Since the ubiquity of chemicals in daily life has produced more questions than answers, and there appear to be possible health concerns regarding just about everything, I've had to dedicate much more thought and creativity to what I'm putting on our family's table. This is tricky since, as a mother of two young children, I don't have much more creative energy to put forth. At the end of the day, I feel like the only thing I can get really inventive about are the expletives I'm using to curse the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 for its complete and utter ineffectiveness in protecting us from chemical harm.
There are lists for the "safest food" to eat—the safest fruits and vegetables, the safest seafood, the safest water sources. The word "safest" implies not completely safe; you're still getting a "little bit." Is just a "little bit" of a bad thing really OK? Chemicals affect all of us differently, and what is a safe amount for one person may cause harm to another. Furthermore, in many cases, we don't know which chemicals are truly safe, even in small amounts, since we have no basic toxicity information for almost half of the most widely used chemicals in the United States.
Government agencies often change their minds on the amount of chemical exposure considered safe. In regards to the widely publicized chemical bisphenol A (BPA), federal guidelines currently put the daily upper limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. But that level is based on experiments done in the 1980s. Several animal studies show adverse effects at exposures of 2.4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, a dose that could be reached with an adult daily diet that includes multiple servings of canned foods. Consumer Reports' food-safety scientists recommend limiting daily exposure to BPA to one-thousandth of that level, or 0.0024 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, significantly lower than the Food and Drug Administration's current safety limit.
What happens when all these chemicals we are exposed to interact? The limited chemical toxicity information we have is a chemical-by-chemical assessment. However, we are not exposed to chemicals individually, but in a mishmash style, and each environment has its own chemical blend. There is no accurate way to test for dangerous health impacts, and 2,000 to 3,000 new chemicals a year are added to the pot.
What about the air we breathe and the chemicals we come in contact with in our homes? Certainly, more home-product manufacturers are going "green." But you still can't find upholstered furniture that hasn't been sprayed with some kind of toxic fire retardant, unless you want to fork over $5,000 or more. And green guidelines are often not yet strict enough to really ensure our safety. Companies everywhere tout their use of "greener" chemicals, but are these chemicals a truly healthy alternative?
For example, IKEA discontinued using brominated fire retardants (PBDEs) on mattresses and upholstered furniture. That's great, since PBDEs are a class of highly toxic chemicals. The problem is that IKEA has replaced PBDEs with chlorinated phosphate esters, another potentially toxic substance that is similar to compounds that have already been banned in the United States and Europe.
I look forward to the day when I can stop feeling like a detective, painstakingly searching out the least toxic chemicals for my family. Will such a day ever arrive? For a few very important and ubiquitous chemicals, federal regulation appears to be getting closer. Momentum is gathering to strengthen the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. On Sept. 29, the EPA confirmed that, with the backing of the White House, it is formulating a new strategy, creating a list of high-priority chemicals to target—including BPA, phthalates, PBDEs and nonstick perfluorinated compounds—and considering an expansion of existing rules in order to control substances that threaten public health.
The FDA is making some progress, too. An FDA special scientific advisory panel reported in late 2008 that the agency's basis for setting safety standards to protect consumers was inadequate and should be reevaluated. A congressional subcommittee determined in 2009 that the agency relied too heavily on studies sponsored by the American Plastics Council. The FDA is expected to announce soon its reassessment of BPA safety.
This good news brings me hope that someday I won't have to spend so much time in the grocery aisles trying to figure out a chemical-free meal for my family. There will be a time when the most challenging aspect of buying a couch is selecting one that is comfortable or the right shape and color, instead of trying to find one that is chemical-free. Maybe in the future, I won't have to do so much research on "healthy alternatives," but can trust that most of my purchasing choices are pure and natural.
Jezra More is a freelance writer and a Healthy Homes Specialist, providing indoor health consultations. She can be reached at JezraMore@hotmail.com.
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