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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
US States Cracking Down on Toxic Chemicals in Processed Food, Cosmetics

California and Washington are the latest states to attempt to fill gaps in public-health safeguards, thanks to a lack of federal protections against certain commonly used chemicals.

California Assembly passes nation's first ban on chemicals in processed food

Maraschino cherries get their candy color from Red Dye No. 3 | Image credit: Healthline

The California Assembly has approved a landmark bill to ban five harmful chemicals from candy, cereals and other processed food.

AB 418 — submitted by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills), who is also chair of the Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection — would end the use of brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, Red Dye No. 3 and titanium dioxide in popular food products sold in the state. The chemicals are linked to serious health problems including a higher risk of cancer, nervous system damage and hyperactivity.

European regulators have already banned the five substances from use in food, with the narrow exception of Red No. 3 in candied cherries. Given the size of California’s economy, AB 418 would set an important precedent for improving the safety of many processed foods.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Consumer Reports are co-sponsoring AB 418. The bill will next be heard and voted on by the California Senate.

Following Europe’s lead and protecting US consumers is the right step, despite alarmist claims from opponents of the bill that it would end the sale of candy and other popular items in the state. But these five chemicals have been shown to pose a threat to public health:

  • Red Dye No. 3 has been linked to cancer and behavioral problems in children. It is found in more than 2,000 food products, including many types of candy, cookies and other foods marketed to children. In 1990, the FDA banned many uses of the dye, citing cancer risks. Since 1994, the European Union allowed Red No. 3 to be used in candied and cocktail cherries only.

  • Brominated vegetable oil can build up in the body and has been linked to several health harms, including to the nervous system. It is prohibited in the EU from use in processed foods.

  • Potassium bromate has has been linked to cancer but has not been reviewed for safety by the FDA since 1973. It has been prohibited from use in processed food in the EU since 1990 and since then has been on California’s Prop 65 list of chemicals that may cause cancer.

  • Propyl paraben has not been thoroughly reviewed for safety by the FDA. It has been linked to harm to the hormone and reproductive systems, including decreased sperm counts. It has been prohibited from use in food in the EU since 2006 but is still used as a preservative in the US.

  • Titanium dioxide has been linked to damage to our DNA and harm to the immune system. In 2022, the EU prohibited it from use in food offered for sale, but it is still allowed in food sold in the US — including in popular candies such as   Skittles, Sour Patch Kids and Starburst

“Today’s strong, bipartisan vote is a major step forward in our effort to protect children and families in California from dangerous and toxic chemicals in our food supply,” Gabriel said. “It’s unacceptable that the US is so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to banning these dangerous additives. We don’t love our children any less than they do in Europe, and it’s not too much to ask food and beverage manufacturers to switch to the safer alternative ingredients that they already use in Europe and so many other nations around the globe.”

More than 10,000 chemicals are allowed for use in food sold in the US. Nearly 99 percent of those introduced since 2000 were approved by the food and chemical industry, not the Food and Drug Administration — the agency tasked with ensuring our food supply is safe.

“Californians deserve to know that the food they buy at the store doesn't increase their risk of toxic chemical exposure that can jeopardize their health,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “This bill helps close a troubling loophole in the FDA's oversight of food chemicals that has allowed them to remain in food products, despite recent studies documenting the threat they pose to our health. We applaud the Assembly for passing this first-in-the-nation legislation and urge the Senate to follow suit.”

The five food chemicals covered by AB 418, which have been linked to a number of serious health concerns, were banned by the EU after a comprehensive re-evaluation of the safety of all food additives in 2008.

“What are these toxic chemicals doing in our food?” said Susan Little, EWG’s senior advocate for California government affairs. “We know they are harmful and that children are likely being exposed at a much higher rate than adults. It makes no sense that the same products food manufacturers sell in California are sold in the EU but without these toxic chemicals. These harmful additives have no place in California’s food supply.”

Consumers consistently rank food chemical concerns ahead of other food safety issues. But additives are not adequately regulated by the FDA, due in large part to the lack of financial support from Congress for food chemical review.

“For decades, the FDA has failed to keep us safe from toxic food chemicals,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s SVP for government affairs. “The chemical companies keep exploiting a loophole that allows for food additives that have not been adequately reviewed for safety by the FDA. And the FDA consistently fails to reassess chemicals, even in light of new science. The food and confectioners industries know the review process at the FDA is broken. In the absence of federal leadership, it’s up to states like California to keep us safe from dangerous chemicals in candy, cookies and other foods our families enjoy.”

Washington State passes US’ strongest law regulating toxic chemicals in cosmetics

Image credit: Tiger Lily

Meanwhile, the State of Washington has just passed the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) — the strongest law in the US regulating harmful chemicals in cosmetics and personal-care products.

“You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for personal-care products. When products are on the shelf, we assume they are safe to use; but this is not always the case. In fact, Ecology found that many cosmetics contain toxic chemicals and that those with the highest concentrations are often marketed to women of color,” said Washington State Representative Sharlett Mena (D-Tacoma), who sponsored the bill. “We regulate the use of toxics in other products; but the law allowed products that we apply to our bodies to use harmful chemicals. With this new law, we will no longer allow these harmful chemicals to be added to personal-care products and sold to unsuspecting people.”

Washington continues its leadership to regulate dangerous chemicals in everyday products and begins to address the disproportionate impact to people of color with this new law — which bans PFAS, lead, phthalates, formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers, and other harmful chemicals; requires assessment of chemicals that can impact vulnerable populations; and creates incentives for safer products. Bans take effect in 2025 — except for formaldehyde releasers, which have a phased-in approach beginning in 2026.

“Today, we celebrate a big win for public health,” said Laurie Valeriano, executive director at Toxic-Free Future. “Products we put on our bodies should only be made with the safest ingredients. Thanks to the leadership by our state legislature and Governor, cosmetics will be free of known harmful chemicals and the transition to safer cosmetics and personal-care products will be supported. The entire nation will benefit from a cleaner supply chain and information on safer alternatives.”

This is the first state law on cosmetics and personal-care products to:

  • Ban the class of ortho-phthalates, all formaldehyde-releasing agents, and triclosan;

  • Restrict lead;

  • Require state agencies to assess the hazards of chemicals used in products that can impact vulnerable populations; and,

  • Provide support for small businesses and independent cosmetologists to transition to safer products.

"We are pleased with the news that Washington now joins states like California and Maryland that have passed laws banning harmful ingredients from personal-care products. This marks the twelfth piece of legislation we’ve helped pass and I was incredibly proud to represent Beautycounter in providing a testimony to the Washington State Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee in support of the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act in March 2023," Jen Lee, Chief Impact Officer at Beautycounter — which testified and supported the bill — told Sustainable Brands® via email. "We are deeply grateful to everyone who played a role in advocating for this bill as we believe that an important part of delivering on our mission to get safer products into the hands of everyone is advocating for stronger laws and regulations at the federal and state levels."

Studies show that women of color are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals in cosmetics, thanks to their historically higher use of products such as hair straighteners and skin lighteners. A 2022 study found an increased risk of uterine cancer in women who used hair-straightening products, which often contain formaldehyde; and in January, a Washington State Departments of Ecology and Health report found high levels of formaldehyde in certain hair products, creams and lotions marketed to or used by people of color.

“This bill will help ensure that young children and adolescents can use common cosmetics without enduring harmful environmental exposures,” said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana of University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “This is important because these children are still growing and developing, and exposures at this age can have lasting impacts into the future.”

Washington State's action builds on laws in six other states (California, New York, Maryland, Minnesota, Maine and Colorado) that have also stepped up to regulate harmful chemicals in cosmetics and personal-care products in the absence of strong federal protections. A chart comparing state laws regulating toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal-care products can be found here.

“This law shows that states have a key role to play — they are in a position to be part of the solution as well as to fill the gaps that the federal government has left when it comes to toxic-free beauty products,” said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States. “State laws like these are a giant step forward for safer cosmetics nationwide.”

Many companies have demonstrated that banning hazardous chemicals is good business. A growing number of US retailers — including Credo Beauty, CVS Health, Rite Aid, Sephora, Target, Ulta Beauty, Walgreens, Walmart and Whole Foods Market — have been working to eliminate harmful chemicals for several years, as documented by Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program.

“This common-sense law supports a growing trend in the retail sector to restrict dangerous chemicals in cosmetics,” said Mind the Store director Mike Schade. “Banning chemicals like lead and formaldehyde levels the playing field and ensures companies are making safer products.”