Natural or Not?

Products that proclaim themselves organic or natural may contain toxic byproducts.

By Diana Erney

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Eco-conscious shoppers who pay a premium for products that proclaim themselves organic or natural will be dismayed to learn that some of those products contain toxic byproducts. David Steinman, author of Safe Trip to Eden: Ten Steps to Save the Planet Earth from the Global Warming Meltdown, and the Organic Consumers Association recently released test results from over 100 body care and household cleaning products which showed that some of them contained 1,4 Dioxane, considered a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. The products included popular brands such as Method, Jason, Seventh Generation, and Whole Foods private label brand 365 Everyday Value.

Manufacturers don’t intentionally add 1,4 Dioxane to their products; it's a byproduct formed when ethylene oxide, a petrochemical, is added to naturally derived foaming agents to render them less harsh. Steinman, who had previously done similar tests and found the chemical toxin in mainstream products, was searching for a safe bubble bath for his three young children. He found that many of the natural products contained trace amounts well below the standards set by the FDA for certain supplements and other product uses, which allows for concentrations of 10 parts per million (ppm). However, a few such as Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value Shower Gel and Method Naturally Derived Ultra Concentrate dish soap contained levels high enough to surpass the standard. Citrus Magic 100% Natural Dish Liquid contained 97.1 ppm—well above the standard.

Before you empty your cabinets, be aware that 1,4 Dioxane doesn’t accumulate in the body; it's quickly metabolized and released in urine and the breath. "The level of contamination in most of these products is not alarming; however, the accumulated effect of using several products over a period of time is a valid concern," says Stephen Ashkin, a well-regarded consultant to the green cleaning industry. Ashkin, who also consults with schools about greening their cleaning programs, urges people consider the potential length of exposure (for example, washing the dishes is a fairly brief exposure while putting on a skin cream could last for many hours), then consider their overall health to help assess their level of risk. "For example, children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions are much more vulnerable than otherwise healthy adults, so more effort needs to be made to protect these more susceptible people."

Federal regulations don't require personal care or household cleaning products to disclose ingredients on their labels, so consumers have no way of knowing for certain what's in them. Some manufacturers have been aware of the 1,4 Dioxane problem for some time, and have been working to minimize the levels of contamination using a process called vacuum stripping. The stripping is not a perfect process however, so while many manufacturers have been able to reduce levels to trace amounts, it doesn't eliminate them entirely. After the results were made public, several of the companies pledged to investigate the problem further and actively seek out alternatives that won't impact the performance of their products. The good news is that many of products tested were free of the compound including Aubrey Organics, Dr. Hauschka, TerrEssential and all of the products certified organic by the USDA or by BDIH, a German certifying organization. When purchasing certified organic products isn’t an option (there aren’t any organic dish soaps at this point), Steinman recommends that consumers seek out companies that are working toward eliminating petrochemicals entirely. Another way to avoid 1,4 Dioxane is to read labels, choosing products that do not contain PEG (polyethylene glycol) compounds and ingredients whose names end in "eth" (Sodium Laureth sulfate), Go to organicconsumers.org/bodycare for the full list of test results.

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