Lead in Lipstick?

By Jeanne A. Conry, MD, PhD, FACOG

Past President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Yes, Lead in Lipstick was my “ah hah” moment about chemical exposures and our health. It was about 2006 and an aide in the California legislature reached out to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG, California). They reached out to us as women’s health experts. They reached out because we know more about women’s health than others, we are aware of impacts on health. We are a politically active organization… but we knew nothing about lead in lipstick.


Our first question was whether there was lead in lipstick (there is!). Our second question, like all good scientists, was “what does the research say”? And that was when we knew there was a problem. As physicians, as OBGYNs who care for women and prescribe medications daily, we rely on research. But we were faced with a totally different problem than we are accustomed to as physicians: With prescription medications, there are years and years of quality research before a chemical, a medication, is released for use. The goal is to protect the public. Pharmaceutical companies must prove safety exists before the public is exposed. JUST the opposite is true with the chemical industry: we the public must prove HARM before a chemical is removed from the market! The burden of proof for harm lies with the physicians, environmental researchers and the public. A chemical company should be expected to prove safety exists before any exposure occurs.

The “Gold Standard” of research, with double blind, case-controlled studies, shared in scientific journals helps physicians understand risks and benefits before our patients are exposed to a new chemical or a new pharmaceutical product. That “gold standard” simply cannot be met once a chemical is released into the environment and the public is exposed to it. With lead, there was nothing new. There are years of research showing that no level of lead is safe in our body. Yet, the actual research about lead exposure from lipstick is limited, and does not look at exposure from multiple sources simultaneously. The assumption is that the amounts are small, so harm is negligible. The assumptions are the same for all personal care products: if they cannot be proven individually to cause harm once they are on the market, there is no reason to remove them from use. Historically, there is no cumulative exposure concept. We as consumers should ask for a higher standard. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) called for just that approach on a global perspective. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists called for reform in the United States.

Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals is ubiquitous, and preconception and prenatal exposure to toxic environmental agents can have a lasting effect on reproductive health across the life course. These chemicals have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations. In this time of uncertainty about regulations and information, it is important for the public to have a strong voice about safety. It Is important for physicians, scientists and environmental leaders to guide research, advocacy, and training to improve global health. It is a sure investment in our future.

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