One of the most common critiques I get about my reporting on chemical flame retardants in car seats can be summed up with this Facebook comment on one of my posts:
Look at how many of us survived… using car seats. Then look at the ones who survived before car seats were a thing. Does your child really spend that much time in a car seat? Probably not. Why are people constantly looking for problems with everything in the world. If you’re that worried don’t leave your house and put your kid in a bubble.
Valid opinion. Though, not exactly accurate since the generations before us weren’t exposed to these chemicals at the same rate we are today.
Also, car seats are now commonly used as stroller seats, swing inserts, etc. Newborns may spend much of the first 6 months of their lives literally living in car seats despite warnings from safety advocates about increased risk of SIDS.
But I get it. Sometimes I feel like throwing up my hands and saying, “Well, chemicals are in everything. I can’t avoid them, so why should I care?!”
Then I remember a quote from this Chicago Tribune investigation, “Playing With Fire.” “The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants of infants in the world.”
You can safely add “highest recorded levels in human history” to that sentence.
As an investigative reporter, a consumer advocate and a mom, I can’t just sit back and say, “Oh, well.”
I mean, I really can’t. It’s not in my nature. It’s not who I am. For better or worse, I’ve always had a visceral reaction to injustice, and I believe that needlessly exposing kids to chemicals “known to cause cancer” is an injustice—”needlessly” being the operative word.
To be clear, I am not anti-chemical. I believe there is a purpose and place for flame retardants and many other commonly used chemicals.
The question I set out to answer when I began the car seat investigation was: Is the benefit of these chemicals in car seats worth the risk?
At least in the case of car seats, our investigation uncovered that many fire scientists, health advocates, toxicologists and consumer groups have found the answer is likely no, the benefit is not worth the risk.
But, you ask, “chemicals are in everything, why should I care?”
Well, when I received the EWG press release below in my inbox, I thought, “This pretty much sums up why I care.” And since sharing is caring…
EWG found up to 420 chemicals, known or likely to cause cancer, in people of various ages and backgrounds.
Why care? Well, the World Health Organization finds nearly 1 in 5 cancers are caused by chemicals and other environmental exposures.
Now, I want to avoid fear mongering. Lord knows this world is scary enough. So it’s important to note that the presence of any one toxic chemical in your body does not necessarily mean you will get cancer or suffer adverse health effects. Though the EWG did find that a few chemicals were in people at high enough levels to do harm (they exceeded even EPA limits).
The bigger issue is the unknown risk of the smorgasbord of chemicals found in our bodies and how they affect us when combined, even in small quantities.
As the EWG points out below, antismoking efforts “have cut the rate of lung cancer by more than 25 percent in the last 25 years.” What if reducing the number of untested and known carcinogenic chemicals in our kids’ environment could do the same for cancer rates overall?
Just this week, a third girl from my high school died of a rare and fast-moving cancer. She was a year ahead of me, as was a high school friend who recently died from lung cancer in her early ’30s. I also lost one of my best friends from high school a few years ago. She died from a different rare and fast-moving cancer. I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.
Are their cancers linked to each other? Are they due to exposure to chemicals in our environment? We’ll likely never know.
Which brings us to what I assume is the point of the EWG study. Even if chemicals are known to cause cancer, and even if the long-term effects of certain chemicals on humans is untested and unknown, regulators don’t currently have the power to keep them out of consumer goods.
For now, all the Feds can really do is update outdated standards, like the flammability standards for furniture, baby products and car seats, which would reduce the amount of chemicals that manufacturers are “forced” to add to products before they’re legally allowed to sell them.
However, after years of petitions from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and International Firefighters, regulators like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission haven’t done that.
Which brings me back to the headline: Why care?
Not everyone who smokes will get cancer, and not everyone exposed to cancer-causing chemicals will either. However, government toxicologists stress that lowering your expose to many of these chemicals can absolutely lower the associated risk.
What if one small change could eliminate one concerning chemical in your child’s body that, in turn, would never have the opportunity to react with another concerning chemical, ultimately preventing long-term harmful effects?
Below you’ll find the EWG’s press release in its entirety, followed by the response from the Chemical Industry (also in its entirety).
EWG Press Release:
Hundreds of Cancer-Causing Chemicals Pollute Americans’ Bodies
From EWG, First Complete Inventory of Carcinogens in the U.S. Population
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: TUESDAY, JUNE 14, 2016
WASHINGTON – Hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals are building up in the bodies of Americans, according to the first comprehensive inventory of the carcinogens that have been measured in people. EWG released the inventory today.
EWG spent almost a year reviewing more than 1,000 biomonitoring studies and other research by leading government agencies and independent scientists in the U.S. and around the world. The nonprofit research group found that up to 420 chemicals known or likely to cause cancer have been detected in blood, urine, hair and other human samples.
Studies of the causes of cancer often focus on tobacco, alcohol and over-exposure to the sun. But the World Health Organization and many other scientists believe nearly 1 in 5 cancers are caused by chemicals and other environmental exposures––not only in the workplaces, but in consumer products, food, water and air.
EWG’s review bolsters the findings and ongoing research of the Halifax Project, a collaboration of more than 300 scientists from around the world who are investigating new ways in which combinations of toxic chemicals in our environment may cause cancer. While most cancer research focuses on treatment, the Halifax Project and EWG’s Rethinking Cancer initiative are looking at prevention by reducing people’s contact with cancer-causing chemicals.
“The presence of a toxic chemical in our bodies does not necessarily mean it will cause harm, but this report details the astounding number of carcinogens we are exposed to in almost every part of life that are building up in our systems,” said Curt DellaValle, author of the report and a senior scientist at EWG. “At any given time some people may harbor dozens or hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals. This troubling truth underscores the need for greater awareness of our everyday exposure to chemicals and how to avoid them.”
EWG estimated that a small subset of the chemicals inventoried in the report were measured at levels high enough to pose significant cancer risks in most Americans ––risks that generally exceed Environmental Protection Agency safety standards. But those estimates are only for individual chemicals and do not account for a question scientists and doctors are increasingly concerned about––how combined exposures to multiple chemicals may increase risk.
EWG’s inventory comes at an auspicious moment for the issue of cancer and chemicals. Last week Congress passed the first reform in 40 years of the nation’s woefully weak toxic chemical regulations, which President Obama is expected to sign soon. In January, the president announced the establishment of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, a $1 billion program led by Vice President Joe Biden, “to eliminate cancer as we know it.”
But the law to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act falls far short of giving the Environmental Protection Agency the resources and authority to quickly restrict or ban chemicals known to cause cancer. And the only concrete agenda related to prevention in the Moonshot Initiative is for screening and vaccination. As demonstrated by the success of antismoking efforts, which have cut the rate of lung cancer by more than 25 percent in the last 25 years, to prevent and defeat cancer it is necessary to understand the environmental causes.
It is not clear how, or if, the new chemicals law will protect Americans from the hundreds of industrial chemicals that cause cancer.
“Many of the carcinogens this study documents in people find their way into our bodies through food, air, water and consumer products every day. Dozens of them show up in human umbilical cord blood—which means Americans are exposed to carcinogens before they’ve left the womb,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “We should focus on preventing cancer by preventing human exposure to these chemicals.”
Cook said the report should trigger outrage among Americans and urgent action by public health and elected officials. EWG called for the cancer “Moonshot Initiative” announced by President Obama in his state of the union address in January to include federal funding for investigation of the environmental causes of cancer and the development of prevention initiatives.
EWG has also published multiple health guides and online consumer tools to help people avoid toxic cancer-causing chemicals in their day to day lives.
EWG is a nonprofit research organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. With breakthrough research and education, we drive consumer choice and civic action.
Chemical Industry Response:
“We have not had a chance to review the report in order to offer comments specific to its recommendations. But we can provide some facts regarding biomonitoring in general. It’s important to understand that everything around us, including the entire human body and everything we eat and drink, is entirely made up of chemicals, in fact there are 60 chemical elements found in the human body. Even water is a chemical. So when considering results from any biomonitoring analysis, it is important to recognize that the detection of a substance in the body indicates only that an exposure has taken place; it does not indicate an adverse health effect. This point is underscored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): ‘Just because people have an environmental chemical in their blood or urine does not mean that the chemical causes disease1.
“The CDC also points out that the mere presence of a chemical does not signify risk to health. Assessing risk does not depend solely on knowing whether a substance is present in a body—it depends on many more factors, such as what the substance is, how much of it is carried in blood and tissues, and how long it stays in the body. Although the data are helpful to assess risk from environmental substances, biomonitoring data is limited in the information it provides.
“For instance, the data does not show from where the exposures came. Biomonitoring data alone is not indicative of adverse health effects. Biomonitoring data alone does not constitute a complete exposure assessment. Studies of absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion are needed to convert biomonitoring data into more useful information that in turn must be evaluated with toxicological data before they can be used to predict potential health risks.”
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.CDC; 2003. p.2.
FYI additional resources if your viewers want to learn about putting chemicals into perspective:
Sense about science: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/blog.php/96/who-says-your-diet-is-chemical-free
http://www.businessinsider.com.au/infographics-of-chemical-compounds-in-foods-2014-4 “These wonderful colourful graphics explain the chemistry of everyday foods”
For a summary of the ongoing investigation into chemicals in car seats, along with additional resources for parents, links to relevant data and documents, responses from lawmakers and editorials by the reporter, see:
What began as a NewsMom editorial, expanded into a 6-month KPIX-CBS investigation exposing alleged false advertising, apparent legal loopholes and outdated federal regulations that systematically expose millions of children to concerning, even known-cancer-causing, chemicals in their car