On Tuesday I attended Seventh Generation & the Environmental Working Group’s panel on chemicals and kids. And my friends, I must admit that the first 20 minutes of the panel left me feeling depressed and hopeless. But as the evening proceeded, so improved my perception that personal power and positive action on this matter are, in fact, attainable. Below is my recap of the event, including concrete ways that parents can take charge of their family’s environmental health.
Jane Houlihan, Vice President of Research at the EWG, set the context for the evening with description of a study in which cord blood samples taken from 10 newborns at delivery were analyzed, and 200 man-made chemicals were found present in the blood.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to connect with Houlihan after the meeting, and the researcher in me couldn’t help but want clarification of the data. A sample of 10 is small and who were the mothers? Were any of them women dedicated to organic foods and natural personal care products during pregnancy? If yes, was there any difference between the chemical content for those compared to other participants? Was the group homogenous in terms of the type of work/living environment, or did any participants have increased exposure to environmental toxins? And what was the profile of these chemicals? Were any of them linked to the neurodevelopmental disorders described earlier in the conversations? My brain immediately went into overdrive, mentally noting the products I used when pregnant with Laurel and all of the products our family currently uses. Had I done, or was I doing, enough to protect me and my family from the impact of chemicals in every day products?
And Then It Got Worse…
We then learned from pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene and Seventh Generation brand representative Courtney Loveman that in contrast to Canada and Europe, in the US, cleaning and personal care product purveyors are not required to fully disclose their ingredients on their product labels. Only ingredients shown to be toxic to a specified level are required to be listed on the label, otherwise the rest is up to the discretion of the company. And many companies – typically citing that they don’t want to give away their secret formulas – opt to leave off items that may cause buyers to avoid their product.
According to Courtney Loveman, Seventh Generation is the only household and personal care company that has moved to complete disclosure on their labels. I haven’t had a chance to fact check on this matter, but I will say that at face value this nugget of information certainly makes me want to buy more of their products (personal disclosure: we are long time users of Seventh Generation in addition to other natural cleaning and household brands).
And Then It Got Better…
My personal turning point in this discussion was when Dr. Greene – no doubt looking out across a sea of terrified parents, many cradling babies – said, “The good news is that environmental triggers mean there are environmental solutions.”
So What Can You Do?
Below are some of my takeaway action points from the evening. Many are very easy, and some will require a bit more digging, but will be worth the effort:
Check out the homework that has been done for you. The EWG offers a For Parents section that includes a wealth of information ranging from specific product information (sunscreen, kids’ personal products, etc.), to healthy pet tips, to quick household tips. Their 10 Tips for a Healthy Home and 10 Everyday Pollution Solution lists are good starting points for making change.
Check your cosmetics. For those who share my love of beauty products, this may prove a bit tough on the stomach (and wallet…if you’re prone to mourning sunk costs), but I highly recommend checking out the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. You can search for a specific product, ingredient, or company and get an overall hazard score then detailed information on potential ingredient hazards. I did a quick search on a few products that I use regularly and was dismayed to see the results. I'm planning on a major product purge this weekend.
Check out other household products. The Department of Health & Human Services offers a Household Products Database where you can find information on everything from arts and crafts supplies (gulp), to home and office products, to pet and personal care.
Join the campaign. Familiarize yourself with and spread the word about the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, and consider signing the declaration to support the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act. And at the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database site, you also can sign the petition to require manufacturers to prove the safety of their products before they are allowed to sell them.
Clean out under your sink. In reference to the aforementioned lack of disclosure on product labels, get rid of and avoid products that have danger or caution warnings on them. These products are the worst offenders, and we don’t really even know the whole of it since all the ingredients probably aren’t listed.
Read the labels. Seventh Generation has created a label reading guide to help people understand the ingredients in various products. You can even download the guide to your mobile phone so you have the information with you at the grocery store. This, of course, doesn’t completely help with companies that don’t fully disclose, but at least you can check what they do list.
Be a voice locally. I’ve always been the person who believes that it never hurts to ask and that your voice in the suggestion box is a good thing. If you’re looking for an environmentally friendly product at your local store and don’t see it, ask for it. If you see something really toxic, tell them they shouldn’t carry it. Big chains are finally listening up and are starting to respond to the demand for items such as BPA-free bottles, natural cleaning products, etc.
Keep up on the latest information. The EWG Action Fund now has a blog – Enviroblog – which covers the latest science and news on toxins in food, water, and air, and what government agencies should be doing to protect public health.
I know this is a lot to digest but I hope you’ll see the positive in it and start to take baby and then bigger steps to purging chemical content from your home. The reality is that as consumers, we actually do drive the bus, as it were, and as the EWG’s Jane Houlihan concluded, wouldn’t it be great if we could get to a point where we run the EWG out of business?
UPDATE (10/23/2008): Seventh Generation just posted the Web cast of the Children's Museum event if you wish to check it out.