Hot Reads: CA Takes Back Its Dumb Rule, Chemical Reform Under Contemplation, and More

Wicker Picnic Basket Grass 6-1-09 1

(Photo credit: stevendepolo)

Kick up your feet: this couch won’t bite!

Fantastic news from California! It looks like beginning this winter, furniture makers will be able to jettison toxic flame retardants from their products. Currently, manufacturers use these chemicals to comply with a stupid CA state law, even though the flame retardants are linked to learning deficits, cancer, lowered IQ and other issues and do little to protect against fires.

A proposed rule allows manufacturers to discontinue the use of flame retardant chemicals in January 2014, with all manufacturers required to achieve full compliance by January 2015. This is an issue that has been driving me crazy for some time, and I’ve written about it obsessively a lot. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all breathe a sigh of relief, lie down on our couches, and take a long, peaceful nap.

Be aware that whatever the final implementation date, manufacturers will still need to change their supply chains, which may take a while. In the meantime, here’s my FAQ on flame retardants, here’s some options I found, and here’ s a handy-dandy cheat sheet of purchase options from the folks at Green Science Policy Institute, which also has their own FAQ.

It’s about time: A Quick Take on Last Week’s Chemical Reform hearing

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It was a joke almost from the get-go: while it purported to assure the safety of thousands of chemicals in common household products, in reality the chemical industry got the government to give tens of thousands of them a free pass. Since then, the number of chemicals in our live has gotten larger but government regulation covers only a fraction of a percent of them. A key example: asbestos, which we know causes mesothelioma and a host of other health problems, cannot be banned under the law!

Finally, after 37 years, Congress is considering updating chemical safeguards, thanks in part to the incredible leadership of the late Senator from New Jersey, the Honorable Frank Lautenberg. This should have been done a long time ago, but the gathering momentum and discussion of a proposed new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), offers some (limited) hope, following a marathon Senate Environment and Public Works hearing last week.

Sadly, as the testimony from panel after panel made clear, the new proposal is not as strong as it should be. Given the persistent gridlock in Congress, I was cheered to hear Senators from both sides of the aisle agreeing on something essential: that there is a pressing need to reform the chemical oversight law. Some lawmakers floated the notion that they are willing to work together, which is a refreshing change, and gives me hope that the bill can actually be fixed.

More cynically, I see it as a clear signal that the chemical industry is ready to deal, and that they have finally decided that some rules to reassure the public of the safety of their products may be better than the Wild West. In the current environment, companies are never sure about whether a product is going to land them in some scary headlines and tick off moms like me. In addition, most multinationals are already complying with stricter laws in Europe, so perhaps uniformity has advantages in terms of costs for them. Ominously, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion from a few GOP lawmakers that the current proposal is the best that will be offered, which would be a crying shame, given that none of the many environmental and public health organizations on the panel supports the current version.

What are the flaws and omissions in the proposal? Sadly, there is still lots of work to be done. Many witnesses raised the important issue of the need to provide protections for state laws that are already on the books and to ensure that whatever federal standards are developed do not over-ride the state provisions. This issue — called preemption by lawyers — is needed because the states have stepped into the breach during the long winter of federal inaction on chemicals and many have their own rules that should remain in force.

In addition, nothing in the proposed law provides specific protections for vulnerable people, such as children, or pregnant and nursing moms. But we know that exposure to chemicals cannot be judged on an average basis, because there are simply windows of time in our lives when exposure to even a relatively small amount of chemicals may have devastating health effects. That’s why advocates have been so concerned about findings of chemicals in umbilical cords and cord-blood of brand-new babies: this is such an intense period of cellular development that the impact of chemicals can be far greater than it would be for an adult. In addition, environmental justice concerns about how chemical facilities and releases are concentrated in low-income areas means this kind of assessment must be done for basic fairness.

Third, because the name of the game in DC these days is paralysis by analysis, I was excited and cheered to see so many folks raise the need for hard deadlines in the law. There is clearly no stomach for another 37 years of delay. Witnesses also spoke to the importance of developing a clear and simple process for any new rule, and some even called for an assessment by the current regulators of how long, exactly, it would take under the law before the first new standard could get out the door.

The bottom line is that the bill has to be improved before it moves forward. Senator Boxer (D.-CA), the chair of the committee, provided wonderful clarity on this point and definitely seems like she on the case. But she needs our support, so here’s how to help:

Let’s be clear: this is more energy towards real chemical reform than we have seen in years, and a moment that is not be wasted. So let’s all do what we can to keep raising the costs of failure and inaction on this critical public health issue, for your kids and mine.

Water, Water Everywhere

Is your water safe to drink? Maybe, but maybe not. If it passes through PVC pipes it might contain vinyl chloride. And lead is unfortunately still a concern. Check out these tips from Healthy Child Healthy World. They list dangers to watch for and measures you can take to ensure that you and your family are staying hydrated and toxin-free.

Hot Fun in the City? Not so much.

Sunscreen, plastic pitchers of lemonade, insect repellant and a red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloth. Sounds like a great picnic, right? Sadly, no. All of these products contain dangerous toxins, so before you fire up the grill for a couple end-of-summer barbecues, do a little research to make sure you aren’t unwittingly exposing yourself to harmful chemicals. To help you avoid toxin-tainted products as the summer wraps up, the folks at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families have put together an informative graphic and released startling new test results on a bevy of summertime fun products.

There are more offenders than you might think, in places you might not suspect. Check it out and chuck the plastic and folding chairs, so that you are chilling in the dwindling days of summer in a toxin-free environment. And while you’re picnicking, please contemplate the nuttiness of a world in which the red-checked tablecloth is poison, and the blue-checked one is fine. Another reason we need that federal reform law!

Don’t Spank Your Toddler. Full stop.

Given my recent post on respectful communication with a child and developing resilience through trust, I was shocked to learn this week that 94 percent of toddlers are spanked and fifty percent are spanked three or more times a week. Really, what lesson does spanking teach? What does it demonstrate to children except that physical violence is appropriate behavior? And what effects does it have on the relationship between a parent and a child?

StopSpanking.org put together this incredible video about their efforts to ban spanking. The video is proposal for a full-length documentary, and funds are being solicited to produce it. Watch the video. It’s eye-opening.

Childhood obesity: down?

Good news for once: recent studies actually show a drop in childhood obesity. Hello! Let’s figure out why please, and do more of that.

The tragic costs of regulatory resistance

I wrote last week about the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train carrying crude oil exploded and killed 47 people. Now the victims’ families will suffer more. When the costs associated with the crash were estimated at $200 million this week, the company responsible for the disaster—Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway—filed for bankruptcy because it was carrying only $25 million in insurance coverage. Appalling.

Extra! Extra!

The week began with a bombshell: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, made arrangements to purchase The Washington Post. At first glance, the story had all the trappings of a modern-day tragedy. A man who made his fortune on the internet was buying a newspaper that owed its demise to that very same cornerstone of the digital age.

But the more I read about Bezos, the more I wondered about his motives and what they might suggest for the future of the paper. The Post, like much of print journalism, has seen better days. Its revenue has fallen 44 percent over the past six years and in 2012 its operating loss topped $50 million.

So why did Bezos, a calculating businessman, fork over a quarter of a billion dollars for it? Was it a vanity purchase to raise his intellectual cachet? Was it a hobby buy to feed a love of letters? An act of philanthropy? An ego move to show he could succeed where others failed? Or an attempt to purchase a mouthpiece on federal policy and influence federal lawmakers in support of his left-libertarian views? Only time will tell.

And that’s a wrap for this week. Hope you are having a lovely August!

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.

10 free (or nearly free) ways to reduce your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals

Credit: Darren Higgins

Some simple principles can help you take action to reduce toxic chemicals in your home:

1)   Use less stuff.  Do you really need those dryer sheets? Or the umpteenth “miracle” cream just taking up space in the medicine cabinet? Go back to basics by figuring out what you use need on a daily basis, and chuck the rest. Save your fancy makeup for the evening out. And whenever you can, pick fragrance free or go without the smelly stuff. (Most fragrances are loaded with pthalates. Mmmm.) Also, treat the plastic you own more carefully — never heat plastic in the dishwasher or microwave (pop food out of the container and handwash the sippy cups). I find that having to hand-wash stuff becomes its own reason not to buy more plastic!

2)   Repurpose items.  Rather than buying new furniture for the nursery. convert that dingy old dresser into a changing table. (Ask relatives what’s in their attic or look on Craigslist or at yard sales for what you need.) The off-gassing from materials, if any, will long be over, and you can often even find deals on solid wood. Spend your dollars on what will really matter, like wooden teethers and a decent and safe new crib. And some of the cutest baby clothes, once out-grown, can be packed away to be used as doll clothes one day.

3)   Replace as you go. Instead of tossing everything out at once, replace items as they run out or wear out with safer ones. When that non-stick pan begins to show wear, replace it with an enameled or a cast-iron pan instead.  When the coffee maker starts to sputter, think about replacing it with a French press to avoid heating plastics every time you brew a cup. And when all those plastic food containers show stains, substitute glass containers with BPA-free lids. Lastly, when you need a new vacuum, buy one with a HEPA filter to reduce both allergens and toxins in the dust.

4)   Enlist help. Tell friends and family that for the baby shower, holidays and birthdays you would like “green” gifts that help your family to detox your home. Help them pick suitable toys through a registry or just a note with a list of things you’d prefer they get for your child or home. They may even want your research so they can make their own positive changes! (Or they may grumble and say you’re nuts, but really, do you want all those loud, annoying plastic gizmos?) And make your friends and family leave their shoes near the door (or better yet, the garage), which really reduces tracked-in toxins and pesticides.

5)   Scrounge a bit. Keep tabs on your local parents’ list serv or check out yard sales, book sales, and thrift stores for nicer items and used books. A little quick action in response to a post from a parent selling a premium toy can save a lot of money! (Our oh-so-fancy wooden Svan highchair came used off our neighborhood listserv for less than half the price of a new one.) Check ebay and craigslist as well for deals on a particular item you covet.

6)   Prioritize. Can’t afford to go all-organic? Just pick the dirty dozen (a list of the most pesticide-heavy fruits and vegetables), plus milk and peanut butter, and buy those organically. (Dairy, berries, apples, peanuts and potatoes are the worst.) Or start with cleaning supplies, which can be made simply with baking soda and vinegar or other homespun recipes.  Skip convenience foods and more processed foods, which contain less nutrition, are far more likely to have harmful preservatives and additives, and are less likely to be organic. Buying food from the edges of the supermarket (vegetables, fruit, dairy, and breads) will save you money and keep you safer and healthier as well. Besides, cooking with children is great fun, and teaches measurements, flavors, and how to help mom.

7)   Air it out.  It’s free and easy to roll down the window in your car for a minute or two whenever you start driving, to air out the VOCs (or volatile organic compounds, as in paints) emitted by all the plastics in cars, as well as the flame retardants in your kiddo’s car seats. It’s also a good idea to open your windows at home when you can to let the house breathe a little, and to run cold water from your kitchen tap for 10 seconds before using it for cooking. (Don’t use hot tap water directly from the tap for cooking, as it can contain heavy metals from the pipes.) And skip the vinyl cover for strollers — it’s better to get a little wet than to have the baby breathing flame retardants, PVC and nasty pthalates.

8)   Think ahead. When you go bargain hunting, think about what your child will need over the next few years, not just today. In thrift stores, I look for clothes that are like-new and good labels that are two, or even three, sizes ahead of where Maya is today. She’ll get there all too soon! And for toys, I invest in really nice toys if they will facilitate open-ended play that will enable them to grow with her – wooden blocks, imagination starters like animals, and cardboarc puzzles that are images now and a puzzle later. Hand puppets and finger puppets are wonderful ways to learn about animals, and lead to fun. Dress-up clothes can come from thrift stores around Halloween, when the costumes are plentiful. And even baby rattles can be kept for the box of musical instruments, or you can buy shakers that double as gorgeous rattles for baby.

9)   Buy in bulk. Many areas now offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) opportunities to buy directly from a local farm, usually for a season and often pay-ahead. This is terrific way to know much more about where your food comes from (and some have visiting days for kids). The food can be certified organic, or can be from a farm that uses farming practices that are very close to organic (or better) without certification, but do ask. Although you pay ahead of time, over the season,  costs may be lower than paying at the supermarket for premium meat, fruits and vegetables. The offerings are always seasonally appropriate, and will be very fresh. (To find CSAs near you, look here.)

10) Let it go. Small changes really do go a long way in reducing chemicals. But stress and anxiety are also not good for parents or kids. So if your efforts to reduce toxins are causing you late nights rather than peace of mind, pick your battles, make your choices, and let the rest go by.(Fifteen minutes of exercise or meditation also helps the body cope with hazards to our health.)We all just do what we can do to protect our children. That has to be enough.

And number 11 is: Stand with groups like Healthy Child, Healthy World in telling your member of Congress and the Senate leadership that you, as a parent, voter and citizen, support more reasonable standards for chemical safety. The best way to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals for every family, and every child, is to enact stronger rules in Congress.