Most of us assume that products we pick up off the shelf have been tested for safety. There are more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the consumer marketplace, so someone— government agencies or the companies themselves—must be making sure those chemicals are safe, right?
I used to think this, too. But I discovered that out of those tens of thousands of chemicals, only 200 had been adequately tested for their impacts to human health. And only 5 of those had been banned or restricted. In contrast, the European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,000 chemicals.
The truth is that it’s perfectly legal for chemicals linked to negative health outcomes such as cancer and developmental harm to be present in products that we put on our skin, spray in our homes and use with our children.
As awareness grows about this issue, more products are being tested, and harmful chemicals have been identified in products we use everyday. For example, scientists have found hormone-disrupting synthetic musks in air freshener, toxic flame-retardants in nursing pillows, BPA in water bottles and lead and mercury in baby toys.
Although this information is important for everyone, it is especially important for parents. This is because babies and small children are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures for a number of reasons:
- Babies’ immune systems and organs are still developing, and some chemicals may interfere with those processes.
- Babies breathe more often and more deeply than adults. They also consume more food and water per pound. All of this increases their exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment.
- Babies crawl on the floor and put many things in their mouths, which exposes them to more chemicals than adults.
So how can you minimize your children’s exposure to harmful chemicals in the home? Here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Start with One Room in the House
The kitchen is one place to begin. Take a look at the plastics you use for storing leftovers or wrapping food, the utensils you cook with and any other plastic you use with food. You want these to be made without polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and bisphenol A (BPA). PVC, a type of plastic that is indicated by the number 3 with the recycle symbol, can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that it releases into the air. For example, PVC is often made with phthalates, which are already banned in children’s toys because they can disrupt hormone function. The manufacture of PVC also creates dioxin, a chemical linked to cancer, kidney damage and other ill effects. BPA is a chemical used to make plastics, including PVC. It is a hormone disruptor that has been shown to mimic estrogen.
Another red flag in the kitchen is nonstick or Teflon cookware. These coatings on pans release perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a possible carcinogen, when heated above 350 degrees. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a program in place that will eliminate PFOA from cookware by 2015.
- Avoid plastic. Use glass containers to store food, wood or bamboo cutting boards and stainless steel cooking utensils.
- Use safer plastic. If using plastic, look for the recycle symbol with the number 4, which indicates polyethylene (LDPE), or items labeled PVC-free and BPA-free. Be especially sure you use PVC- and BPA-free baby dishes and utensils. And never put any plastic in the microwave.
- Use cast iron, carbon steel or stainless steel pans for cooking.
2. Make Your Own Products
Making your own products using nontoxic ingredients is an effective way to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals and your expenses.
Here’s a recipe for laundry detergent that is free of phosphates, chlorine bleach, synthetic fragrances, VOCs and other harmful ingredients that can be found in some commercial laundry soaps. You can find the ingredients for this laundry detergent recipe in any grocery store, and it only takes a few minutes to make. Best of all, it is cost effective at 10 cents per load.
Clean and Fresh Laundry Detergent
- 1 cup soap flakes
- ½ cup washing soda
- ½ cup baking soda
- 1–2 tbsp. powdered oxygen bleach (optional for extra whitening power)
Make soap flakes by grating your favorite pure vegetable soap with a cheese grater. Mix ingredients together, and store in a glass container. Use 1 tablespoon per load (2 for heavily soiled laundry). Wash in warm or cold water.
Note: This recipe can be safely used in high-efficiency (HE) washers as it does not include the suds-enhancing chemicals that create problems for HE washers.
3. Speak Up for Safe Products
Making changes in your home and in your purchasing decisions are great first steps, but the bottom line is that it shouldn’t be your responsibility to figure out what’s toxic and what’s not. All products should be safe, period.
Senators have introduced a bill with bipartisan support to update our laws on toxic chemicals. The Chemical Safety Improvement Act (S. 1009) currently has 20 cosponsors, ten from each party.
Unfortunately, the bill as drafted doesn’t do nearly enough to protect pregnant women and children, who are more likely to be harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals. It needs to be dramatically strengthened to adequately protect public health.
It’s important to remember that detoxing your home is not something you have to do it all at once! There should be no guilt associated with how many steps you take. Each step is meaningful and reduces your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals. Pick one change to make today and stick with it; your family will be healthier because of it.
Cassidy Randall is the director of outreach and engagement for Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE). She is the author of Fighting for the Dream: Voices from a New Generation of Maya Women. You can find more tips for detoxing your home, protecting your health and raising your voice for safer products on WVE’s website.