Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Is Our Stuff Killing Us?

There’s a lot to love about the 21st Century. Wireless. Hybrids. Ipods. Hockey in June.

But modern life comes at the price of a body burden of pollutants. The stuff we like is amazingly light, pliable, tough, tiny, shatter-proof, stain-proof, waterproof, spongy, fire-resistant, explosive, clear, brilliant, fragrant, sleek, silky or some of the above because it’s made of complex mixtures of chemicals — that end up in us.

Environmental Working Group biomonitoring tests have found –

  • Nearly 500 industrial chemicals, pesticides and pollutants from burning fuel and garbage in the blood and urine of 186 people;
  • Worse concentrations of chemicals in toddlers and young children, compared to their parents and to the rest of the adult population;
  • Nearly 300 industrial chemicals, some banned or restricted for decades, in umbilical cord blood of newborns.

Government and academic biomonitoring surveys that have tested thousands more Americans show near-universal pollution in people. Virtually everyone alive can expect to test positive for a long list of chemicals whose implications for human health are uncertain at best, life-altering or deadly at worst.

Pharmaceuticals and pesticides are heavily regulated and must pass extensive government health and safety tests before being allowed on the market. Even so, major, sometimes fatal problems routinely arise from testing gaps, manufacturing errors or overexposures.

But highly toxic industrial chemicals–in factories, children’s toys and everything in between– bear no government pre-market testing requirements at all, even though they often end up in people, just as drugs and pesticides do. Small wonder that those chemicals, decades after entering commerce, suddenly turn up as front page controversies and in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

The federal law governing this field is the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, hastily cobbled together in the fall of 1976 by a Congress staggering under the weight of Watergate and related scandals and a White House distracted by a bitter campaign that would cost Gerald Ford the Presidency. The result, an untidy bundle of political compromises that pleased no one, gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responsibility but little authority to investigate possibly toxic chemicals and restrict their use. As a result, in three decades EPA has curtailed the use of just five chemicals.

We can do better. The most vibrant, creative, innovative society in history shouldn’t have to choose between new and safe.

But overhauling our toxic chemicals policy to make it effective, fair, workable and based on solid science won’t happen on its own.

That’s why we’ve launched this online science discussion and information forum – to host smart, provocative discussion about how to change the system so that it works for all of us – especially the young and other vulnerable people who depend on the rest of us to keep the environment free of poisons, swift or subtle.

We’ll cover movers and shakers on Capitol Hill, in the statehouses, in communities across America and abroad; cutting-edge research; regulatory agency actions and shifts in personnel, policy and practice; industry proposals for modernizing toxics policy – and so much more.

We hope to make this page a one-stop-shop for all you need to know – and a lot you’d like to know – on the toxic chemicals front. We’ll feature diverse voices – including those from industry, because chemical and plastics manufacturers are also promoting change.

The approach we favor focuses on keeping kids safe, because scientists now know that chemical exposures during development and early childhood can cause subtle changes in the brain and vital organs that will affect the course of a child’s life.

But we don’t have a corner on ideas. Change that matters, changes that lasts requires the best thinking of all of us. This forum is open for business. We welcome your contributions, your suggestions, your plans for making progress and your criticisms.

The only course we reject is inaction. This is the only planet we’ve got. Let’s figure out how to clean it up and keep it safe and healthy for the next generation and the ones after that.


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30 Responses to “Is Our Stuff Killing Us?”

  1. Good work… thank you! Do you know that a million people are dying slowly of Parkinson’s….? – - caused mainly by pesticides.

    Hope the website about this – - especially the PowerPoints – - -might be useful for your highly important work.
    Thank you.

  2. John Caulfield says:

    I am kind of frustated.

    Grandma bought our 1 year old an Elmo Couch. Upon opening it, it smelled very strongly of flame retardants. The smell was so strong that its the first thing that I smell when I walk into our home.

    This issue was that since Grandma bought it, how rude it was of me to suggest it had flame resistant chemicals. I am considered weird by my relatives that I even consider the chemical treatment of the couch, but I am an engineer, and the rest of the family are consumerish – they dont think about safety, because surely its safe. So for safety, I washed the thing out. It still smells, and what I really need is a trace chemical detector.

    Now all the items that have a California Code 117 on them seem to have a smell like a boron like substance, smells sort of gritty and chemical. And there is a dust thats all in our house, – and its not that we are dirty people, but I wonder if the dust from all this new furniture and kid couch is permeating us with chemicals. We bought a comforter that is laced with chemicals, and it seems all a bit weird that everything is treated with something.

    I am a Republican, and even I think this is lunacy – that our goofy consumer mindset coupled with the selfishness of some companies to sell toxic stuff lead us to the highest amount of chemicals in our bodies.

    Can I test for the dust residue off of our toxic furniture, or can someone suggest a way to have our blood levels checked.

    I firmly believe that if we could have a low cost reliably way to check for these chemicals in our home and bodies, that we could fight back with science, get more people interesting in safe chemistry, and help drive down health issue that come from toxics. Email me at Sbcaul@yahoo.com if you have any ideas.

  3. Nike Lewis says:

    I hope that this issue gains momentum. Not only do we have to worry about chemicals made here at home, but also chemicals in products that come from outside the US. How can there be effective control when there are already problems controlling imports? It’s going to be a long road, but well deserving of the effort.

  4. It is obscene the way we are basically at the mercy of the manufacturers that produce products that endanger us everyday. As long as they make money there is no consideration as to what is going into the food, drinks, or any other products we use. We blindly trust the companies that put their products out there and say they are safe. If people really knew what is in the things we consume they would be insulted and outraged. It is a crime.

  5. Denise says:

    We have 3 kids (now young teens) and we have always done our best to shield them from chemicals by buying as little “stuff” as possible. In foodstuffs, we couldn’t afford to buy organic everything, so we have always bought organic versions of the things they eat and drink daily, such as milk, bread, eggs, apples, and cheese. We also bought grass fed beef from an organic farm, and kept that in the freezer, and we tried to ring the changes on the non-organic foods so that the kids didn’t eat any one thing too often. We planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden out back, and kept chemicals off our plants. Ever since the kids were little, we kept pressed wood products, large plastics, and non stick pans out of the house, and we always bought simple play things such as balls, bikes, skipping ropes, and hoola hoops. In the house, as such products became available in the local supermarkets, I switched to natural glass cleaner and natural all purpose cleaner, and non toxic dishwashing and laundry detergents that are better for the rivers and better for us. We have plain wood floors (no carpets since I hate the smell of new carpet), and use plain cotton sheets and bedding. Since we live in the city, we don’t drink our tap water. I don’t know how many chemicals our kids have in their bodies, but I surely do hope that our efforts have reduced the load. We have done what we could afford for them, but we couldn’t afford to do everything. It certainly would be easier if there were better laws to protect our children from chemical harm.

  6. Lynna says:

    I think Denise’s response really illustrates a point about how difficult it is to avoid these toxins and chemicals; as parents we have to put forth tremendous effort to keep chemicals out of our homes and to locate products that are safe to use. It should not be this way.

  7. mari fowler says:

    You are doing great job helping people aware about toxins we are surrounded, but I also would like you to cover all those chemicals coming into our body through skin. Baby shampoo, lotions, bubble bath, hair detangler and so on are not any different from adult products. We use personal care producs from morning til night and many people are involuntally exposed to all chemicals sneaking into the body without knowing. Dr. Epstein with Cancer Prevention Coalition says “If you can’t eat them, don’t put on your skin.” Please cover more on personal care products.

  8. Denise Roeck says:

    The more I learn, the more I am outraged that our regulatory agencies bow down to the pressure of the manufacturing and chemical companies. Why, in this country, do we have to see that a substance is harmful based on actual, real life adverse effects, verses taking on a more precautionary approach, especially when it involves our children? We have to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. The time has come for us, and our government to demand and enact the kind of oversight that these profit focused companies and their boards obviously need to ensure that they put the health of future generations before stock prices.

  9. Heather says:

    For an excellent review of issues related to flame retardants, check out the Green Science Policy Institute (www.greensciencepolicy.org). Dr. Arlene Blum, a chemist in Berkeley, CA, has studied and written about this, and it leading an effort to change national policy to better protect the health of women, men and children. This is such an important issue– better science, public information, and politicians who are willing to push back against corporate interests are key.

  10. Helen says:

    I totally agree. It infuriates me. Everything you buy these days is impregnated with something toxic.

    Worse though, I’ve been buying hypoallergenic tissues and toilet paper (because everything is so blatantly over fragranced) and I find that though I buy the same brand most of the time when I get it home from the stinking stores that reek of laundry detergent etc , nine times out of ten it has picked up the smell of either flyspray laundry detergent or something else horrible but unidentifiable. Apparently this can occur in warehousing, but there are no laws against storage of foods or other products with pesticides or other chemicals, despite warnings on pesticide products not to store with foods or products to be used by humans or animals.

    I only noticed this a few years ago, the fact that everything stinks. Our local store had rose spray literally millimetres from organic breakfast cereal, on an end display. I’ve even bought cereal on occasion that tastes strange and I’d say this is probably the reason for it.

    If supermarkets want the dollars for selling pesticides and poisons in store, shouldn’t they at least protect the consumer from this cross contamination.

  11. K Williams says:

    Thanks for all you do EWG.

    I am a human biomonitoress (new word for new times),and am acutely aware of the presence of pesticides. This has been a terrible burden.

    Nashville has been absolutely inundated with herbicide applications for the past 6 weeks, with our Public Works spraying down all city streets, parks, (with our tax dollars) and the state of TN has been spraying down all the interstates. This is done in most all states…yet no one is informed. The Dept. of Ag does not monitor the air, and have dubious water testing for pesticides …how convenient.

    We (TN)are at the top of the list for miscarriages and birth defects, chronic and acute illnesses, drug sales and all that goes along with it. Our leadership turns a blind eye, and can’t comprehend that poisons are actually poisonous…guess they’re too busy sending racist emails about our President.

    I was suspicious as to why the CDC (who appear to have a bad case of Munchausin’s by proxy and the Dept. of Health have remained so quiet with first hand poisoning until… I looked into the CDC Foundation. Top board member is the CEO for Scott’s Lawn Care Product. So what’s up with that?

    The poisoning of America in small doses…very profitable for the chemical/pharmaceutical industry (yes,they are the same companies)– poisoning us with one hand and treating the symptoms with the other… and that so many in our conventional medical community and government leadership have exhibited the utmost in treachery by allowing them to continue…unfettered.

  12. Deanne McCannon says:

    I am angry and frustrated by the lack of regulation on baby formula. I am adoptive parent who has no choice but to use formula and what do I get….PBA lined cans and DHA grown in lab that may cause gastro-intestinal issues. We are very careful about what we put into our bodies, eating only organic and buying all natural, healthy products.

    It makes me crazy that I have little control over what my baby is drinking. Thank goodness for one responsible company that makes cleaner formula. But parents across the globe aren’t able to afford organic specialized formula. Someone needs to do something about this and that someone is US!! Write, complain, protest. Get PBA and other harmful chemicals OUT of our food, especially our babies’ food!!!

    • Lisa Frack says:

      Deanne, Thanks for taking the time to weigh in. We hear your frustration. Our recent blog post “Infant formula: How to choose it and use it” might be helpful for you: http://bit.ly/q7fav.

  13. Stewart Wilcox-Sollof says:

    OK our kids need new legislation to protect them from Chemicals. I would suggest the following plan:

    1. The Environmental Working Group should set up a team of experts to prepare draft legislation, (some with sound knowledge of these chemical pollutants, some with experience of drafting legislation.)
    2. One or more Washington Politicians are found who will push this draft legislation forward for debate, (Surely there are a few honest politicians with a conscience who haven’t been bought by the pharmaceutical, food or so called medical industries?
    3. A team of volunteers is gathered together to promote this draft legislation through emails, web sites, blogs etc.

    I’ll step forward right now for 3!

    What do you say?

    • Lisa says:

      Have you had any response to your idea #3?
      I would be interested in participating.

      • Lisa Frack, EWG says:

        Lisa, So glad you’re interested in participating! We need people like you to make this happen.

        I just replied to Stewart on item 3. Please visit our take action site here: http://bit.ly/lGvoC. You can start by signing our petition and joining our Facebook Cause for the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act: http://bit.ly/lGvoC. And of course, spread the word on both!

        Also feel free to email me directly at: lisa@ewg.org. I’d be thrilled to get you going on some much-needed citizen action on TSCA reform.

    • Lisa Frack, EWG says:

      Stewart, Great idea and good news on item 3. Please visit our take action site here: http://bit.ly/lGvoC. You can start by signing our petition and joining our Facebook Cause for the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act: http://bit.ly/lGvoC. And of course, spread the word on both!

      Also feel free to email me directly at: lisa@ewg.org. I’d be thrilled to get you going on some much-needed citizen action on TSCA reform.

      Thanks for the suggestion.

  14. Alex Formuzis, EWG says:

    Stewart,

    Legislation will soon be introduced in both the House and Senate that would take a number of important steps to dramatically reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals. The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, authored by U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) would require the chemical industry first prove its products are safe before being allowed into consumer products.

    Right now, manufacturers don’t have to conduct safety tests on chemicals before sold and used as ingredients in products we all come in contact with every day.

    People might be wondering how bisphenol A (BPA) – a chemical first designed to alter hormones back in the 1930′s – found its way into food and beverage packaging, baby bottles and infant formula? Because, under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, it can.

    You can read more about The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act right here at this site. Just scroll up to the top and click on “legislation” under the Categories menu.

    Thanks,

    Alex

  15. karen clemson says:

    It is so scary to read about the chemicals found in our systems and even scarier that these chemicals were approved by a group of people whose very children would probably be exposed to them!

    Toxins do not discriminate. Whether you’re rich and prominent or impoverished, all will be affected.

    Thanks to EWG for your hard work and for making such information available to the public. I just read this morning that Canada was proposing a ban to the use of phthalates in children’s toys. Way to go!

  16. Tanea Stephens says:

    As a parent of a thriving toddler, I have found it especially frustrating to be cornered between real needs (for example, baby pools for water play)and the lack of healthy alternatives (BPA-free pools). I truly hope that new laws will lead to healthier offerings and encourage alternative products companies to think out–of-the-box (for example, eco-pot companies making baby pools). Furthermore, awareness of these toxins in children’s products needs to heighten dramatically if we are going to create demand for profit-driven companies. I live in eco-centric Seattle, but my family in Ohio is clueless and I, too, am thought of as an alarmist because I regularly raise environmental health issues. Although my husband agrees with the uregncy of these matters, he now calls me “Debbie Downer.” I can’t wait to feel like I don’t have to help educate people on these dangers! Good work EWG.

    • Elaine Shannon says:

      Dear Debbie — Yeah, I get that don’t-tell-me-about-our-scary-stuff stuff. But like it or not, there are a bunch of chemicals in our stuff we don’t know that much about. Actually, my teenage son, an athlete and environmental science student, picked up on the plastic bottle problem in his early teens and started insisting on tap water, not piles of bottles. I read up EWG’s tapwater database and realized he was right, not only about the bottles but about the water. I’m wondering if Grandma Shannon and Grandma Wallace both lived to 93 because they drank out of glass, ate on china and cooked on iron skillets and pyrex. That’s what I do. And anyway, you can’t get fried okra and fried green tomatoes to taste right if you don’t use an old-fashioned iron skillet.

      Elaine Shannon

  17. Kerri says:

    There is some great conversation here and I just want to say “way to go” and “keep it up” to all of the parents who swim against the current of friends and family who think they are paranoid. It is so much more difficult but so very important. You are doing an amazing thing for your child(ren)!!!! Stick with it, I really think we are slowly making a difference. Thank you EWG for all your help.

  18. Miriam G. says:

    Thanks for all your incessant endeavours at spreading awareness and action in attampting to make our world the pristine place we deserve to have . . . sometimes I am so tired to even read this priceless information, and yet, you keep me/us posted and you never give up. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you – - trajically, if it weren’t for your organization, there would be only mediocre (many times, self-serving) government complacency keeping everything ‘in check’.
    How can I initiate awareness/action, in a practical and diplomatic way, to the students in our schools? Is there any program I can implement and/or share? Thanks again.

    • Elaine Shannon says:

      Miriam — Thanks for participating in this important discussion. Program for students? We don’t have an off-the-shelf teaching tool. In fact, that’s a great idea. But, depending on the age of your students, you could ask your students to name some of their favorite products, like sunscreen or personal care products. Then you could run the names through our Skin Deep cosmetics database at http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com or our sunscreen database at http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/special/sunscreens2008/findyoursunscreen.php. Teens and tweens might be particularly interested in our report showing that teenage girls have high body burdens of cosmetics chemicals, some of which have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, which controls hormones. http://www.ewg.org/reports/teens
      Everybody drinks water. You could have your students look up their water in our Tap Water Database at http://www.ewg.org/sites/tapwater/
      And everybody eats, so the students could look up their favorite fresh fruits and vegetables in our Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides at http://www.foodnews.org/
      I can imagine making posters and displays with fruits and vegetables low in pesticide residues.
      Good luck, Elaine Shannon

  19. Cris says:

    OMG. That’s horrible. I hope everybody would know this. Thank you. Keep it up! Nice work.

  20. John Caulfield says:

    Folks,

    It clear that everyone here understands how pervasive some of these chemical toxin are.

    I propose we fight back; This is a list:

    1. Hire 2-3 toxicologists to take samples of dust and blood from families, in ~ 20 states or so over 300 samples.

    2. Diagnose the chemicals in the families blood

    3. Look for common chemicals in family blood

    4. Correlate findings with known treated materials in the home.

    5. Test Cases: Allow some volunteers to have there kids play on 3 flame retardant furniture/toys over a 2 week period. Have other kids playing with non chemical items. Publish data before and after on the body burden measurements (Note: Was a recent artical where kids who drank out of Plastics has BPA go up significantly)

    Questions:

    1. How do we pay for this?
    2. How do we insure the calibrations on the equipment and the publications are not biased?

    I pledge that if EWG and users will contribute, that I John Caulfield will contribute in kind to the amount of $2000, provided we can do testing over a suitable size to get real strong data on chemical burdens, and understand the modes of injestion and the time it takes to develop moderate to high levels of key chemicals in our bodies.

    Regards to all,

    John

  21. Miriam G. says:

    Elaine, thanks so much! You had some wonderful, practical ideas – - I’m going to try to explore this initiative further and run with it next year. In the meantime, I will bring this awareness to some of my collegues and see if we can integrate it somehow, someway in the established curriculum. Let me know if anything else comes to mind.
    Miriam

  22. Stewart Wilcox-Sollof says:

    The horrible truth is that over 50,000 new untested chemicals have been released into our environment since the end of the second world war. This is big chemical/pharma corporates completely lacking in ethics and completely out of control.
    I am not even sure that so called testing would be completly effective as these chemicals may have long term disguised effects on our children and grand children.

    Already one young couple in seven needs medical help in reproduction.

    Yes retrospective testing must be introduced by government, but it must be undertaken by an Agency whose staff are, and will remain, completely free of any Chemical/Pharma Corporate links in the past, present or future.
    It has been shown that the FDA is staffed and run mostly by people who have worked for, or received benefits from or are likely to join later for big salaries, these big corporates whose products they are supposed to be monitoring.
    I know this sounds a little naive but I believe we need a sort of ‘chemical police’ like ‘The Untouchables’ in that old TV series, staffed by men and women who are and will remain untainted by the filthy lucre of big corporates.

  23. Lydia says:

    Thank you for this. It is really shocking to realize how many of us are polluted with potentially very dangerous chemicals, and that the government is not doing much about it. TSCA definitely needs to be updated, and KSCA shows promise to do just that.

    I do have one concern, though – not only does TSCA need to be updated but the methods of chemical testing should be updated as well. Current animal models provide only rudimentary data, and an imperfectly tested chemical is just as dangerous as an untested one. With all of these chemicals showing up in our systems, we should have methods that can more accurately determine a chemical’s safety, instead of relying on archaic tests that have long been proven flawed. The National Research Council has recently produced a report, “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and Strategy” which aims to improve these tests to better ensure the safety of us, our children, and future generations. There needs to be language in the KSCA that supports and enforces the development of these improved tests, because without the modern science behind this legislation, unfortunately, health and human safety will continue to be compromised.