Monday, March 15, 2010

Our nation's toxic chemical policy: Time for a little sanity

Op-Ed as published in the Danbury News Times on Sunday, 14 March

I grew up in Danbury, famous for its thriving hat-making industry and notorious for its "Mad Hatters." As anyone growing up in Danbury knows, the hat factories used mercury nitrate to make felt hats, and as a result many workers suffered from mercury poisoning.
Their symptoms included uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, distorted vision, and confused speech.
I always thought it was bizarre that people "back then" would allow such a dangerous substance to be used. I thought the workers were crazy to expose themselves to it.
I didn't understand why people would even buy these hats, knowing that dangerous chemicals were used in their production. What a good thing, I thought, that humankind has come so far.
Or so I thought.
Years later, as a pregnant mom-to-be, I was anxious to provide the safest possible environment for my child. I assumed this would be a fairly straightforward task -- I took recommendations from friends, conducted Internet research, checked labels -- the basics.
I soon learned there was nothing straightforward or basic about it.
BPA in bottles. Phthalates in teethers. Parabens in baby lotions. Hormones in meat. Lead in toys. Questionable plastics in, well, just about everything. And nothing labeled clearly enough to help me make a good decision.
It seemed impossible that these potentially harmful items were being sold to the unknowing public and no one was doing anything about it. I was truly shocked. I still am.
It isn't just our children we need to protect.
Everyone knows someone afflicted with one of the many, many conditions that can be linked to exposure to toxic chemicals -- from cancer and autoimmune disease to allergies and asthma.
In addition to the terror of pediatric cancer and the threat of early puberty, I am spurred on by my family's propensity to autoimmune diseases, ranging from diabetes and allergies to rheumatic conditions.
I'm convinced that controllable factors in our environment greatly increase our risk of these diseases. I don't want my children -- any children -- to experience any of these pains firsthand.
It's like the story of Danbury's poor "Mad Hatters" all over again, but on a grand scale.
So how do we move on to a new era of safer, saner chemicals? It's not as simple as shopping smarter -- or turning down job offers at the hat factory.
Today, we encounter many more toxic chemicals than the "Mad Hatters" did -- chemical production has increased twenty-fold since World War II, which means chemicals are in our air, water, food and everyday household items.
The law intended to protect us from toxic chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), is woefully out of date.
Under TSCA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on only approximately 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market since the law passed in 1976.
Clearly, TSCA is not keeping our families safe. Wouldn't it be great if, in years to come, we could refer back to this insane period of uncontrolled toxic chemical exposure as a sinister story and cautionary tale?
Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, and his colleagues in Congress are doing their best to fix our broken chemical management system -- they are expected to introduce a bill to reform TSCA in the next few months.
Passage of the bill would put common sense limits on toxic chemicals, and issue in a sane new era of chemical safety.
I sincerely hope that my hometown community will work together to support these critically needed reforms.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Navigating the grocery store - Part Two (of trillions)

Around and around I go on food issues – not unusual.  I am MOST concerned about pesticides, hormones and chemicals in the packaging of food.  I also vacillate over my distrust of dairy vs. my kids’ need for calcium, my own preference for vegetarianism vs. they ‘right’ amount of safe protein for their little bodies, etc.  It is never-ending.

For now, this is a list of some things that I am comfortable buying weekly.  As I learn more, this list is subject to change! 

·         Barilla Plus pasta – I actually cannot find this at Whole Foods!  The kids love it, and I love the significant amounts of protein, fiber and ALA omega-3 fatty acids.
·         Organic pasta sauce (as long as it is in a glass jar)
·         Earth’s Best baked chicken nuggets with whole grain breading
·         Nathan’s Alpha-Tots baked French Fries
·         Alexia Sweet Potato French Fries
·         Organic ketchup (I’m on the hunt for a brand in glass)
·         365 Brand Four Cheese Pizza
·         Van’s waffles – usually the wheat-free flax or buckwheat.  This started off as a ‘mommy food’ but Anna loves them!  I noticed that they voluntarily recalled some wheat-free pancakes that actually DID contain gluten – I didn’t love seeing that, but I am sticking by this brand.
·         Organic milk – we alternate between 1% and 2% for our 2 and ½ year olds.
·         Greek yogurt
·         Organic lettuce
·         Hormone-free cheese, turkey from the deli – all of Whole Foods’ deli items are hormone-free (or so I have been told repeatedly – and I double-check, repeatedly).  The cheese is cheaper than packaged ‘singles’, plus you avoid the additional plastic wrapper.
·         Hormone-free, free-range, grass-fed, antibiotic-free (whew!) chicken and meats.  I prefer to buy meat at Whole Foods – most (all?) of their meat meets my hormone-free requirement, and there is a high turnover so it is always fresh. 
·         Fresh veggies + 365 Brand frozen (no cans).
·         Thin rice cakes – they are more like crackers and a big hit here.
·         Hummus!  The girls love it. 
·         Earth’s Best Apple cereal bars – ok, this isn’t exactly at the top of the ANDI index, but they love them and they are less preservative-laced than the competitors.

So, see?  I am not that ambitious really.  A lot of these are convenient, quickie foods.  I know that I’d save the most money and probably get the highest health benefit if I concentrated on trying to make everything from scratch – but I’m still learning to cook things that are both kid- and husband-friendly.  Cooking at all is an event – kids running around in circles, begging to stir, while I yell ‘Hot! No touch!’ over and over...  This is still a work in progress.

All of this said, although I try to stick to certain guidelines the majority of the time, I don’t (try not to) freak out when we veer off course.  When we order pizza from a local restaurant, I know it is not hormone-free cheese, not organic sauce, not whole grain crust etc – since we do it rarely, that is ok.  When we go out to eat it is hard to find ANYTHING that appeals to my kids apart from fries – and since that is a rare event, that is ok too.  So although I try to be strict in the grocery store, I am also trying to find balance in everything we do. 

The area that concerns me most is the chemicals that we are all exposed to in just about everything we touch.  I can get pretty close to BPA-free grocery shopping – until I’m handed the BPA-filled receipt.  So no matter how hard we as consumers try to do the right thing, we need and DESERVE help from the organizations who are supposed to protect our health!