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What's Blumenthal so worked up about? Sunscreen.

In my job I get plenty of emailed political news releases. In most cases, I skim the headlines and move on. But the headline on a release from the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Wednesday demanded my attention.


I was always under the impression that sunscreen was a good thing that I tended not to use enough of. Who does? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you need to apply a shot-glass-sized amount before spending time in the sun, then reapply every two hours. Actually, the AAD says you should do this even if it’s not sunny, since 80 percent of the sun’s rays still reach us through the clouds.

It appears I should be going through a bottle of the stuff every couple of days rather than every couple of summers.

But while recognizing it is probably only a matter of time before skin cancer shows up on my light-skinned body (I don’t even want to think about the damage done during those “unprotected” long summer days playing outside as a kid), I had somehow missed this sunscreen scandal, the failure of the makers to “tell the truth,” and the need for some Food and Drug Administration action.

Maybe this could be Robert Mueller's new gig.

What I had actually missed is a study, published this past Spring in JAMA, which concluded the chemicals in the sunscreens we apply on our bodies end up in our bloodstreams at levels which, according to FDA rules, require toxicology assessment for any possible link to “cancer, birth defects or other adverse effects.”

Jeez, maybe it’s good I laid off the shot glass.

Really, it sounds worse than it probably is. The 24 test subjects lathered on a lot of sunscreen — covering 75 percent of their bodies four times a day for four days, with 30 blood samples drawn over a week, probably enough to fill a couple of shot glasses.

The common sunscreen components — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octorcrylene and ecamsule — showed up in the blood after one day and increased over the four days.

However, before you sign-off on sunscreen and refuse to go out without a burka, consider at this point there is no evidence the chemicals at the levels found are a health risk. On the other hand, we know unprotected sun exposure is a health risk, with skin cancer the most common malignancy in the United States.

The FDA is now assessing the risk of these sunscreen ingredients and preparing recommendations.

What’s Blumenthal’s problem? That’s unclear. The letter to acting FDA Commissioner Norman Sharpless, signed by Blumenthal and four other Democratic senators — Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Jeffrey Merkley of Oregon — states they are “pleased to see the FDA’s recent action to address the safety and efficacy of sunscreens to keep consumers safe and informed.”

It goes on to urge the FDA to finalize the new rules and recommendations and “reject any attempts to weaken this critically important effort.”

As for forcing the industry to tell the truth, Blumenthal’s release points to what has been a largely unregulated product, allowing sunscreens to “include potentially dangerous, untested ingredients.”

It’s a good idea to find out if these ingredients pose a danger and to inform the public accordingly. But there appeared to be no need to “demand” the FDA do something it was already doing and no evidence the industry has hidden anything or won’t react appropriately to FDA findings.

But the senator’s office got me to read the release, I’ll give them that.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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