Earth Matters: One drop in 20 swimming pools

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There is a lot of talk today about chemicals and their health risks, especially those that are ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Potentially harmful chemicals are found in our water and air, in our food, in our personal care products, in our children’s toys, in our laundry detergents, and even in our cars. Recent news has highlighted this last example.

Chemicals that are responsible for that coveted “new car smell” have been found at levels up to 10 times the regulatory limits established by many countries. That smell is generated by volatile organic compounds, chemicals released as gases by the materials that make up dashboards, carpeting, seat covers and other interior car components. Additional chemicals common in car interiors include bromine and antimony, as well as chromium which is used in the leather tanning process.

“Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.

In China, new rules could put an end to this worrisome problem. It appears that Chinese citizens are expressing concern over the toxicity of the chemicals that compromise the air quality in their cars, making it a top priority for the industry, beating concerns over excessive fuel consumption.

In response, Ford has submitted a new method for eliminating the new car smell to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office which literally “bakes” it out of the vehicle. Other automakers have been switching to less toxic materials, such as soy for interior finishes and no-VOC adhesives.

This is a great example of educated consumers driving the industry to do better. But what about all those chemicals that don’t smell and we can’t easily detect?

For those product categories that are required by law to disclose chemical ingredients, we at least have the option of doing a little research to make educated choices. And Californians have Proposition 65, a law passed in 1986 which dictates that manufacturers of products that contain chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm must provide a warning to the public through labeling, signage or public notices. Proposition 65 also requires the state to publish and maintain an updated list of those chemicals, which number almost 1,000 to date and include chemicals found in pesticides, food, drugs, solvents and a range of common household products, along with substances used or discharged by industry.

New York has not yet passed a similar comprehensive law, instead of addressing individual chemicals or chemicals in children’s toys and products. The Child Safe Products Act, passed by the legislature last spring, has not been signed into law by Governor Cuomo. It would require the DEC to list banned chemicals in children’s products on its website and force manufacturers and retailers to remove the dangerous chemicals from toys and other kid’s products or take them off the market.

New York industry leaders with deep pockets are fighting the bill, claiming it will put them at a competitive disadvantage. Darren Suarez of the Business Council of New York stated that “We’re talking about parts per trillion or billion. It’s just an ink drop in a milk truck in terms of contamination.”

Is he right that we shouldn’t worry? What about those chemicals in our environment that are so small that it takes very expensive and sophisticated testing devices to even know that they are there? It would seem that if they are so hard to detect, you shouldn’t have to worry about them. But scientists are telling us this isn’t the case. Some of the most problematic chemicals we encounter daily can be harmful in parts per billion and even parts per trillion. These include non-stick and water-repellent substances (PFCs), flame retardants (PBDEs), and bisphenols and phthalates, chemicals found in plastics and other products commonly used by consumers.

Bisphenol A  is likely in your body right now, as more than 90 percent of Americans have been tested positive for this chemical in their blood. We absorb it through our skin every time we touch a paper receipt or ingest it from can linings or plastic beverage bottles.

The amounts are very small, but a growing number of scientists and academics are worried about the adverse effects. BPA, like the other chemicals mentioned above, is known to interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife. An amount equivalent to one drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools could produce a change in natural hormone concentrations.

The amount of 1,4-dioxane and PFAS in Long Island’s water supply is found in concentrations of parts per billion, and we are passing legislation to avoid further contamination and securing millions in funding to filter it out.

So we have to re-think the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus’ assertion that “only the dose makes the poison.”

Many highly respected doctors and researchers have written extensively about these low dose exposures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Books include Dr. Leo Trasande’s recent publication, “Sicker, Fatter, Poorer,” Dr. Sheldon Krimsky’s “Hormonal Chaos,” and the classic on endocrine disruption, “Our Stolen Future” by Theo Colborn.

All of them know what everyone needs to understand: even a tiny amount of a toxic chemical can have a big impact on our health.

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