Clean the sink and change the world

postcard_final.jpgWe believe that the small act of scouring the sink can be part of the giant act of changing the world.

That's Shaklee Corp. CEO Roger Barnett's manifesto for how consumer products, from cleaners to electronics, don't have to be made with toxic chemicals that harm health and the environment. He's one of dozens of corporate executives and scientists interviewed by the Los Angeles Times' Marla Cone for the one of the most in-depth looks I've seen at the growing "Green Chemistry" movement. (Part 2 runs in the Times today, the same day Marla starts her new job as editor-in-chief of Environmental Health News.)

The story starts by describing how toxic chemicals have become ubiquitous, polluting not just our air, water, food and consumer products, but all of our bodies:

Tests of umbilical cords [by Environmental Working Group] show that a newborn's body contains nearly 300 compounds -- among them mercury from fish, flame retardants from household dust, pesticides from backyards, hydrocarbons from fossil fuels.

Virtually everything we buy, breathe, drink and eat contains traces of toxic substances. The names are confusing; the list, mind-boggling: Bisphenol A in plastic baby bottles and food cans. Phthalates in vinyl toys. Polybrominated flame retardants in furniture cushions. Formaldehyde in kitchen cabinets. Radon in granite countertops. Lead in lipstick. 1,4-Dioxane in shampoo. Volatile organic compounds in hair spray.

Every day, about half a dozen chemicals are added to the estimated 83,000 already in commerce. In the United States alone, about 42 billion pounds of chemicals are produced or imported daily. Although California has no major chemical manufacturing plants, it is a large user: About 644 million pounds are sold daily in the state, according to a University of California report on green chemistry published in January.

Many chemicals are probably benign, but basic health and safety data are lacking for about 80%. Some, such as chlorine gas, are so highly poisonous that a minuscule amount can kill. Others can raise the risk of cancer and other diseases. Animal tests show that some suppress the immune system, obstruct brain development, deplete testosterone, mutate cells, turn genes on and off or alter reproductive organs.

Since the 1960s, when the pesticide DDT nearly wiped out the bald eagle, public policy has dealt with the risks on a chemical-by-chemical basis: Ban a few, restrict others and clean up the mess left behind.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the nation's waterways are classified as impaired by pollutants, the air of most cities is shrouded with soot and smog, and the multibillion-dollar bill to clean up the Superfund list of hazardous waste sites keeps growing. Chemicals have moved pole-to-pole via oceans and winds, turning animals and humans around the globe into unwitting lab rats.

There's also a nifty interactive tour of the chemicals in every room of your home.

But the greening of the chemical industry is only one part of the answer to these problems. While some companies want to do the right thing, others want to hold on to their toxic profits as long as possible. This year, California legislators passed a package of green chemistry bills, which Gov. Schwarzenegger has said he will sign, that EWG fears will give chemical makers too much opportunity to delay bans or phaseouts of dangerous chemicals, and too much influence in choosing the "safer" replacements. We think a better approach is embodied in the federal Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, which will put the burden of proof on chemical manufacturers, to demonstrate that their products are safe for children before they are allowed on the market. You can sign our support letter here.

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