OP-Ed Written by Sarah Evans, PhD
Published in the CT Post, October 12, 2012
As the mother of a 4-year-old, I recently received the first of many back-to-school shopping lists. The items seemed innocuous — markers, glue sticks, a three-ring binder. Like a rite of passage, parents all over the country check these items off similar lists in the days leading up to the start of school. To make purchasing decisions we balance financial considerations with Batman or princess obsessions. Most of us don’t check to see what these items are made of, or look for a label confirming its safety. We assume that if it is marketed for children it must be safe.
Yet a recent report from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and the Empire State Consumer Group, “Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemicals Inside Children’s Back-to-School Supplies,” suggests otherwise. Lunchboxes, backpacks, binders, rain boots and raincoats made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) were found to contain phthalates, plasticizers associated with reproductive, cognitive and behavioral deficits. And 75 percent of the items tested contained phthalates above the level that the federal government allows in toys.
While most school-age children don’t chew on their backpacks, phthalates are particularly insidious because they leach from plastics and are detected in air and dust. Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected phthalates in the bodies of virtually everyone tested, with highest levels in children.
How is it possible that items intended for use in the classroom contain chemicals linked to cognitive and behavioral problems? Unlike FDA regulations that ensure medications are safe when used as prescribed, in most instances there is no such mandate that keeps harmful chemicals out of our everyday products. This may come as a surprise to those who understandably assume if you can buy it off the shelf, it’s safe. Unfortunately, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) is broken and ineffective legislation that requires no chemical safety testing. More than 30 years after TSCA was passed, we know little about effects on the developing fetus or child of the 80,000 chemicals on the market today, or the consequences of exposure over the course of a lifetime.
What we do know about exposure to common chemicals is unnerving. The CDC has detected hundreds of chemicals, many with known cancer causing, neurotoxic or endocrine-disrupting properties in blood, urine and even breast milk. Studies show increasing evidence of developmental toxicities of highly prevalent chemicals such as phthalates, BPA, triclosan and flame retardants. Meanwhile autism, ADHD, asthma, diabetes and childhood cancers are increasing in ways that can’t be explained by genetics or improved diagnostics.
Fortunately, there is growing support for TSCA reform in Congress and from organizations like the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. The Safe Chemicals Act, championed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, aims to hold industry accountable for proving the safety of consumer products. It recently passed a vote in special committee and is slated for a vote in the Senate. Such comprehensive legislation has existed in Europe since 2007 in the form of regulations called REACH.
As a scientist and a mother I know how overwhelming it is to make healthy purchasing decisions for a family. It’s difficult to avoid particular chemicals when manufacturers aren’t required to list them on labels, something the Safe Chemicals Act seeks to change. So what can we do?
Start by thanking Connecticut Sens. Blumenthal and Lieberman, who have signed on to support the Safe Chemicals Act. Urge your local representatives to pass a state bill to identify and restrict chemicals of concern to children as California, Maine and Washington have done. Join The Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut to find out more about initiatives in our state. Support corporations who are phasing out products that contain PVC and other toxic chemicals. Using shopping guides available from organizations like CHEJ and Environmental Working Group, I was able to purchase a number of PVC-free school supplies for my daughter at a major retailer.
Connecticut has been a pioneer in enacting chemical legislation to protect children’s health. We were the first state to ban BPA from baby bottles and infant formula containers, which led to voluntary removal by many companies, and finally a federal ban this year. We should continue to lead the way in comprehensive chemical policy reform.
With strong chemicals legislation in place an enormous burden will be lifted from parents. It shouldn’t require research worthy of a master’s degree to buy a lunchbox. Our time would be better spent reading a book to our children.
Sarah Evans received her doctorate in neuroscience from Weill Cornell Medical College and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Pediatrics in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Her research focuses on the effects of prenatal and early life exposure to phthalates on brain development. She is a native of Ridgefield and resides with her family in Norwalk.