on February 19, 2019
Q&A featuring Ellie Humphries, Outreach Director at Toxic-Free Future
Q: Who is Toxic-Free Future? What do you do?
A: Toxic-Free Future believes that everyone has a right to a toxic-free future.
Toxic-Free Future tackles toxic chemical pollution in drinking water, food, homes and communities by establishing strong policies at the state and national levels and in the marketplace. We advocate for the use of safer products, chemicals and practices through advanced research, advocacy, grassroots organizing and consumer engagement. By ridding toxic chemicals from our homes, food and water, we also protect the most vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, children, workers and communities disproportionately affected by toxics.
For 35 years, we have won strong, precedent-setting policies to protect public and environmental health and worked with companies to move away from using harmful chemicals.
Q: How do people encounter toxic chemicals? Is exposure common?
A: Our bodies already contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, asthma, obesity and altered fetal and child development. Babies are born already having been exposed in the womb to a toxic soup of chemicals. Where are these toxic chemicals coming from? A big source is very close to home, actually in the indoor environment: consumer products sold to us for use in our homes, workplaces and schools.
The sheer volume of harmful, unregulated and untested chemicals we're exposed to every day is enormous. In the US, chemicals that harm our health are found in many everyday products due to processing, packaging or because they are put in the product itself, such as couches, clothing, baby care items, electronics, TVs, personal care products and more. Most of these chemicals are used without being adequately tested for health and environmental safety. The chemicals escape the products and we ingest or breathe them in dust or air in homes and workplaces. Studies to date have detected 45 toxic chemicals in house dust in US homes. Research has shown this toxic dust can hitch a ride on our laundry then ride in laundry water, passing unfiltered through wastewater treatment, all the way into our waterways and environment. This pollution is having a continual impact on ecosystems and wildlife, as well.
Q: What are the consequences of chemical pollution?
A: The health consequences of this widespread chemical use and contamination are real and include increasing rates of cancer, infertility, learning and developmental impacts in babies and young children and more. In one chilling example, researchers established a link between higher levels in house dust of one toxic flame retardant with an increased (2.3 times greater) incidence of thyroid cancer. We're also seeing generational impacts. Toddlers have, on average, five times higher levels of cancer-linked flame retardants in their bodies compared to their mothers.
Meanwhile, taxpayers and health-affected individuals are left paying the bill while the chemical industry makes a profit. For example, taxpayers in multiple states around the country are having to cover over $2 billion to clean up drinking water contamination from the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam made by 3M and Chemours because it was used extensively by the military and some fire departments. The costs associated with health impacts, health care and the cleanup of chemicals are staggering.
At Toxic-Free Future, we work to prevent pollution at the source, not just clean it up.
Q: What should we know about tackling toxic chemicals?
A: A healthier, more just future is possible. When learning about the extent of toxics in our lives, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. But you should know that we can put a stop to negative health and environmental impacts by preventing the use of and contamination from harmful classes of chemicals.
By winning strong local and state protections, leveraging state wins for broad national impact and getting major retailers to adopt comprehensive chemical policies, we can reduce exposures and protect our health and environment. Year after year, state decision-makers are finding meaningful ways to hold polluters accountable and protect children and families from toxic chemicals. In fact, 175 state policies have been adopted around the country taking on chemicals like mercury, BPA, lead and nonstick PFAS.
Toxic-Free Future helped pass the first-ever Children's Safe Product Act requiring transparency and mandatory reporting of over 80 harmful substances in products intended for children's use. Just last year, we also led Washington state to pass first-in-the-nation laws banning the use of PFAS in paper-based food packaging as well as firefighting foams ensuring the protection of drinking water and firefighter health. Wins like these ripple across the country and influence both state and federal laws.
There is a lot we can do, and it starts with making your voice heard! Everyone can urge policymakers to adopt stronger laws and policies that get harmful chemicals out of products and companies to offer safer products to everyone. By lending your voice, you can make a meaningful difference.
Q: Are there any specific actions that businesses can take?
A: Businesses have tremendous power to protect their customers and the environment by offering fewer toxic products. They can also help to move the marketplace to safer products by requiring their suppliers to avoid toxic chemicals and make safer products available to all. Toxic-Free Future applauds many of the corporate retailers, distributors and manufacturers that are taking steps to develop safer products for their customers. We are encouraged by announcements from companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joes that they are switching to food packaging that doesn't contain harmful nonstick chemicals. Retailers, like Costco, Amazon, Target and Walmart, have also adopted safer chemical policies, requiring their suppliers to avoid harmful chemicals. These are just some of the companies establishing themselves as leaders. Yet there is more work for the private sector to do to help lead and define how we get to a healthier future for their workers and customers. So, we hope many other companies will also take meaningful action.
Q: What's happening right now that we should know about?
A: Millions of people in states across the country could have drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals. Per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of nearly 5,000 chemicals used in nonstick, stain-resistant and waterproof coatings in many everyday products. Think food packaging like takeout containers and microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant carpeting and furniture, waterproof clothing, firefighting gear and foam professional firefighters and the military use to fight fires.
Nearly 99% of Americans tested have PFAS in their bodies. PFAS are associated with kidney and testicular cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney toxicity, harm to the immune system and reproductive and developmental toxicity. In addition to drinking water contamination, PFAS are also being found in fresh and saltwater environments, in wildlife and in the soil. As more PFAS contamination is uncovered in states across the country, the costs to protect communities from these extremely persistent chemicals are skyrocketing.
While the federal government should take action on these chemicals, the likelihood of meaningful action is low. Our best hope for efficient and protective action lies with states, communities, retailers and product manufacturers. There is good news, though. States and communities are already taking preventive measures to stop future contamination. In 2018, Washington state banned PFAS in firefighting foams and food packaging, San Francisco banned PFAS in food packaging and New York placed restrictions on state agencies buying food packaging containing PFAS. Banning their use stops the flow of these chemicals into our communities and waterways and we are working to help other states follow suit.
Please join the Make Them Pay campaign to get involved. You can also visit Safer States for information on what's happening near you.
Q: How can we learn more?
A: Individuals and companies alike can stay up to date on the latest policy, legislation, campaigns and calls to action by signing up for updates or contacting us at toxicfreefuture.org and by following Toxic-Free Future on Facebook and Twitter. To learn more about specific actions and advocates in your state, you can also follow our national coalition website at www.saferstates.org.
Together, we can make an impact. Thank you!