I recently held an event in Woodbury that focused on toxic chemicals in our household products. Presenters Kathleen Schuler, healthy kids and families program director at Conservation Minnesota, and Larry Milchak, senior director of toxicology and strategic services for 3M’s medical department, spoke with an audience of 25 people about chemical safety. Through the course of developing this event and listening to the audience questions afterward, I’ve been reflecting on a few main themes that are important to address when talking about toxic chemicals. Here are some of my lessons-learned:
- Are these chemicals truly “toxic”?
I have heard people take issue with the term toxic in that the chemicals discussed in Kathleen’s presentation don’t necessarily kill people outright, and their effects are not always overtly sickening. However, the definition of toxic is “containing or being poisonous material,” and poisonous means capable of causing illness or death when entering the body. Chemicals such as phthalates, PFC’s, bisphenol-A (BPA), and brominated flame retardants can have very subtle long-term effects on our health, as they disrupt hormones in the body, affecting our body’s ability to function normally. So while consuming food out of a BPA-lined food container can won’t make you obviously ill, BPA can disrupt your body’s hormonal systems causing future health problems such as effects on development or cancer.
- What do toxic chemicals have to do with conservation?
The harmful chemicals in our consumer products only affect babies, pregnant women, and children right? I always wondered this, and as someone without any kids at the moment I thought that the toxic chemical concern didn’t quite fit with my life. I was wrong, for a few reasons. First, toxic chemicals in the body are never a good thing at any age. Chemicals may have less of an effect on an adult body than a child’s body, but they are a disease risk factor, an irritant, and a burden for your body to bear which takes away energy from other vital processes. In addition, the accumulation of chemicals in a woman’s body from environmental exposures can later be transmitted to her future children. Second, if these chemicals are in our home goods, then they are most certainly leaching into the environment at some point in their lifecycle– especially if they are disposed of into a landfill where they can leach into water sources and affect wildlife.
- There are chemicals everywhere, why worry about any at all?
True, everything is made up of chemicals. However, some are most certainly more harmful than others. If we know which ones do cause harm, it makes sense to limit our exposure to them. It’s like using a helmet when riding a bike. There may be a million ways we can get hurt when we leave the house, but if we know that wearing a helmet can reduce a well-known and demonstrated risk of head injuries, it makes sense to wear one. All of the other harms do not somehow make wearing a helmet ineffective. Finally, worrying isn’t productive, but purchasing safer products and writing to your legislator about better chemical policies is!
- Can we actually make our products safer?
Yes! We absolutely can. Many of the toxic chemicals in consumer products are not even needed. Take flame retardants for example. Studies and tests have proven that flame retardants aren’t actually beneficial in furniture and children’s products for preventing fires. They can and should be eliminated from products such as nursing pillows and home furniture. Similarly, while food can linings are needed to prevent food contamination, BPA-free can linings are available. In another example, antibacterial agents such as triclosan are not any more effective than thorough hand-washing with soap and water. Eliminating these chemicals is not difficult; it’s a matter of having the political will to change a flawed way of doing things.
- How worried should I be?
Again, worrying isn’t productive. But in a world with many environmental risks, it’s hard not to worry. This final question resonates with me the most. I have been aware of strange substances and smells since I was very young. I used to complain to my mom that our vinyl shower curtain was making us sick because it gave me headaches (a worry that later turned out to be legitimate). But what Kathleen helped me learn is that harmful chemical exposure can be easily minimized and body chemistry can change quickly. According to Kathleen, who holds a Masters of Public Health, many of the chemicals we discuss, such as BPA, can leave the body within a few days. Making small changes – in better food packaging like selecting BPA-free cans or purchasing chemically-safe cleaning products – can make fast and significant improvements in the amount of chemicals in your body.
I hope you will feel empowered to make your home healthier for you and your family – and help make the world healthier by taking toxic chemicals out of production and landfills. I know I do, and I already feel a little healthier because of it.