The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world as we know it. We are on high alert, living our lives differently than we did just one week ago. Social distancing, cocooning and self-isolation are now part of our vocabulary, a new language to deal with a new threat. We human beings are good at learning new things and our learning curve this last week has been very steep indeed. As more and more countries are infected by coronavirus, we can learn from the experiences of others first affected, both from their successful actions and their failures. We can put measures and processes in place to help us stay safe. By learning from our mistakes we can set guidelines and protocols. One thing this health crisis has highlighted is the need and importance of such safety measures. In particular : standards, trusted labels and third party certification.
Standards…do they matter?
In New Jersey this week four children suffered first degree burns when they used a spray sanitiser bought in a 7-Eleven store. The store owner, in response to high demand due to the coronavirus, had mixed her own concoction of sanitiser and sold it to the children. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, some of the ingredients listed on the bottle included chemical compounds such as Octyl decyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and Dioctyl dimethyl ammonium chloride. Both these compounds can cause severe skin burns. The quality of this homemade mixture clearly didn’t meet any safety standards, the labelling was completely inadequate and it was many many steps removed from third party certification. Thankfully these kids will recover and – rightly so – the store owner has been charged with endangering the welfare of children.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tackling this issue. Their job is to ensure that the sanitisers that claim they kill the coronavirus actually do and, in this time of need, to expedite the process of getting more sanitisers registered and into the market. Effective disinfectants and sanitisers that meet the required standards are all registered with them. They have just released a disinfectant guide that lists all products qualified for use against COVID-19 and consumers can check this list if in doubt of a product’s claims. This is most certainly a useful resource, but I can’t help but feel that it falls a little short. The kids who bought the bogus product were hardly going to cross reference an EPA list before purchasing. A simple, clear and internationally recognised mark or stamp on the packaging indicating that the disinfectant standard had been reached would add huge clarity.
More serious again is the matter of certain products claiming to cure, treat or prevent COVID-19. Teas, essential oils and colloidal silver are among the bogus medicines claiming to perform miracles against the virus. One website claims that their silver solution has been ‘proven to kill every pathogen it has ever been tested on’ and can ‘kill any known viruses’. I think we have all seen something of this ilk online. But if we as consumers believe these claims – and their websites are often very convincing indeed – we may be led to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, causing very serious or life threatening harm.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have already issued warning letters to seven of these companies for selling fraudulent and misleading COVID-19 products such as the above mentioned and I’m sure that won’t be all, as dodgy traders all over the world will attempt to cash in on this crisis. Luckily for consumers, the FDA have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for fraudulent health products, especially during significant public health issues because standards most certainly do matter.
We are prompted to ask, how do we know a product does what it claims?
Long before the coronavirus came into our lives I found myself standing in stores, staring at an overwhelming choice of products and wondering which to choose. Manufacturers like to put terms like ‘pure’, ‘natural’ and ‘hypoallergenic’ on their products. But if I have eczema, is it worth paying more for the cream that says hypoallergenic? If I have asthma, do I choose the cleaning product that claims to be pure? Really what I’m asking is, can I trust these terms?
Shockingly, the answer to this question is no – I cannot trust these terms. ‘Pure’ and ‘natural’ does not mean a product has met any standards or tested to be less harmful or indeed any more ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ than any other product. In fact, the product may well contain a more harmful product than the one it sits next to. Thankfully consumers are wising up to this and many are taking a stand against the manufacturers who are trying to deceive us. Currently there are several class action law suits pending against some of the biggest players in the industry for using these terms in a misleading manner – ‘acts of deceptive marketing’, in lawyer-speak. One best selling product in particular is marketed as ‘natural’, ‘gentle’ and ‘hypoallergenic’ but in fact contains a synthetic chemical called phenoxyethanol, which the FDA says may cause vomiting and diarrhoea in infants. Surely this demonstrates a need for clearer, more honest labelling.
What exactly does hypoallergenic mean?
The dictionary meaning of hypoallergenic means ‘relatively unlikely to cause an allergic reaction’. I like the sound of that. I’m prone to allergies from cosmetics, so a cream that reduces that risk seems a wise choice to me. The term implies it is healthier, safer, superior even than the product its sitting next to on the shelf.
In reality, there is no Federal standard by the FDA or the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) that governs the term hypoallergenic. That means, just like ‘pure’ and ‘natural’, the term ‘hypoallergenic’ can be used on virtually any product. It’s a similar story with ‘fragrance-free’ – a study carried out by Northwestern Medicine showed that nearly half of the products claiming to be fragrance free actually had a fragrance. It also found that 83% of products with hypoallergenic labels included a potentially allergenic chemical.
Even if I choose not to believe the term hypoallergenic and decide to do my homework by checking every ingredient listed there exists a further problem: as the US Food and Drug Administration has limited authority over cosmetics, manufacturers do not have to provide a list of every chemical or fragrance in their product. Having said that, for some products, if all ingredients were listed, the listed would run to many pages. The problem, it seems, is multi-faceted.
One thing is clear, the terms ‘pure’, ‘natural’ and ‘hypoallergenic’ are simply marketing terms, nothing more.
Labels.. .do they matter?
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was 15 when she looked for a label on the packaging of the baguette she bought from Pret a Manger cafe at Heathrow Airport in London. Natasha had a severe allergy to sesame, but reassured by finding no specific allergen information on it, she felt safe. She suffered an anaphylactic shock on board her flight. Despite two EpiPen’s administered by her Dad, she went into cardiac arrest and, on landing, was declared dead at a hospital in France. When it became apparent that Natasha was not going to survive, her father held a phone to his daughter’s ear to allow her mother, who was in London trying to get on a flight to see her daughter, say goodbye to her. I challenge you to read the details of her death and the horrendous trauma her parents endured and not be moved.
Under the laws at the time, Pret a Manger did not require to list the ingredients of sandwiches made up on the premises. Natasha’s parents have worked tirelessly to change the system and under “Natasha’s law”, from 2021 food businesses will have to include full ingredients labelling on pre-packaged food. Yes, I think labels matter.
Third party certification.. does it matter?
When 4 year old Jarnell Therman Brown swallowed a heart shaped toy charm and started vomiting shortly afterwards, his mother took him to the emergency department. The fatal charm, which had “Reebok” engraved on it, was given away with a number of sneaker styles made by Reebok for preschool and grade-school children. After treatment for gastroenteritis at the hospital, he was sent home, but after his condition deteriorated, his mother returned with him two days later. He was admitted and IV fluids were given. Jarnell’s condition continued to deteriorate and 10 hours after admission Jarnell suffered respiratory arrest and was put on mechanical ventilation.
A foreign object seen on X-ray in Jarnell’s stomach prompted a call for heavy metals testing. The result revealed a level of lead almost twice the life threatening level. When the toy charm was tested it was found to contain 99% lead. On the fourth day of hospitalisation, Jarnell’s life support was removed.
The Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) requires precautionary labelling on any household product containing lead, and the use of lead in toys or any other article intended for children is completely banned (with some exceptions). All toys intended for use by children 12 years of age and under must be third party tested and be certified in a Children’s Product Certificate as compliant to the federal toy safety standard enacted by Congress.
Third party certification is an independent, objective review of a product’s safety and of its performance and therefore results in safer more reliable products. It has no financial interest in the sale of the product and it distinguishes those manufacturers making compliant products from those who do not. Because the testers have the expertise, experience and the testing materials, the certification process can be cost effective and efficient. It’s probably true to say that manufacturers generally use design engineers rather than safety engineers to design their products. This can result in a product that performs well but may not comply with the safety, health or environmental standards or requirements. Third party certification steps in here and provides this necessity.
The toy charm had somehow slipped through the system and had failed to be certified by the third party. This failure demonstrates the catastrophic dangers of lack of standards and especially lack of third party certification. Reebok was fined $1 million by the U.S. government for violating the FHSA. Jarnell’s mother received compensation – a poor substitute for her beloved son. Yes, I think third party certification matters.
About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author
Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award-winning author.
standards, labelling, labels, third party certification, asthma, healthy, chemicals, hypoallergenic, pure, natural, safety measures, allergies, sanitiser, fragrance free
References and further reading
The Guardian : Father of girl who died of allergy blames Pret a Manger Click here
NBC New York : Police warn of spray sanitiser sold Click here
EPA : Pesticide registration list Click here
Northwestern Medicine : Moisturisers for skin disorder sufferers Click here
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