INSIGHTS: Time to Protect Babies From Dangerous Products

By Samuel S. Epstein, MD and Ronnie Cummins

CHICAGO, Illinois, March 3, 2005 (ENS) - From shortly after birth, mothers tenderly wash and pamper their infants with a wide range of baby products. These include soaps, shampoos, lotions, and dusting powders, some of which are used several times daily.

However, how would mothers react if they discovered that these baby products contain a witch's brew of dangerous ingredients? Hopping mad could be a reasonable understatement.

Most disturbing are three groups of widely used ingredients known as "hidden carcinogens" - ingredients which are contaminated by carcinogens, or which break down to release carcinogens, or which are precursors of carcinogens - to which infants are about 100 times more sensitive than adults.


At the most vulnerable time in their lives babies are exposed to commercial products that may be carcinogenic. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
The largest group of hidden carcinogens includes dozens of wetting agents or detergents, particularly polyethylene glycols, laureths, and ceteareths, all of which are contaminated with the potent and volatile carcinogens ethylene oxide and dioxane. These carcinogens could readily be stripped off during ingredient manufacture, if the industry just made the effort to do so.

Another hidden carcinogenic ingredient is lanolin, derived from sheep's wool, most samples of which are contaminated with DDT-like pesticides.

The second group includes another detergent, triethanolamine which, following interaction with nitrite, is a precursor of a highly potent nitrosamine carcinogen.

The third group includes quaterniums and diazolidinyl. urea preservatives which break down in the product or skin to release the carcinogenic formaldehyde.

Of additional concern is another group of common preservatives, known as parabens. Numerous studies over the last decade have shown that these are weakly estrogenic. They produce abnormal hormonal effects following application to the skin of infant rodents, particularly male, resulting in decreased testosterone levels, and urogenital abnormalities. Parabens have also been found to accumulate in the breasts of women with breast cancer.


Babies have skin that is more permeable than that of adults. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Health Department)
The common use of talc dusting powder can result in its inhalation, resulting in acute or chronic lung irritation and disease, known as talcosis, and even death. Additionally, talc is a suspect cause of lung cancer, based on rodent tests.

Fragrances, containing numerous ingredients, are commonly used in baby products for the mother's benefit. However, more than 25 of these ingredients are known to cause allergic dermatitis.

A final ingredient of particular concern is the harshly irritant sodium lauryl sulfate. A single application to adult human skin has been shown to damage its microscopic structure, increasing the penetration of carcinogenic and other toxic ingredients.

Most disturbing is the ready availability of safe alternatives for all these dangerous ingredients. Longstanding information on these alternatives is detailed on the Cancer Prevention Coalition website,

So, why is it that the multibillion dollar cosmetic and toiletry industry has not acted on this information?

The answer is that the major priority of the industry's trade association is "to protect the freedom of the industry to compete in a fair marketplace."

At the same time, the association pursues a highly aggressive agenda against what it claims are "unreasonable or unnecessary labeling or warning requirements."

As Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, stated at 1997 Hearings on the FDA Reform bill, "The cosmetics industry has borrowed a page from the playbook of the tobacco industry by putting profits ahead of public health."

Astoundingly, the interests of industry remain reinforced by the regulatory abdication of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in spite of its authority under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. Clearly, the FDA is the lapdog, rather than the watchdog, of the industry.

Of even greater concern is the reckless failure of the federal National Cancer Institute and the "non-profit" American Cancer Society to inform the public of the avoidable risks of cancer from the use of baby products, especially in view of the escalating incidence of childhood cancers over recent decades. However, the silence of the American Cancer Society is consistent with its over $100,000 annual funding from about a dozen major cosmetic and toiletry industries.


With the best intentions, caregivers may be exposing babies to carcinogens. (Photo courtesy Kansas Coordinating Council on Early Childhood Developmental Services)
The protracted failure of Congress to enforce the FDA's compliance with the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act has evoked the growing concern of state legislatures.

California Assemblywoman Judy Chu, a Monterey Park Democrat, who serves on the California Senate Health Committee, recently introduced landmark legislation that requires disclosure of all carcinogenic, hormonal, and otherwise toxic ingredients in cosmetics. The bill was strongly backed by a coalition of consumer, womens', occupational, and church groups, but, opposed by powerful mainstream industry interests, the measure failed to pass.

However, this shot over the bows of the reckless mainstream industry marks the beginning of state initiatives across the country to protect consumers and their babies from undisclosed dangerous products and ingredients.

Safe alternative products and ingredients, including organic, are becoming increasingly available from non-mainstream companies.

{Samuel S. Epstein, MD is Professor Emeritus Environmental & Occupational Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, and Recipient of the 2005 Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medal for Humanitarianism. Email:

Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Organic Consumers Association based in Little Marais, Minnesota. Email:}