You may have seen the March 15 front page article in the New York Times Home Section, "Is it Safe to Play Yet? Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins." The article provides a useful overview and some genuinely expert commentary on the scientific facts around toxic chemicals in the home. However, with the Times trademark tone of bemused snark it paints a picture of overzealous wealthy parents going to extremes, implying there's nothing to do but spend $400 on a bassinet or make your own cleaners from baking soda, and isn't that just ridiculous.
But it would be a serious moral mistake to dismiss the impact that chemicals have on chronic disease in this country, a serious business mistake to dismiss the global trend toward safer products, and a serious political mistake to think this issue is just for the Whole Foods crowd.
Thousands of studies published in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals over the last 15 years point to a few sobering conclusions: Chemicals to which we are all exposed contribute to the rising rates of chronic disease in this country and around the world, including cancer, learning disabilities, infertility, asthma and other conditions from which millions of Americans suffer. Many chemicals turn out to be toxic at very low doses, especially those chemicals that mimic hormones, which are designed by nature to be biologically active at low doses. All Americans, including pregnant women, are carrying these chemicals -- including ones that did not exist 50 years ago -- around in their blood and fatty tissue. No one in the federal government has a handle on the problem or the authority to restrict chemicals in common sense ways.
It is these facts that prompted the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Heath Association, the American Nurses Association, the National Medical Association, the President's Cancer Panel, and the 300 organizations in the coalition I lead, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, to call for a thorough overhaul of our federal chemical policies. It's also what prompted the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 to call for an overhaul of EPA's methodology for assessing the harm from chemicals, finding that current methods substantially understate the risk. As you can see, this is hardly the work of a few rich parents freaking out on the web, as the Times would have you believe.
No serious public health advocate proposes that we shop our way around the problem, but better informed consumers deserve credit for driving companies as large as Walmart and Staples to exclude certain chemicals from their product lines. Check out the Congressional testimony of Construction Specialties -- a manufacturer of building materials, detailing the job-creating success they've found in making stuff safer by avoiding toxic chemicals.
Broader change will have to come from new health protections. The Times story fails to mention that this spring the Senate is considering legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), that would fix the problem along the lines advocated by health experts. The chemical industry opposes the legislation, and special interests always have the upper hand in Washington, but public opinion on this issue could be the equalizer. Several rounds of polling by both Democratic and Republican pollsters have found broad bipartisan support for reform that also runs very deep. Americans think that chronic disease is on the "wrong track" in this country, based not only on statistics but the experience in their own families. They know that chemical exposures have something to do with this and they think that if a politician opposes reform, they must be shilling for the chemical industry's campaign cash. Also, unlike some issues, this one is immune to the tired special interest playbook of fear-mongering about jobs. In swing state polls we commissioned last summer, the theoretical candidate who opposed new protections citing job impacts actually went DOWN on the issue of protecting jobs. People correctly infer that fear-mongering about jobs in the face of a serious health issue says more about a politician's character than it does about his or her economic smarts and they line up against that politician.
It's good to be an informed consumer. It changes the marketplace and helps get companies to do the right thing. But please don't miss the opportunity to reduce cancers and birth defects by holding our Senators accountable this spring for the choice they make on the Safe Chemicals Act.