Toxic Ignorance is Not Bliss

Why I'm Outraged About BPA and Other Chemicals, and What We Can Do

We are exposed to thousands of synthetic chemicals all day long. It would be next to impossible to avoid them; they lace our lives. We sleep on chemical fire retardants in the fabrics covering our mattresses. We wake and wash with chemical soaps, and slather chemical-rich moisturizers on our bodies, shampoos on our heads, cosmetics on our faces. We cuddle our babies in plush armchairs, upholstered in fabric that is treated with stain-resistant coatings. Our toddlers cut their teeth chewing plastic toys that contain chemicals to make them soft.

We live in a society that, if anything, seems too full of rules and regulations. But that means we can trust the products that come to market; they've been analyzed and researched and exposed to exhaustive, long-range testing, right?

Wrong. Most of the synthetic chemicals we live with—and some are so pervasive that they are now in the bodies of virtually all Americans—are under-tested and under-regulated. Those bottles, those non-stick pans, shampoos and lotions, those cleaning products—so much of the stuff of everyday life—may, in fact, be harmful to our health. All those times I nestled a warm bottle into my hungry child's mouth, I may have been exposing him to toxic substances.

"Without agreeing to it...we have become the chemical industry's guinea pigs."

"Society needs to pay much more attention to this problem," says Dr. Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at EDF. "We've been complacent about it." Denison maintains an influential blog tracking the debate over chemical safety.

In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Unfortunately, the 62,000 chemicals on the market at that time were given a free pass: no requirement they be tested or assessed for safety. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has garnered some information about chemicals through voluntary submissions by industry in a program that EDF helped start, limited testing has been required on a mere 200 chemicals over the past three decades. Worse, EPA has managed to restrict only five substances—and even that overstates the agency's efficacy. The only group of chemicals entirely banned was PCBs, because Congress required it. Even Cal Dooley, the president of the American Chemistry Council, commented on EPA's incapacity in this matter: "EPA cannot make a determination on whether or not a chemical is safe for its intended use."

We should be worried about what amounts to a huge, uncontrolled human testing experiment. Without agreeing to it, without understanding it, without even knowing it, we have become the chemical industry's guinea pigs. "We have a system that puts the burden of proof on the government to show that a chemical is harmful," says Denison. "We need to flip this. The burden of proof should be on industry, to show that a chemical is safe."

The chemical most in the headlines these days is bisphenol A (BPA). Among its many applications, BPA has been used in the linings of food cans, and because it makes plastic clear and nearly shatterproof, it has been used in baby bottles. Traces of BPA have been found in the bodies of 92% of Americans.

Bisphenol A has been getting attention as scientists have released reports showing that this compound–first identified as a "synthetic estrogen" in the 1930s–is an endocrine disrupter. It has been connected to increased breast cancer risk, altered brain and breast development, altered thyroid function, recurrent miscarriage and erectile dysfunction. While independent scientists and industry chemists continue to debate acceptable levels of leaching and toxicity, some states, manufacturers and retailers have taken it upon themselves to ban BPA from baby products. Even Walmart, the world's largest retailer, no longer sells BPA baby products. While this is terrific, the federal government should ban BPA from all products. Babies always ignore labels telling them not to chew on the grown-up's stuff.

BPA seemed like a good idea at the time. A plastic bottle meant your toddler wouldn't crash to the floor holding glass in his hands. Lightweight plastic launched two year olds into the take-out habits of our dining culture: Those sweet fruit drinks, steadily leaking through the nipple, led to rampant tooth decay. Dentists began protectively coating children's teeth with–you guessed it–plastic sealants containing BPA.

BPA is a telling example of the shortcomings of America's regulatory processes. It was one of the chemicals that sailed past TSCA in 1976, and is now produced in amounts exceeding 6 billion pounds annually, even though its hormone-like properties have been known since at least the 1930s. And BPA is a harbinger of even greater trouble in the industry. Christopher Gavigan, executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World, says there are many other chemicals that raise similar concerns. To name a few: flame retardants (PDBEs), phthalates (used extensively to soften plastics) and organo-tin compounds, which harm aquatic life. Denison underscores the danger: all these synthetics are in widespread use, humans have been significantly exposed to them, and there is growing evidence of their toxicity.

"We have much better science today than we did thirty years ago," says Denison. "We are gaining an understanding of our biological response to even small doses of chemicals. But we have old regulations—blind to the new science."

As consumers, we find ourselves in a familiar and uncomfortable position: individual efforts to stay safe, versus inadequate information and weak government regulations. Indeed, it often seems that government protects industry better than people. Consumers can try to avoid BPA-laden canned food. We can be vigilant about not using anything that has known carcinogens in it. We can consult websites (like those listed above on the right) to get some of that information. But there are countless undisclosed chemicals in everything we use. We have no clue where the next toxin lurks. The burden of responsibility should not be on the consumers. Manufacturers must be held accountable for the safety of the products they make and sell.

We shouldn't despair—but only because that won't do any good. We should be outraged. We should make noise, lots and lots of noise. Demand reform of the laws governing toxic substances. Demand that the EPA have the power to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals. Demand more rigorous testing. Demand transparency: Ingredients that might be harmful to human health should be disclosed. But more to the point, products made with unsafe or untested chemicals should never reach the marketplace. Because that's how they end up in our bodies, and in the bodies of our babies. When it isn't clear that even the smallest exposures to certain chemicals are safe, regulators cannot continue with business as usual. You can take action right now—tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.

Our social networks are buoyed by trust. Trust in the companies that make the things we buy. Trust in the stores we buy things from. Trust that our government makes laws to protect us. Trust that most people believe in doing no harm. But trust is earned, not assumed. And it has been broken. It is up to us to demand, more than anything else, the repair of trust between consumers, industry and government. Now more than ever, we need the retailers we have been trusting to take the lead on ensuring that we aren't being poisoned by the things they are selling. Their combined market leverage will provoke greater cooperation from manufacturers, and pressure government agencies to require transparency and proof of safety.

There shouldn't be anything to hide, should there? As with any relationship, all we're looking for is good chemistry.

Take action! Tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.

41 Responses

Comment from Grant
December 8th, 2009 at 12:18 pm

A very sad and frightening state of affairs. What is even more sad, is that most people are not even aware of the risks. Our home is mostly chem-free because we have been aware of this issue for years. I hope more people become aware and put pressure on Congress to put a stop to this.

Comment from psychiclunch
December 8th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Sadly our home is not chemical-free; being a relatively new construction, it's probably on the "worse" side of the fence. We're actively working on fixing that though.

Thanks for the extremely important info! We can beat this.

Comment from Martina
December 8th, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Very important indeed !

Planetfuture Belgium thank you, such information reinforce our same actions in Europe.

Comment from Gail Payne
December 8th, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Are you familiar with The Precautionary Principal? I first heard of it from the small organization HBAC, Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition. It states:When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action." – Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Jan. 1998

We must fight for this, it goes along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there is no life with poor health, and cancer ends the life of about one third of those it strikes.

Comment from dari mohamed
December 8th, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Lada importance da Alick de vous, je suis dans le besoin criant d'Alick Ariedki connu pour me conduire et je n'oublie pas la belle Hedda disparues de l'argent pour Voyage et de sécurité que vous souhaitez vous laisse l'adresse

Comment from Alex
December 8th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Awesome article!

The EPA really needs to think about the whole "protection" thing.

Comment from ldelp84227
December 8th, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Very important information. But it does not talk about the millions that are sick when exposed to many of these products. I see stories like this everyday but most stories don't talk about the sick that aren't getting any help.

Most are women even though there are many many men suffering also. Many of these people have been working together for years writing to our leaders to no avail.

I have written for over ten years and I am happy to finally see that hearings are taking place regarding TCSA. I didn't get ill til the 90's so if they would have done their job then maybe I would be okay today. Thank you for your work. Linda Delp

Comment from quincy Kirsch
December 8th, 2009 at 1:31 pm

This is very timely for me as last week my 3 year old dog fished a tissue out of my friends toilet bowl which had the product "2000 Flushes" in it . After three days of vomiting , lethargy , & no eating + nearly $300 in vet bills , my dog though not 100% , seems to be out of the woods ( fingers crossed ) . I have read that this product may eventually cause ulcers or other organ damage as it contains chlorine which burns ( as well as fumes ) . My dog ingested very little of this . I have been assured by company reps that it could not have possibly caused harm and that the symptoms must have come from bacteria in the bowl ( funny since they claim their product kills bacteria ) . She has pulled tissues out of my chemical free , bacteria laden , bowl many times and never gotten ill . I remember when my niece was a toddler she was obsessed with playing with the water in the toilet bowl & I doubt that is uncommon .
After many petitions begging them to , Antifreeze companies will not even spend the one penny per gallon it would cost to make it smell bad to pets & wild animals so they won't continue to drink and die ( a horrible death ) from this deadly chemical . Something needs to be done to protect humans as well as animals , as it seems greed knows no bounds !

Comment from Robert
December 8th, 2009 at 1:45 pm

The EPA is a joke and has been protecting industry for years. It is amazing how asleep the American public is on so many issues.

I completely agree we should all be outraged and action should be taken to reverse this policy. Future generations are at stake.

It becomes alarming when there are chemicals in baby products that you can't pronounce.

It seems in America the illusion of regulatory agencies is more important than what they do!

Comment from Elle Smith Fagan
December 8th, 2009 at 1:58 pm

My late husband was a pharmaceutical manufacturing executive,
and he felt very strongly about the lack of responsibility in our use of chemicals in every place in our lives.

In spite of what they all say, it is not so difficult to approach the issue with better awareness and response.

We all love the things modernity brings to our lives, but we must get much better at testing it all, and adjusting things, so that the insidiousness of toxic chemical effects in our lives is minimized.

ONE THING WE CAN DO RIGHT NOW is to simply be mindful – when we buy a new home or a new installation of any kind, we can test it, like we would a new food or medicine or beauty item, to be sure that it is not toxic to us.

And, when health issues arise in the home, add the possibility of something toxic in the environment as its cause.

Thanksomuch for this helpful article!

Comment from Ernest Grolimund
December 8th, 2009 at 2:07 pm

EDF is so good. Please include 180 air toxics and pm from woodsmoke engulfing up to 50% of the population in northern states with pm way over legal stds. Houses, cities engulfed by woodsmoke. Monitoring by Can Lung at 80 mcg/m3. Photos. Maine DEP modeling all support. Soot said to be resp for 60% of global warming since 1890 as well by Gore. Mortality up 16%. Cost for health: 100% price of wood to society. Warming cost: about 10 times price per Sen Boxer. This problem has it all. Death, disease, millions,destroying the planet to boot.

Comment from Robin Thomas
December 8th, 2009 at 2:53 pm

EPA has been having their funds reduced for many years, basically tying their hands on a number of these issues. Excellent studies that would have investigated the broad exposure to household chemicals to children and families were stopped by Congress because of pressure from the uninformed who thought EPA was "exposing kids to chemicals". Not true- it would have been an observational study that would have raised attention so more households can become more chemical-free.

In the years before Bush, scientists in the EPA actually worked out an emissions standard that would have significantly reduced air pollution, while at the same time being economically feasable for industry. A veto from Bush stopped that.

It is a shame that politics has to play a role in these important matters- the vast majority of scientists in the EPA are seriously dedicated to making a difference. Years of work get halted by the whim of politics. We need to make our Congress understand that the good chemistry is there- so let these EPA research scientists do their job. Bad science based on political whim and short-term economics doesn't lead to progress- we need to make sure Congress is getting the facts right.

Thank you, Dominique, for an excellent post.

Comment from Carolyn Allen
December 8th, 2009 at 3:04 pm

It looks like another case for campaign reform. "Follow the money" — not only do chemical companies benefit from these toxic chemicals, but so does the medical complex. We the people get tossed around like a football in a bowl game. I've linked to your article in my blog, "SolutionsForGreenChemistry.com" and hope to continue spreading the word about your insights and documentation of what's happening in our everyday lives.

Comment from JK
December 8th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

I only gave my now-adult daughter bottles when she was with other children that had them. Her bottles were glass and had water colored with a tiny amount of grape juice. My bedding does not contain chemicals and I don't buy new furniture, rugs, etc., with foam or other chemical-laden products. I am convinced that the "search for a cure" is good money after bad until we stop the causes: the chemical pollutants that are in our bodies and our environment. They are found in laundry fabric softeners, drier sheets, and detergents, other cleaning products, cosmetics, air fresheners, artificial foods and food additives, and a multitude of products that are unnecessary or that could be replaced with natural, and even organic products. It is really not difficult to avoid them, but most people just trust that they are OK, and even don't notice how horrible some of them smell because they're used to them.

Comment from Riley McIntire
December 8th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

It is frustrating when interests eviscerate the EPA and other agencies, preventing them from protecting public safety, and it's easy to blame it on politics. However it is politics that created these laws and agencies and it is politics that will, hopefully, remediate the harm to us.

It is _our_ responsibility to take action and engage in politics.

Good article.

Comment from Lucy G.
December 8th, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Just yesterday I called ConAgra re the lining of a can of Hunt's Organic Crushed Tomatoes. A person read me the company spiel about BPA and its usefulness. I told the person that I bought organic products to avoid chemicals, and if their cans were lined with BPA, I would no longer be purchasing their organic products. At the time, I realized that this was a useless activity, that we have to convince the EPA to test and retest, then outlaw what is harmful to living beings of any age. I called my US Rep., whose people did not give a hoot, but at least he heard from one person.

Comment from gail
December 8th, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Regarding BPA, if the manufacturers remove this chemical, what do they substitute instead? It could be yet another chemical worse than BPA. That is why EPA must require manufacturers to follow the precautionary principle and only allow ingredients that have been proven safe.

Another concern is the labeling on products are only required to list items with percentages greater than 1% content. Those that are below 1% by weight are not required to be listed. This is where many chemicals may be added without the knowledge of the consumer. These two issues should be addressed with the new legislation.

Comment from Christopher
December 8th, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Chem free home? Everything from your paint on the walls, to soaps, colognes, etc must be all natural too then?

Plastics have pervaded our lives so much that it's impossible to avoid it altogether. Groceries always have some kind of plastic lining (cereals, chips, cheese, saran wrap, even metal soup cans, etc.). Plastics have become so common that it's impossible to avoid it. Don't worry, if they eliminate BPA, there will be another toxic chemical to take it's place…we never learn. Probably best to stick with (lead-free) glass.

Comment from Kevin Carroll
December 8th, 2009 at 9:22 pm

There's a great book that addresses a lot of these issues, Mark Schapiro's

Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power

Lots of shocking facts about the lack of regulation in the U.S. and how we're falling behind Europe and even China in how we protect our citizens from dangerous chemicals. The bright spot on the horizon is that European standards may eventually force American manufacturers to adopt much stricter standards if they want to sell their products in a global economy. But the stricter European standards won't guarantee U.S. manufacturers won't have a two tiered production system, one for the U.S. market and a stricter one for the global market.

Comment from p.weiters
December 9th, 2009 at 2:10 am

12/9/09, This is insane. Chemicals,natural&man-made are relatively safe when used and/or handled properly. This appears to be nothing more than alarmism, at best.
….persona-non-grata, Preston Weiters.

Comment from Stardance
December 9th, 2009 at 7:56 am

Quote: "…. All those times I nestled a warm bottle into my hungry child’s mouth, I may have been exposing him to toxic substances."

Sadly, that might have been somewhat safer than nursing him. I have been aware of these problems for all of my adult life, and I have joined many campaigns for legislation, for EPA empowerment, for EPA action, for new laws, for whatever might begin to alleviate the situation. But scarcely anything has changed, excepting the elimination of PCBs by an Act Of Congress.

The policies, practices, arguments and self-justifications of the chemical industry are the same. The basic policies, practices and arguments of the regulators are the same. The inaction and inattention of Congress is the same.

If you contact your Representative and/or Senator about these issues, and they are Republicans, they will put your name on their "nut" list and send replies based on Libertarian corporatist ideology. If they are Democrats, they will commiserate with soothing noises and never expend any political capital on the matter.

Considering global warming and impending radical climate change, they are being regarded very much by the American People just like the flood tide of chemicals in which we swim throughout our lives. If it doesn't give them an immediate rash, they don't notice, don't know and don't want to know.

Comment from Louis
December 9th, 2009 at 8:52 am

This calls for complete return to natural products. What made by Mother Nature is no failure. 99% of everything man made most likely is harmful to any life form on this planet.
How otherwise would one explain increase in all kinds of civilization illnesses, mental disorders, developmental problems, etc.?
It only takes short time to invent new chemical but it will take years to prove whether it is safe or harmful. During that time most of us will buy product that includes that particular chemical. It may take generations to even start noticing any effects on human health and development.
And as soon as one chemical is removed there are ten new ones that will not even be announced. This means that this is never ending fight for something that should be absolutely fundamental right of any living being on this planet and that is clean water, air, food and everything else environment.
It is insane how far we did let this come. Let's just say hope dies last.

Comment from Vincent
December 16th, 2009 at 2:28 am

There is another toxin which is eminent, but often unnoticed.

This toxin is called FEAR. The fear of being poisened by the products you use might be even a bigger threat to health than the pioson itself.

So I don't really mind what is happeining I choose to live my life my way and I simply do not want to be led by fear. Be aware of what is making you do what you do.

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