Adria Vasil’s Killer Beauty talk last week was a reminder. Vasil was in town for Breast Cancer Action Montreal’s 9th annual Lanie Melamed Memorial Lecture. For me her words served as a reminder that I need to be a lot more careful about the products I bring into my home.
If you don’t know Adria Vasil, she’s an environmentalist, consumer rights crusader and Ann Landers-style advice giver rolled into one. She’s an amazing communicator and yes, I do feel a tad envious of this lovely career she has carved out for herself as the Ecoholic columnist for NOW Magazine and as an author, lecturer and broadcaster (three books to date and she’s a frequent guest on TV and radio shows).
I had no idea that Toronto-based Vasil is originally from Quebec and her parents once owned a McDonald’s outlet in Shawinigan. I didn’t know she spent her teenage years opening up those free perfume samples she found in magazines and dabbing them on her skin. Or that as a teen she started questioning the ingredients in the personal care products she used after visiting a friend’s house. Her friend’s “hippie dippy” mom used licorice toothpaste and herbal shampoo with labels featuring ingredients Vasil says she could easily understand. Not so at home where reading shampoo bottles meant sounding out a long list of unpronounceable ingredients that she couldn’t make out at all.
I’ve long been interested in the environment. I’ve written articles about environmental issues and my interest in the cause led me to work as an office assistant for Breast Cancer Action Montreal. I know about toxins in personal care products. But I while I try hard to check labels, I’m lazy sometimes. Looking at the ingredients in the shampoos and toothpaste in our bathroom, there’s a lot that needs to go.
In Canada, it seems responsibility for checking what’s safe and what’s not rests with the consumer. So it’s on you to be sure that the shampoo you massage into the hair and skin on your baby’s head doesn’t send carcinogens and endocrine disruptors into your precious child’s body. That shampoo you use daily may be adding to the toxic chemical load your body has accumulated and absorbed over many years. Ditto your body wash, shaving cream, deodorant, toothpaste…
Vasil wants the Canadian government to ban these chemicals outright, something I agree with wholeheartedly. In Europe policy makers use the precautionary principle. The onus is on industry to prove to governments and citizens that the ingredients they use in consumer products are safe. In Canada Vasil likens regulation to a game of Whac-A-Mole. Just as one toxic ingredient gets banned, another pops up. Health Canada didn’t ban triclosan, it just asked companies to phase it out over time, Vasil says. “The way it works in Canada is we end up being their guinea pigs.”
Toxic chemicals aren’t limited to personal care products. Vasil says Canada has now banned Bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles. But it’s still found in the lids of baby food jars, linings of cans, those white dental fillings that are replacing mercury fillings, the list goes on. And now companies are shapeshifting, replacing parabens with chemicals that may pose other health risks, Vasil says. In many products companies have replaced BPA with Bisphenol S (BPS), which is widely seen as at least as toxic and possibly even more toxic than Bisphenol A.
A recent United Nations Environmental Programme/World Health Organization report calls such hormone-disrupting chemicals a “global threat.” Vasil points out the international panel of scientists who put together the report are linking the daily use of these chemicals with the possibility of all sorts of health problems, including hormone-dependent cancers and obesity. The chemicals are everywhere and they’re making it into our drinking water.
What We Can Do
“The chemicals we can control are the ones that we put on every day,” Vasil says. To make it easier to figure out what’s safe and what’s potentially dangerous for our health, Vasil has put together a free Mean 15 list of ingredients to avoid.
Avoiding toxic chemicals is all about reading labels and checking databases. Vasil says, and while the Skin Deep database isn’t perfect, it’s a good baseline. But you can’t assume that just because a product is sold in a health food store, it’s paraben-free, natural or organic. Organic Surge shampoo, for instance, has only one organic ingredient, while Organics shampoos have none.
If you’re open to it, one shampoo alternative Vasil suggested is the “No Poo” method (it has nothing to do with constipation). It involves putting baking soda on your hair and scalp and rinsing with hot (warm) water and vinegar. Other alternatives? Use oils from your kitchen and warm them to deep condition your hair. Step out of the shower and put baking soda under your arms instead of deodorant, Vasil advises.
While it would be ideal if toxic ingredients were banned from products and food until companies prove they’re safe, that’s not how things are done in Canada. So the next best thing would be to have the Canadian government pass legislation along the lines of California’s Safe Cosmetics Act, Vasil says. In California labels on personal care products warn consumers about “hazardous and potentially hazardous ingredients” in the products.
Even better, we need to tell companies we don’t want toxic ingredients in our homes. “We all need to speak up,” Vasil says. ‘We are giving our money to companies every day,” Vasil says.
If you have toxic stuff in your house, for instance old toys like my son’ s once beloved blue vinyl dog (probably made of PVC plastic and hazardous since it’s potentially carcinogenic and mutagenic), what are you supposed to do? Vasil says whatever you do, don’t give your toxic makeup to a women’s shelter or dump toxic items at your local thrift store. Don’t put them in the garbage either. Instead take advantage of your municipality’s hazardous household waste collections (I really wonder how employees at my local eco centre will react if I bring them the deflated blue vinyl dog). Even better, Vasil says send your unwanted toxic items right back to the companies that made them.
“Just one person is all it takes to start a movement,” she says. “Think about something that bugs you in a product and start a petition.” She recommends tackling one ingredient at a time and using change.org for setting up the petition.
After all, consumer pressure can radically change company practices. Vasil says that Johnson & Johnson, a company whose No More Tears Baby Shampoo contains a formaldehyde-releasing preservative called quaternium-15, as well as the chemical byproduct 1,4-dioxane, both known carcinogens was the target of a boycott by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Now it’s pledging to remove all toxic chemicals from its products by 2015.
“My mother taught me we can change the world just by working on our own little corner of it,” Vasil says. “Please listen to my mom.”
The question is, how many of us will change our little corners of the world?