Is your laundry detergent safe?....Kate Grenville.
The Case against Fragrance
A cautionary tale about the limits to consumer protection concerns an artificial musk patented in 1959, acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin or AETT, given the trade name Versalide.10 It was designed to replace some of the earlier musks, which had been found to be carcinogenic. Versalide was a wonderful invention: it had a strong and pleasant musk odour, it didn’t discolour when exposed to light, and it was cheap to make.
From 1959 onwards it was used in large amounts in all sorts of fragranced products, but especially in laundry detergents. Then, in 1978, TWENTY YEARS after it first went on the market, Versalide was tested, apparently for the first time. The rats exposed to Versalide became very ill, very quickly.
They developed a blue discolouration and behaved in strange ways—abnormal movements and hyperirritability—that suggested nerve damage. Post-mortem revealed ‘structural damage throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems’, including ‘spectacular myelin bubbling’.11
Some time later Versalide was tested again. There were clear signs that even at very low doses the chemical was radically damaging the rats’ central nervous systems—their brains and spinal cords.
The autopsy found that ‘a green substance was formed in the gastro-intestinal tract, and most tissues, including the central nervous system, showed a green-blue or grey colouration.’12
In 1982, the International Fragrance Association prohibited Versalide from use in any fragrance product. Further tests showed exactly what kind of damage Versalide did to the brain: it caused degeneration of the myelin sheath—a protective layer that surrounds neurons.13
Degeneration of the myelin sheath has severe health effects. It’s the characteristic damage of multiple sclerosis. (As it happens, MS has become more common over the last few decades. A review of all the available studies in 2010 found ‘an almost universal increase in prevalence and incidence of MS over time…and suggest a general…increase in incidence of MS in females.
The latter observation should prompt epidemiological studies to focus on changes in lifestyle in females.’14) It’s impossible to know how many people were exposed to Versalide over the two decades between 1959 and 1981, and impossible to know how many people suffered health effects from it.
Even if the manufacturers of laundry detergent and soap were prepared to say which of their products formerly contained Versalide, who’s going to remember what brand of laundry detergent they bought all those years ago? We’re lucky that Versalide finally happened to be tested. Otherwise, it would still be in our laundry detergents, making our sheets smell good but damaging our myelin sheaths.
But what about all the other new chemicals out there, including the ones that are now used in place of Versalide? Like the older chemicals, the new ones aren’t tested for safety before they’re released.
Many of them are never tested at all. Yet they’re being used in products that we use every day—and we don’t have any way of knowing which ones.
The extent of government safety regulation these days can feel like overkill. Children’s playgrounds now are so boringly safe it’s a wonder that any child wants to play in them.
My sister-in-law can’t sell the eggs from her happy farm chooks without a certificate from the health department. Yet in other ways—ways just as critical to our safety—the protective shield of regulation is strangely absent.
We’re exposed, every day, to powerful chemicals in fragrance. They’re largely untested, mostly unregulated and, in many cases, not declared on the label. Yet, when it comes to those chemicals, we consumers are on our own.
This seemed so strange and so inconsistent that I started to doubt the information I’d found. Surely there are experts who aren’t just labelling or assessing fragrance, but are making sure it’s safe?
Well, yes, there are. The only problem is, they’re the same people who make it. In 1973 the perfume manufacturers of the world got together and formed the International Fragrance Association, IFRA.
One reason for its formation was that consumers were starting to ask questions about the fragrances they were using every day. According to its website, IFRA ‘fosters a sense of understanding of consumers’ needs and demands a sense of responsibility in their satisfaction.
Adding to our sense of wellbeing. And increasing our sense of prosperity.’ Its list of ingredients has been published ‘to support our drive for increased transparency’.1
IFRA’s other reason for existing is that it’s in the privileged position of being its own regulator. The only real overseer of the fragrance industry is the fragrance industry itself.
As it says on its website: ‘The IFRA Standards form the basis for…the self-regulating system of the industry, based on risk assessments carried out by an independent Expert Panel.’2
The Expert Panel works with a lab that IFRA funds, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials. RIFM is described (in the ‘Conflict of Interest’ section of its published papers) as ‘an independent research institute supported by the manufacturers of fragrances and consumer products containing fragrances’. Its main job is to run tests on fragrance ingredients.
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