In a reversal of a now-familiar pattern, a group of Chinese families is preparing to file suit against American manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, claiming that the company imported contaminated products into China, causing their children to suffer allergic symptoms.
The suit follows a report from American non-profit group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CFSC), which recently reported toxins in American-made bath products. The group reportedly found formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane in Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo and Procter & Gamble's Kandoo hand wash. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists both chemicals as possible carcinogens, and lists formaldehyde as a chemical with no safe level of exposure, meaning that even the smallest amount poses a risk to human health. Both chemicals are direct results of the manufacturing process and aren't listed on the ingredients label.
Eighty families have already organized in anticipation of the suit, and lawyers don't plan to stop there. Cui Baoyu, one of the attorneys involved, said that the group was pursuing a class action "because of the huge number of victims involved." More than 50 attorneys are already involved in the case, and Cui says that "the group continues expanding as more lawyers from all over the country ask to join every day."
The CFSC study, completed earlier this month, tested 48 products for 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, and found that a stunning 61% of products contained both. Since the release of the CFSC report, a major Chinese supermarket suspended sales of Johnson & Johnson products. Nonggongshan Supermarkets Corp., which owns more than 3,000 stores across eastern China, suspended sale of the products "until they are proved safe," according to quality control spokesman Gan Pingzhong. On March 16, the Vietnamese Drug Administration announced that it would begin testing Johnson & Johnson products in Vietnam.
Johnson & Johnson is not considering a recall, citing past FDA findings that formaldehyde does not pose an appreciable risk if kept at a low level. The company blamed "false suspicions" for the uproar and the resulting lawsuit.
Indeed, several authorities appear to dispute CFSC's findings. Two Chinese agencies — the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and the State Food and Drug Administration — tested 40 Johnson & Johnson products and found only one trace of 1,4-dioxane, and no formaldehyde.
Nonetheless, the report has gained the attention of at least three U.S. lawmakers; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) all released statements supporting legislation to address cosmetic industry standards. There are currently no regulations governing formaldehyde or 1,4-dioxane in personal care products like shampoo and hand soap.
The push for stricter formaldehyde regulation gained support in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After residents of FEMA-provided trailers complained of ongoing illness, tests showed increased levels of formaldehyde in the trailers' particle board. Said Becky Gillette of the Sierra Club, "We have no regulations in the U.S. to prevent this sort of thing from happening."
California has enacted more stringent formaldehyde standards, and the Sierra Club wants EPA to follow suit. If the agency did so, the rules could be implemented by 2013.
Unsurprisingly, the Formaldehyde Council, a non-profit entity representing industries who use the chemical, insists that formaldehyde is safe. The group claims that "formaldehyde is one of the most thoroughly examined substances in existence," and notes that it is a necessary building material and responsible for millions of American jobs.
The impending lawsuit has a shoe-on-the-other-foot feel to it, given that in recent years countless U.S. suits have been filed on behalf of American consumers claiming to have suffered harm from toxins in Chinese-made products, from toys to drywall.