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Beauty industry being examined in mirror of literature and politics

I am utterly delighted to learn recently that the US Senate is at last tackling one of the most longstanding oversights in US healthcare reform history – controlling the lucrative and largely unregulated cosmetics industry.

Such has been the power of this incredibly rich industry lobby that, even in the face of the sector’s utter transformation into an annual 60-billion-dollar products’ base, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act has been left untouched since 1938. A full 79 years.

Increasing numbers of health problems from poisons in everyday cosmetics, however, has led to mobilization of a large number of health, family and environmental NGOs which have succeeded in placing pressure on politicians to better protect consumers from such toxic products lining our supermarket shelves.

I am doubly delighted as the key Senate hearings began just as my suspense novel, ‘PRETTY UGLY,’ highlighting this controversial issue in dramatic fiction form, was released. Perfect timing for a novel about an ongoing social issue.

Talk about fiction predicting future reality.

As leading Senators from California, Maine, Washington and Colorado and other States provided evidence and a roomful of listening reporters scribbled notes to pen their stories, my new novel features powerful Senators battling each other over the same issue in committee, as a rich corporation attempts to hide the tragic effects of such products and the media become deeply involved.

Speaking at the recent Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing in Washington, Senators Susan Collins (Maine) and Dianne Feinstein (California) proposed a bi-partisan Personal Care Products Safety Act. Alongside them, other Senators giving evidence included Patricia Murray from Washington and Michael Bennett from Colorado. Senator Al Franken from Minnesota posed a line of questions to the panel of experts called to testify. In the audience were representatives from Johnson and Johnson; Procter and Gamble, as well as representatives from science and consumer groups, including the Endocrine Society, Good Housekeeping Institute and the Environmental Working Group.

Feinstein said under present regulations the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to review or confirm the safety of ingredients and fragrances in cosmetics before they enter the market, and no authority to remove products, even after they’ve been shown to cause harm.

The ongoing Senate HELP Committee hearings are a legacy of earlier efforts by prominent politicians, including former Senators Edward Kennedy (Massachusetts), Thomas F. Eagleton (Missouri), as well as Edward Markey (Massachusetts) and Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin) when they were members of the House of Representatives, and Representative Jan Schakowsky (Illinois). They all attempted to better protect consumers from the adverse effects of cosmetic products through closer regulation of the industry by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As I said in a recent author event in Berlin, cosmetic companies are so rich and powerful, they have prevented for decades a succession of high-profile politicians and regulatory bodies such as the FDA from analyzing what toxic materials are in the products on our supermarket shelves. One of the main questions my novel deals with is the physical horrors rogue nanoparticles in cosmetics, a thousandth time smaller than a human cell, could create when they flood through your body in the bloodstream to key organs such as the brain and heart. The other issue in my book involves the struggle faced by traditional media including newspapers in face of the ever-widening Internet.

In my novel, facing some terrible truths, an unlikely trio of characters – an investigative journalist, a skin specialist and a celebrity model - embark on a dangerous mission, to lift the veil of secrecy on a powerful cosmetics company intent on concealing the health hazards from toxic ingredients in one of its lucrative products. Ironically, the greatest risk is contained inside an ordinary concealer - nanoparticles so tiny they infiltrate nerve and blood cells causing untold damage. If the trio move fast enough, they can save lives.

If they don’t …

Under the proposed new law, at least five chemicals per year would be evaluated by the FDA for consumer safety. The FDA would also receive mandatory recall authority, and require labeling of products that include ingredients not appropriate for children and other vulnerable populations. Companies would also have to report to the FDA within 15 days any serious health events — including death, hospitalization, and disfigurement. Such manufacturers would have to register with the FDA and provide ingredient information on all of its products.

“Our skin is our largest organ and many ingredients contained in these products —

whether it be lotion, shampoo or deodorant —are quickly absorbed by the skin,” said Senator Feinstein. “There is increasing evidence that certain ingredients in personal care products are linked to a range of health concerns, ranging from reproductive issues, such as fertility problems and miscarriage, to cancer. Because of outdated safety rules, the FDA has prohibited or restricted only 11 substances, including mercury and chloroform, from use in personal care products. In contrast, the European Union has had an ingredient review process for personal care products in place for decades. The EU has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from personal care products and restricted an additional 256.”

Added Senator Collins, “The FDA has surprisingly very little authority to protect consumer safety, lacking even mandatory recall authority when a product is found to be harmful, “To help address this issue, I have joined Senator Feinstein in introducing the bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would modernize our woefully outdated federal regulatory system. Our bill, which is the product of consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, would give the FDA broader oversight by setting up a basic regulatory structure, with registration of manufacturers and products, ingredient review by FDA, and a uniform national standard.”

Senator Murray, a ranking member of the HELP Committee, pointed to problems with the WEN hair care product line as evidence it was time for Congress to regulate the cosmetics industry. She said the FDA only “began examining the WEN products after it received over 100 adverse event reports of hair loss and severe damage.” The FDA revealed over 20,000 more consumer complaints reported to the company but cannot take any action against it.

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