05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Killer Whales, Toxic Chemicals, and a Mom

As a marine biologist and marine educator who works with Jean-Michel Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society (OFS) team, I'm fortunate that every day is an exciting adventure. Over the years I have spent much of my time on the open ocean with whales and dolphins, experiencing ocean life up close. When I am not out in the field, I get to spend my time in the classroom relaying the important message that we are all part of the web of life. Through my work, I've become a strong advocate for protecting our oceans and that includes keeping them free of the chemicals known to harm complex marine species.

Recently I received a call from a group purporting to promote protection from toxic chemicals. This group, the Coalition for Chemical Safety (CCS), advertises on its website that it is about "people like you" who support reform of the nation's chemical laws. The timing of this advertising is important because legislation to fix the failed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is expected to be introduced soon by Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Bobby Rush.

On the surface, CCS seemed to be aligned with OFS's support for a ban on all toxic chemical flame retardants. Yet when I investigated who was behind CCS, it turns out that it is an organization created by a public relations firm to appear "grassroots" and on the side of protection for our environmental health. CCS is pretending to be like us, when in fact it represents the interests that are trying to block or minimize restrictions on chemicals.

It turns out CCS has not published a platform of principles under which they operate. The CEO would not reveal who hired him or answer questions about his budget to a reporter with the publication, National Journal. He did tell the National Journal that the chemical industry trade association, the American Chemistry Council, was involved in "an early part of our discussions." Forming bogus grassroots campaigns is a well-used tactic for industries under fire -- the tobacco industry perfected it.

Once I was convinced I was being duped, I withdrew OFS support from the front group and joined the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which represents over 150 organizations and 11 million individuals working to reform the nation's toxic chemical law. Unlike the front group, they have nothing to hide.

Ocean Futures Society's support for meaningful change to the national chemical law is a direct result of our investigation into the impacts toxic chemicals have on the ocean and marine life which we highlighted in our most recent PBS special, Call of the Killer Whale. We've learned that levels of persistent toxic chemicals like PCBs, DDT, and PBDEs, which are flame retardants, are showing up in many species. Levels of some forms of PBDEs in populations of harbor seals and killer whales in the Pacific Northwest are doubling every three and years.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, myself, and my then- four-year-old son Gavin were tested for these harmful substances, and I was horrified to see how contaminated we were. In 2009 we teamed up with California EPA and participated in a pilot program to screen our blood and urine to reveal our "body burden" for as many as 30 synthetic chemicals. In findings that still bring me to tears, I learned that my son's levels of toxic flame retardants were off the charts. It appears that Gavin and I may have been exposed to these flame retardants through furniture, car seats and other household items.

My concern as a mother is that we really do not know what these numbers mean in terms of children's long-term health. Recent studies have shown that many toxic flame retardants affect neurological development, and that even low-dose exposures have led to reduced sperm counts in male rats, lowered IQ points in children, and disrupted thyroid functions.

We need to find a solution to the threats posed to life on this planet from chemicals. I believe change can come only with an honest dialogue with policymakers, parents, environmental advocates, manufacturers, and the chemical industry, including Dow Chemical Company, which was the main sponsor of our PBS Ocean Adventures television series.

Fake grassroots groups like CCS are a distraction from the real work before us. Any group that serves to confuse the public and to dupe committed people like me is harming our chances to secure urgently needed reform of our nation's toxic chemical laws.