Years ago, in a place far, far away, people were exposed to dangerous chemicals in everyday products. Children were exposed to lead paint in their toys. Houses were filled with asbestos. This distant past was virtually a Wild West for consumers, and any given product could contain a hazardous material. Thank goodness those days are gone for good. Right?
Unfortunately, toxic chemicals in commonly used products is not a thing of the history books. It is an ongoing saga, and it is being played out in our own homes, workplaces and schools. You would think that after all we’ve been through over the past few decades – legal battles, product recalls, consumer safety initiatives – we would have a system in place to protect us from harmful chemicals, but toxic materials are still included in makeup, herbicides, plastics and even the receipts that retailers hand us after we buy these products.
As the New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof reported in 2015, only a fraction of the goods we purchase have been screened for safety. Thus, dangerous chemicals are basically everywhere. While we are all at risk, the challenges are especially manifested in damage to human reproductive systems and young children. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, consider the fact that the average pregnant woman has at least 43 chemical contaminants in her body, resulting in a situation where babies are born “pre-polluted,” occasionally with serious birth defects.
The Power of the Chemical Lobby
Why have we yet to overcome the threat of dangerous chemical exposure? There are several reasons, but one of the biggest is that manufacturers of so many products turn a blind eye to scientific research that says any given chemical is dangerous. Chemical lobbies are strong worldwide, but especially so in the United States where, in 2014, they spent over $120,000 per member of Congress to make sure their interests are protected. They have the power to resist regulations and skirt attempts to exclude dangerous chemicals in the manufacturing process.
In many cases, it’s a seemingly never-ending carousel, one in which hazardous chemicals are included in a product, sold to consumers, eventually removed from the product and then replaced by yet another hazardous chemical, beginning the process all over again.
We can’t always rely on our system to vet the products we buy, so it’s best to be a thoroughly informed consumer. There are a few types of chemicals we should try to avoid at all costs. They include organophosphate pesticides (used in around half of all pesticides in the United States), phthalates (used in in shampoos, conditioners, hair and body sprays, perfumes, soap, nail polish, shower curtains, IV bags, vinyl flooring and wall coverings, food packaging and coatings on time-release pharmaceuticals) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (used as flame retardants in in products such as televisions, computers, children’s toys and baby pillows).
Chemicals are not only in everyday products, they are also in the food we eat. Consumers should research the products they buy and the food they eat to find out if they are made with hazardous materials. If you’ve ever wondered why people eat organic, buy unscented cleaning products or avoid plastics whenever possible, it’s often because these products will typically be less likely to contain dangerous chemicals.
If we wait for the day that the system corrects itself and consumers can shop for their favorite products in a risk-free environment, we could find ourselves waiting forever. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do their homework and stay armed with a healthy dose of skepticism over the products they buy.
Steven H. Heisler graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School in 1988 and since then has focused on making a difference both in his community and for those who have suffered an injury in Maryland.