Environmental Health

lake Geneva- NCC Conference

Lake Geneva- NCC Conference

More Fallout on a Chemical found in Baby Bottles

Just over two weeks ago, I was with forty other Christians who traveled to Alexandria, Minnesota to attend the biannual NCC Eco-Justice Working Group conference. This year’s conference focused on environmental health. As we learned via our keynote speakers and daily workshops, and gathered in worship, one chemical stood out as a poster child for what is wrong with our national chemical policy.

Bisphenol-a (BPA) is a chemical used to line polycarbonate plastic baby bottles, drink bottles, some plastic containers, and aluminum cans. It is also found in many receipts we get at the grocery store or any other place we shop. Studies have found that low-dose exposure to BPA is linked to disturbing outcomes in animal tests. These health conditions include type II diabetes, obesity, heart disease, prostate cancer, early childhood puberty in girls, among other conditions (See the consensus statement from 38 experts on BPA that emerged out of a workshop sponsored by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences).

On October 20th, Canada took a historic step in protecting people from the effects of bisphenol-a by calling it a toxic substance and banning it from baby bottles. This is a good step forward in addressing one of the exposure pathways for the most vulnerable members of our society. This was followed a few days later with the San Francisco city council asking retailers to stop carrying bisphenol-a baby bottles. Safeway and Whole Foods also announced that they would stop carrying baby bottles containing BPA. The Food and Drug Administration’s full science board is meeting on Halloween to hear more testimony on BPA from concerned organizations and from industry using and producing BPA. The FDA is releasing their final ruling that same day.

It is hurtful that babies who are “fearfully and wonderfully made” come into this world already carrying a chemical burden. The Environmental Working Group did a study in 2005 that found that babies were born with an average of 200 chemicals in their umbilical cord blood. It is disturbing that the very bottles and sippy cups we use to feed these sacred beings may be changing the intricate system of cues in our body that affect everything from our weight to issues relating to fertility.

As prophetic Christian witnesses, we can do something about BPA. We can make changes in our own lives and educate our congregations about this issue. Encourage family and friends to look for BPA free baby bottles, sippy cups, and drink bottles. If conducting a food drive, encourage donations of food that are in glass or plastic bags rather than aluminum cans. My church is encouraging a food drive that is organic or whole grain as well. If your church is hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner for the congregation or the community, consider promoting one that is only from fresh foods. Consider making it organic and/or local too. Additionally, we can encourage city council initiatives like the one in San Francisco, or encourage our state and federal legislators to ban BPA in products in place of safer alternatives.

In the meantime we can also celebrate the bold action that our neighbor to the North has taken to protect their citizens. I pray that we can see this action bear fruit in the United States and in other parts of the world too.

photo courtesy of CHEJ

photo courtesy of CHEJ

The Magic Kingdom is Greener, but it is still toxic (September 10, 2008)

Disney has been hailed as a green leader by the EPA for reducing water and waste in some, but not all, of their theme parks. They also have slough of hotels that are recognized by the Florida Green Lodging Program that also work to reduce water and energy. These are just a few of the good first steps for one of the largest entertainment companies in the world and one that ranks 67 on Fortune magazine’s Fortune 500 List. But it seems like more could have been done in fifteen years of what they call, “environmentality” being that they have the financial resources to become more sustainable across the board.

I was disappointed when I recently learned from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) that Disney has not stepped up to the plate to institute green cleaning practices throughout all of their theme parks and eco-lodges. They apparently have made the switch in the great Wild Animal Kingdom- which is great because toxic chemicals in cleaning product can harm animals as well as people. But if Disney is one of the richest companies in the world, and is committed to being a family friendly company, why not take steps to ensure that children and Disney employees play and work in a healthy environment?

CHEJ is organizing a national Day of Action on October 29th to encourage Disney to switch to green cleaning products. You can organize an event in your church or community or join one that is already planned.

Chemicals in traditional cleaning products have been linked to asthma, reproductive challenges, cancer, skin and eye irritations, to name a few. Some chemicals are also neurotoxins or are toxic to the liver and kidneys. Children and workers are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals. Click here to learn more about green cleaning from the National Council of Churches.

Will Disney ensure that the “least of these”- the children- play in a toxic free environment and invest their wealth to improve the lives of others like Zacchaeus did after talking with Jesus? If Disney really cares about a safe and healthy world for future generations, then they will.

David and Goliath

August 14, 2008

One of the great gifts of my new job at the National Council of Churches is that I was assigned specifically to the area of environmental health.  Why is this such a gift?  For the simple reason that I was terribly ignorant of environmental health issues before starting.  Almost any other aspect of environmentalism—from species loss to climate change—I would have been inclined to think that I knew something about.  My Master’s degree in sociology was structured entirely around the human/earth relationship–economics, religion, technology, policy, etc.–so I tend to think that I know something about ecojustice.  However, environmental health is one aspect of ecojustice that I know I know next to nothing about.  It is an opportunity to inhabit what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind.”

Theoretically, it is good to retain beginner’s mind no matter how much knowledge you acquire about a subject.  I remember listening to the last interview that Miles Davis gave.  In the interview he said that one of the reasons that he loved jazz was that he was always learning something new and improving as a musician.  So, maybe in some paradoxical way, beginner’s mind is the key to true mastery.  Clearly, Miles Davis was a true master.

I am learning about body burden, bisphenol-A, legislative preeminence, the Kid Safe Chemicals Act (coming soon to a Congress near you), and a host of other things.  Much of the information is depressing, scary, infuriating, and even downright ludicrous—(the E.P.A. has tested less than 2% of the chemicals used in manufacturing products that are on the market in the U.S.A., and in the thirty-two years since the implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act has only banned nine).  Despite my extreme novice status, however, it is easy to see that Exxon/Mobile is a whole lot of the force behind keeping consumers ignorant and powerless over our exposure to harmful chemicals.  They aren’t even subtle about it!

Take the American Chemistry Council.  (http://www.americanchemistry.com)  It is a thinly disguised industry P/R endeavor attempting to appear unbiased and empirical.  When one follows links looking for “plastics” and “child safety,” one ends up finding out about all sorts of wonderful plastic devices that will keep one’s child safe from drowning, electrical shock, cleaning supplies, etc.  One has to dig a bit to find out anything about safety risks to one’s children from plastics.

The American Chemistry Council spent a hefty sum to try to defeat California SB 1713, a law to ban bisphenol-A statewide in specific, child-related products. An August 11th  SF Chronicle editorial by Charlotte Brody, RN and Executive Director of Commonweal (www.commonweal.org) said, “The American Chemistry Council has been mounting a shamefully deceptive campaign against state legislation that would ban the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from food and drink containers aimed for consumption by children three and younger.”  Brody went on to say, “It is one of the more misleading lobbying efforts we have seen in a long time.”

Representative John Dingell launched an investigation into the ACC as recently as April of this year.  When you check the funding sources for the studies cited on their website, they tend to be industry studies.  None of this inspires my confidence.

In an article entitled, “Why Journalism is Failing the Public on the Risk from Plastics” (http://stats.org/stories/2008/why_journ_failing_plastics_may6_08.html) linked from the ACC website, it is implied that the public has been subjected to a kind of media hysteria in its concerns over Bisphenol-A.  However, the article itself contains, “There is a possibility but not a certainty that BPA is causing problems. Time will tell how this all pans out…”  I don’t know about you, but that’s all I need to know.  The Precautionary Principle would seem to govern here.  “Time will tell” sounds a whole lot like, “We are testing out the safety of this chemical on you and your children.”

Do you know the Precautionary Principle?  It is just what it sounds like it is—products or actions are guilty until proven innocent.  The German word from which we derive the precautionary principle, Vorsorgeprinzip, translates to something like “To miss it before it is gone.”  I feel that way about polar bears.  The 1998 Wingspread Statement gives it this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network).  You may have noticed that decisive action on depleted uranium, genetically modified organisms, global climate change, getting the lead out of gasoline, getting the MTBE out of gasoline, getting the ethanol out of gasoline, and getting the gasoline out of gasoline are all things that waited/are waiting for scientific certainty.  Meanwhile, where are we going and why are we in this hand basket?  The precautionary principle says that you don’t wait until your child falls off of the roof to get them down from there in case it turns out to be dangerous.  It shifts the burden of proof of the safety of chemicals from the government after the fact to industry before the chemicals are marketed.

[This is related to but different from Risk vs. Hazard-based assessment, which we will blog about at another time.  Christian ethics are just fascinating!]

A recent article by Melinda Brown published in “The Hill” about last month’s federal phthalates ban states that, “Opponents include the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and ExxonMobil , which say there is insufficient evidence that the chemicals cause health problems.”  http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/chemical-companies-health-groups-spar-on-consumer-safety-2008-07-14.html There isn’t any subtlety to the fact that the big eco-baddie, ExxonMobile, is still pursuing its global hegemony regardless of effects on people, the planet, or anything else, all the while posting record profits last quarter of $10.7 billion.  (“Exxon Mobil posts record profit of $10.7 billion” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11098458/).  (By the way, the record of $10.7 billion broke Exxon’s previous all time record, so that it holds first and second place.)

Now, here’s the thing:  The folks who work with big companies like Exxon, Dow Chemical (which ate Union Carbide of Bhopal infamy), Monsanto, Tyson, DuPont, Lockheed Martin, etc. are good folks who are pretty sure that the work they do makes the world a better place.  Oodles of them consider themselves Christians.  Vilification of anyone is not exactly a core Christian value, and isn’t my purpose here.  However, standing up for Truth is.  Most of the folks who held slaves before the Civil War in this country also considered themselves virtuous Christians making the world a better place.  They didn’t quite have the complete picture.

I know that one is supposed to see that David is this unlikely shepherd-boy hero in Samuel 17.  But I just don’t see it that way, perhaps because as a neophyte in this national conversation about toxics, I’d like to believe in the underdog, the unlikely warrior.  To me David is the obvious hero, mostly because he isn’t a champion’s champion.  He’s young and not set in his ways, he’s not a part of the military hierarchy, he uses creative methods that he is very practiced at, and seems to have no fear.  While the other soldiers are concerned with preservation of their own well-being, David is willing to take risks for the achievement of a higher vision and testimony to the greatness of God.  He is willing to sacrifice, if necessary.   He is successful because he is ‘outside the box.’  Reminds me of Rosa Parks.

Christian earth care is similarly outside the box, or unorthodox, if you will.  I hope that our willingness to hold the value of people over profits, to sacrifice, to tell the truth, and to carry the broad vision of a harmony throughout Creation will help us to form a constituency of moral suasion that redeems the principalities and powers that would seek to perpetuate the status quo.  To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we will love ExxonMobile into righteousness.

What’s in that sunscreen? (May 30th)

sunscreenHere in DC it’s supposed to reach the low 80s today and it’s already gotten me thinking about sunscreen, that necessary layer of protection I have on hand all summer. We all need it to avoid sunburns and skin cancer. After all, God gave us one body (Genesis 1:26-27) and told us to care for it (II Corinthians 6:19) Yet when looking at the ingredients, there are some things in sunscreen that raise red flags on my “toxic meter.”

Take phthalates (pronounced tha-lates)- synthetic fragrances often contain phthalates. Phthalates are used to help products hold scent and give them a silky smooth texture. Phthalates are linked to early onset puberty in girls, reproductive damage in baby boys, testicular cancer, and earlier pregnancy terms in women. The US Congress is currently considering whether or not to keep a phthalates provision in the Consumer Products Safety Commission bill that would ban phthalates in products marketed towards children under three.

Some preservatives are also of concern. Parabens are the most widely used preservative found in sunscreen and other cosmetic products. They are used as a preservative. Yet they have been linked in one study to breast tumors.

Thirdly, nanotechnology is a growing field that allows for some ingredients to be included on a particle level smaller than the human cell (very small!). Some sunscreens use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide so that when applied it doesn’t leave your skin with a pasty white coating. Nanotechnology has a number of uses in cosmetics and a host of other products ranging from tennis rackets to electronics. The concern about their presence in cosmetics is that they can travel though our skin and, once inside, to our organs. Current evidence suggests that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are not harmful to human health. But more research into nanotechnology will help us learn more about long term health effects of this technology in general.

Lastly, thinking about what kind of sunscreen we use on our summer vacations can have implications for creation too. A recent study by Professor Roberto Danovaro from the University of Marche (Italy) found that many brands sunscreens containing parabens, cinnamates, benzophenones and camphor derivatives can contribute to hard-coral bleaching. It is also believed that some of the chemicals can bioaccumulate in aquatic animals, becoming more toxic each step up the food chain.

What to do?
Keep wearing sunscreen Obviously sunscreen is important to protect us from skin cancer. Try to look for ones that are less toxic and that protect your skin. Some sunscreens don’t really do the job. Check out the Skin Deep Database for suggestions on how to protect yourself from toxic chemicals and the sun.
Less is more: With any of these chemicals it comes down to “in moderation.” The less presence of these chemicals the better. Look at the labels. Maybe starting with one that is fragrance free or only with essential oils.
Check out the Skin Deep Database sponsored by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group for suggestions on what to use. You can type in the brand you have and see its health and skin protection rating.
Wear a light long sleeve shirt and UV protection sunglasses If you think you are going to be out in the sun all day, cover up!
Avoid sun exposure during the peak hours- By avoiding the hottest hours of the day when the sun is fully shining, you are less susceptible to sunburns.
Change policy! Ask lawmakers to create standards for cosmetics products or call for an overhaul of our current chemicals policy so that people are protected before chemicals are added to new products.
Buy new sunscreen each year

Visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics or email me at chloe at nccecojustice.org for other ideas.

(April 18th) Let Justice Roll on Like a River

Or better yet, like water from the tap to an uncontaminated water bottle.

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Many of us are aware of how bottled water can lead to more bottles in the landfill than the recycling bin and may be aware of how companies are privatizing local water sources to capitalize on bottling water for a worldwide market. So we have switched to using a reusable water bottle.

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One of the most popular water bottles out there on the market is one made of polycarbonate plastic that is clear, hard, and comes in a variety of colors. It is labled with a #7 or PC. But it also contains a food sealant known as bisphenol-a (BPA). Most of the plastic baby bottles on the market are also made with this type of plastic. A baby bottle report released a few months back found that when heated or when acidic or basic substances are added to these bottles, they leach bisphenol-a into the liquid.

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Bisphenol-a is found in a variety of consumer products, but its presence in bottles, aluminum cans, and some dental sealants is particularly concerning. It has been found in animal tests to be linked to obesity, type II diabetes, early puberty in girls, fertility and other reproductive challenges, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.

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This week some very important announcements were made regarding this chemical. On Wednesday, the Canadian health department announced that the chemical is dangerous and they are beginning a process to add it to the toxic substances list.

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The US National Toxicology Program responded by reversing its findings in a draft report from last fall on the chemical that said there was “little concern” about its health effects. The NTP stated Wednesday, “The possibility that bisphenol-a may alter human development cannot be dismissed.”

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In utter defiance of reason, the NTP fall report disregarded the panel of experts that said there is great concern about the safety of bisphenol-a. The non-experts included some representatives from the bisphenol-a industry. The reversal of their previous conclusions are welcomed and a good step forward.

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These statements from Canada and the NTP also lead to changes in corporate America. Walmart announced that in Canada they were immediately pulling all polycarbonate plastics from their shelves and that they would do the same in the US by the end of the year. Sears Canada is also pulling baby bottles and sports bottles with BPA. Nalgene, one of the most popular producers of these sports bottles announced today that it would stop manufacturing BPA bottles and that they would make a similar looking bottle made with a different chemical called Tritan. Whole Foods already replaced all their bottles with BPA free materials thanks to shareholder and consumer pressure. Some of these companies dragged their feet for years, defending the safety of this chemical. Now they have heard from the horse’s mouth (the NTP) that the chemical may not be safe for infants and children so they have taken needed action.

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It is through the witness from state advocates, the efforts of shareholders, and pressure from people who have uncovered new science over the last ten years that this issue has been brought to light this week.

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But there is more to be done. There is still the issue of this chemical in aluminum cans. Perhaps of great concern is its presence in infant formula cans. Michigan Representatives Dingell and Stupak are currently investigating corporate influence in approval of BPA in infant can linings.

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We need our government to be more prophetic. We need them to come out and protect the health of our children before they suffer potential consequences later in life. It was disappointing that Michael D. Shelby, who chairs the NTP committee investigating BPA, could not advise consumers on what safer alternatives were out there in his National Public Radio interview (if you are interested stainless steel, and plastics #2, #4 and #5 are safer alternatives).

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Additionally, regulating bisphenol-a is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of other chemicals in our consumer products that go untested and unregulated since they were grandfathered into the Toxic Substances Control Act thirty years ago. Then we did not know what we know today about chemicals that effect the regulatory system of the body- the endocrine system.

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When the federal government and the companies manufacturing the chemicals stop dragging their feet, then “justice [will] roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)

Lead in Toy Easter Eggs (posted April 7th)

eggI was outraged when I opened my email on Good Friday and learned that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled plastic Easter eggs and bunny hair clips due to lead levels in the paint greater than the federal standards of 600 parts per million (ppm). It was a reminder to me that indeed we are still living in Good Friday times when the most vulnerable members of our society, the children, are potentially put at risk by the products that parents purchase with good and loving intentions.

Lead is a known neurotoxin that can impair mental development and the nervous system of children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 310,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (or 600ppm), the level at which CDC recommends public health actions. Children in low income communities and communities of color are more vulnerable to lead as they tend to live in older houses that still contain lead paint.

The Easter season is a time of renewal and celebrating a new day. We desperately need an Easter message that can ensure that children can grow up in a toxic free world; that pregnant women do not have to worry that chemicals used in everyday household cleaners and personal care products that they put on their skin or breathe could potentially harm the new life they carry.

Governor Gregoire and the bipartisan effort of the Washington State legislature brought a hopeful message to Washington State last Tuesday when the Children’s Safe Product Act was signed into law. This act puts stronger standards on lead, phthalates, and cadmium in children’s products. Read more about phthalates here and here.

But this law does not go into effect until July 2009. In the meantime, children across the country remain vulnerable to old science that does not look at the effects of toxic chemicals in critical moments of development, and vulnerable to understaffed government regulation.

The Bible speaks of the need to care for our bodily temples and Jesus’ appreciation of children’s gifts. Lift this issue up in your community. Write a letter to the editor asking your public officials to protect children’s health for lead and other toxic chemicals.



  1. […] Environmental Health Posted by: Chloe Schwabe | April 7, 2008 […]

  2. Your post reminds me of a similar recall near Halloween – of costume teeth designed for childrens’ costumes, which were similarly tainted. It’s astonishing that – even with the tremendous knowledge we have today – we still permit these products in the marketplace.

  3. Yes I remember that story! Lead is probably one of the chemical no-nos on the minds of most parents in America today, given the regulation of lead paint and leaded gasoline. And YET it is still in many products made for our kids.

  4. […] Environmental Health […]

  5. […] Environmental Health […]

  6. OMG! I am a first time mom and when i read this article, i don’t know what to do now.I am worried about my daughter’s health because i use to boil her milk bottles which isn’t also safe.Thank you for the information.I will teach my 1year old girl to drink on a glass from now on and not from a bottle.

  7. Hi Grace,

    Glass is definitely the safest option. If you must use plastic, there are some options on the market such as Born Free and Medela brands. At some point in the future, the six major manufacturers of baby bottles will start putting BPA free bottles on the market as they have agreed to as of last week.

    The good thing is that through strong public witness from the faith community, public health groups, and moms, the tide is turning and we can tell the government and manufacturers that toxic baby bottles are just unacceptable. These efforts are paying off!

  8. hi
    I am kaveh from iran \ tehran
    I am studing tehran medical university.
    tanx a lot .

  9. Raw milk is better for us anyway. Why not live for free choice of foods that are natural and safe?

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