The Dark Side of Brighteners

The continuing cost of corporate secrecy to consumers will soon be given greater focus in yet another group of widely used chemicals called “optical brighteners.” Millions of pounds of these chemical compounds are used in detergents, cosmetics, textiles, paper, soap, bandages and plastics. Their purpose: to make products “whiter than white.”

Brighteners make things whiter by transforming invisible ultraviolet light into visible light. Large users of brighteners such as Procter and Gamble concede that their only purpose is cosmetic. They do not concede any health costs however.

If these corporations are not disclosing risks and admitting unknowns about brighteners, other researchers, mostly overseas, are being heard. Japan has banned the use of these chemicals in food wrappings. The Swedish Food and Drug Administration two years ago recommended that manufacturers of skin cream and cosmetics suspend the use of these compounds pending further studies. A Swedish detergent manufacturer has refused to use brighteners in its products. The British Journal of Dermatology published in 1969 a report by a Danish researcher on skin rashes contracted by consumers exposed to detergents containing brighteners. Great Britain and West Germany do not allow brighteners to be used in hospital bandages after studied cases pointed to delays in healing of wounds.

The mounting concern over these chemicals illustrates the difference between commercial and scientific motivations. If the companies can point to a few studies which show that brighteners are not directly and immediately toxic to humans, they look no further and deeper. There are other questions which are ignored by this policy of “sell now and let someone else test later for long term effects.” First, as Dr. Bjorn Gillberg of Sweden has pointed out, “there is reason to suspect that brighteners may cause cancer or induce damage in genetic material.” In his laboratory at the Royal Agricultural College of Sweden at Uppsala, Gillberg conducted experiments with brighteners which caused “petite mutations” in microorganisms. He hastened to add that these findings “by no means prove that such compounds are in fact carcinogenic or mutagenic in man.” “The experiments do,” he said, “raise a large red warning flag, indicating that further and more extensive research is required.” His concern is also rooted in the rapidly increasing and broadening use of brighteners. Residues have been found in fish in Swedish rivers.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, a prominent toxicologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, is worried about what happens to these chemicals when they enter rivers and other waterways already polluted with industrial wastes. He is heading a project which is trying to determine what happens to brighteners when they chemically interact with other waste chemicals in waterways. He thinks the risks of these combinational effects are serious enough to warrant much greater investigation by the companies which use these compounds in their products. His findings are to be released later this year.

Once again consumers are confronted with trivial cosmetic benefits as against higher costs, known hazards and potential risks associated with numerous products that touch hem daily. A new Office of Technology Assessment, getting underway this year as an arm of Congress, will push the eminently sensible idea that chemicals and other materials should be thoroughly tested before, not after, their introduction into the environment. In the meantime, it can only help the cause of health and safety for consumers to ask their representatives in Congress and the Food and Drug Administration about brighteners and other chemicals that concern them.

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