When a small Dutch laboratory announced in February that it had measured high levels of chemicals potentially harmful to human health in some of the world's most popular perfumes, the results were meant to inflame. And they did.
Commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace, and published under the alarmist subtitle "L'Eau de Toxines," the report suggested that women and men may be spraying themselves with toxic substances. The French Perfume Manufacturers Association reacted immediately with a terse statement blaming environmentalists for "throwing doubt on the innocence of perfumes."
The angry exchange illustrated just how high the stakes are in a debate that goes far beyond perfume. The European Union is preparing landmark legislation that would require companies for the first time to study and report on the safety of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals they put into consumer goods - from cars and computers to beauty products.
The legislation, known as Reach, for Research, Evaluation and Approval of Chemicals, which is expected to be adopted by early next year, will dramatically change the way Europe regulates household chemicals - and may also vastly improve understanding of the hazards posed by the soup of low-level chemicals in the backdrop of contemporary life.
"There was growing concern about the linkage between chemicals and dis- ease, but really the biggest concern was the general lack of overall information," said Yvon Slingenberg, acting head of the chemical unit of the European Commission's Environment Director- ate General. "There are all these substances out there having an impact, but we don't know what it is."
The European commissioner for environmental affairs, Stavros Dimas, noted this week that legislation is the only way to force all companies to pay attention to chemical safety. These firms should be prepared "to preempt scares and scandals by replacing dangerous substances up front," he said.
Chemicals developed since 1981 have already had to undergo intensive scrutiny in Europe. Older, widely used compounds - like some of the ingredients in perfume, flame retardants and hair dyes - have been less widely studied. As scientists struggle to explain rises in diseases like breast cancer and brain tumors, as well as declining male fertility rates, many wonder if low-level exposure to certain substances may hold the key.
For its report, Greenpeace had the Dutch chemistry lab TNO Environment and Geosciences analyze a "random selection" of 36 perfumes for the presence of two groups of chemicals: phthalates and synthetic musks. The results showed, for example, that Calvin Klein's Eternity for Women contained 2.2 percent by weight of the chemical diethyl phthalate. Jean-Paul Gaultier's perfume Le Male was more than 6 percent synthetic musk. The White Musk from The Body Shop, which trumpets its eco-friendliness, contained nearly 10 percent synthetic musk.
There is no direct evidence that the phthalates or synthetic musks pose a risk to human health. But much remains unknown, and there are recent indica- tions that these chemicals may not be innocuous. It is unclear, for example, how much of these compounds is absorbed through the skin and how dangerous such doses are to humans.