Killer Whales, Toxic Chemicals, and a Mom
As a marine biologist and marine educator who works with Jean-Michel Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society team, I’m fortunate that every day is an exciting adventure.
Over the years I have spent much of my time on the open ocean with whales and dolphins, experiencing ocean life up close. When I am not out in the field, I get to spend my time in the classroom sharing stories of adventures with students of all ages, transmitting my passion and relaying the important message that we are all part of the web of life.
Through my global adventures and my experiences educating the next generation, I’ve become a strong advocate for protecting our oceans and that includes keeping them free of the chemicals known to harm complex marine species.
Recently I received a call from a group purporting to promote protection from toxic chemicals. The man who called, the group’s California liaison, once worked for Senator Dianne Feinstein. This group, the Coalition for Chemical Safety (CCS), advertises on its website that it is about “people like you” who support reform of the nation’s chemical laws. The timing of this advertising is important because legislation to fix the failed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) will be introduced later this month by Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL).
On the surface, CCS seemed to be aligned with Ocean Futures Society’s support for a ban on all toxic chemical flame retardants. These harmful chemicals are found in furniture and baby products, as well as marine mammals like killer whales and harbor seals.
Yet when I investigated who was behind CCS, it turns out that it is an organization created by a public relations firm, to appear “grassroots” and on the side of protection for our environmental health. It seems as though CCS is trying to take advantage of the millions of moms, scientists, health advocates, and others who are demanding more protection from toxic chemicals in our homes and bodies. CCS is pretending to be like us, when in fact it represents the interests that are trying to block or minimize restrictions on chemicals.
I knew something was amiss when my questions about what this group was doing were not answered in any meaningful way. It turns out the front group has not published a platform of principles under which they operate. CEO Joe Householder would not reveal who hired him or answer questions about his budget to a reporter with the publication, National Journal. He did tell the National Journal that the chemical industry trade association, the American Chemistry Council, was involved in “an early part of our discussions.” Forming bogus grassroots campaigns is a well-used tactic for industries under fire -- the tobacco industry perfected it.
Once I was convinced that I was being duped, I withdrew Ocean Futures Society support from the front group and joined the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition (SCHF), which represents over 150 organizations and 11 million individuals working to reform the nation’s toxic chemical law. Unlike the front group, they have nothing to hide.
Ocean Futures Society’s support for meaningful change to the national chemical law is a direct result of our investigation into the impacts toxic chemicals have on the ocean and marine life which we highlighted in our most recent PBS special, “Call of the Killer Whale.” We’ve learned that levels of persistent toxic chemicals like PCBs, DDT, and PBDEs, which are flame retardants, are showing up in many species. Levels of some forms of PBDEs in populations of harbor seals and killer whales in the Pacific Northwest are doubling every three and half years.
Jean-Michel Cousteau, myself, and my then- four-year-old son Gavin were tested for these harmful substances, and I was horrified to see how contaminated we were. In 2009 we teamed up with California EPA and participated in a pilot program to screen our blood and urine to reveal our “body burden” for as many as 30 synthetic chemicals. As organic-food-eating vegetarians, I didn’t expect that Gavin or I would have high levels of toxic chemicals in our bodies. But I was wrong. In findings that still bring me to tears, I learned that my son’s levels of toxic flame retardants were off the charts. It appears that Gavin and I, along with many others, may have been exposed to these flame retardants through furniture, car seats and other household items.
My concern as a mother is that we really do not know what these numbers mean in terms of children’s long-term health. Recent studies have shown that many toxic flame retardants affect neurological development, and that even low-dose exposures have led to reduced sperm counts in male rats, lowered IQ points in children, and disrupted thyroid functions.
We need to find a solution to the threats posed to life on this planet from chemicals. I believe change can come only with an honest dialogue with policymakers, parents, environmental advocates, manufacturers, and the chemical industry, including Dow Chemical Company, which was the main sponsor of our PBS Ocean Adventures television series.
Fake grassroots groups like CCS are a distraction from the real work before us. Any group that serves to confuse the public and to dupe committed people like me is harming our chances to secure urgently needed reform of our nation’s toxic chemical laws.
For more information please:
- watch OFS's PSA on Toxic Flame Retardants
- read 5 Known Facts About Toxic Flame Retardants
- read Seven Easy Steps to Reduce Exposure
- explore Call of the Killer Whale
Ocean Futures Society
First Photo: ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Second Photo: ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Third Photo: ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Fourth Photo: ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
Fifth Photo: Courtesy Holly Lohuis
Sixth Photo: Courtesy Debbie Weinstein