Toxic chemicals: The unwanted gifts that keep on giving

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There’s a lot to think about in preparation for the wonderful family gatherings, delicious food, gift-giving and festivities that come with the holiday season. For the holiday meal, I need to consider all of the different dietary restrictions so I don’t leave out my vegetarian and gluten-free relatives. But I need to shop even more carefully to try to avoid the dizzying number of preservatives, chemicals, and pesticides in food products that may be dangerous to my health.

And picking out that perfect present can also be stressful; I need to make sure that the new toy that I bought for my baby cousin doesn’t contain unwanted, harmful chemicals.   

Even if I try as hard as I can to provide my family with food and gifts that are free of hazardous chemicals, what about the other sources of chemical exposures in my house? When we enjoy appetizers and open presents on my sofa, will we also be exposed to some of the dangerous flame retardants in the cushions? Though we’ve tried to air out the dining room, that “new paint” smell still lingers from the recent renovation; so along with the aromas of my home-cooked meal, what else will we be inhaling?

Taking personal steps to reduce or eliminate chemicals from my life sometimes seems a losing battle. I feel like I’m playing whack-a-mole: Even if I am successful in avoiding chemicals from certain products, there are countless others in my home or at my office that may be dangerous as well.

Despite the self-reliant attitude of many Americans, this is not a problem we can solve on our own. Each of us cannot individually bear the burden of trying to find safer products for our homes on store shelves. In most cases, chemical ingredients aren’t even identified in specific products.  When they are, it can take a lot of investigation, and maybe even a PhD, to decipher information on the potential hazards of a given chemical.  And even if I use one of the growing number of “safe purchasing guides,” all of this effort is a huge amount of extra work and at best proceeds one chemical or product at a time.

We need a different system, a different paradigm for ensuring chemical safety in the United States - one that doesn’t put the onus on each of us individually.  We need a national policy that ensures chemicals on the market are safe, instead of the current system that allows dangerous or untested chemicals to stay on the shelves and makes it our individual responsibilities to try to ferret them out.

We have that chance right now, with a bipartisan proposal to reform the outdated and ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) for the first time since the law passed in 1976. The new proposal still needs a lot of work to ensure it delivers real health protections, but legislators are working hard to make the needed improvements.  We need to make loud and clear our demand for reform and our support for their work.

Because, really, who needs the added stress of scrutinizing ingredient labels during the holiday season? I think we would all appreciate the peace of mind that comes from knowing our homes are truly the safe and inviting spaces that we want them to be.  

Rachel Shaffer

Rachel Shaffer

Rachel Shaffer is a research assistant in our Washington, DC, office, where she works on toxicity testing and chemical policy reform.

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