How to Determine if a Chemical Is Safe. Hint: It’s Not by Studying a White 30 Year Old Man

If I’m being honest, I’m secretly loving this online debate about what makes a chemical “safe”. It’s giving me lots of fodder to put a fine point on all the nuances of communicating the field of environmental health sciences properly.

(Okay, I’m actually very worried that this narrative will gain more traction, so please read on and share with your friends.)

As I mentioned here, many online influencers, cosmetic chemists and beauty editors keep harping on clean beauty as fear mongering, shaming, and “anti-science“, while consistently pointing to industry trade associations who say certain chemicals are safe. This playbook is not new and it’s not unique to the beauty industry. Most chemicals that has been deemed toxic over the years (lead, flame retardants, dioxin, vinyl, asbestos, PFAS, cigarette smoke) have undergone similar scrutiny.

They are so obsessed with this idea of preserving the status quo, they have cherry picked incidents of fear-mongering (yes it happens) and made a case to double down on how clean living is all bullshit and all chemicals are safe.

Here’s the biggest question, safe for whom?

In order to unpack this important question (since it points to deeper issues around race, gender, and age) we need to first get aquatinted with some basic scientific concepts (don’t worry, I’ll keep it interesting).

Risk Assessments Fail to Consider Exposures for People of Color and Pregnant Women

Risk assessments are a scientific tool that many clean living naysayers are using to make their case. The problem is that this scientific method which has been historically used to determine if a chemical is safe (risk assessments), rely on assessments of a chemical’s use in one moment in time, using a white 30-year-old male as the basis of modeling and analysis. In short, the tool is useful, but it’s using outdated science.

If they don’t see any immediate adverse reactions? See, it’s safe! Stop fear mongering!!

It won’t surprise many of my readers to know that young white men do not tell a complete story about real life exposures.

Take for example pregnant women, their developing fetuses, and women of child bearing age. Peer reviewed literature shows us that chemical exposures for these critical windows in a woman’s or child’s life greatly change the answer to “is it safe?”.

Importantly, women and people of color have increase exposures to certain chemicals from a variety of sources. Beauty products targeted to women of color not only inherently use more toxic chemicals, but due to Eurocentric beauty standards the frequency of using these products is more than their white counterparts. Scientific research shows that exposures are more pronounced through biomonitoring data, showing a grim portrait of how exposures to chemicals varies greatly by race. It’s important to note that the exposures are not only higher, the negative health outcomes are also increased.

Furthermore, low income communities, which are often also communities of color, have more environmental exposures to other chemicals beyond the products they use on their body: air pollution from living closer to freeways, industrial legacy contamination from soil and drinking water, occupational exposures from manufacturing and low wage jobs. Multiple exposure routes also changes how and when you determine if a chemical is safe.

So “it’s safe, stop fear mongering!” feels like a righteous path, but it blatantly disregards a large and credible body of science showing that people (who are not white, 30 year old men) respond to and are exposed to chemicals differently. It fundamentally undermines disparate impacts that people of color, pregnant women and children face.

Hazard Assessments Are Useful For Showing Us Which Chemicals to Move Away From, But Isn’t Practical for Transitioning our Material Economy

Hazard assessment is a way to evaluate chemical safety based on the inherent hazard of a chemical.

When this framework is used at its best, hazard assessments can point us in a direction to avoid using a toxic chemical that may (or may not) present a risk for someone using a consumer product, but it may pose a risk during a different part of the product’s lifecycle. Namely for the workers creating the chemical, the communities living near those chemical factories, or people living near landfills and waste incinerators at the product’s end of life.

At its worst, hazard assessments can go so far to say that everything is toxic—even water—and therefore we can’t have any products or built environments. That’s not very practical and doesn’t help us transition our material economy towards safer chemicals.

I firmly believe that we need to use both risk assessments (where exposure frequency and routes are considered) and hazard assessments when determining if a chemical is safe. Some companies and health officials are already putting this more modern approach to practice.

When conducting risk assessments, we need to incorporate real life exposures of highly impacted or vulnerable populations—often referred to as cumulative risk assessments. This will allow us to really understand which chemicals are safe, and which ones are not.

We need a multi-pronged approach to really tackle this problem. We need our state and federal governments to pass legislation that removes toxic chemicals from consumer products, creating access to safer products a reality for everyone (regardless of price point, time spent researching products, background, accessibility). We need companies to increase the rigor and sophistication of how they assess chemicals for safety, implementing the cumulative risk assessment and hazard assessment best practices. Our scientific community needs to continue to fund critical research that builds on a multi-decade body of science, showcasing that there is no singular rule to blanket any statement about chemical safety.

And perhaps more important, we need people who haven’t taken the proper time to study and understand the field of environmental health sciences, to stop weighing in on topics they don’t understand. By doing so, it is protecting the status quo which keeps overexposed communities health hanging in the balance.

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