copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert
For years, Sarah felt safe as she traveled about. She shielded herself from harm. She placed her faith in science. She listened to the advice of experts. She thought she had been careful with chemicals and creams. This wise woman knew not to trust recommendations without doing a thorough examination of evidence. After an avid assessment, Sarah avowed, “Sunscreens are good.” Then one day, as she entered her home after being out and about, she saw what she had never imagined. Sarah was beyond surprised; she was shocked. Her mouth agape, Sarah shrieked; “I have been burned.” Not only had the solar rays she worked to avoid scorched her skin in ways she had not thought possible. The lotion may have seared parts of her body not easily seen.
What Sarah had not considered was her sunscreen may have debilitated people, plants, and aquatic animals throughout the planet. She was not sensitive to the symbiosis that governs the globe. Sarah was as most individuals are, she was consumed with what affected her directly. Her skin, her health, the salves she slathered on, these were her priorities.
On a bright afternoon in June, Sarah, a person whose complexion is pinkish in hue, first realized reason for alarm. She turned the television on, and was greeted with the headline, “Study: Some sunscreens overpromise on protection.” Extremely disturbed by the possibility cosmetic creams might have an effect on her personal health, Sarah pursed her lips and rushed to the computer. She needed to read the research for herself. After all, her life and wellbeing were threatened. She decided to take control and more closely scrutinize her choices. She perused the survey.
In a new investigation of 952 name-brand sunscreens, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 4 out of 5 sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns. Leading brands were the worst offenders: None of market leader Coppertone’s 41 sunscreen products met EWG’s criteria for safety and effectiveness, and only 1 of 103 products from Banana Boat and Neutrogena, the second- and third-largest manufacturers, are recommended by EWG.
Sarah sighed. She had likely tried every brand imaginable before she chose what she thought best for her. This studied soul, whose skin is sensitive, discovered she reacted poorly to most creams, ointments, and sprays. Rashes raged on her skin after most any application. For her, hypoallergenic was an oxymoron. She believed the government had the best intentions when they coined this term; nonetheless, for her it was meaningless. Sarah suspected perhaps, in the past, her trust in public officials and manufacturers was misplaced.
(The Food and Drug Administration) FDA now stands in direct violation of a Congressional mandate requiring the agency to finalize sunscreen safety standards by May 2006, flouting not only Congress but also consumers, who are reliant on sunscreen to protect their health . . .
FDA has spent the past 30 years drafting sunscreen standards (FDA 2007a), which it urges manufacturers to follow voluntarily. FDA issued its latest draft standards in August 2007, which include a proposal for first-ever UVA standards, but still has failed to finalize the standards to make them mandatory. In lieu of enforceable standards, each sunscreen manufacturer decides on test methods, marketing claims, and the level of protection they are willing and able to provide consumers. Health authorities recommend sunscreen, but people are left wondering which of the hundreds of sunscreens on store shelves will best protect their and their families’ skin from the sun.
Sarah now reluctantly realized her government, in all its glory, fried her sense of pride. She thought herself careful. This woman had faith; she could trust those in charge of the Food and Drug Administration to protect her. Certainly, Congress would check the claims of sunscreen producers. They would be the balance if policymakers engaged in questionable behaviors. Such was the wisdom of Sarah.
This lovely lady believed as she was taught. The forefathers understood; equilibrium is essential. This vital notion was built into the Constitution. Government agencies work for the common good. In America, public officials, and civil servants, are employed by the people and labor in their interest. Now she wonders. All she is certain of is she is free to wear a sunscreen. The question is, which one will she choose, and what are the hazards of such a decision. Sarah reads on.
Many products on the market present obvious safety and effectiveness concerns, including one of every seven that does not protect from UVA radiation This problem is aggravated by the fact that FDA has not finalized comprehensive sunscreen safety standards they began drafting 30 years ago. Overall, we (Environmental Working Group – EWG) identified 143 products that offer very good sun protection with ingredients that present minimal health risks to users. Find out which in our best and worst lists.
Once the records are retrieved, Sarah saw that one of the two products that did not cause her to weep in reaction to the chemicals was deemed a “high hazard.” The other that did not irritate or inflame her flesh was rated “moderately hazardous.” She was uncertain whether she should be relieved or grieve further. Could it be that a “moderate” rating was fine. Frustrated with her choices Sarah read on.
The U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to products that work and are safe. FDA has approved just 17 sunscreen chemicals for use in the U.S. At least 29 are approved for use in the E.U. FDA has approved only 4 chemicals effective in the UVA range for use in the U.S., and has failed to approve new, more effective UVA filters available in the E.U. and Asia.
So many illusions were destroyed as Sarah reviewed the literature. She wished she could go back in time when life was carefree, and ignorance seemed blissful. She wanted to trust in her government, in the free market system, in anything again.
Sarah recalled the words of friends and family. “A day in the sun, would that not be fun.” So was the gleeful cry of every school child for decades, perhaps for centuries. For eons, babies bathed in the light. Parents would watch in delight as they watched the progeny play. Long ago, she knew, some Moms and Dads were cautious; they feared exposure to such intense beams would not wear well over the years However, even those who expressed alarm, knew certainly, the sun could do no harm to internal organs, (or to organisms outside our body.) However, today, we learn sunscreens can cause serious problems. What we slather on with abandon apparently may do more to age us and cause illness than sun exposure ever did.
Some sunscreens absorb into the blood and raise safety concerns. Our review of the technical literature shows that some sunscreen ingredients absorb into the blood, and some are linked to toxic effects . . .
Most sunscreen chemicals are far from innocuous. In sunlight, some release free radicals that can damage DNA and cells, promote skin aging, and possibly raise risks for skin cancer. Some act like estrogen and may disrupt normal hormone signaling in the body. Others may build up in the body and the environment.
Oh my gosh, she exclaimed. These supposedly innocuous sunscreens seep into the bloodstream and place the planet in peril. Sarah understood that a chemical on the skin might cause residual effects. However, she was challenged to comprehend how a unguent could bother Mother Nature?
Yet, her interest was peaked. How could a balm she rubs on her body possibly do damage to the flora and fauna? She searched for more information, an explanation, and some elucidation.
The scientists said ultra-violet filters found in sunscreens and commonly used fireproofing materials were to blame for the presence of these dangerous (hormonally active chemicals known as endocrine disruptors) . . .
Even at low dosages, these chemicals have an effect, according to the national research programme into endocrine disruptors.
Endocrine disruptors of this type are fairly common in the environment, in household dust or office spaces. Researchers consider that people absorb these airborne chemicals at least as much this way as they do through nutrition.
Small children who are still crawling as well as aircraft crew are considered to be among those most under threat.
Traces of bromide fireproofing agents have also been found in fish, in sludge at sewage treatment plants and even in foxes living in urban zones.
Sarah sighs and in the moment thinks herself relieved. Perhaps, chemicals found in fish and foxes are not critical. After all, humans are filled with toxins and we still survive. Most of us thrive. The thoughtful person that she is, Sarah is fascinated by the realization she is in a relationship. Her actions are a cause. What she does has an effect the other being, some of whom she has never seen or touched. She could not imagine what this might mean. Little sweet spirit Sarah never thought she might have the power to injure cuddly babies. As she read and reflected, tears fell from her eyes. She knew not whether the salty solution that drifted down her cheeks spoke to her sorrow or rage.
Sunscreens are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways that the chemical industry and the government are failing to protect public health. An extensive body of scientific literature demonstrates that everyone in the world carries in their body hundreds if not thousands of industrial chemicals at any given moment, the result of exposures to contaminants in air, water, and food, and to ingredients in everyday consumer products.
No one understands the health implications of our exposures to complex mixtures of industrial compounds and pollutants: remarkably, federal health standards do not require companies to test most products for safety before they are sold, including nearly all chemicals in sunscreen and other personal care products. Little is known about the safety of most industrial chemicals. In the absence of data the federal government approves new chemicals for the market using computer models to predict if they are toxic to humans.
Sarah wondered; how can she trust what she thought to be true? She had relied on the strength of her government. She placed her faith in an industry who she now accepts profits from her pain. Sarah, too often experiences a reliance on technology reaps results that harm humans. Her faith in all that is familiar is dashed.
Article after article, reveals a truth she had not realized. Sarah is related to every entity on the Earth and she is somewhat responsible for realities beyond her belief. Sarah concludes, ignorance is not an excuse; arrogance is injurious. She bemoans her own failure to know what each essay reminds her of. The invisible connection every individual has with all other life forms cannot be disputed or ignored.
Sarah’s heightened stress prompted more reading and greater concern. One treatise was perhaps more persuasive than the next. “Chemicals in sunscreen may be harmful to aquatic life.” Injurious indeed; what might that mean? She scanned further. “If your suntan oil can change the sex of fish, what can it do to you?” The tome stated, “The stuff is not only on our skin: it’s in our tap water and lunches too.” Sarah gasped. Then, she looked back at the page. Sarah hoped to learn more.
“Almost 80 percent of our water in the U.S. shows trace amounts of chemicals from personal care products, which could be sunscreens, lotions, colognes or medications,” said Sejal Choksi, the program director for Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group. . .
A recent study authorized by the European Commission found that the chemical compounds that filter ultraviolet radiation in cream-based sunscreens caused bleaching in coral reefs.
The study, published in the U.S. journal Environmental Health Perspectives, showed that even small amounts of the chemicals made the algae on coral susceptible to viral infection. The killing, or bleaching, of the algae — which have a symbiotic relationship with the coral — is a death knell for the whole structure . . .
Some 60 percent of the world’s reef systems are now being threatened by a combination of global warming, industrial pollution, and excess UV radiation, which is why the sunscreen threat is being taken seriously by scientists.
“As with anything that happens in the environment, there is a confluence that joins together in weakening an ecosystem.
The union of man and beast, flora and fauna when in balance give birth to a thriving bionetwork. When destabilized even the strong cannot survive. Life, as we know it, ultimately dies, when impurities are the source of imbalance.
Sarah had never considered the importance of marine life before. Nor did she suspect the depth of synergy. Coral for her, just seemed to sit on the bottom of the ocean floor. She did not fully consider collectivism. The statement, “Man is not an island” does not begin to explain a fellowship that exists beyond humans. As she investigated, she gained greater insights into synchronicity.
Sea life supports plants and animals. Fish are dependent on a healthy coral reef. Humans are perhaps more reliant on the vigor of aragonite structures. Sarah marveled; her choices and those of every person on the planet affect the well-being of life forms beneath the sea.
Why are healthy reefs important?
Healthy coral reef ecosystems play several important roles by:
- Maintaining ecosystem structure and function
- Supporting ecosystem and community services
- Protecting shorelines and preventing erosion
Unhealthy systems have been linked to:
- Human illnesses or diseases linked to ecological imbalance
- Decline in economic profits due to loss of natural resources
- Loss of cultural traditions due to changing use of natural resources
- Decline in tourism
- Increased vulnerability to hurricanes due to altered/decline of reefs and coastal areas.
What are the primary threats to reef health?
The primary disturbances in the Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem have been:
- Unsustainable coastal development
- Pollution (including agrochemicals, sedimentation and nutrients/sewage)
- Global Climate Change (which may increase the impact of coral bleaching and hurricanes)
- Lack of protection or lack of enforcement of existing regulations
Sarah surmised what she read and heard of sunscreens was more significant than reported. Pollution, even from a lotion, gives way to global warming. A planet heated is beset with hurricanes. Certainly, recent weather conditions illustrate there is reason for concern. Sarah, just as citizens throughout the globe, has witnessed odd occurrences. Historic cyclones, floods, tornadoes, hail, winds, and rains have become our daily truth. People everywhere speak of unprecedented, unpredictable weather conditions. No matter the season or the region, men, women, and children do not know what the weather will be. Sarah marvels, might the effect of sunscreens partially explain these mysteries. Yikes!
Sarah said aloud, “What else do I not know of the layers and layers of lotion, lathered high above the epidermis?” As she settles into her routine, she reflects.
Where can she go to hide from the rays that put her at risk? Can she sneak away from the government that she thought cradled her soul and secured her safety. Must she accept, in a society built on entrepreneurial enterprises, manufacturers create a market and no matter where she travels, she will not escape the woes that a want for more money advance. Hours later, tucked into the darkness of night, Sarah, now ready for bed decides, she is free to choose, and only she can be her best shield from entities that could cause her to suffer. She sleeps and dreams of daylight. What will she do come morning. Might she slather on the sunscreen and live with the guilt. Sarah never thought the cream she applied to her face, arms, and legs could cause such a crisis worldwide.
Sources and Sunscreens . . .
- Sunscreens Can Damage Skin, Researchers Find. Science Daily. August 29, 2006
- Sunscreen; the Burning Facts. Environmental Protection Agency. September 20, 2006
- The Cloudy Side of Sunscreens. Environmental Science and Technology. January 18, 2006
- “Study: Some sunscreens overpromise on protection.” By Amy Burkholder. Cable News Network. July 1, 2008
- Alarm sounded over chemicals in sunscreens. Swiss Info. June 26, 2008
- Chemicals in sunscreen may be harmful to aquatic life, By Peter Fimrite. Times Record News. June 13, 2008
- If your suntan oil can change the sex of fish, what can do it to you? The stuff is not only on our skin: it’s in our tap water and lunches too. By Geoffrey Lean. The Independent.?Sunday, 22 January 2006
- Healthy Reefs for Healthy People.
- Sunscreen Summary – What Works and What’s Safe, By Sean Gray, Senior Analyst; Sonya Lunder, MPH, Senior Analyst; Kristan Markey, Analyst (former); Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D., Staff Scientist; Nneka Leiba, MPH, Researcher; Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research. Environmental Working Group (EWG) 2008