NBC’s Dateline just this week ran a well-executed two-part series on toxic chemicals that included body burden testing of one of the producers, Andrea Canning, and her three young children. Knowing what I do, it gave me chills to watch Canning intentionally try to raise her chemical levels by doing normal things like eating canned foods and heating plastic in the microwave!
The segments (here and here) include interviews with a scientist and researcher on endocrine disruptors (chemicals that mimic hormones in the body and have been linked to cancer, anxiety and attention deficit, among other health issues), as well as the required skeptic on the risks of toxics and company disclaimers.
The most interesting part of the piece, however, was when Canning, working with Environment Canada‘s Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith, proved that she could both raise and lower the levels of Bisphenol-A (BPA), pthalates and triclosan in her urine over a 24-hour period. This is critical: as I mentioned in an earlier post — Three Days to a Brand-New BPA-Free You — repeated studies, as well as Lourie’s and Smith’s excellent and engaging book, show that BPA and other chemicals can be reduced in a matter of days by being careful about exposures.
Because people tend to get immediately overwhelmed when their attention is raised about the risks from chemicals, it’s important to show that small changes can make a big difference. On the show, Canning switches from canned food to fresh, changes her makeup and personal care products, and stops microwaving in plastic, which are all good changes to make.
She also vows at the close of the series that she will change some of the items her children are exposed to — moved in part by the test results that show BPA and pthalates in all three kids and very high levels of triclosan in two of her children — her two-year-old had levels 100 times the national average!
When the Mcgill skeptic tells her that having this stuff at testable levels in her kids is likely safe, she tries to keep a straight face. As a parent, though, I can tell she’s not buying it, as she makes clear at the end. The truth is, where parents draw the line on risks is often very different than where regulators do, influenced as the government is by industry.
Parents know that this is a moral question — not just an administrative one — and that if a risk can be eliminated by a simple change, they would prefer to err on the side of caution while scientists sort out the issues. No parent wants to be part a grand experiment involving their child, on their watch. Yet given the knowns and unknowns on chemicals, and the sorry state of regulation, that’s essentially what we’ve got going on.
Unfortunately, although Canning is evidently convinced — and stunned a bit by the testing results, Dateline doesn’t do a great job of unpacking the issues generally, potentially leaving consumers confused or even a bit misinformed, as I’ll get to below.
While Dateline cites the Food and Drug Administration’s reassurances on BPA, they fail to explain the FDA’s view that BPA does not get (much) into food from its packaging, not that BPA is necessarily safe to consume. And although Dateline also cites the food industry’s standard line — that BPA is a necessary in can linings to keep the food supply safe — they didn’t mention what my basic Web investigation on the lining of tomato cans turned up, which is that the food preservation BPA provides is a matter of months on a can label, as well as mere pennies per can of cost savings for industry. They also failed to point out that (some, not all) cans and jar lids labeled BPA-free may be lined instead with vinyl, a known carcinogen.
More pointedly, the science on endocrine disruptors is not nearly as inconclusive as the Dateline interview with Mister Mcgill or the Food and Drug Administration would have us believe, as thoroughly demonstrated by the comprehensive summary of the hundreds of relevant studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) published just last month. This release updated a 2002 review which concluded a lack of exposure data meant that little could be conclusively said at that time about endocrine disruptors’ (or “EDCs”) impacts on human health. In contrast, the WHO’s most recent report notes the breadth of studies published in the intervening last decade, which provide:
emerging evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes (infertility, cancers, malformations) from exposure to EDCs, and there is also mounting evidence for effects of these chemicals on thyroid function, brain function, obesity and metabolism, and insulin and glucose homeostasis. [p. 9]
And while I’m being picky, I’ll also complain about the fact that — having worked with TV folks before on occasion, who always like things to be (overly) simple — I know that they picked the low-hanging fruit in terms of public messages and “to do’s.” Unfortunately, in so doing, they ignored a major complicating factor for consumers that Smith and Lourie were no doubt well aware of — the substitution problem.
Although it would be small step forward if more people understood the pyramid of plastics and avoided plastic items marked with a “7” (or 3 (polyvinyl chloride, PVC) or 6 (polystyrene), for that matter), as we know now, many “BPA-free” plastic items are likely made with Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B or some other plastic that may have properties as bad or worse than BPA. I know, depressing, right?
This all points us in a more radical direction. While most people were likely nodding along with Canner as she dutifully checked her sippy cups for the number 7, and her shampoo for “fragrance” or “parfum,” I was screaming at the screen to dump plastic sippies altogether, as well as the Triclosan-laden hand soap, diet soda and canned foods — oh, and the scores of plastic toys in her living room, the electronics and living room sofa filled with flame retardants, the non-organic, industrially farmed foods, the plastic baggies and deli wrap made of PVC, the BPA bowl in the food processor and coffee maker using re-heated plastics, the dish cleaners and laundry detergents with phosphates, the skin lotions with parabens, the take-out food boxes lined in “teflon” PFOAs…
Ok, maybe I can see why Dateline thought it would be too much for viewers. The truth is, we’re swimming in petrochemicals and other nasty substances, and it’s a long, slow, painful and damned expensive journey for consumers to try to tackle any of it. That’s why Florence Williams complained in the New York Times a little while back about how her own body burden test adventures had her eating “like a Mennonite.”
At the time, I thought Williams was being a bit too dismissive of what consumers could do to change things. Maybe it’s our own Mennonite past, back two generations, but we have managed at our house to slowly wean ourselves off almost all packaged foods and have replaced most of the plastics in the kitchen with wood or glass (admittedly at considerable expense). Consumers are more powerful than they think, and companies are springing up every day to cater to this new “greener” customer. So I think its critical that we all do what we can, as we can financially (and mentally!) afford to consider the changes we’d like to make and that we’d like to encourage in the world.
At the same time, wow — it’s a lot of changes, and pricey ones. The problem with talking about toxics is that, like tiny but threatening zombies, these chemicals are hidden everywhere in modern life, waiting to be awakened in your mind and to stagger across your living room, likely at 3 a.m., as your consciousness expands and your credit card takes a beating.
Making matters even worse, someone keenly attuned to these issues will keep feeling duped as they keep learning more, meaning that the emotional cycle of being upset and purging some risk is more-or-less a constant state of being for the anti-toxics avenger. (My latest: Did you know they are now gassing some brands of almonds with a chemical from the antifreeze family? I didn’t until last week. Ick.)
This dynamic poses a challenge for advocates as well, of course. The ubiquity of chemicals — and the banality of their place in everyday, normal products — means that people trying to raise these issues are constantly shuttling between saying we can do something concrete today to save our own skins and saying that we need the government to intervene, because only the government could control all of the risks on our behalf. Both are, of course, perfectly true, despite the obvious tension.
We want consumers to act, as they should, to drive demand for better products. But ironically, to make this action discrete, palatable and not instantly overwhelming, we are often stuck presenting only partial, even dumbed-down information — in Dateline’s case, to the point of false reassurance.
The sad truth is that you can chuck all the “parfumed” products you like, and still end up with yucky parabens and other unhealthy ingredients in your products. It’s not easy being green. At all.
Yet presenting it all at once does run the risk of seeming either paranoid or crazy or both, as I know from hard personal experience. So, OK, Dateline, I get you and your Catch-22. Thanks at least for trying. Next time, please at least mention the loose BPA all over cash register receipts that is likely the largest source of exposure, would ‘ya?
- 10 Free (or Nearly Free) Ways to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
- 5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth
- We’ve Been Slimed — and It’s Not Necessarily Pink
- My Troubles with Teflon
- Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA
- My Greener, Healthier Baby and Toddler Supply Guide
- Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles
- Rachel Carson’s Unfinished Work: Passing the Safe Chemicals Act
- Three Days to a Brand-New BPA Free You
- Burning Questions: An FAQ on Flame Retardants in Furniture
- How it Ought to Be, One Dollar at a Time
- Good Parenting for the Chemical Industry