A common retort to the U.S.’s renewed push towards cleaner, renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is that “we will never get rid of oil, it’s in everything.”   While most people associate oil with gasoline and driving, the refining of oil produces a wide variety of petroleum-based products from PVC to panty hose from curtains to crayons.  Ironically people who use this argument rarely see it as a problem:  it’s in EVERYTHING!

Sticking your head in the sand is not going to change the fact that our country’s reliance on fossil fuels is dangerous.  Petro dollars support some of the most corrupt regimes on the planet including Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.  The utilization of so many petroleum-based ingredients places nearly everyone at risk of toxic exposure.  Hydrocarbons and other chemicals from the refining process can make their way into everyday use products without consumers’ knowledge.  These toxic chemicals can enter your body if you breathe, eat, or drink them or if they are absorbed through your skin.

Benzene Contamination found in Every Day Personal Products

The Guardian published a story on March 18, 2022, detailing how independent labs found the known human carcinogen, Benzene, in hundreds of popular personal care items in the US.  “Benzene really shouldn’t be there at all,” The CEO of the independent lab said. “What we’re seeing is a fundamental problem in the manufacturing of a lot of consumer products.”[1]   To date, the independent lab has tested 662 personal items and found the chemical in 180, or about 27%, of products.  Aerosol-based sunscreens and body sprays were the most likely product to contain excessive amounts of benzene. Nearly half of the 108 aerosol items tested positive.  These include items such as hand sanitizers, sunscreens, lotions, deodorant, dry shampoos, conditioners, antiperspirants, deodorants, body sprays and anti-fungal treatments.

Stricter Government Oversight is Needed

Even though Benzene has been banned in the U.S. for close to five decades, its use is permitted in certain manufacturing processes.   These manufacturing processes are the main culprit at putting the public at risk to exposure.  This problem only projects to worsen as government oversight of manufacturing processes continues to be replaced with self-reporting.   Sunscreens from Neutrogena, CVS, Sun Bum, Banana Boat, and Raw Elements contained the highest levels of Benzene out of all of the products tested. Aerosols were by far the most likely to contain benzene, however, several lotions, and gels contained detectable levels of Benzene as well.

No Safe Levels of Benzene Exposure

It is very difficult to associate an individual exposure to Benzene with a negative health outcome as ailments can take years to manifest.  However, years upon years of research has shown that there are no safe levels of Benzene exposure.  Benzene is toxic and carcinogenic at very low levels.

Benzene is a known human carcinogen.  The petroleum based chemical causes leukemia and cancers in blood forming organs in humans according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.  Long-term exposure to Benzene affects the blood. Benzene causes harmful effects on bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia.   It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.

It’s in Everything, but it Shouldn’t Be

Benzene contamination led several companies, including Procter & Gamble, Bayer, CVS and Johnson & Johnson to issue voluntary recalls for widely distributed brands including Brut, Sure, Pantene, Herbal Essences, Old Spice, Secret, Tinactin, Lotrimin, Coppertone, Neutrogena and Aveeno.    It is important that companies issue recalls and remove contaminated products from shelves.  However, it is highly likely that many more personal care products which were not independently tested are still reaching the market with unsafe levels of Benzene.  Benzene will continue to make its way into products that consumers use every day due to the complex nature of modern global supply chains combined with a lack of oversight in the production and manufacturing of personal care products.  So long as the United States maintains our dependence on fossil fuels, we will be at increased risk of toxic exposure to petroleum-based contaminants.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/mar/18/benzene-carcinogenic-chemical-personal-care-products-us

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