Just 16 years ago, Jay Hair, former Chief Executive Officer of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) asked me to stand up before the plenary session of the annual meeting of NWF because I was holding my baby daughter, Katie—then a tender two months old. He pointed out to the audience that the reason why we were there—the reason why we should be working so hard on behalf of the environment—was for the future of our children.
Hair was wrapping up a session during which acclaimed scientist, Dr. Theo Colborn (professor at University of Florida, Gainesville, and author of the book Our Stolen Future), was speaking about chemicals that acted as endocrine disruptors. Her news was alarming: malformed frogs—the product of chemical spills. World-wide sperm counts declining—caused by the advent of chemicals that mimic hormones in our environment. If I hadn’t been wrapped in the warm cocoon of new motherhood with my amazing son Kevin, then three, and now this beautiful little gift in my arms, thinking that anything was possible, I might have broken down and cried–the way I did later when I saw the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
We filed out of the plenary session and into the restaurant for lunch. I wanted to meet Theo and so we were introduced. She greeted me warmly and congratulated me on my new baby. I asked her, “Dr. Colborn, how do you feel about breastfeeding?” She said, “I wouldn’t do it. If I did, I would get in and get out, just for bonding.”
“What about all the toxins in our environment? Don’t they impact dairy cows? Isn’t cow’s milk worse?” I asked.
Oh, no, she told me. Cows don’t have anywhere near the chemical burden that humans have.
I was devastated. As she walked away, that’s when the tears started to flow. How could that be? How could feeding my own child in the way that God intended be harmful to her?
Here we are now almost two decades later still talking about harmful chemicals, our human burden, endocrine disruptors, health impacts, etc. Meanwhile chemicals are becoming even more ubiquitous. We may be reaching the “tipping point,” however, which is good news for future generations. The chemicals that seem to be pushing us toward that tipping point of tolerance have been polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) used as flame retardants and now BPA (bisphenol-A ), an organic compound that has been suspected of being hazardous since the 1930s.
“Bisphenol-A is now deeply imbedded in the products of modern consumer society, not just as the building block for polycarbonate plastic (from which it then leaches as the plastic ages) but also in the manufacture of epoxy resins and other plastics, including polysulfone, alkylphenolic, polyalylate, polyester-styrene, and certain polyester resins,” quotes the Dr. Colborn and co-authors Dianne Dumanoski and Dr. John Peterson Myers in Our Stolen Future. BPA is also an inert ingredient in pesticides as well. Human exposure to BPA comes from a myriad of sources such as: dental sealants, coatings in metal cans, food containers, refrigerator shelving, water bottles, microwave ware, eating utensils, films, sheets, laminations, reinforced pipes, adhesives, nail polish, and baby bottles.
In over 200 studies, BPA has been linked to a number of health concerns, such as cancer, developmental, and reproductive issues, according to the Washington Post. As a result, several states and cities have taken steps to ban BPA to protect its citizens, particularly children from harmful effects by banning BPA from products such as baby bottles, sippy cups and children’s dishware, along with sports bottles. Washington State, Maryland, and Wisconsin passed bans this year and Minnesota and Connecticut passed bans in 2009. Several other states, including California, Vermont, New York, and Illinois have similar bans pending. However, attempts in other states have been unsuccessful.
Overall, it’s just too costly and it takes too long to seek chemicals reform one chemical at a time. The country needs the Toxic Substances Control Act to be modernized and enhanced during its reauthorization. Clear safety standards based on science should be adopted against which the safety of chemicals can be weighed. New chemicals should be assessed for their safety. Priority chemicals should be established. Green chemistry should be promoted. This cannot be another unfunded mandate by Congress. It’s time to take action so that another generation doesn’t have to wonder if the everyday products in their lives will place their baby daughters in jeopardy.