Three products demonstrate two different approaches to regulating chemicals.
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Seventh Generation

Is it better to use precaution or to wait for proof?

That's a complex and contentious question in many ways — but especially when it comes to regulating chemicals.

In general, the European Union has taken a more public precautionary stance on these regulations, while the United States generally requires a stronger proof of harm to regulate or restrict chemicals.


In 2007, the 28 member nations of the European Union implemented a new screening system to regulate ingredients in cleaning products, food, cosmetics, and home goods. It’s a five-part program that essentially boils down to a "better safe than sorry" approach. In general, if scientific research shows that a product may be harmful to humans, animals, or the environment, the EU doesn’t allow it.

In Europe, peer-reviewed science is a tasty part of every government's policy making.

In the U.S., the law governing chemicals is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. You read that right — the act hasn’t been updated for 40 years. The Environmental Protection Agency as well as many Americans would like to see it strengthened, but in the past it’s been, to put it mildly, difficult to get any updates passed.

For a chemical to be restricted or banned in the U.S., there has to be strong proof of harm. The EPA generally identifies potential risks after a chemical is at market. Testing of new chemicals isn’t required unless there’s believed to be a risk of harm, and even then, it’s rare for the EPA to outright ban a product.

So wait ... does this mean American products are less safe than their European counterparts? Not necessarily. Does it mean the European Union needs to lighten up? Again, not necessarily. Both approaches are complex, and it's no easy job for anyone to balance all of the interests at play.

Let's look at three examples that highlight the complexities of these regulations.

When a product contains formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, should it be restricted or get a warning?

Pictured: Formaldehyde. Image by iStock.

Formaldehyde, also known as the stuff your creepy ninth grade biology teacher used to preserve dead animal specimens, is one of the 61 chemical groups regulated/restricted by the European Union.

Aside from its Frankenstein-y uses, formaldehyde is also a popular ingredient in laminate floors, resin, industrial antibacterial cleaners, and chemical hair straighteners. Unfortunately, it is also a “probable human carcinogen” (according to the EPA). Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde fumes can also exacerbate asthma and cause headaches, among other health effects.

Since 2014, the European Union has used its carcinogenic risk as a reason to strongly restrict the use of formaldehyde in industrial and consumer products.

The U.S. EPA limits the amount of formaldehyde that can be present in some construction materials, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't restrict the use of formaldehyde-releasers, or "donors," in cosmetics or personal care products because these may not be harmful.

What the FDA does instead is require all cosmetic or personal care products that contain formaldehyde (or formaldehyde-releasing chemicals like those in Brazilian blowout hair treatments) to disclose that information on their ingredient labels. Consumers can find out the risks associated with a specific product and make the decision themselves whether to use it or not.

Under regulations from the United States Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), industrial cleaning products that include formaldehyde are required to state so clearly on the label, along with the possible risks of use.

Is the buzz about neonicotinoids killing bees for real? The EU isn't waiting to find out.

Image by iStock.

The global food system depends on our insect pals, the bees, helping plants pollinate. When scientific research started to indicate that popular neonicotinoid (aka neonic) insecticides could be causing bee colonies to die off in record numbers, the European Union took action.

In 2013, it set in place a temporary two-year ban on the pesticide (not completely observed in the U.K.) to allow researchers more time to study impacts and make a decision on whether the ban should be made permanent.

While further decisions from the European Union are still pending, French lawmakers recently adopted a bill that would ban neonics in their nation starting in 2018 if it passes votes in their Senate and National Assembly later this year.

In the United States, regulators are taking a wait-and-see approach. The EPA has approved several neonicotinoid pesticides for use in the U.S.

Though there appears to be growing consensus that bees are exposed to neonics and some harm is caused to them, it’s not yet known if neonics are responsible for significantly damaging honeybee populations. The EPA says it is spending 2016 and 2017 compiling research on four popular neonics, promising to review regulations once that work is done.

In the interim, the EPA requires that all pesticides sold and used in the United States list all ingredients — along with associated risks to humans or animals and recommendations for safe storage/accidental exposure — on their product label.

Triclosan: the antibacterial cleaner banned in Europe. And Minnesota.

Image by iStock.

If you've used antibacterial soap any time over the last decade, chances are you've come in contact with triclosan. This popular antibacterial and antifungal chemical is most commonly found in hospitals, but it has also been used in everything from dish soap to toothpaste to children's toys.

It is extremely effective, but science shows it's also pervasive — research shows it sticks around in the environment long after we've finished using it, and scientists have observed that it can kill helpful algae while accumulating in the bodies of other organisms, including earthworms and even dolphins.

Because there's still so much unknown about triclosan, the European Union banned its use as a personal care product on Jan. 1 this year.

In the U.S, both the FDA and the EPA require products that contain triclosan as an active ingredient to disclose that on the label. As for its other potential health risks, the FDA's stance is that "FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time." It does note, though, that "several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review."

In 2010 the Natural Resource Defense Council sued the EPA for inaction on regulating triclosan. It has been under review since 2013, except in Minnesota where a 2014 law has banned its use beginning Jan. 1, 2017.

While government agencies in America study whether certain chemicals should be banned or restricted, some companies are making voluntary updates to their ingredients.

In 2013, Procter & Gamble announced it would be removing triclosan from most of its products by the end of 2014. Many garden supply companies and retailers are voluntarily phasing out neonics.

Rather than wait for regulations to catch up, they are being proactive and transparent — something that's always comforting to see from the products we trust with our health and our homes.

While there are pros and cons to both precaution and waiting for definitive proof, there's one thing we know for sure: Basing decisions on good, thorough, peer-reviewed science, and continuously reviewing the guidelines that govern chemical regulation, is never a bad idea — no matter how long it takes to get there.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 11.21.16


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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."