We’ve Been Slimed — and It’s Not Necessarily Pink

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Cross-posted from the Environmental Working Group‘s blog, Enviro-blog.

Last month, the New York Times published a story about my efforts when I was pregnant to rid my home of toxic chemicals. The story featured a photo of my 18-month-old daughter and recounted how I threw out a large pile of cosmetics, cleaners and other products that my research, using the Environmental Working Group’s online Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, found to contain dangerous substances. While at the time I thought I was doing the right thing for my family, when I read readers’ comments, I felt as if I were on Nickelodeon, in one of those scenes when an unsuspecting person has an entire bucket of green slime dumped on her head.

Readers sneered at my decision to purge my home of toxics when I was pregnant, calling me a control freak with mental health issues. More than one actually suggested that I had obsessive compulsive disorder. There was a certain amount of denial in the comments — an attitude that if something hasn’t killed us by now, it’s probably fine.

Given this response, I’ve been fascinated to watch the public outcry following disclosures that sellers of ground beef have been adding so-called “pink slime” to ground meat to save money. This stuff, officially called “lean finely textured beef.” is made by gassing and repackaging “lean trimmings” from the slaughterhouse floor. After a strong show of public outrage, grocery stores and restaurants have been dropping the stuff like a rotten egg.

Meanwhile, the meat industry has gone on the defensive. Even food-safety heroes like Marion Nestle concede that “pink slime” – despite being a low-quality version of “food” that should really only be suitable for pets and is disgusting to contemplate – is, as the Obama administration has said, safe to eat.

But what if I told you that a far more dangerous type of “pink slime” was actually all over your house and is still all over mine? I’m exaggerating, of course (likely due to my OCD). But hear me out.

Petrochemicals, as we all know, are the basis for plastics. The polyurethane foam in furniture and baby products? Courtesy of the oil industry. As Theo Colborn, a pioneer on chemical health issues, writes in the introduction to “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” “[w]hen one considers that almost all of the common hormone-disrupting chemicals are derived from oil and natural gas, one can begin to understand why the public does not know the nature of these toxic chemicals, their source, and how and where they have entered our lives.”

Preservatives in cosmetics, flame retardants in furniture, even common ingredients in food are derived from – or are – petrochemicals. Just like pink slime, the by-products of oil production are given a home among the multisyllabic lists of chemicals in ordinary household products, both as a way to find a disposal location for them and to sell them for profit.

In my opinion, this is to be expected: companies will sell what they have any way they can. It is even, you might say, “natural” for corporations to try turn a penny off their garbage. If the impacts on human health weren’t so devastating, and if they told us what they were doing and gave us a choice, well, it might be fine. It would at least be better.

Obviously, though, that’s not what happens. Instead, the things we buy are riddled through with oil-knows-what. Attempts to ban harmful chemicals have to move forward one by one with repeated scientific trials, each regulatory judgment fought tooth-and-nail by the industry. And the chemical/oil industry too often prevails, as happened with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s recent absurd failure to ban bisphenol-A, a dangerous chemical in plastic that’s been linked to obesity, endocrine disorders, diabetes, behavioral problems and reproductive health impacts.

We used to think pollution was out there, like the burning Cuyahoga River. It’s profoundly uncomfortable, instead, to acknowledge that it has intruded where we need to feel safe: in our homes and even our bodies.

No one really knows the compounding effects of, for example, the chemicals that act like hormones in our plastics when combined with the traces of birth control pills in our drinking water. As just one example, I am concerned about my daughter’s health in light of the possibility that hormones in products could be factors in the early onset of puberty among American girls, a widespread phenomenon.

Those who criticized me on The New York Times website were right about one thing: knowing about all this stuff does sometimes feel like enough to drive you crazy. That’s why I think that there should be rules that prevent products from entering the stream of commerce until they are proven to be safe, to replace the current standard of, basically, “whatever.”

So, in the face of all the uncertainty about health impacts from toxics, maybe I am a control freak. That is, if being a control freak means that I try to control my family’s exposure to harmful chemicals – or even those that just could be harmful. I don’t want to hand over the responsibility to some oil exec who would like to use our homes and lives as a place to store his leftover gunk.

But the sad truth is that it’s practically impossible to control altogether our exposures to the many chemicals in our cars, in the air and dust and in furniture and household items. I know too much to think I can control it all. And even when I’m making judgment calls, it’s far more difficult than it should be to know whom (and what) to trust.

Like every family, we are doing the best we can, given our limited information, time and budget. I believe this is normally called “parenting.” After all, someone is making all the decisions about what we’re exposed to and what the ingredients in everything are. For my daughter’s sake, I only wish it were me.

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Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA

Credit: Darren Higgins

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, On Earth, 4/18/2012.

When the New York Times ran a snarky story under a picture of my daughter, Maya, a few weeks ago describing my efforts to rid my home of toxic chemicals, you can bet the comments from readers were merciless. Readers accused me of trying to keep my child in a bubble and mocked me as yet another privileged, neurotic helicopter mom.

Truth be told, instead of a posh housewife, for years I was a cash-strapped public interest lawyer who roamed the halls of Congress with brokenhearted families after some federal agency had failed to protect them. I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover tragedy and the discovery of lead in children’s toys from China, among other disasters for public health. So when I had my own child, it seemed important to think through the risks to her health for myself.

Still, the pointed comments got me thinking: are moms, and parents generally, bad or good at predicting risks to children? I’ve decided that while parents might not be perfect, we’re a good sight better than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contrary to stereotype, moms (and dads) are actually expert risk assessors. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say that risk assessment is a major part of the job. Parents constantly measure both the benefits and risks to their child, of say, crossing the street, eating that suspect ball-park hot dog, going to summer camp, or even, as at my house, playing on our splinter-filled back deck (allowed, but shoes required).

On the other hand, we have the FDA. Eleven states, and at least eight countries, including Canada, China, and the European Union, have already banned Bisphenol-A — a dangerous chemical added to plastic food containers and can linings — in some or all products. Hoping to head off more comprehensive rules, the chemical industry in the U.S. even asked regulators last September for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Nonetheless, the FDA recently decided to keep exposing all of us to BPA, which shows up in the urine of 93 percent of Americans. This was a big step backward from the agency’s public position in 2010, which said that BPA was of “some concern” with regard to health impacts like early puberty and prostate cancer. That statement was based on a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.”

Four long years later (a period which included the birth of my daughter in 2010), the FDA’s disappointing decision to punt left in its wake a dizzying array of contradictory messages for the public on the safety of BPA. While FDA said that its recent decision was not a final determination and that it would continue to study the issue, the chemical industry’s flacks said the decision meant that BPA “is safe for use in food-contact materials.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, states that “[i]t is clear that the government… need[s] more research to better understand the potential human health effects of exposure to BPA, especially when it comes to the impact of BPA exposure on young children.” HHS also provides recommendations to parents about “minimizing BPA exposure,” including helpful information on BPA levels in various types of containers for infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding. This is in marked contrast to the cursory, lame non-guidance from the FDA, which states “FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods.”

Really? No changes? It’s shocking that in the face of health concerns that even the government has acknowledged, FDA won’t provide a shred of guidance for pregnant women and parents about how to minimize exposure for their baby. How about the obvious: families should avoid baby bottles with BPA in them, ready-to-use formulas and baby foods with BPA in the lining of lids, and canned foods with a BPA lining. Or that pregnant women, like the one working the cash register at my local café last week, should avoid handling receipts and money, which have been shown to be covered in unbound BPA?

In the face of such indifference to the risks, I’ll just point out the clear superiority of parents as deciders. In fact, parents generally make balanced — and protective — choices, weighing both benefits and risks. Kids can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble, sure, so parents do the best they can with the information that they have. But when they think about the downsides, they also make a very precise accounting, a moral and ethical accounting, you might say, that reflects the place in their heart occupied by their own child.

Parents everywhere take note: this kind of protective approach should also be the yardstick used by government when it assesses the risks to its citizens. When I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover disaster, accompanying the mother of a dead 18-year-old boy to her senator’s office to argue for more protective auto safety rules, what she expressed most poignantly, besides the devastating impact of her loss, was her profound, tragic heartbreak that she “didn’t know” about this risk — that she “didn’t know” that the government would allow things to be sold that were unsafe — that she assumed, in fact, that government would view the life and health of her child in the same loving, protective way she did.

If only it were so. When the FDA and White House play politics with our health and lives, when regulators admit a chemical in our food supply is unsafe yet refuse to even offer adequate guidelines for parents to protect their babies and children, and when a potential threat to our health is so impossible to avoid, we need a new, and far better, ethic for assessing risks and the safety of families.

We should enact laws that require products to be proven to be safe before our children and families can be exposed. And in the case of FDA, we shouldn’t tolerate these ridiculous waiting games. The agency should meet its legal obligation to protect the public from chemicals that can reach our food supply and have not been proven to be safe. That would be a government that only a mother could love.

The Car Seat Conundrum

Car seats save lives. So why should they come with a chemical downside?

We need a second car seat for Maya. I worked on auto safety issues for a number of years, and am very particular about car seats. (See my Persnickety Letters on Products post for an amusingly long exchange with a nice man from Sweden who was trying to help me compare U.S. and European safety and chemical rules. More on that in another post.)

Due to their good ratings from Consumer Reports, the fact that they are rear-facing for longer than other car seats on the market (which is critical to preventing neck injury in frontal crashes, the most common kind of car crashes), and that they also have good side-impact protection, we own a Britax Advocate 70 CS, new when Maya was born in 2010. It is a convertible infant-to-toddler seat with a hefty pricetag, but you only need to buy one, and it comes in a cute cow pattern, Cowmooflage. LOL.

But then there are the chemical flame retardants. Britax is among the worst in this category. And the study in 2011 found lead in the buckle. Then I read a recent announcement that Britax will phase out the use of harmful flame retardants by the end of 2012. That’s great news, and shows the power of Healthy Stuff’s studies in shining a light on this issue.

I also checked out Orbits, the other brand without chemicals, but it gets mixed reviews from parents for comfort and stability. And the base and seat are around $600. Whew.

So, what to do now?? Well, someone on our parents’ listserv is selling a fairly new Britax for $75 — I think I’ll get that one for now rather than something new, and hold out for the end of this year, when we can at last buy a Britax seat without flame retardants in it.

Just another sub-optimal waiting game, until the market allows parents to make a smarter and healthier choice. And then more stuff for the landfill, when we will replace our two current seats with ones that don’t have chemicals in them. (Will post in the future about the ethical dilemmas involved in reselling “toxic” baby stuff…)

In the meantime, I’ll air out the car when we get in, won’t let her hang out in the car seat unnecessarily, and wash her hands after we drive a while. (There are also covers you can buy, but I’m not so clear that they will fit well, and we don’t have one.) Even with all that, sometimes she’s a sweaty mess back there. And I know too much to think its ok.

If other folks have tips on this, I’d love to hear them!

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.