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Mnookin: Reducing Our Exposure

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Imagine a day in the life of a typical toddler: wake up next to synthetic-stuffed animals, put on a disposable diaper, change into polyester clothes, drink out of a plastic sippy cup, scurry around vinyl flooring, play with plastic blocks, toys and mom’s keys, eat flavored yogurt out of a squishy tube, go to sleep on a crib mattress wearing fleece pajamas, wake up the next day and repeat.

At first glance, there isn’t anything disconcerting about this day. But according to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group: “There’s an assumption among Americans that the products we buy must be safe if they’re on store shelves, but unfortunately this isn’t the case.” Instead, over the course of a day just like the one I described, toddlers are exposed to measurable levels of toxic chemicals, including BPA, phthalates, flame retardants, and lead. In fact, lead poisoning is such a concern in Vermont that all children have their levels tested at ages one and two.
 
Toxic chemicals are harmful to everyone who is exposed, but children are more susceptible to their dangers. As a mother with a background in biology, I read labels, research alternatives, and go to great lengths to avoid exposure. My daughter has a cotton “lovey,” wears cloth diapers, drinks out of a stainless steel sippy cup with a silicone spout, plays with wooden and felted toys at home, eats mostly organic food, and goes to sleep on a non-toxic crib mattress wearing wool pajamas. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to expand these efforts. But they can be costly, time-consuming, and disheartening because I can only limit exposure - not eliminate it.
 
We don’t live in a bubble, and there are more than 85,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. with as many as 2,000 new ones added each year. Fewer than 700 are monitored through the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, only 200 have been tested for human safety, and merely five have been banned under the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act. One such substance, asbestos, was reintroduced after its ban was overturned. So it’s easy to become discouraged. In her engaging book, Raising Elijah: Protecting our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, biologist and cancer-survivor Sandra Steingraber calls this feeling the “well-informed futility syndrome.”
 
Real change will require a collective effort. We should demand more scientific research and improved government regulation and oversight. We should thank Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy for co-sponsoring The Safe Chemicals Act. We should demand transparency and disclosure from corporations that don’t list all ingredients on product packaging.
 
When it comes to chemical exposure, history tells us that it’s far better to be safe than sorry – and when we advocate for governmental and corporate change, we help insure a safer and healthier future for everyone - especially our children.