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Wendy Gordon

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The Return of the Toxic Newt Mask

Posted: 10/19/11 11:26 AM ET

Everyday was Halloween for my kids. Well, not the candy collecting, but dressing up in costumes was a part of their everyday play from the time they could talk. My oldest was a fireman and wore red for about a year before deciding he was a cowboy, which yes, meant lots of felt -- hats, vest, even chaps -- over long sleeved shirts and blue jeans, which as I recall he wore day in, day out during what was then the hottest summers on record.

As the boys got older and costumes were relegated to weekend play, the cowboy outfit was buried under piles of superhero capes, Peter Pan and Robin Hood shirts and leggings, Ninja Turtle masks and lots of cardboard swashbuckler swords. We even made wooden rock-and-roll guitars with the help of a carpenter friend. A few pieces were store bought, but mostly we just used our imagination, and lots of felt.

Halloween was the high holy day of costumery. All of October and a good chunk of September were consumed by preparations. They'd decide on who or what they'd be (one year, a son went as two trolls, one atop the other), then what we'd need to make the costume. Outtings to the fabric, art supply, and hardware stores were next.

By the time our oldest was in middle school we had discovered the Halloween stores. We couldn't resist the Newt Gingrich mask which on our seven-year-old was freakishly funny. Though also horribly toxic as it was made of soft vinyl (polyvinyl chloride or PVC), a non-recyclable plastic which releases cancer-causing dioxins during production and usually contains phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to reproductive abnormalities and liver cancer.

The Newt mask was tossed to the back of the closet after one use, to resurface 16 years later, strangely coinciding with the return of the real Mr. Gingrich to the national political stage. Meanwhile nothing has been done to protect kids from exposures to known toxic chemicals in not just once-a-year-wear Halloween masks, but everyday home, food storage, beauty and personal care products, as is the case with BPA in sippy cups and the linings of cans, phthalates in lotions and kids' and pets' toys, formaldehyde in nail polish and home furnishings, or PVC in shower curtains and kids' raincoats.

Why is this? According to the Take Out Toxics campaign website, weaknesses in the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), have made it almost impossible for the EPA to act on known health dangers or require testing on specific chemicals that may be unsafe. The chemical industry has been able to take advantage of these weaknesses, as explained in a new NRDC report, "The Delay Game," to gum up the works and slow agency action to a near standstill.

What's truly frightening are the sheer numbers of chemicals we are talking about here and the potential risks at least some have been shown to pose. When the law was first passed, 62,000 chemicals were allowed to remain on the market without testing for their effects on health or the environment. In more than 30 years, the EPA has only required testing of about 200 of those chemicals, and has partially regulated only five. Another 22,000 chemicals have been introduced into commerce since 1976, also without having been tested.

In the intervening years, long enough for your kids to have kids of their own, independent scientists have learned that exposure to low doses of certain chemicals, particularly in the womb or during early childhood, can result in irreversible and life-long impacts on health. We also now know that some toxic chemicals persist in the environment, sometimes for decades, and build up in the food chain and in our bodies, and that there are chemicals able to disturb our hormonal, reproductive, and immune systems.

Cancer, learning disabilities, infertility, birth defects and other reproductive problems have all been associated to some degree to exposure to toxic chemicals -- chemicals found in children's products, cleaning and personal care products, toys, furniture, electronics, food and beverage containers, building materials, fabrics, and auto interiors.

Consumers shouldn't be afraid that products they buy, whether for Halloween or for everyday, could harm their kids. Products on the market shouldn't contain harmful chemicals.

The return of Newt, the mask and the man, is a reminder that we can delay no more -- we must work now to make our products safe for all. Urge your Senator to support the Safe Chemicals Act, which shifts the burden from the consumer to the chemical industry to prove its products are safe. As for this Halloween, let it be a reminder to avoid the creepy, unknown element in store-bought costumes by making your own. I recommend this NRDC Smarter Living guide to DIY Halloween Costumes and Masks for ideas.