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Go 'Head, Get Paranoid: Parents Say No to Toxic Overload

I just read this New York Times article about parents, spurred by concern for their kiddos’ well-being in a chemical-laden world, increasingly taking it upon themselves to research—and minimize—toxicity in their home environments. The article thoroughly summarizes a lot of compelling information, and even points toward resources readers can utilize when they find themselves impelled, as the parents profiled in the article have, to do something about its implications. But the article itself also strikes me as kind of strange; the author touches on key facets of what’s actually a very complex issue, but takes a continually tongue-in-cheek, and at times condescending tone toward his subject matter. I know this is intended to be cute, and also to make a point (that there’s potentially no end to the chemical-hunt and purge process, and that some parents take this process to extremes… Yeah, yeah, we get it), but this tone is distracting in the face of what’s in fact a great angle on a relevant, current and fascinating topic.

That green parenting has become a consumer trend—something the author is pretty fixated on-- is predictable enough. That some American parents think they can shop their way to safety, and that others adopt a “my nursery is greener than yours” status-symbol mentality is, uninterestingly, just another manifestation of the American consumer Way. But that the trend among parents toward seeking less toxic household alternatives represents a growing public concern regarding a bottomless pit of a problem: this is the stuff investigative journalistic dreams are made of. I think the author’s approach to the story is overdone, and cheapens an otherwise solid work that’s very much worth reading… ANYway, now that I’ve got that qualm on the table, let’s move on to a crux nugget from the piece, one that makes clear why chemical toxicity is such a big deal:

“Hundreds of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, fire retardants and PCBs, can be found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, according to studies by the Environmental Working Group. It’s particularly unsettling to imagine how these chemicals might affect fetal development, as a single cell turns into trillions, said 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.

And from birth, chemical exposure only grows. Young children eat and drink more, as a share of their body weight, than adults do. They breathe more air. Playing on the floor, they absorb chemicals through the skin.

As the chemical load, or “body burden,” has increased, Dr. Trasande said, “we’ve seen an increase in chronic childhood diseases: asthma, developmental disabilities, certain birth defects, certain childhood cancers. And these aren’t just two trends that exist at the same time. There are scientific studies that have tied the two together.”

The article goes on to note that “health or safety data exist for approximately only 15 percent of new chemicals submitted for approval to the Environmental Protection Agency,” and “recent costs of treating pediatric diseases of possible environmental origin like asthma, childhood cancer and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” are substantial. In fact, “the portion of the total societal costs attributable to toxic exposures (is) $76.6 billion for a single year.”

Clearly, chemical toxicity is a real problem, for families and for society. As much as the author harps on the pitfalls of paranoia around the issue, the fact that harmful chemicals are nearly inescapable in today’s world, and that this is making people-- particularly kids—sick, is something he keeps bumping up against. His point that reliable information around this problem is difficult to find is a good one, but picking on parents for worrying misses the mark. Parents worry; that comes with the territory. And in this case, they really should. Chemical toxicity messes with hormone functions in the body, which can cause all kinds problems, many of which are now showing up in this 21st century coal mine’s canaries: our kids. It’s entirely appropriate for this to catch parents’ attention, and to start them searching for safe alternatives. Cutting down on toxic load by minimizing chemical exposure where possible does make a difference; there are so many new chemicals entering the marketplace (and our environments) every year that, even if individual substances aren’t present in huge quantities, they become part of a problematic compound effect. It is unfortunate that helpful information on these chemicals—and ways to offset the issues they create—is largely unavailable, and that people often get caught up in a (sometimes entirely ineffective) “green” shopping frenzy as a result. But it’s because people are asking questions that the answers are becoming available at all. A little bit of paranoia, in an age when even your seemingly conscious cloth-diaper purchases could well have come from China (yeah, check yours), isn’t a bad thing.

Neither, I'll venture to argue, is addressing the chemical toxin issue from a conscious consumer’s position. As one source in the NY Times article notes, the “proliferation of chemicals in the marketplace” is really causing the toxicity problem. Conveniently, the marketplace is also a place where people’s preferences can create some level of (marketplace-related) change, even when political entities aren’t listening. (The article’s author notes that “Congress has been a graveyard for proposals to update the Toxic Substances Control Act, which by most accounts does an ineffective job of regulating chemicals in the marketplace”) In a capitalist system, your dollar is your daily vote for what practices and products you hope will stick around. Finding out where products that come into your home hail from can positively impact your own family’s health, and also the health of families on the other side of the world who live in places where chemical production and disposal aren’t regulated at all. Industrial and environmental regulations may be in place, to some degree in America (and to a much more effective degree in many European countries), but if you’re buying products that are made in China, those regulations aren’t doing any good. And, as you may have noticed, the majority of the products available in the American marketplace are in fact made in China. Since Chinese regulations on all things chemical-related are, well, basically non-existent—and creating a widespread environmental crisis—this doesn’t bode well for the American homes their goods are getting shipped into. Knowing this, I think websites like—one the NY Times author singles out, and then totally disses— which allows parents to choose toys according to their country of origin, are truly useful for busy parents who want to make informed choices but who don’t have the time to get obsessive about it. And sure, well-made, non-toxic toys may cost more, but that doesn’t necessarily make their purchase a privileged one. Choosing quality over quantity—i.e. buying less stuff-- is a habit most Americans could stand to establish, and also one that makes a helpful difference in the number of toxins coming into the home. (Not to mention a significant statement in the marketplace.)

The NY Times’ author’s most apt point, which he ultimately finishes on, and which goes a long way toward explaining why parents, in particular,form such a large contingent of the toxicity-fighting population, is: “if you don’t like your odds of cleaning up Washington, start at home.” In the absence of adequate regulatory measures, people who care about chemical toxicity are left with little choice but to research, and act, for themselves. It’s a shame that while the author references cleaning with baking soda and vinegar, and writes about a mom who makes her own laundry soap, he approaches the viability of these DIY alternatives for busy parents with a large degree of skepticism. I am a working mom who juggles several simultaneous careers while also spending a good chunk of every day with my child. I’m lucky in that I can largely create my own schedules, but this also means that I work many late nights and weekends. I am, in many respects, more busy than I want to be, and although I view this as a temporary phase in life (small children make life more intense, however you arrange it), I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to add extra chores onto my day. I’m also, as it happens, concerned about the number of chemicals that our bodies are faced with processing every day. Enter: baking soda and vinegar, which actually streamline my cleaning routine. I whip up a bottle of this stuff, and then spray and wipe (or scrub, depending on the damage) for a month or two at a time before I need to make more. I don’t have any need for a bucket full of cleaning solutions, “eco-friendly” or otherwise, and I’m keeping a host of chemicals out of my home—and a bunch of money in my pocket— by taking this one small, simple step.

It’s pretty tough to completely eradicate harmful chemicals from one’s home without getting extreme. I don’t try to do that. I don’t spend hours on end reading about individual chemicals and their effects on us, but I have a working knowledge of the big no-no’s to avoid (this information is available, to some extent, anyway, online and in books), and generally stick to a fewest-ingredients-possible, all-natural rule when buying products of any kind. If I can’t easily make something, I look for the most accessible and eco-friendly choice. This is in part because I’m sketched out by the chemical situation in general, and also in part because I have a kid with countless food allergies, one of the pediatric health problems that’s increasing at record rates in the Western world (something doctors can’t explain… yet our naturopath, when pressed, attributes the root of Kaspar’s allergy/immune system challenges to, you guessed it, toxic overload, which now easily tips the scales in people with any kind of predisposition toward these types of ailments). Kaspar isn’t “chemically sensitive” in the way that some people are (those people have no choice but to get extreme in their research and actions around this stuff), but I don’t want to tax his system—or ours, for that matter—any more than necessary. I make decisions accordingly: we chose low-VOC paint for our walls. We sleep on organic linens, and don’t buy anything that’s scented. I do make my own laundry detergent… Anyway, you get the idea. (Full disclosure: I also just bought a desk chair that was made in China. I didn’t check before buying—oops. It definitely smelled like a chem-factory for a couple of days, too, so I let it air out on our back porch. I’m not gonna sweat it).

The point, as that crux nugget I kicked this post off with pointed to, is the ‘body burden’ increase the chemical toxicity increase is resulting in among the population (especially in kids); finding ways to decrease that burden doesn’t involve doing everything possible to rid our lives of chemicals. It involves doing some things, and those things—especially as the marketplace responds to popular demand—are often just as easy to do as taking a status quo, more toxic route.

(Meanwhile, we should totally continue to push for better information availability, and chemical regulations, at home and abroad.)

Are you concerned about chemical toxicity in our (or your) environment, and in the products that come into your home? Do you take any measures to reduce the number of chemicals in your home? What are they? Do you think making green choices is easy, or confusing, given how many products now call themselves eco-friendly? Any good toxin-avoidance tips to share? What do you think of the NY Times article? (Does it strike you as kind of weird, too?)

I look forward to reading your thoughts!