September | October 2014

 

 

 


Use Sound Science to Evaluate Product Safety

By Nathan Dickerson, CSG Policy Analyst
A consumer experiences product safety like a path or a nature trail, Scott Heid, science fellow in Procter & Gamble’s Beauty & Grooming Department, said. When a consumer ventures on a trail, he or she trusts that it will be safe.
“Consumers expect the route to be clear, well-marked, handle obstacles, be well-defined, well-maintained and verified,” Heid said.
Heid spoke during The Council of State Governments’ Policy Academy on Consumer Product Safety, sponsored by Procter & Gamble.
The academy was designed to equip state leaders with a framework to critically analyze the studies they encounter from various issue advocates. Heid discussed the seven signs of bogus science developed by professor Robert L. Park from the University of Maryland, which he said policymakers—and other people—can use to make educated decisions.
For example, the guidelines note that policymakers should be wary of any study claiming that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work or that the scientific effect involved in the study is at the very limit of detection. Federal judges used Park’s guidelines to detect scientific nonsense, Heid said. 
He also discussed common tactics using sensational information, such as using a substance’s chemical name rather than its common name to make it sound more ominous. 
Heid made one notable example of a satirical yet surprisingly persuasive petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide, a substance that can cause death due to accidental inhalation.  
“Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water,” noted Heid. Just as water is benign and healthful when used appropriately, the use of its chemical name fooled several petitioners into seeking to ban it outright.
Heid also cautioned state leaders not to assume the presence of a substance means causality.  He explained a product sold in the United States has “caused 67,581 injuries in 2007 alone, including muscle strains, broken bones and lacerations.
“That product was a television,” he said, “and the lacerations were often from consumers breaking their screens.” 
Understanding the safety of ingredients, like understanding the safety of a product like a television, requires a more nuanced understanding of the factors at play.
 “An ingredient is neither safe nor unsafe,” said Mark Lafranconi, the section head of Central Product Safety. “It’s the use and exposure of an ingredient that makes it safe or unsafe.”
Companies, he said, look at exposure or the amount of product used. That means, for instance, that companies must examine whether a product may be used on the skin, in the mouth and/or inhaled.
“What about special populations?” Oregon Sen. Richard Devlin asked. “For example, maids at a hotel are exposed to cleaning products far more frequently than the typical consumer. Do you consider that?”
That, Lafranconi noted, is a key part of product testing. “Hair stylists are another group we carefully consider,” he said.
Policymakers also were provided a compelling real-world case study during the academy about life cycle assessments, which look at the environmental impact of a product from production to when it is disposed of by the consumer. y.
Annie Weisbrod, the principal scientist in Product Safety, Regulatory Affairs and Environmental Stewardship, explained that a life cycle assessment “uses large data inventories to evaluate potential environmental impacts throughout the ‘life cycle’ (of a product).” 
She explored how examining various environmental factors, such as energy use, in the life cycle of a product can help innovate existing products and drive down energy consumption.  A life cycle assessment of laundry detergent showed the product had the highest energy footprint when it was being used in hot water.
“Energy use is reduced by over 50 percent by washing in cold water,” she said.
This discovery, in turn, informed new product development that led to the formulation of Tide Cold Water. Weisbrod noted that if all consumers switched to washing their clothes in cold water, it would save tremendous amounts of energy—enough to power 4.4 million homes per year.

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