Parenting "Tips" to Avoid Toxics Aren't Enough -- We Need Action to Protect Our Kids

This piece was published as an opinion story in The Guardian on June 30, 2019.

Last week I got an urgent email from a friend. His wife is newly pregnant and he was concerned that her super fragrant, aerosol “dry shampoo” was toxic. Could I review the ingredients and let him know what to do?

This type of request is common for me. As a scientist and toxics advocate, I’ve delved deep into the safety of ingredients in body care products. Currently, harmful ingredients like lead, mercury, and formaldehyde are still found in body care products on the market and they’re everywhere. I have lobbied for Congress to grant the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to meaningfully regulate the ingredients used in cosmetics. I even wrote one of the first-ever consumer guides for pregnant women who want to avoid toxic chemicals. 

My friend was a bit surprised by my response, “Congratulations on your pregnancy! I can’t wait to meet your wife someday. But I am definitely not going to tell a pregnant stranger what types of shampoo to use.”

After more than a decade of writing consumer tips for avoiding toxic chemicals, I’ve committed to a new approach -- one I think should be adopted universally. Let’s stop policing women’s bodies and women’s behaviors in the name of protecting future generations from the impacts of toxic chemicals.

I’m focusing on changing the laws that govern how industrial chemicals are regulated. This is the strategy that works. As you may remember, lead levels only dropped dramatically when we banned lead in paint and gasoline, not because we motivated a million parents to wash their kids' hands and toys more often (and let’s be real here, we mean the kids’ female parents). 

There is a tiny bit of evidence that frequent handwashing can reduce the amount of concerning chemicals like flame retardants in children’s bodies. But to permanently protect children, we need to stop adding those chemicals to furniture and pajamas in the first place.

Studies show that people living in the United States and other industrialized countries have dozens of industrial chemicals in their bodies, making it hard to figure out if a single hair care product is responsible for the increasing rates of chronic diseases, reproductive and fertility problems, and allergies. If a problem surfaces with a product like dry shampoo, we should turn our efforts to getting it off the market, rather than leaning on individual women to fix the problems society is unable or unwilling to solve.

The idea of making small personal changes to avoid exposure to toxics grows from an important instinct to protect loved ones. Pregnancy is a key time of vulnerability to harmful chemicals like lead and flame retardants. Infants and children drink more water and eat more food than adults. As any parent knows, kids are constantly putting toys and other gross things in their mouths. For years I thought it was “empowering” to help inform people of toxic contaminants in everything from spinach to dental floss to crayons. 

After years of parenting, I’ve come to understand that individual actions are temporary, incomplete, and exhausting. Sociologist Norah McKendrick tallies up more that 60 “helpful hints” by advocacy organizations to people who want to protect themselves from harmful chemicals. She points out these actions are a burden on women, and fit conveniently in the problematic, neoliberal expectation that individuals should protect themselves instead of holding government or industry responsible for public safety. 

What’s worse, all those guides might actually be doing us a disservice. In her book Raising Elijah, biologist Sandra Steingraber questions whether it is actually possible to avoid the effects of toxic chemicals She pointedly asks if shopping guides are the modern day bomb shelters -- serving as both “an illusion and a distraction from some larger engagement.” 

We’ve got to think bigger and demand more from the companies who make chemicals and consumer products. And we’ve got to hold our government accountable to do the same. 

So yes, by all means, moisturize with coconut oil and clean your house with vinegar. But lay off the harried moms and pregnant strangers. Join your local, state, or national advocacy group and fight to change laws, regulate industry, shift norms, and protect all people from unnecessary exposure to harmful chemicals. And in the meantime, perhaps no using dry shampoo on babies, okay?

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