Catherine currently lives in Helana, Montana and works as a freelance writer and owner of a small publishing company specializing in outdoor guides to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Her passions are environmental advocacy, women’s history of the West, and grandchildren. She has four children. You’ll find her commenting frequently at Exponent and Feminist Mormon Housewives.
The prevalence of toxic chemicals in our environment is a hot topic in the news these days. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t an article about one chemical or another, and its dangers, in a major newspaper or magazine, both in print and online. This information is of particular importance to women for several reasons: many chemicals accumulate in fat, and women generally have a higher percentage of fat tissue than men; many chemicals stored in a woman’s body are passed onto her child during pregnancy and breast-feeding; women have a higher exposure to toxic chemicals in household and commercial cleaners (at home and in the housekeeping industry) and home pesticide products which contain endocrine disrupting chemicals; women have a higher exposure to toxic chemicals in personal care products (hair, skin, make-up, and nail); women still have the primary care of infants and children in our society, and infants and children, because of their small, and still developing, bodies are at the greatest risk of chemical poisoning when exposed to toxins in the environment.
So, what are the chemicals and why should we be concerned?
Some of the most frightening are those that mimic natural hormones and are called endocrine disruptors. Most of us have heard of BPA, a petrochemical-based xenoestrogen that is found in plastics and the lining of canned foods. Xenoestrogens have been linked to early puberty (especially in girls), increased risk of cancers, weight gain, depression, tumors, and autoimmune deficiency. In several studies, including one done at the University of Utah, exposure to air pollution from automobile traffic and industries that emit toxic chemicals and heavy metals has been linked to the increasing incidence of autism spectrum disorders. Phthalates, fragrance carriers in glass cleaners, deodorizers, laundry products, and virtually anything that is scented, have been linked to adverse effects on boys, reduced sperm count in adult men, and increased allergies and asthma in children. The list could go on and on.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that virtually everyone has these chemicals in their bodies. They are everywhere in our environment—in the air we breath (from auto exhaust, industrial pollutants, your neighbor’s dryer vent, and the perfume you sprayed on this morning), the water we drink (from industrial waste, pharmaceuticals that are flushed down the toilet, and the residue of pesticides and herbicides you spray on your lawns and gardens), in the foods we eat (from pesticides, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives) and in the walls and floors of our own homes (carpets and other building materials).
If you live in the modern world, you can’t entirely escape them. The best we can do to reduce the chemical load on our fragile immune systems is to reduce our exposure as much as possible and urge others to do likewise. How this is done is going to vary with individual and family circumstances, but here are some ideas that might help.
1) Use safer cleaning and personal care products. Eliminate synthetic fragrances by using products labeled fragrance free. Buy only those products that list the ingredients (which is not required by law) and avoid those containing sodium laureth sulfate (soaps, shampoos, thoothpaste), hydroquinone (skin lighteners), triclosan (antibacterial products and frangrances), PEG (soaps and shampoos). Make your own products (see link to WVE below).
2) Opt for fresh or frozen foods instead of canned. Use glass containers for food storage and reheating.
3) Use nail polishes and hardeners labeled “three-free” or “formaldehyde-free” and avoid chemical hair straighteners.
4) Use unscented laundry products and replace dryer sheets with the nubby dryer balls. (To avoid static, don’t overdry clothing.)
5) Eat and garden organically grown foods as much as possible, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables.
What we do personally is only part of the battle. Here are a few ideas for promoting a cleaner, safer environment for everyone:
1) Put your money where your mouth is and buy only from companies that clearly label their products. Send letters and email messages to those which don’t asking them to be more transparent. (Check out the websites below to help you find these companies, the good and the bad.)
2) Support federal regulations that set industry standards for clean air, water and soil, as well as safe manufacturing processes.
3) Encourage you state congressional representatives to pass legislation requiring companies to disclose all ingredients in household cleaners on product labels and to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives.
4) Ask your representatives to support reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the means to enforce it.
5) Join groups that advocate for a healthy environment, like those listed below, or look for a local group in your area.
6) Help educate others, through your blog, Facebook, family reunions, and church activities.
Some useful websites with further information and opportunities for activism:
Safer Chemicals Healthy Families: www.saferchemicals.org
Environmental Working Group: www.ewg.org
Toxie Awards: www.toxies.com
Women’s Voices for the Earth: www.womensvoices.org
Utah Clean Air Alliance: http://utahcleanairalliance.org
Utah Moms for Clean Air: www.utahmomsforcleanair.org
 “Toxic Overload: 15 Percent of Girls Now Reach Puberty by Age 7,” http://preventdisease.com/news/11/060211_toxic_overload_puberty.shtml .
 Heather May, “Utah researcher says autism-pollution link needs serious study,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 11, 2011.
 “What’s Under Your Sink: Potential Hazards of Home Cleaning Products,” Women’s Voices for the Earth Fact Sheet, www.womensvoices.org.
 “Toxic Chemicals: The Cost to Our Health,” Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, www.saferchemicals.org/resources/health.html .