My mum the health risk expert

Worried mothers and helpless babies are two potent symbols when it comes to raising the latest health scare. So how should companies and regulators respond when faced with risk allegations about yet another product?

The most recent story began two weeks ago in New Zealand, where three of the country’s biggest supermarkets voluntarily withdrew several brands of baby wipes after revelations they contain an anti-microbial preservative commonly used in bathroom and cosmetic products.

The chemical –  with the alarming-sounding name iodopropynyl butylcarbamate (IPBC) – is a potential skin irritant and should not be in products applied to the lips or mouth, or those designed to be aerosolized.  And, with the exception of bath products and shampoos, should not be used in products for children under three.

How did it make the headlines?  Because critics claimed the baby wipes may pose a danger of the chemical being inhaled if they are used to clean the baby’s face instead of the other end. While the NZ Ministry of Health praised the voluntary withdrawal, when the story appeared across the Tasman, a major Australian supermarket said they would not be withdrawing the wipes.  A spokesperson said they understood the chemical “wasn’t of concern” to Australian health authorities, and the national chemical regulator was reported saying it had “not been advised of any concern about the use of this chemical in any cosmetic or domestic situations.”

Regardless, Australian blog and Facebook sites soon lit up with more angry mums, and the almost instantaneous launch of an online petition calling on Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains to follow the NZ example. 

And how did this story start?  It all began with promoting the latest book by a well-known NZ anti-chemical campaigner – Wendyl Nissen, the Green Goddess – who just happens to be a regular columnist for the NZ Herald, which first featured the allegations.  Her answer is chemical-free, natural baby wipes, with her own do-it-yourself recipe conveniently hot-linked on the newspaper’s online version of the story.

Without wishing to enter into the argument about the merits of her claims, it is worth referring to the website of Choice Australia, the independent organization which assesses consumer products. In their report on baby skin products they cited research by an expert dermatologist and a pharmacist, who said babies and toddlers with normal skin don’t need soap or moisturiser. Their specialists went on to say that “natural” and “organic” products are not necessarily better than a synthetic product or any less likely to irritate. In fact, they said, some of these products contain an array of essentials oils which can be irritating and allergenic

Managing Outcomes earlier this year discussed the problem of how to manage issues when the views of scientists are opposed by film stars and other celebrities. This case involving baby wipes is a reminder that worried mums can be just as potent a force to reckon with.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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