By Anya Deepak, WEN Board Member
As a new mom, I am always on the lookout for things that could harm my child. I have always been very interested in leading a toxic free lifestyle, but now the stakes are much higher for me. So as I find myself spending my valuable time in the aisles of department stores reading labels, it was relieving to know that there is a formidable group of women working to make sure that toxic chemicals do not find themselves in our daily products.
Sue Chiang from the Center for Environmental Health, Sarada Tangirala from Women’s Voices for the Earth and Susan Cann from Made Safe are just three of them that represent the work that is going on in the country to detoxify our lives as consumers; and they were all together at the Toxics & You panel put together by WEN hosted at the the San Francisco Department of the Environment in October during Breast Cancer Awareness month.
Toxic chemicals are everywhere and in everything. Many studies have linked the exposure of these chemicals to modern day maladies like allergies, obesity, attention deficit, skin conditions, asthma and cancers. And yet companies and governments continue their use because they might be cheaper, more effective or maintain status quo. Unfortunately, the health costs associated with these exposures have not been quantified and are not something anyone is equipped to handle – as an individual or as a society. Moreover, most people just do not know how or believe that these chemicals affect their bodies and their health.
So instead of living in fear of the unknown, I went and educated myself on what I can do as a consumer to keep myself and my family safe and lend my voice to a growing movement to make sure we do not have much exposure to harmful chemicals.
Acute toxicants have traditionally been the focus of regulation. If enough of a toxic chemical spills on your body, you might die or be seriously injured. So there are limits on those kind of exposures. But the chronic toxicants that slowly accumulate in your body and cause harm have been overlooked for far too long. We have always heard the refrain that since these chemicals are ubiquitous, they must be harmless. Surely the government would not let harmful chemicals get on the shelves of our supermarkets. Unfortunately, that is not true. We are in this toxic soup due to a lack of government oversight, absence of ingredient disclosure and industry groups that are self-regulated. The science does exist to prove the harmful effects but it is mostly restricted to acute effects on a 200 pound male working in a factory setting with personal protective equipment. These same chemicals when found in our cleaning supplies and personal care products have a very different effect on women that do most of the cleaning and use more personal care products.
These chemicals of concern can be categorized into six classes, each containing similar chemicals. Most of them disrupt hormones, cause – reproductive health issues and affect fetuses or young children – thus disproportionately affecting women. Harmful and unnecessary chemicals in lipsticks, handbags, toys, disinfectant sprays and even menstrual products are all things to watch out for. Test results conducted by Women’s Voices for the Earth show carcinogens and reproductive toxicants in feminine hygiene products that come in contact with some of the most absorptive skin on women’s and girls’ bodies.
But of all the serious offenders, fragrances are probably the most worrisome because of their seemingly innocuous and “must-have” status. Fragrances in conventional products contain thousands of harmful synthetic chemicals.
What is worse is, these ingredients can be kept secret and the manufacturer is under no obligation to disclose them. When asked to disclose ingredients, most manufacturers accurately pin-point that their customers have never asked for such disclosure. As a customer, you have a great power in turning around these practices. Learn how to take action and demand disclosure.
When the attention is focused on one ingredient, many times manufacturers use regrettable substitutes as was seen in the case of Bisphenol A (BPA). Lobbyists, non profits and customers are expected to play chemical whack a mole when it comes to demanding substitutions. The ideal way would be to reinvent the manufacturing process instead of just changing out one ingredient. On the regulatory side of things, by the time government has caught up on trade secrets to put restrictions and bans on ingredients, the industry has already moved ahead with newer toxic ingredients. In this information gap between manufacturers and regulators, a lot of it falls on customers to figure out for themselves. To help make decisions about daily use products, the Center for Environmental Health has a list of alternatives.
Backed by the confidence that these companies want to do the right thing and that the consumers are demanding safer products, non profits in the advocacy world are writing, supporting and helping pass legislation that will have long lasting impacts on right to know laws. For instance, in October of this year, the Governor signed a bill into law that requires manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose ingredients. While this is a huge victory, it is just the tip of the iceberg and it sets precedent for similar laws in other industry sectors like personal care products and salon products.
But legislation does not happen overnight. A lot of grassroots movement needs to happen and be visible for legislators to show interest in a cause. Social media pressure is a good example of this movement. In 2009, SC Johnson made a public commitment to disclose product ingredients, thanks to a Women’s Voices for the Earth campaign and thousands of women raising their voices.
Similarly, in 2013, the Center for Environmental Health worked with manufacturers of foam furniture to eliminate toxic flame retardant chemicals so customers could be confident their couches did not have those harmful additives. When the non-profits publish lists like these, the companies mentioned benefit through an increase in sales because most of the times it is the only comprehensive list anyone has put together. And since all the nonprofits and government agencies that work in that space link to each other’s website, it forms a circular loop of information which stays in the public eye for a very long time. Manufacturers love the opportunity to have the first mover advantage to be listed. Similarly in today’s world of social media, manufacturers do not want to be caught on the wrong side of this issue.
And then of course there are companies that want to do the right thing because they believe in it. To avoid the chemical whack a mole, the concept of Precautionary Principle is being adopted by many to ensure their products will not cause undue harm. Manufacturers that want to steer clear of causing adverse health effects in their consumers are using safer, tested ingredients and getting certified by bodies that recognize such processes. Made Safe is one such certification that certifies products made with safe ingredients that do not harm people and the ecosystem. Made Safe works with companies to clean up their process so they can ensure that only the safest ingredients are being used.
As women we need to be very wary of toxic chemicals. They accumulate in our bodies and pass on to our children through the placenta and through our milk. What we put on our body today can be found in our great-great grand children more than a hundred years later. To avoid that, we can choose to be safe rather than sorry. Here are just some of the resources the panelists shared on how to protect yourself from exposure to toxic chemicals and be an advocate for a toxic free lifestyle:
The San Francisco Department of the Environment
Center for Environmental Health
Green Science Policy Institute
Unacceptable Levels – The movie