Deemed a “probable human carcinogen” by the U.S. government, formaldehyde is one of 164 potentially harmful chemicals targeted under a new California law that imposes stricter safety standards on a range of products made by such companies as J&J and Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) The law also takes aim at untreated mineral oils in lotions and acetaldehyde, which can irritate the skin and is used in perfume.
Regulators are responding to pressure from consumer advocates who say U.S. efforts to ensure the safety of cosmetics and household cleaners lag behind Europe’s. California’s approach reflects growing concern over the cumulative effect of chemicals, since consumers use multiple products, said Debbie Raphael, director of the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, which administers the law.
While the law phases in over a couple of years, companies are already adjusting to the new regulatory environment. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) says that by 2015 it will require suppliers to phase out 10 as yet unidentified chemicals from cleaners, make-up and other personal-care products. J&J plans to make its baby shampoo formaldehyde-free by year-end and to eliminate other potentially harmful components from its lineup by 2015.
“As our products and policies evolve, they reflect the latest science, new regulations and -- just as importantly -- consumer concerns,” said Carol Goodrich, a J&J spokeswoman.
P&G and J&J say their products are safe and that all ingredients are well within limits that could be considered hazardous.
California laws often set a pattern followed by other states. The enactment of the Safer Consumer Products law has stirred controversy, with critics saying it fails to distinguish between safe and unsafe levels of substances -- instead seeking to eliminate them altogether.
P&G and Clorox Co. (CLX) have thrown their support behind a pair of federal product-safety bills. Clorox wants a federal standard so “you don’t have a patchwork quilt of all these different state EPAs telling what you can do and what you can’t do,” said Chief Executive Officer Don Knauss. “The packaging ramifications are enormous.”
While the federal proposals are still being written, consumer groups say they’re concerned that they’ll lack the teeth of the California law.
The safety of consumer products became an issue for many Americans last decade after studies showed bisphenol-a, a hardening agent used in plastic bottles and food containers, can disrupt hormone levels and fetal and infant development. The Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in baby bottles and cups last year, though the chemical is allowed in canned-food linings and cash-register receipts, among other uses.
Product-safety advocates have since turned their attention to cosmetics and household cleaners. The FDA bans or restricts 11 substances from cosmetics, including chloroform, once used in dyes, oils and other make-up ingredients, and vinyl chloride, once a propellant in hair spray. By contrast, the European Union bans or restricts almost 1,400 substances, including formaldehyde and parabens, preservatives found in makeup and shampoos.
“There is no question that the science is there to prove these chemicals are harmful,” said Janet Nudelman, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a non-profit group based in San Francisco.
Consumer advocates focused their efforts on California because it often sets the regulatory tone for the rest of the U.S. They organized boycotts, commissioned studies and polled consumers, while fighting pushback from trade groups that insisted their products were safe.
The new law went into effect on Oct. 1. The state has already issued a 164-item list of priority chemicals for testing, including formaldehyde and BPA. By April, it will identify as many as five so-called priority chemical-product combinations in wide use for further examination. That will be followed by a process, including public commentary, of as long as a year to determine whether a chemical gets listed.
Once a substance is listed, manufacturers must determine whether alternatives exist, a process that can take as long as 18 months, said Karl Palmer, who oversees the initiative for the Toxic Substances department. For companies that don’t cooperate, California will maintain a public “failure to comply” list, issue warnings and can ultimately ban an ingredient.
With California regulators still identifying which chemicals to prioritize, most companies are refraining from reformulating their products. Still, P&G has pledged to eliminate the antibacterial triclosan and fragrance ingredient diethyl phthalate from all products by next year. Target Corp. (TGT) last week announced a program that will reward suppliers that remove harmful substances from their products.
Finding alternatives to chemicals deemed unsafe isn’t easy, according to Neal Langerman, CEO of Advanced Chemical Safety, a San Diego-based health, safety and environmental protection consulting firm. Companies need four to six months to develop and test a new formulation, he said, plus about a year to change formulations and reconfigure production, and that doesn’t include labeling and packaging alterations.
“Finding a substitute can be exceedingly difficult, which means it can be exceedingly expensive,” said Langerman, who added that companies may pass costs onto shoppers.
Ultimately, however, changing consumer attitudes will force companies to adjust, he said.
“They want their product to sell, and in the long run, they’re going to address public perception,” he said.
© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.