Expert Panel Confirms that Fragrance Ingredient Can Cause Cancer

Last month (July 28) a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed a federal interagency group’s conclusion that styrene, a chemical building block used to produce a wide variety of everyday products, can cause cancer.

In formal terms, the report issued by the Academy’s National Research Council endorsed the 2011 finding by the National Toxicology Program, a collaboration of scientists from several government agencies, that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The committee found “compelling evidence” for that conclusion. Moreover, it said that some studies would support “a strong argument [for] listing … styrene as a known human carcinogen” (italics in original). That’s an even more definitive label – signaling a dangerous substance that should be strictly controlled.

News coverage largely focused on foam cups and some food containers composed of polystyrene, a substance made up of long chains of styrene molecules linked together. Polystyrene contains small amounts of styrene itself.

Styrene also turns up in automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke and – you might be surprised to know – it might be lurking in the various sprays and liquids you’ll find in the cosmetic and cleaning aisles of your supermarket. That’s because it is an ingredient allowed in fragrances added to a wide variety of consumer products.

Which fragrances? Which products? Unless you happen to have a gas chromatograph or mass spectrometer, you won’t know.

Although all other ingredients in your lip gloss, body wash and other scented cosmetic products must be disclosed on the label by specific name, the so-called “fragrance loophole” in federal labeling law means that ingredients added to provide a pleasant scent, or to mask a bad one, need only be listed under the generic term “fragrance.” We know only that styrene might be an ingredient in any given fragrance because the International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group, publishes an online “Transparency List” of ingredients that perfumers say they use in formulas for consumer products. Styrene is one of the 3,000-odd ingredients on the list.

Besides cologne and other personal care products, fragrances are also used to scent household care products such as dish and laundry detergent. When you add up the number of products in your bathroom cabinets and under your kitchen sink that contain “fragrance” – and may contain styrene – the total could be many exposures to a substance we now know is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

Right now, however, the only way to steer clear of styrene in personal care products is to avoid using any that say they contain “fragrance” but don’t list the perfume’s individual components. That’s because the federal Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have the authority or resources to evaluate the safety of risky ingredients such as styrene – and respond accordingly. It will take a long overdue reform of federal law to ensure that these products contain only safe ingredients.

We at EWG believe that personal care products should never contain unnecessary ingredients that can cause cancer. This news is just one more reason we need to reform the outdated federal law regulating these products so that it actually protects consumers from exposure to dangerous substances such as styrene.

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