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What I Learned From Being an EWG Guinea Pig
Last summer I was taking my one-year-old daughter to the pediatrician when a sign in the lobby caught my eye: Want to participate in a study on flame retardants?
“Definitely!” was my immediate thought. Like a lot of moms who spend any time on the EWG web site, I was aware of the sea of questionable chemicals that engulf our daily lives, from BPA and phthalates in plastic to pesticides in food and flame retardants in furniture. Many of these chemicals have been linked to reproductive disorders, obesity, learning disabilities, cancer and other diseases.
I had always tried to shield my daughter from these nasties. No canned food – there’s BPA in there. No tuna – high mercury. Not too much rice – arsenic. No conventionally grown peaches – pesticides! After a New York Times story suggested that the flame retardants in a couch could make it “the most dangerous thing in your house,” we replaced ours with one made of naturally flame-retardant wool. Overkill? Probably, but it gave us peace of mind.
Now, through this sign in the pediatrician’s office, researchers at EWG and Duke University were offering to test my and my daughter’s urine for evidence of exposure to flame retardants. Our results might tell us whether all our efforts to avoid synthetic chemicals were making a difference. Yes, I wanted to participate! Aside from the couch, I had scrutinized our home for chemical flame retardants. The mattresses were natural latex and wool, the futon cotton and wool. Our electronics were made with the safer classes of flame retardants. The toys were wood. We vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove chemicals that accumulate in dust.
That said, it was really just a guessing game; manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the chemicals in their products. We didn’t know whether these chemicals were still making it into our bodies.
Even if our house was “clean,” what about the harmful flame retardants present at my workplace, the library, friends’ houses and all the other places my daughter and I went? Would our urine come up clean or just as contaminated as if we hadn’t sacked our couch? We’d soon find out.
Well, we would find out after we supplied the urine samples. Collecting several ounces of urine from a toddler is as easy as getting it from a feral cat. All in the name of science, I reminded myself, and somehow we did it.
Nearly a year later and pregnant with my second child, I received a hand-addressed letter in the mail: our results! Researchers found evidence that my daughter and I had been exposed to TDCIPP, a chemical so questionable it was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s. Alas, it still shows up in upholstered furniture and other products. Over time it makes it into household dust and is ingested with food or absorbed through the skin. Researchers also found evidence of triphenyl phosphate, a component of the fire-retardant mixture Firemaster 550, which has been linked to early onset of puberty, obesity and cardiovascular disease. So there it was: we still had them.
We could take solace that our exposures were low relative to many of the study’s 46 other participants, but we were by no means clean. Somewhere, we were picking up these substances. Was it my upholstered chair at work? Maybe the furniture at the library? The stroller? The car seat? The car itself? We don’t know.
That brings me to the two big things I learned from our results:
- Individuals can’t do this on their own. Although I tried to shield myself and my daughter from dangerous flame retardants, it wasn’t enough. These chemicals are everywhere. Some were found in 100 percent of the urine samples taken from mothers and children who volunteered for the study. Individuals can’t avoid them; we need policymakers to step in to reduce these exposures, especially for children and pregnant women.
- We have a right to know what’s in the products we buy. I’m thinking of buying a new product for my child – maybe a toy or a car seat or sippy cup. Does it contain Chemical X? I don’t know, and I can’t find out. I can contact the manufacturer – and honestly, how many parents of toddlers have time to contact every manufacturer? – but usually they won’t say. Products aimed at children and pregnant women should disclose the chemicals they contain, similar to an ingredient list on food labels. These chemicals make it into our bodies just as food does; we deserve to know.
So thank you, EWG, I’m glad we got to be your guinea pig. Now that I know our results, I know I can’t vacuum away this problem. EWG tells me the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is attempting to craft a national furniture flammability standard. We need the commission to heed the voices of parents. We need to preserve the right of parents to opt for naturally flame-retardant materials like wool. When synthetic chemicals are used, they should be thoroughly tested for safety before they come into contact with our children, not after, or never. My couch should be the most comfortable thing in my home, not the most toxic.