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Mary Brune

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Stop the Toxic Insults: They Aren't Helping

Posted: 03/16/2012 5:05 pm

Reading Michael Tortorello's recent piece published March 14th in the New York Times ("Is It Safe to Play Yet? Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins"), evoked in me the same reaction the writer insinuates that reports of environmental toxins evoke in many mothers: crazed anger.

Or rather, productive anger. Tortorello's portrayal of intelligent, informed women trying to do the best they can to protect their families from toxic chemicals in the face of government's failure to do so as "anxious," "obsessed" and "neurotic" is just another attempt by a man without a womb (there have been so many recently) to find fault with a woman's choices about how to do what's best for her and her family.

In "Is it Safe to Play Yet?" Mr. Tortorello concedes that lead, mercury, asbestos, and cigarette smoke are all proven health hazards and worthy of concern. (I'm glad we can agree on that.) But he questions the wisdom of parents trying to unearth and eliminate every toxic product in their homes. His article quotes Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment, at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, who says, "...you could do that, but there isn't really the science to back it up."

Well that all depends on whose science you believe. Do you believe in the chemical industry that says low-dose exposures to BPA are safe because they are so small, or do you believe in the flood of recent studies that say low doses pose an even greater risk to health because they mimic our own bodies' hormones? I guess that depends on whether you are obsessed or neurotic enough to remember lead in gasoline, or if you watched the tobacco executives testify before Congress that cigarettes were safe.

As a mother with similar experiences to those featured in Mr. Tortorello's article I am particularly offended by the dismissiveness with which he addresses the mothers' concerns about the toxins in their lives and their efforts to eradicate them. His snarkiness really shines through when he poses such questions as, "Could Wi Fi actually harm the baby? Who knows. Let the worrying begin." And my personal favorite, "... before you diagnose nose cancer in your toddler based on exposure to bubble bath, you can call an expert ... Or you can stick with your own neurotic Internet research."

And while mothers don't corner the market on worrying about their kids' safety, Mr. Tortortello's article is written as if this is the case. Especially since the only male parent quoted (and identified as such) in the article, Adam Zeiger, doctoral candidate and father to a 6-month-old, is portrayed as the only rational thinker among the lot. Zeiger is apparently someone who "did his homework" and found himself "unconvinced" about the threat of toxic chemicals.

The implication here is that we mothers haven't done our homework, and that there isn't sufficient evidence to support our concerns.

Unless you personally have a uterus or have, within that delicate environment, knit together a human being and then birthed that individual into the world (whether literally or through adoption), you have no right whatsoever to characterize women doing what they can to protect those tiny beings from toxic chemicals (while in their wombs or in the world) as obsessive or hysterical.

To be fair, Mr. Tortorello does offer some even-handed facts in his article. For example he gets it right when he says that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) doesn't work and that we are paying the price for that failure to the tune of $76.6 billion a year. I don't have a problem with that. With those facts, Mr. Tortorello, is spot on. What set my blood boiling is his smug dismissal of mothers' concerns and his mockery of the lengths we would go to protect our children. He questions how long a working mother could "go on making her own deodorant." I say, he's asking the wrong question. It's not how long she could; it's why she must do so in the first place.

Trust me, if Mr. Tortorello thinks I (or any other sleep-deprived mother) would rather spend my precious free time making cleaning products from scratch or reading about chemical hazards instead of trying to catch up on 8 years of too-little sleep (just because I'm crazy and obsessed), he's woefully mistaken. I and women like me (and yes, many fathers too) do these things because we must. No one else is minding the store. And until we get the serious chemical policy reform we need in this country to ensure that chemicals put in commerce don't end up in our bodies, affect our fertility, cause cancer, or birth defects, I and probably thousands of others like me are going to keep doing what we're doing. We don't have a choice. As Abby Wolfson, one of the women featured in Tortorello's article, so perfectly put it herself, "I've had my eyes opened to a lot of things that I'd never paid attention to. But now that I'm aware of them, I'm not planning on going back."

Our chemical regulatory system is broken and its failure is costing us billions each year. Parents are panicked because they want to protect their kids and are doing so the best way they know how: by educating themselves about the dangers and doing what they can do avoid them. And as the article's title suggests, we all would be better off at the playground making mud pies and riding the swings.

So, Mr. Tortortello, until or unless Congress stands up to the chemical industry lobby and does the right thing by reforming TSCA, parents everywhere will continue to read books about the issues, educate themselves about safer alternatives and take action. That's not hysterical. That's heroic.