By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Some Seward area women came together on a recent Saturday afternoon to learn more about common housecleaning chemicals and standard cosmetics that are suspected of causing cancer and other ill health effects, and to learn how to transition to safer ones.
The “Clean House Party,” with cookies and tea on the side, was put on at Seward Community Library recently by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, or ACAT. The Anchorage-based environmental organization advocates for environmental and community health across Alaska. Its mission includes efforts to eliminate the production and release of harmful chemicals by industrial and military sources, and to advocate for public policies based on “the precautionary principle.” It also has helped out in an ongoing air monitoring project here in Seward with the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance.
The “precautionary principal” often used in environmental circles, is defined as “caution in advance,” or “caution practiced in the context of uncertainty.” It’s an expression of a desire to anticipate harm before it occurs, even if there has not been enough research done to prove causality. It also implies an implicit reversal of the onus of proof—onto chemical manufacturers for example—when there are threats of serious damage to the health of people or the environment, said ACAT staffer Heidi Zimmer, who facilitated the gathering.
Unlike for food or pharmaceutical manufacturers, relatively little oversight, or proof of safety to the public is required of manufacturers of household or cosmetic chemicals in America, Zimmer said. Manufacturers also are not currently required to reveal what substances are found in particular brands of common items such as household cleaners, cosmetics, baby bottles and even chew toys. But with rising concern about the causes of cancer, breathing disorders, early onset puberty, learning and behavioral disorders, skin irritation and allergies, and more, individuals are striving to learn about the chemicals suspected of contributing to these problems–or at least which ones to avoid, just in case.
Similar clean house parties have been presented by ACAT in several Alaska communities, beginning in rural Alaska villages, Zimmer said. They’re catching on nationally, and are a good way for women to get together and share common concerns over environmental health issues, she said. Women are especially vulnerable to chemical toxins, as they carry a greater “body burden” that build up over time and exposure, than men do, she said.
People can avoid potential toxics from cleaners by making their own out of widely available ingredients that people often used to use for such purposes such as Baking Soda, Borax, Essential Oils, lemon juice, soap flakes, vegetable Glycerin, vinegar and washing soda, Zimmer said. ACAT’s Green Cleaning Guide and Recipe Book contains some simple recipes to help get folks started, and there are plenty of other ideas widely available on the Internet. Some liquid Castile soap and essential oil will make a liquid dish soap, for example. Olive oil, white vinegar and lemon juice or essential oil can be combined to make furniture polish. Baking Soda mixed with vinegar and tea tree essential oil makes a toilet bowl cleaner.
At the Clean House Party, the Seward group made a simple Soft Scrub-type recipe using Baking Soda, liquid Castile soap, vegetable glycerin (a preservative) and lavender or tea tree essential oil as a fragrance. They also created a mold-cleaner using vinegar and water.
According to Zimmer, and a Women’s Voices for the Earth flyer she passed out, common household items may contain “toxic trespassers” that have potential to cause health problems, particularly for women. They include glass cleaners, bubble bath, shampoo, stain removers, certain disinfectant sprays and hand sanitizers, plastics used in baby bottles, water-bottles, and more:
*All-purpose spray cleaners may contain 2-butoxyethanol, for instance, which is believed to cause reduced fertility and low birth weight, according to the flyer.
*In soft plastics like baby bottles, sippy cups, water bottles and children’s toys one frequently finds Bisphenol-A (BPA) believed to cause breast cancer, early puberty, and hormone disruption. Look for BPA-free bottles and labels, and never microwave plastic, it recommends.
*Some products that create foamy suds, such as certain shampoos, liquid soaps, bubble bath often contain 1,4 -Dioxane, believed to cause cancer and birth defects.
*Lead Acetate is used to color things, such as hair dye and lipstick, and lead is a known developmental toxin.
*Phthalates, used to fix fragrances in personal care products, cosmetics and cleaning products, and also to soften plastics, are believed to reduce fertility, increase risk of breast cancer, increase allergies and asthma in children.
*Even anti-bacterials such as waterless hand sanitizers, tartar-control toothpastes, may contain Triclosan, a hormone disruptor, with the potential to increase risk of breast cancer. Zimmer suggested people use alcohol-based sanitizers instead, or scrub hands well with plain water.
Learning what to purchase, and what not to takes a little research, as you can’t trust the labels—many of which appear “Green” but aren’t. But there’s lots of information available on the Internet, Zimmer said
“This will take me a bit longer to shop,” said Charlie Finn, with a deep sigh, after hearing Zimmer’s list of potentially hazardous chemicals.
It’s not that hard, said Leslie Adams, who began shopping carefully while in high school, avoiding products tested on animals. “Then, when you know what to look for and find a good product, you keep buying it.” (See some suggestions to get you started below)
Consumer choice influences the kinds of products produced, Zimmer, but it’s also important to vote, and to let legislators know what’s important to you, the citizen.
For example, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, (D-NJ) introduced the 2011 Safe Chemicals Act last April to help protect American families from harmful chemicals. Under that bill the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of the chemicals used in their products in order to enter, or remain on the market. Where there is data that shows potential concern, the chemicals must be proven safe for human health before entering the market—just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws. A similar requirement for chemicals is already in effect in the European Union.
Also, if the bill is passed, EPA must immediately reduce exposure to some of the worst known chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bio accumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants.
Environmental Working Group (EWG) website: ewg.org has compiled a data base rating products, and list of ingredients found in them including cosmetics, household cleaning items. It also has lots of information on the pesticides found in produce.
Women’s Voices for the Earth, at www.womensvoices.org has details on much of the information given above.
The Breast Cancer Fund, at Breastcancerfund.org is a leader in advocacy efforts to get toxic chemicals out of cosmetics. It works using scientific studies to connect the dots between breast cancer and exposures to chemicals and radiation in our everyday environments.