Why Should Our Children Suffer the Burden of Outdated Legislation? It is Time for Chemical Reform!

Holly Lohuis with her son Gavin speaks out against toxic flame retardantsSeptember 24, 2010

When I was pregnant with my son, Gavin, I was very careful about my health: I ate only organic food, avoided alcohol, exercised regularly and avoided the use of ‘single-use’ plastic as much as possible.

I did everything in my power to ensure the health of my son. Little did I suspect that, despite my best efforts, toxic chemicals were still making their way into my system and into my developing child’s body.

Now I have a painfully accurate picture of which toxic chemicals are in Gavin’s body. Two years ago I participated in a biomonitoring study and discovered that Gavin (then four) carried extremely high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, a class of chemicals commonly used in flame retardants and linked to health problems ranging from decreased fertility to learning delays. I was horrified and then angry. How could this happen to my little boy?

Body Burden Test TubesPart of the answer is that U.S. laws governing toxic chemicals are extremely lax — so ineffective that chemicals like asbestos, known to cause cancer, are still allowed in the marketplace. The good news is that Congress is considering new legislation that would place tighter restrictions on toxic chemicals, making it far less likely that Gavin’s children will be affected by things like asbestos and PBDEs.

The only reason I know Gavin’s PBDE levels is because of my work with the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Futures Society. In 2008 I worked as a marine biologist on the PBS special Call of the Killer Whale. The special explored how human actions were affecting marine life, particularly how industrial chemicals were ending up in the bodies of killer whales. Our work became quite personal as we started investigating how many of the same toxic chemicals were ending up in our own bodies.

Holly Lohuis with her son Gavin speaks out against toxic flame retardantsWorking with the Cal/EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, we participated in a pilot biomonitoring program, which measured levels of chemicals in our bodies. We included Gavin in the study, since babies, both human and killer whale, are exposed to toxic chemicals while still in the womb.

What we learned from one of our scientists, Dr. Peter Ross, a marine mammal toxicologist with Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences, is that harbor seals and killer whales are heavily contaminated with several kinds of persistent and bioaccumulative industrial chemicals. The list includes chemicals like DDT and PCBs— banned for over 30 years but still persisting in the environment, accumulating and magnifying up the food web, both on land and in the ocean. And the list includes toxic chemicals still in use, like PBDEs, the chemicals also present in Gavin’s body.

Research over the last decades shows that PBDEs cause reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, developmental and neurological disorders leading to problems with fertility, memory and learning. Two of the most toxic forms of PBDEs, penta and octa, have been banned or phased out in many states and countries. But others, like deca, are still in the marketplace. These chemicals have been used in home furnishings and baby products for decades. Pounds and pounds of these toxic chemicals are probably still in your home today. They are in mine; or at least that is what we suspect since my son’s PBDE levels are so high.

British Columbia Orca WhaleLast week I read encouraging news that Canada strengthened its law, banning all toxic flame retardants. Why is the U.S. so slow to react to the mounting scientific evidence that PBDEs could be harming our children?

The concern I have as a mother is that we do not know the full extent to which chemicals like PBDEs are affecting our children and grandchildren’s health. Our children should not have to bear the burden of our shortsighted use of untested or known-to-be toxic chemicals. I am reminded of Jean-Michel’s diplomatic plea:

“Time is of the essence…It’s time to find ways to prevent such chemicals from entering the environment in the first place, to find alternatives, and to anticipate problems before they occur. We cannot wait to find a cure for dangerous products after they are in the environment and in us. But it means we all have to work together: concerned parents, policy makers, chemical companies and manufacturers. I believe we can come up with alternatives that will ensure our protection against fire and also be environmentally safe for us and our counterparts in the sea, killer whales.”

For the long-term future, we need to create legislation that requires that new chemicals be tested for safety before they reach the market, just as we test pharmaceuticals before they are administered to people. The logic is simple: when placed in products we use daily, flame retardant chemicals can enter our bodies as dramatically as drugs we take, although the route may be different. Potentially toxic chemicals should not be allowed in the marketplace until they have been tested and proven safe. Our children, the environment, and all species deserve this.

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Warm Regards,

Holly's Signature

Holly Lohuis
Holly Lohuis
Research Associate
Ocean Futures Society

First Photo: Holly Lohuis and her son Gavin. Courtesy Holly Lohuis
Second Photo: Samples taken at the OFS Team Body Burden Testing. ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Third Photo: Holly Lohuis and her son Gavin getting samples taken for the OFS Team Body Burden Testing. ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Fourth Photo: A British Columbia Killer Whale. ©Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society