There is currently a massive scare in Europe concerning the contamination of cucumbers by a very virulent bacterium, a variant of Escherichia coli (commonly referred to more simply as E. Coli).
There is a full report on the BBC web site, but the issue is that there have been over 1,200 confirmed of suspected cases of E. coli in Germany so far, and 18 people have actually died. Cases are also being reported in the UK, Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands. The bacterium infests the gastrointestinal tract, and can lead to Haemolytic-uremic Syndrome (HUS). HUS causes kidney problems and is potentially fatal. More deaths are expected, because many sufferers have already lost kidney function, and more cases are likely before this can be stopped.
The sickness is not contagious, but may be passed on by an infected person preparing food for others.
Several countries have already removed cucumbers from the shops, when they have been imported from suspect sources, amongst them, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and France. Russian officials are even talking about banning ALL vegetable products sourced from Europe!
So what is the connection between contaminated cucumbers and cosmetics?
This awful situation in Europe demonstrates the severe problems that can occur when certain bacteria get into the food chain as a result of contamination. Foods that are unpreserved are particularly susceptible, although it is not usually necessary to preserve this type of food, but there are clearly potentially fatal consequences when this happens.
More and more people are demanding that food be free of preservatives for various reasons and, by a leap of logic, also demand that cosmetics be free of preservatives. Whilst it would not be accurate to suggest that preservatives are totally without risk in either food or cosmetics, there is a massive difference in exposure between the two applications. The most common issue with cosmetic preservatives is irritation, but this only occurs in a tiny minority of the population (despite claims to the contrary), and the point of ingredient labelling of cosmetics is to enable those with identified sensitivities to avoid products containing the “rogue” ingredient(s). Sensitisation can be a much worse condition than just irritation but this, fortunately, tends to affect an even smaller minority of the population.
In the seemingly desperate rush to get away from conventional preservatives, many companies either feel forced to use materials that are much less well-characterised in terms of toxicity and human exposure, or they actively choose to use this tactic as a marketing “advantage”, and broadcast their stance (often by also casting aspersions on conventional preservatives for good measure) in order to attract consumers. There are several potential risks involved in failing to preserve a cosmetic properly. These are mostly aesthetic – discoloration, off-odour, visible growth (the black fungus, Aspergillus brasiliensis –often seen in bathrooms – is an excellent example), creams separating out, etc, but there are also health risks involved in applying microbially contaminated products to the skin, especially if the skin is damaged or in poor condition. One bacterium, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, can cause permanent blindness if sufficient numbers enter the eye, and this is a common bacterium, although I am not aware of any proven cases of blindness due to use of contaminated cosmetics, but it remains a theoretical possibility.
So far, there have been no major issues uncovered with these new approaches to preservation but, as this tactic increases in popularity, the chances of contamination of cosmetics causing a real problem to human health increase. I would not be so foolish as to claim that there could be problems on the scale that currently exists in Europe with cucumbers, as it is highly unlikely that deaths would ever result from a contaminated cosmetic product, but an increased risk of adverse effects remains, and consumers need to be aware of the risks that some companies are taking with their health – often the very same companies who are claiming that their products MUST be safe, because they are natural!
In the use of preservatives, the benefits vastly outweigh the tiny risk. Preservation should not be optional, it is essential.