5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth

Myth #1: There is a big laboratory in Washington which tests products for safety and bans unsafe stuff. After all, they wouldn’t be able to sell it if it wasn’t safe.

The sad, sad truth: There isn’t much oversight, really. A few government agencies (the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency) have responsibility over toys, food, and chemicals, respectively. But there are not many standards that apply before a product is sold.

Unlike for prescription drugs, where at least pharmaceutical companies have to make a showing that a drug works and is safe, for most things sold in the U.S. there is no pre-market obligation to show it’s safe and healthy to use.

On chemicals, the laws have not been updated since the 1970s, and were too weak to begin with. Laws like the Clean Water Act are showing their age – since, just for example, thanks to an enterprising high school student, we now know there are birth control pills, antibiotics and other trace pharmaceuticals in all of our water, and no real effort to get them out. Food oversight, as Obama remarked to hearty guffaws last year, is spread across a dizzying array of different agencies.

And the standards for what can be sold – much less what is considered safe – also vary widely. What with their lobbying and political power, and the revolving door, companies play the agencies like so many broken fiddles. And when Congress tries to step up, the industry swarms all over Capitol Hill like dollar bills over an investment banker.

In fact, the only place in across all of the law that imposes a general duty for manufacturers to care about what happens to consumers (called the “duty of care”) is when some injured family sues them for negligence. That’s why companies malign “trial lawyers” so much, and conservative courts and legislatures work to drastically curtail so-called “punitive” damages (that is, the amount of money the company should pay so that they won’t repeat the bad behavior, in addition to paying back the mere peanuts typically owed an injured person).

Other than taking them to court when you or someone you love has been hurt, which is, let’s face it, an important, though depressing and inadequate, after-the-fact way of paying medical bills following a human-caused tragedy, all we have are the government’s weak and inadequate rules. And there’s no laboratory in the sky there, believe me.

If you’re overwhelmed by this fact, be aware that both Europe and Canada have more protective rules on chemicals, and the European Union’s system does require a showing of safety for some chemicals, which is a major step in the right direction. (In fact, we now see companies selling stuff here in the U.S. that they can’t in Europe due to its stronger laws.) So there is a clear path forward, if we could only get our dunderheaded political system to unlock itself.

And small steps can make a huge difference. For some chemicals, Bisphenol-A, for example, we know that reducing exposure leads to a clear drop in the chemical’s presence in humans. So whenever we do take action, the effects will be immediate.

Myth #2: Pollution is out there, in the burning river. Or in the Superfund site, over in that other town.

Not true, and we should have asked Fido and Fluffy. The scope and intensity of indoor environmental pollution also has been a bit of a shock to researchers, who in 2008, for example, tested cats and dogs and found disturbing levels of flame retardants (23 times higher than people), teflon, and mercury.

So-called “body burden” studies of people measuring chemicals in their blood tell us that we have dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of chemicals in our bodies today that our great-grandparents did not.

In fact, we now know that man-made environments are frequently toxic. Just stop and think for a moment about the number of highly engineered products in your home: the upholstered furniture, paint, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, processed foods, mattresses, your dry-cleaning hang in the closet, all of the plastic containers and bottles, the electronics doused in flame retardants and filled with heavy metals. Now think about how much of that was in a home a scant one hundred years ago.

When NASA designed vehicles in which to take people into space back in the 1970s, it had to commission an engineer to work on innovative strategies to de-toxify that closed space, to ensure it was habitable due to the off-gassing of the materials used to build the spacecraft. Now, it’s clear that we’re all on that spacecraft.

The truth is that we’re in the midst of a massive experiment in genetics and chemistry. We are largely guessing about the effects of many of these chemicals on humans, as the science to tell us what we are doing to ourselves is still under development, and we have very little idea of how the chemicals do and could interact with each other in the environment.

In the face of such uncertainty, perhaps we’d all do better to open our windows a little more, consume a little less of what we don’t really need, and look for simpler ingredients in every category of thing we buy. And be very careful while pregnant.

And, in the face of such uncertainty, it’s really not too much to ask that chemicals that are not proven to be safe be kept out of the food supply, out of other consumer goods, and away from our families.

Myth #3: Only big doses of toxic chemicals can hurt us.

One stalling tactic of chemical companies is to argue about something called the “dose-response relationship.” What they mean is that studies of rats taking really high doses of some chemical or other do not accurately predict what will happen to humans who may have far smaller amounts of that chemical in their bodies.

Unfortunately for their theories, the science is often more complicated than that defensive poo-poohing of our legitimate concerns. What researchers have discovered very recently is that tiny amounts of certain types of chemicals – in particular, the ones that act like hormones in the human body (called “endocrine disruptors”) – are strongly linked to particular effectsBisphenol-A is one of these kinds of chemicals, as are pthalates, which are in a lot of plastics and fragrances.

In addition, low doses may cause the body to act differently than high doses.  And to complicate matters even further, small exposures to a chemical during a crucial stage of development, such as pregnancy, or even infancy (think: an 8-pound baby), may have impacts that forever impact health.

When we just put chemicals, willy-nilly, into the environment, we can’t control how and when a pregnant woman may be exposed. So instead we ask whether a chemical will impact a developing person in the same way as a mouse. Sorry, um, I have an issue with that. And with the dubious ethics of continued exposure in face of evidence of harm.

Of course, we should also care about how higher doses of chemicals will impact workers, like those in factories and nail salons, or even the visibly pregnant cashier I spoke to last week at my neighborhood café about handling hundreds of receipts and dollar bills per day covered in unbound BPA. They took her off the register after my conversation with her (and now she smiles at me when I come in), but what about the woman with that same job in the next town?

Myth #4: The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

You might think that flame retardants in the foam and fabric of your sofa would stay put – that is, unless your 18-month old rips a big hole in your cheapo leather chair, as mine did last week. Still, like you, we have no plans to eat the upholstery.

But body burden testing and tests of indoor air pollution and household dust reveal that flame retardants and other chemicals disintegrate and migrate from the inside of things to the floor. Once on the floor, it gets into the dust, the air and on our clothes. And into the bodies of pregnant women, where it impacts their thyroid.

In California, which has absurd rules that require nearly everything under the West Coast sun to have chemically toxic flame retardants in it (a rule brought back every year from the brink of extinction by a shadowy frontgroup for the chemical manufacturers), Mexican-American children have 7 times the amount of flame retardants in their bodies than do children in Mexico. Really.

Is it because Californian children eat the upholstery alongside their tofu? Um, doubtful. Its more likely from skin, butter, air, breastmilk, hand-to-mouth contact, and er, being a child.

And how did BPA get in the urine of 93 percent of all of us, anyhow? Were we all chewing on can liners and clear plastic water bottles? Well… maybe sometimes. The FDA may be a little confused on this point, but the National Institutes for Health seem to know the answer, and really, the notion that we can just tell something to stay put and hope that it listens to us is a fiction all of us parents have to get over pretty quickly. It’s long past time the regulators did as well.

Myth #5: Our cupboards are full of organic flax seed and fair trade, shade-grown coffee. We’ll be fine.

I’m actually a big believer in voting with your dollars, as you can afford to, for better toys, cleaners, furniture, and food. Our farmer’s market is a regular destination, and I ask questions about everything from environmental health to safety (see the Letters tab for a selection of my persnickety questions). And choosing organic food makes a big difference in whether you’re eating pesticides, as I’ll cover in a future post.

But, as I told the New York Times, we can’t shop our way to a solution here. I’ll be posting about all my difficulties in trying to eliminate as many toxins as we can, and how some can’t be avoided altogether. Even then, these kinds of steps only protect the families of the folks who have the time and money to work this hard, and most people’s children would remain exposed. So there’s a major social class and environmental justice problem.

When the issues are this complex, and this ubiquitous, and the public health costs this serious, that’s when government should step in and do its job. So far, the results of our current standards are not promising in the U.S. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get the Congress to demand action on chemicals and unsafe products.

As of today, Congress may be about to punt on chemical reform. Again.  And you’ve read this far. So call or write them and tell them that’s not ok with you.

Just to be helpful, here is a Handy-Dandy Summary of the Myths and my (twisted) Version of the Facts on Chemicals:

 

Myth

 

Fact

 

1)    They can’t sell it unless it’s safe.

 

 

Puh-lease, girl.

 

 

 2)    Pollution is “out there.”

 

 

Chemicals are here, and in us.

 

3)    Only big doses count.

 

 

Little exposures matter more than we knew.

 

4)    The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

 

 

Stuff moves around: in the air, in dust, and in our food.

 

5) You’re really scaring me, so grab the credit card, and let’s shop our way out of this. Where do I start?

 

Put that credit card down. Pick up the phone instead and call Congress to ask them to reform the chemical safety laws that should protect everyone.

6 thoughts on “5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth

  1. Dear Laura: A friend of mine asked what I did about carpet when I had my kiddo. I told her I used a washable, cotton throw rug in the room the baby slept in, a truly 100% wool (no glues, no synthetic “rubber” backing, not treated with pesticides before shipment [the last was confirmed before purchase via email] carpet for the living room, and bare floors for the rest of the house.

    She is looking to go less ascetic (she’ll probably keep all the area rugs she has, which have presumably done most of their off-gassing already), but she’s now been stuck on what to do about the baby’s room for months. She says she really wants to just walk into a store and pick out a something cute that’s safe and non-toxic!

    If you don’t mind my asking, what did you do for Maya’s room? How do you feel about your choice? And thank you again for this new project–I’ve been enjoying it!

    • Hi Melissa,

      Thanks so much for writing! For Maya’s room, I really used a mix of mostly old furniture we had with a new crib. Old rocking chair, old dresser, and old bookshelf.

      For the crib, we went with the fairly expensive Sparrow crib, sold by Giggle. We’re now ready to get the conversion kit for the toddler bed, which costs another $200. We liked it because its solid wood, not press board (at least the railing parts), they set it up for you on delivery, it uses sustainable woods, fixed rails (per the CPSC advisory that dropsides are not safe) and it has a “non-toxic” finish that comes with various promises in that regard. It’s also fairly nice looking. They also sell some nice Moses baskets, as well as “organic” bedding, mattresses and changing pads, so it may be a decent one-stop place for your friend, depending on what she needs.

      Hope that helps!
      Laura

  2. fantastic article – thank you. …and as autism diagnoses in children continue to rise, it would be difficult to ignore the concurrent rise in environmental toxins … though the causes are a ‘mystery’ to scientists who have yet to find evidence through long term studies .. connecting the doesn’t seem like rocket science to me!

    • Yes, well, there’s very little research on fetal effects, due to the challenges of understanding exposure times and coordinating them with possible developmental effects. And there’s very little research on combined or additive impacts of various chemicals that could be interacting in the environment. On autism, I haven’t done much research, but I’d be interested in whatever you or others find –

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