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Lifting the "Body Burden": How to Fight Toxic Exposure and Keep Chemicals Out of Your Home

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From Seventh Generation's discussion on "Children and Chemicals," featuring Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group, pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, Courtney Loveman of Seventh Generation and moderated by Simran Sethi.

We can thank WWII for inventions like SPAM, plastic wrap, and modern-day chemical cleaning products. When hostilities ended, the same companies that had been manufacturing chemicals for nerve gas and other weapons began to bottle their concoctions for the general public, who used them to disinfect their homes. Sixty years later, Mr. Clean may seem well intentioned, but a toxic chemical is still a toxic chemical, no matter how diluted or how many "Danger! Do not swallow" warnings a bottle is branded with. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that household chemicals label info on poison control and toxicity, but doesn't mandate ingredient disclosure. We each have our own allergies and sensitivities, so what may be deemed "safe" for one person may be harmful for another.

Kids are among the most vulnerable peeps. Children under the age of six are more likely to die from ingesting dish soap than any other product in the home. Luckily, most of us ingest or inhale dish soap residue in doses much too small to be lethal, but the chemicals are still having an effect. Women who work at home are 54% more likely to die from cancer, because of a higher exposure to household cleaning products. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that indoor air quality may be twice as polluted as outdoor air.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that everyday products like dish soap and laundry detergent are polluting our air and our bloodstreams with toxic chemicals linked to cancer, infertility, and stunted development. You're probably thinking sure, you're fill-in-the-blank age, you've been exposed to a lot in your short/long life. But here's the kicker: we're toxic from womb to tomb. A recent EWG study tested the umbilical chord blood of 10 unborn babies, and found a total of 287 toxic chemicals, an average of 200 per fetus. (You can find out more in the accompanying video.) The chems in babies included 28 waste by-products, 47 consumer products like Teflon and Scotch Guard, and 212 industrial chemicals and pesticides (such as PCBs and DDT) that were already banned more than 30 years ago. Our newborns are coming into the world with a heavy "body burden" of toxins that will impact their health and development.

Theoretically, our government should be protecting children from exposure to toxic chemicals that may lead to major health concerns. But our outdated Toxic Substances Control Act assumes all chemicals to be safe until proven otherwise, and doesn't require studies for new chemicals introduced to the market. When Bisphenol-A, a common component in plastic baby bottles and water bottles, was found to have strong links to cancer earlier this year, the Canadian government publicly declared the substance "dangerous," the first step in a countrywide ban. Due to consumer pressure, Nalgene has since phased out bisphenol-A bottles and Target pulled baby bottles containing the substance from their shelves. But the U.S. government has taken no action to officially ban bisphenol-A or warn Americans of the danger. The Food and Drug Administration actually said, "we believe there is a large body of evidence that indicates that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects." As far as we know, American citizenship doesn't automatically immunize us to the effects of toxic chemicals, so why is our government so much more careless than our neighbors up north?

Don't despair. The bad news is also good news--if these carcinogenic and damaging chemicals come from the products we buy, we also have the power to keep our homes and schools toxin-free. Buying sustainable furniture, eating organic foods and steering clear of high-mercury fish like tuna, filtering tap water, and improving home air quality with toxin-filtering plants are all easy steps we can take to cleanse our immediate environments. But we can't control everything (as much as we try). Everyone is at risk of exposure unless our government takes proactive measures to regulate chemicals and require companies to disclose full ingredient lists on their bottles.

Seventh Generation, the largest natural cleaning and home care product company in the world, has stepped up without a government stick. They're leading a "Show the World What's Inside" campaign for full ingredient disclosure on all household cleaners. (Watch their webcast on "Toxic Chemicals and Children," that Simran moderated, for more info.) Taking the power of knowledge a step further, Seventh Gen's website includes a database where consumers can search hard-to-pronounce chemicals to find out exactly what they're used for and how they affect the human body. In addition to accessing it from your desktop, the application can be downloaded onto your iPhone or BlackBerry so you can search ingredients at the store.

Seventh Generation and EWG have also teamed up in support of Senator Frank Lautenberg's (D-NJ) proposed Kid Safe Chemical Act. The bill would require basic data on all industrial chemicals and establish a national program to assess human exposure, assuming new chemicals to be toxic until proved otherwise instead of the other way around. We've signed a petition supporting the bill here.

Clean can be green, when you know what to do. Heather swears by the boiling water, vinegar and baking soda combo. Simran's lazier and uses Seventh Gen, Ecover and Mrs. Meyer's products. Sign the petition...and tell us your favorite household fix.

This post was written by Merete Mueller and Simran Sethi.

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