Waiting outside Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger's office in Sacramento,
California, for three hours one day in
late 2005, Jessica Assaf, a student at Branson High School, in Ross, California, was gloomily suspecting, as she recalls "that teens simply couldn't
Earlier that year, Assaf and fellow members of
her organization, Teens for Safe Cosmetics, had become
convinced they could have a legislative impact. They were, in
fact, on a roll. Working with other public health and cancer-awareness
organizations, the group had helped move
Senate Bill 484 through both houses of the state legislature. The bill
was designed to require manufacturers of body-care products
and cosmetics to label those products that contain cancer-causing
and reproductive-toxicity ingredients. To pass, it had
to overcome a bruising lobbying effort by an industry that, as
Assaf had come to feel, was quite content to market products
with a minimum of supervision and a maximum of toxins.
For Assaf and her organization cohorts, the effort to pass
SB 484 was a revelation. During summer 2005, she
and others in the group had commuted to the state capital to
lobby and testify. They were savvy enough to realize they had
a certain advantage, despite the professional firepower arrayed
against them. "We were even more effective because we were
so young," she says. "Lawmakers see adult lobbyists all the
time, but a group of teen girls arguing passionately for a law
was something different."
She was right. After standing around outside the governor's
office for hours, Assaf and her group finally received a hearing
from his staff. The governor ultimately signed SB 484. The
passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 was not
only a legislative triumph, since copied by states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York, but also a personal turning point for Assaf.
Her passion for safe cosmetics and body-care
products grew out of an involvement with the Marin Cancer
Project (now called Search for the Cause), a group of local
women determined to track down risk factors behind unusually
high incidents of breast cancer in one of the nation's most
affluent counties. As part of her school-required community
service, she had distributed questionnaires door-to-door in
Marin County. One of the questions, about the use of personal-care
products, stopped her cold. "I had been using cosmetics since
I was thirteen," she says, "and it never crossed my mind to look
at the ingredients."
When she did, Assaf was stunned. "I found out that one of the
ingredients in my mascara was also used to clean airplane wheels,"
she recalls. Working with Marin Cancer Project founder Judi Shils,
she met with high school classmates for a "label reading." This activity
led to the compilation of a Dirty Dozen-Plus list of cosmetics that
contain known carcinogens and a Green Alternative list of those
that do not. The group discovered that though the European Union
has banned more than 1,000 chemical substances for cosmetics, only
nine are forbidden in the United States.
Teens for Safe Cosmetics began a series of attention-getting
events including Project: Prom, an informational fair in
San Francisco's Union Square last spring. There, high school
girls could try safe cosmetics and prove, according to Assaf,
"that you can use green products and still look great." Earlier
that day, she had led a group of young women to demonstrate
outside downtown department stores, where they presented
letters to managers asking stores to provide safe makeup and
Upcoming TSC events include Turning Green, a meeting
in San Francisco of business owners, politicians, and teen
campaign members to discuss the problem of unsafe cosmetics
and the concept of what Assaf calls "greening it." In March
2008, the group will hold a Green, Glitz, and Glam fashion
show in New York City sponsored by Whole Foods.
Assaf, that day in 2005 waiting outside the governor's office
was pivotal. Where she once intended to pursue a career in
medicine, she now has a new plan: Apply to Brown University,
earn a law degree, and undertake a career in public health.
Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.