The Poisons All Around Us

by Jeff Feldman

Lately I’ve been reminded of an old campfire skit. The leader is speaking calmly to the gathered campers when someone races in with arms flailing, shouting: “Help! Help! It’s all around me!” The host reacts with genuine concern: “What’s all around you?!” The intruder smiles, shrugs and replies nonchalantly: “The air.”

Goofy, I know, but I’ve recently been experiencing that same feeling. Not about the air, but about chemical substances – 80,000 potentially toxic synthetic substances in current use in the U.S, of which only 200 or so have been safety tested by our government.


Under current law, chemical products are judged “innocent until proven guilty,” rather than asking industry to research a substance’s safety before companies put the stuff into the environment. It’s just that sort of thinking that got us in trouble with DDT, dioxin, and PCBs – once “beneficial” chemicals now deemed deadly, and banned.

A slew of new safety studies, two new congressional bills, and numerous product recalls (including 28 million boxes of Kellog cereal this summer) have amped up debate over the potential toxicity of chemical compounds that are, literally, all around us: in our food, water and air, and scariest of all, in our bodies and the bodies of our children.

Let’s look at just two suspect synthetics: Bisphenol A (commonly called BPA), and the phthalates (a family of compounds). Both are endocrine disruptors that mimic natural hormones in the human body with potentially harmful effects. I say “potentially” because evidence is still deemed “inconclusive” by the federal government despite hundreds of studies linking these chemicals to various cancers, reproductive and sexual disorders, obesity, and behavioral problems like attention-deficit disorder.

Bisphenol A has especially come under scrutiny since its health impacts most effect pregnant women, babies and children. This hard plastic additive is found in an incredible range of consumer products, including food and drink containers (especially their linings), baby bottles, reusable water bottles, and other food packaging. Detectable BPA was found in 92 percent of canned food tested in a study released this spring by the National Workgroup for Safe Markets, a coalition of public and environmental health groups. More worrisome, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found traces of BPA in the urine of 93 percent of all people tested.

Phthalates are added to plastics to increase flexibility and durability. Any soft, pliable plastic item found in the office, car or home is likely to contain phthalates including children’s toys. Phthalates are also common additives to shampoo, hair spray, cosmetics, detergents and lotions – essentially any personal care product containing fragrance. Have I mentioned that they’re all around us?

Despite the many studies indicating risk, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency simply lists BPA and phthalates as “chemicals of concern.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently allows both compounds in food packaging. The U.S. government only recently restricted the use of certain phthalates in children’s toys and child-related products, a step the European Union took back in 2005.

“America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken,” declared Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) this spring when introducing the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. This bill, if passed, would replace the antiquated and inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, shifting the burden of chemical safety to industry in order for a product to stay on the market. In a separate bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, an amendment by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) would ban BPA from food-related products.

Of course, the chemical industry is fighting to water down both bills. And if passed, neither will bring immediate change. BPA and phthalates will likely both require a slow phase-out.

In the meantime, there are ways to reduce your family’s BPA and phthalate exposure. For starters, evaluate food packaging, personal care products, and soft plastic toys – the kind likely to end up in a little one’s mouth. Though a federal ban on phthalates in kid’s toys has taken effect, older toys may still contain the chemical. Also, read the ingredients on personal care products for fragrance additives – which may include phthalates. Phase out reusable plastic food containers in favor of glass and stainless steel. Canned food consumption should be limited (since most cans are lined with BPA) especially for young children and pregnant women.

Unlike that fellow rushing to disrupt the campfire, I’m not trying to evoke panic, but I am offering a friendly warning. Until government and industry take a more responsible role in chemical safety, it’s your and my job to protect our families as best we can.

Comment on this column and get information about unregulated potentially toxic chemicals at: Jeff Feldman runs GreenPath Consulting, a green building consulting firm. He lives in Berkeley County, WV.

© Blue Ridge Press 2010

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