Saturday December 8 2007
The Daily Mail, as you know, is engaged in a philosophical project of mythic proportions: for many years now it has diligently been sifting through all the inanimate objects in the world, soberly dividing them into the ones which either cause – or cure – cancer. The only tragedy is that one day, amongst the noise, they might genuinely be on to something, and we would simply laugh.
That day has come. They asked: “Is your lipstick giving you breast cancer?” And the answer is simple: butyl benzyl phthalate should be banned from use in the cosmetic industry. I agree with a scare story in the Daily Mail.
“Chemicals found in lipstick and nail varnish could trigger breast cancer, scientists warned yesterday.” Yes. “A study has shown that butyl benzyl phthalate, or BBP, can interfere with the healthy development of breast tissue.” I agree. “Environmental campaigners yesterday called for it to be banned in the cosmetic industry.” I agree with them too.
For just one moment, indulge my secret geeky love of materials science. Phthalates are very clever oily substances which are used as plasticisers: when you add them to something like, say PVC, which is hard, they allow the long PVC molecules to slide over each other. It’s a bit like adding water to clay.
You can tell plastic products which have phthalates in them because they have that kind of waxy, flexible texture, and a dodgy chemical smell. A drop of phthalate is the difference between a rigid 12-inch vinyl record and a figure-hugging PVC corset. Without phthalates there would be no fetish nightclubs, and none of those spongy PVC floor tiles.
They’ve also been used to make flexible plastic toys, and were banned from children’s teethers a while ago (although that was a bit of a cosmetic regulatory move, since most of your exposure is through food, because phthalates leak out of the plastic packaging; there’s a lot of them in dust, too). So what risk judgment are we endorsing here? Phthalates are all different, but some have been shown at high concentrations to have harmful effects in laboratory animals, they may block the effects of male hormones, and in one OK-ish study – the results of which have been overstated in many quarters – phthalates have also been associated with borderline effects on genital development in foetuses.
But the details of BBP in cosmetics are less interesting than the question of how we collectively manage risks: because we will always need to take risks, with every step we take down the street, and the nature of our risk exposure has changed. I cannot unanimously ban BBP from cosmetics in Europe, and reduce my risk of breast cancer, and I cannot decide unanimously to change my country’s foreign policy, to reduce my chances of being blown up on the way to work.
We employ people to make these judgments for us, imperfectly, collectively, as best they can. They are politicians, bureaucrats and scientists, not journalists, because journalists are often too eager to produce a frightening story, and sometimes that can come secondary to concerns about accuracy. In the case of this story on BBP in cosmetics, for example, the Daily Mail, in demanding a ban, seems to have missed one important element of the story: BBP is already banned for use in cosmetics, by the European Union, throughout Europe, after careful consideration, and has been for quite some time now.