View from the Bottom: Are Medicated Baby Powders Doing More Harm Than Good? (Your Health)

By Bogo, Jennifer | E Magazine, March-April 2000 | Go to article overview

View from the Bottom: Are Medicated Baby Powders Doing More Harm Than Good? (Your Health)


Bogo, Jennifer, E Magazine


Lead has been identified by the federal government as the foremost environmental health threat to American children. Nearly one million children still have elevated blood lead levels, over four percent of the population. Now, according to San Francisco's Center for Environmental Health (CEH), infants may be exposed through the most unlikely of sources--medicated baby powders.

Testing conducted by the CEH revealed 10 powders to contain trace amounts of lead (up to three parts per million), under the brand names Ammens, Caldesene, Desitin, Dr. Scholl's, Gold Bond, Johnson & Johnson, Longs, Mexsana and Walgreens. Not that these names should necessarily be taboo to parents. The tests did not actually reveal them to be harmful to children, and several of these same companies also manufacture lead-free, unmedicated powders. The common denominator in all of the brands with detectable levels of lead is the element of medication--the active ingredient zinc oxide, added to treat rashes and minor skin irritation.

Because the zinc oxide itself is frequently contaminated with lead, the CEH questions applying the medicated powders directly to the chafed, sensitive area of diaper rash. Dr. Janet Phoenix of the National Lead Information Center warns, however, that "putting a product with lead on a child, even if it's not absorbed through the skin, may still result in ingestion or inhaling powder that's been dispersed through the air." And although the levels may be low, all sources of lead exposure are cause for concern, says Phoenix, because the damage incurred is largely irreversible.

When lead enters the body, it distributes to vital organs, like the brain and kidney, and accumulates in the bones. The effects range from reduced mention and lowered intelligence to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, impaired growth and hearing loss. Developmental delays in lead-exposed children have been shown to persist until at least age 5. Several factors place children at greater risk: high hand-to-mouth activity, a nervous system that is still developing, and certain dietary deficiencies, like those of calcium and iron, which increase absorption of lead from the gut.

The CEH filed suit against the manufacturers of the powders, and several retail distributors, including RiteAid, Safeway and three online Internet drug stores (Drugstore.com, More.com and PlanetRx.com) for silently exposing consumers, especially children, to lead. The CEH claims the companies are in violation of California's Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which identifies chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive harm. Lead is listed for both.

Risky Business

But the question is not whether the lead content is legal. Lead is actually already in a lot of products, says Allen Halper, compliance officer in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. For instance, zinc oxide is also used as a color additive in cosmetics, and lead acetate appears in Grecian Formula, a hair coloring product. What California's Proposition 65 might instead determine is whether the levels of lead warrant action such as product labeling. "The key issue is that parents have a right to know," says Michael Greene, CEH director.

There are currently 455 carcinogens and 255 developmental chemicals listed under the Act, and for many of these, levels of safety have been established that determine whether a product necessitates a warning. If no legal level has been set, it's left to industry to prove through testing that the product doesn't impose unreasonable risk. According to a spokesperson for the California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment, if deemed necessary, the powders would carry a label similar to this: "Warning: Contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. …

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