By PETER A. GORSKI, LYNN RINGENBERG and MARYBETH PALMIGIANO
Special to the Times
Americans who buy products off the shelves of well-known retailers can be confident that they're safe, right? Wrong.
• A recent report by the Washington Toxics Coalition, "Hidden Hazards in the Nursery,'' identified toxic flame retardants in bassinet pads, nursing pillows, changing pads, car seats and other products.
• Johnson & Johnson recently agreed to a two-year phase-out of two potentially cancer-causing chemicals from its baby shampoo, under pressure from consumer groups.
• A report by the Environmental Health Strategy Center identified plastic toys containing BPA (or bisphenol A), a chemical that can mimic the body's own hormones and may lead to negative health effects. BPA is already banned in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups.
• BPA is also found in the lining of canned food and beverage containers, but the Food and Drug Administration last week rejected a petition to ban the plastic-hardening chemical from such containers.
• The FDA has found lead in 400 lipsticks it tested.
The fact is that the products we use every day in our homes, our workplaces and our schools contain thousands of potentially harmful chemicals. More than 80,000 synthetic chemicals have been developed for use in the marketplace since the 1940s, with only a fraction tested for human safety. The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), the nation's primary chemical safety law, has failed to protect public health and the environment.
Published studies in peer-reviewed journals have shown that many common chemicals can cause chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, childhood cancers, infertility, and learning and behavioral disorders. With increasingly sophisticated tests, we are learning that harm can occur even at low doses, particularly to vulnerable populations like pregnant women and children.
We now have a real chance to update the TSCA and protect future generations. Last spring, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced the Safe Chemicals Act to provide reliable safety information, helping the public rest assured that their safety is a top priority.
On a personal level, there are many things you can do to help prevent exposure to toxic chemicals. Even if you can't manage them all, any of these steps could lighten your family's toxic load:
• Keep your home well-ventilated and free of dust and tobacco smoke — remember that tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States. Ask visitors to smoke outdoors, away from windows and doors.
• Avoid using pesticides as much as you can. Keep insects out by sealing cracks around doors, windowsills and baseboards. Prevent insect problems by quickly cleaning up food spills and crumbs and eliminating standing water, a breeding ground for insects.
• If you must use pesticides, use only licensed pest elimination professionals. Avoid insect sprays and dusts that can leave residue in unwanted areas. Instead, use baits, traps or gels.
• Choose nontoxic and safer alternatives for cleaning and home renovations, such as water-based glues and paints, and citrus-based solvents. Look for products labeled low or no VOC (volatile organic compounds). Try nontoxic items like vinegar and baking soda for cleaning. Many effective recipes can be found on the Internet.
• Take off your shoes at the door to avoid tracking pesticides into your house.
• Choose foods that are in season and locally grown. Buy organic if possible. Limit foods with a lot of animal fats, in which chemicals tend to build up.
• Avoid canned foods and beverages as much as possible to help limit exposure to BPA in the linings, especially acidic foods like tomatoes.
• Look at labels for potentially dangerous chemicals, like bromine (associated with flame retardants-BFRs), lead, chromium, mercury and other heavy metals.
• Avoid products made with PVC (poly vinyl chloride), especially toys that young children may chew on. PVC is common in shower curtains, pet toys, school binders and plastic lunch boxes. Use glass or stainless-steel containers instead of plastic for hot foods and drinks.
• Do not use lice shampoo containing lindane. Ask your doctor for safer alternatives.
• Avoid scented products; most scents are chemical-based.
These individual actions will help limit chemical exposure for you and your family. But to really solve the problem, we need strong public policies to prevent poisoning and pollution in the first place. Let your voice be heard, tell your congressional representative that you support the Safe Chemicals Act and encourage them to do the same.
We need responsible government and citizens to protect our personal and public health.
Dr. Peter A. Gorski is chief health and child development officer for the Children's Trust of Miami-Dade County; Dr. Lynn Ringenberg is an emeritus professor at USF Health and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Tampa Bay; Marybeth Palmigiano is chapter manager of PSR Tampa Bay.