Saturday, December 31, 2011

Take action against chemical pollution!

[I wrote this over the summer and forgot to post it... OOPS!]

Over the past several months, I have been reading several books about chemical pollution. It's a topic I knew next to nothing about until I actively started digging into it, and now I'm wondering what the hell I've gotten myself into. I'm learning a lot of scary things - for example, that all pressure-treated wood used before 2004, on common structures like decks and playgrounds, is loaded with the carcinogen arsenic, the substance that the EPA deems most dangerous of all (thanks to Sandra Steingraber's book, "Raising Elijah"). It's difficult. Once you KNOW about the carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, neurotoxic chemicals that are lurking in your canned soup, sunscreen, porch, pajamas, lightbulbs, breakfast toast, frying pan, shampoo, mattress, arts and crafts box, shower curtain, tuna sandwich, cash register receipts, dollar bills, and car, you can't NOT know.

Many (mainstream) cancer prevention sources deny that there is a link between chemical exposures and cancer. Those that acknowledge the link usually just advise you to educate yourself so you can make better choices, such as eating organic food and using natural body care products and household cleaners. It is IMPOSSIBLE for a person to completely eliminate her exposure to toxic chemicals simply by making better choices. This is true for the following reasons:

1) There are over 80,000 chemicals in use today. As Steingraber says in "Raising Elijah," only 200 of them have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. To detoxify your house and belongings as much as possible, you would need nearly unlimited time and money, to research all of the products that contain toxins, and find and purchase their (often very expensive) alternatives. Examples of common, every day products that contain toxins or are likely to:

- flourescent lightbulbs (mercury)
- mattresses
- vinyl shower curtains (PVC)
- non-organic cotton anything (pesticides)
- make-up (numerous, unknown chemicals, because cosmetics are not regulated)
- non-organic produce (pesticides)
- non-organic dairy (rGBH growth hormones, antibiotics)
- non-stick cookware (teflon/perflourinated compounds)
- dry-cleaned clothes (perchloroethyline)
- plastic children's toys (BPA)
- paper money (BPA)
- cash register receipts (BPA)
- plastic containers and water bottles (BPA)
- canned foods (BPA)
- the interior of new cars
- flame-retardant items, such as pajamas (bromine)
- tuna (mercury)
- wooden decks or playgrounds (arsenic)
- soap (triclosan)
- pedicures (phthalates)
- hair straightening treatments at the salon (formaldehyde)

And there are tons more things that I'm not even aware of, of course, because even though I've read about 7 books about toxic chemicals so far, there's way too much to learn and remember! It's not realistic to expect that anyone has the time/money/resources to avoid ALL of those things...

2) Studies have found 200+ chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. Choosing organic produce and cleaning with baking soda and vinegar totally can not make up for the fact that we're contaminated FROM BIRTH! This is because...

3) We are all exposed to numerous chemicals against our will, without our knowledge, without our consent, and without any way of preventing it. Chemicals are in the air, water, soil, and food - to differing degrees in different locations, of course... but there's nowhere on Earth where they are NOT, and none of us can live in a bubble. Even if our personal homes are as toxin-free as possible, the moment we step outside, we're confronted with chemicals.

This last point has become clear to me over the months as I've spent a lot of time in other people's homes, as a babysitter and petsitter/housesitter. Just as I can't control my exposure to the numerous and unknown chemicals lurking in the air, I often can't control what I'm exposed to at other people's houses. If I was crazy enough to say, "Sorry, I can't housesit for you because you have Teflon pans, a Glade plug-in air freshener, dishwasher detergent with nasty chemicals, and a sofa that's probably still off-gassing something bad," or to refuse dinner party invitations because the menu might include pesticide-contaminated food, I wouldn't have any work or money or friends! Sometimes, it's a matter between choosing to keep the chemicals away from yourself, and maintaining positive relationships with other people, and this shouldn't have to be a choice we make. A 9-year-old girl I babysit for tries to do many nice things for me when I'm at her house: offers me special treats from her EasyBake oven, paints my nails, lets me swim in her pool, teaches me tricks on the playground, and shares her sunblock. My internal reaction is, ack! Artificial flavoring and high fructose corn syrup! Phthalates! Chlorine! Arsenic! Parabens! At first, I tried to politely decline some of these things, and if pressed for a reason, I'd casually say something about being allergic to the chemicals in it. But one day, after I had caved and let her paint my nails with her slightly-better nail polish from the local health food store, she wanted me to take it off with nail polish remover, and I said in what I thought was a casual voice, "No thanks, I'm worried it will - " and she blurted out, "You're scared of EVERYTHING!"

That stopped me in my tracks. I had become one of Those People, those paranoid, bubble-dwelling, party-pooper killjoys. How do you maintain a balance between trying your best to keep yourself safe from chemicals, and maintaining positive relationships with the people you care about?? I don't want to be so anal and obsessive about chemical exposures that I can't enjoy social situations or be a good guest in a person's home. I want to be able to say "Thank you!" when someone offers me a snack, instead of "Oh no, chemicals!" It's certainly not that 9-year-old's fault that there are chemicals lurking in the snacks and nail polish, and I certainly don't fault her parents, either, for buying/having those items in the home, because like I said in 1), chemicals are ubiquitous and not possible to be eliminated or avoided solely through consumer choice. I'm sure there are carcinogenic substances in my home, too! I try my best to buy organic, natural products, but who's to know, really? The cosmetics industry is entirely unregulated. Any company can write "ALL NATURAL!" on its bottle and then put in whatever chemicals it wants to. It is the government's responsibility to REGULATE and BAN dangerous chemicals as necessary, and it is industry's responsibility to put the health of the Earth and its inhabitants before profits.

I was pissed off at the government and chemical industry for leaving me in such a quandary. On the one hand, if I say "okay" to the nail polish, snacks, pool, playground, and sunblock, and all of the chemicals they involve, I'm knowingly increasing my risk of a cancer recurrence. (One might argue that those exposures are so miniscule they don't count, but they really do all add up, and if there are multiple exposures we have no control over, shouldn't we at least say no to the exposures that we CAN?) On the other hand, if I keep saying "no" to everything this little girl offers me, she, one of the kindest, most thoughtful kids I know, is going to be sad and take it personally. This is wrong and unfair.

This girl's awesome parents are conscious of avoiding chemical exposures as much as possible, too, I know - her mom wryly told me that the spray sunblock (i.e. with the chemicals) is the only kind she can use, because her daughter won't stand still long enough to fully apply the cream kind (i.e. organic), so it's a toss-up between which cancer you're risking - skin cancer from no sunblock, or other cancer from the carcinogens in the sunblock?? This is ridiculous, and an example of how impossible it is for us individuals to avoid cancer/exposure to dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals all on our own. WE NEED the government's help. It shouldn't be up to us to spend an hour in a grocery aisle as we try to decipher the ingredients to figure out which products won't give us cancer - food should be safe to eat! I shouldn't have to say no to a child who wants to paint my nails and share her sunblock - products that go on the body should be safe to use! I shouldn't have to worry that the wooden structures she's climbing all over on the playground have arsenic in them!

What we can do is support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, which was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg. You can read about it at the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families website here. It's a great website with lots of info. I sent my two Senators several hand-written note cards, asking them to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act... And one of them did! :) (Not just because I asked him to, of course!)

You and I are simply human beings doing the best we can to stay healthy and safe. But the weight should not all be on us. What difference does it make if there are no pesticides on my (or your) one pint of strawberries in the fridge, when the farm industry continues to use pesticides and herbicides so heavily that there is no body of water in which the weed-killer Atrazine cannot be found? Let's make it stop!!!


  1. I made a factual error in this post... Can anyone find it? :)

  2. There's so much misinformation out there about the Teflon® brand, I'm not surprised that you are concerned. I'm a representative of DuPont though, and hope you'll let me share some information with you and your readers so that everyone can make truly informed decisions.

    Regulatory agencies, consumer groups and health associations all have taken a close look at the Teflon® brand. This article highlights what they found -- the bottom line is that you can use Teflon® non-stick without worry.

    I'd truly be glad to share additional information about it if you are interested, and appreciate your consideration of this comment. Cheers, Sara.

  3. According to the EPA website info on PFOA, "In 2005, DuPont paid $10.25 million for violating federal environmental statutes, which is the largest civil administrative penalty EPA has ever obtained.

    "DuPont's violations consisted of multiple failures to report information to EPA about substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment from PFOA during a period beginning in June of 1981 through March of 2001."

    PFOA is used as a processing aid in the manufacture of fluoropolymers and can be also be produced by the breakdown of some fluorinated telomers, according to the same EPA webpage. Teflon is made with fluoropolymers and fluorinated telomers.

    The article cited above by the Dupont representative states we've long known that very high temperatures can break down Teflon and suggests using ventilation if cooking at high temperatures. To me, that advice doesn't equate with use "without worry."

    The EPA recognizes that PFOA is likely to be carcinogenic to humans -- once we know that, our goal should be to have as little of it enter our bodies as possible.

    Obviously, the tiny amount of PFOA in each of us (the overwhelming majority of us anyway) will not be the single cause of someone's cancer. But that's not the way cancer develops anyway. Cancer is often a multi-hit process with cumulative DNA damage adding up over years. So, it's incredibly difficult to know if any one carcinogen or any amount of any one carcinogen is "safe" or can be put into our bodies "without worry."

    The larger point, DuPont representative's efforts aside, is not about the relative safety or non-safety of any single product. It's about the negative cumulative effects of thousands of chemicals on our cells and DNA.

  4. Hi Sara,
    The factual error I made wasn't about Teflon (see Allie's comment above).

    So, does anyone else have an idea about what my factual error was?

    By the way, if anyone's interested in reading even more on perflourootanoic acid (PFOA) and DuPont, the EPA's page about it, as referenced in Allie's comment, is

  5. DuPont rep vs Doctor, this should be good :)


  6. All of us are being exposed to different types of chemicals that are really harmful to us and in our environments as well. This is a sad reality that we are experiencing right now but, we could make a difference if we would be learning how to use and dispose them properly.