Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health Blog
Reflections on Back to School
It’s early-October and my kids hurry to school on frost-covered streets. The transition from summer to fall always catches me off guard, and this year was no different. Ourfamily began Labor Day weekend with a lengthy to-do list. My husband offered to buy our son’s lunchbox. As he stood in the doorframe, our four-year-old daughter hanging on his leg and our son calling from the car, my husband reluctantly asked, “You don’t need to research this online, do you?”
My son was born in 2006, a year of high-profile recalls of kids’ products containing toxic chemicals. At this time, I discovered several online guides to less toxic consumer products. These databases were eye-opening. For example, I was surprised to learn that a pair of my son’s baby boots were loaded with lead, cadmium, and arsenic. Thereafter, shopping became slow-going; I did my best to identify less toxic car seats, mattresses, and school supplies. But, like many parents, I often didn’t have time to do the research.
I had assumed that chemicals in consumer products were safe. Unfortunately, companies are not required to prove the safety of chemicals in their products; as a result, thousands of chemicals are currently in use without adequate safety data. In recent years, toxic chemical exposures have been linked to conditions such as asthma, cancer, and reproductive difficulties. Last year, eight medical organizations made a joint call in the journal Science for tighter regulation of endocrine disrupters: hormone-mimicking chemicals used in a wide variety of consumer products.
Many of us are troubled by this news. Unfortunately, some in the media have been quick to lump these concerned parents with so-called helicopter parents, putting their kids in helmets to go down a slide and sitting in the back row of every first grade classroom. (For one example, see “Is It Safe to Play Yet?: Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins.”) Such caricatures ignore parents’ understanding of reality: Toxic chemicals don’t stay put.
It is impossible to seal off our children from the outside world, nor should we want to. Further, our purchases impact others. To take just one example, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice reports that each year in the U.S., PVC plants pump some 500,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, into the atmosphere. PVC plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, subjecting them to higher exposures than the population at large. The chemicals and their byproducts can also migrate into waterways and our food chain. It’s a system I don’t want to support, especially given the availability of healthier, more sustainable alternatives.
One phrase often heard from environmental groups is that toxic chemicals are a problem we can’t shop our way out of. Indeed, as I sit in my house, I am aware of the vinyl flooring in our kitchen, installed by the previous owners. It’s likely that some of my daughter’s necklaces—gifts from well-meaning friends and grandparents—contain lead and phthalates.
But because we can’t do everything is no excuse for doing nothing. In fact, the purpose of these guides is not simply to tell parents what to buy: It’s to advocate for reform at the corporate and governmental level. One bill currently before Congress, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, would take steps to protect public health. It would ensure that the EPA has data on the health risks of all chemicals on the market. It would also allow the EPA to take corrective action on chemicals of highest concern—those that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.
When my husband and son came home with a new lunchbox labeled “PVC-Free,” I was surprised and pleased. It’s a small gesture, I know. But somewhere that company understands the demands for better alternatives. We need to keep moving in this direction with more force and vigor. This is why I've decided to take action by sharing my family's photo with the Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health Photo Action Collage. Our Senators should know who will benefit from TSCA reform. I encourage you and your family to click here and do the same.