in pressuring Johnson & Johnson to get carcinogens out of its baby products,  the “boys who know best” are coming round to tell us not to worry our pretty little heads about cancer-causing chemicals in baby shampoo.

David Ropeik wins the prize for paternalistic, condescending framing in his Scientific American blog: “Warning! Health Hazards May be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Ropeik warns that “frightened, worried, scared, concerned” moms are at greater risk of stress-related illnesses (irritable bowel syndrome, clinical depression) than babies are at risk from getting cancer from formaldehyde in the bathtub; as if the only choice here is between soaking kids in toxic substances or making mothers sick with worry.

How about if America’s “most-trusted brand” just gets the carcinogens out of baby shampoo? And hey, guess what, Johnson & Johnson has already done that in other countries, where they have better laws, just not here! That’s the kind of thing that really makes moms sick to their stomachs.

Ropeik is described in the article as an instructor at Harvard Extension School,but there’s no mention of his role as a “risk communications” expert; one of those people who gets hired to help corporations spin themselves out of trouble – and spin he has, for clients that include Dow Chemical, DuPont and others working against environmental health protections.

Ropeik may want to pay more attention to the science than the talking points if he’s going to write for Scientific American. The concern about quaternium-15 isn’t just that it emits formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen); dermatologists have been warning for years that the chemical is contributing to higher rates of contact dermatitis.

This sort of detail doesn’t fit with the “how dare you worry moms about chemicals” narrative of folks like Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, who used the space so generously provided him by the Montreal Gazette to make the “Case to Keep Chemical Soup in Baby’s Soap.”

Schwarcz was keynote speaker for this year’s meeting of the Personal Care Products Council (which counts Johnson & Johnson among its members), and is also a consultant for industry (including Monsanto) who, as described in his bio, “interprets science” for the public.

Joe, I urge you to try out your 2 cubic meter theory on the nearest mom, and ask her if she wouldn’t just rather that her baby’s shampoo contained no formaldehyde at all.

At least Schwarcz admits it’s time to get formaldehyde out of Brazilian Blowout hair straighteners. A recent attack report by the better known and notorious industry front group Competitive Enterprises Institute — leading opponents of the overwhelming science on climate change — starts off on a dubious foot by claiming that the Brazilian Blowout problem was “quickly resolved” (except that it’s still not resolved). And that’s not the only detail in the report that’s opposite of true.

Ah well, consider the source: a group with funding ties to Exxon, Texaco and the Koch family foundation…

As Nicole Abene points out in “Industry-Funded Watchdog Group Says Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics Are Good for You,” the authors of the report attacking the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are the same folks who produced a TV commercial advocating for increased carbon-dioxide emissions because it’s “what plants breathe in.”

Following the logic of the chemical industry talking points, a little bit of carcinogen on the head might be just what the baby really needs.

And for moms who disagree, well, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that: We’re winning! Companies are responding to our demands and cleaning up their products, and it isn’t even all that hard for them to do.

As Abene writes, “It was only under significant public pressure that Johnson & Johnson agreed to no longer introduce new products with formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. No one was asking Johnson & Johnson to pull a hat trick—a safer alternative was already available and in production, so why the double standard?”

Here’s hoping the Corporations of America get it that it’s time to invest in a toxic-free future and give the spin doctors a rest.

Photo credit:
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audi_insperation on Creative Commons

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