Kathleen Schüler, director of Healthy Legacy, has helped create legislation in Minnesota around creating less toxic children’s products.
It might seem strange to think that toxins in children’s products is even a possibility, but many of our everyday products are created with chemicals — no one is particularly immune from exposure. Thanks to the work of advocates like Healthy Legacy, steps are being taken to bring certain toxic products to the attention of lawmakers and regulators – but, there are thousands of products and chemicals that don’t have an immediate safeguard in place.
As discussed in past “Sustainable We” forums, in the United States we tend to operate on behalf of commercial progress – create products that make our lives easier in the short-term – without considering the long-term health consequences until after the product is proven to be dangerous.
In some cases – does anyone remember how many years it took to legislate around lead gasoline? – it takes decades to make change happen. In others, such as the more visible microbeads that we could see in our personal care products (sparkly bits in shampoo and toothpaste), yet filled our waters and fish with toxins, legislation takes only a few years. And in still other cases, commercial entities get ahead of regulation and make manufacturing changes themselves – often winning an early share of the more health-conscious marketplace in the process.
The Visibility Cloak
On April 19, 2016, the “Sustainable We” forum was about “The Visibility Cloak” – how do we get attention to the very real dangers around us that tend to remain hidden? The discussion featured Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy – which brings attention to the disproportionate air pollution in Minneapolis – and Healthy Legacy, with a special guest appearance from Sarah Super about another aspect of invisibility. Find audio clips from that conversation here.
In an interview with Schüler last fall, after she participated in my first “Sustainable We” forum, about pesticides in the parks, she explained the basics about pesticides: many toxins in our lawn care products are hormone disrupters, linked to cancer, have an impact on intelligence and immune system, especially with early-life exposure.
Toxic chemicals are present in many consumer products including plastics, mattresses and even personal care products, such as cosmetics. There is some regulation under the Toxic Substances Act of 1976, but it’s never been particularly beefy in its approach – there is movement to update it in 2016. Of the 80,000 chemicals inventoried, only a handful are regulated. Essentially, the burden of proof is on the largely underfunded Environmental Protection Agency to regulate – and it bases much of its decisions on the reports offered by the manufacturers themselves.
Granted, most companies aren’t in the business of poisoning customers. But… there has been serious mismanagement in the past, and U.S. products today – Monsanto’s Round-Up product with glysophate is commonly cited – are banned in other country’s because of concerns that the company does not agree with, so it continues to be one of the most popular lawn care products on the market.
Minnesota was the first in the nation to ban the hormone disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups, Schüler reports. The Toxic Free Kid Act, passed in 2009, designates nine priority chemicals in children’s products as especially harmful to children. In 2015, Minnesota also passed a ban on four toxic flame retardants in furniture and children’s products.
How has Healthy Legacy managed to be successful in an industry with strong lobbyists who tend to fight regulation? Schüler says it’s about building a strong coalition and informed consumers. We are progressively getting smarter as customers, she says, and progressive legislative leaders are paying attention to grassroots efforts to mandate public health over product profits. [Stay tuned for the MPLSGreen.com shopper’s guide to less toxic products.]
The American Chemistry Council, along with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, tends to be a formidable opponent to legislation, Schüler indicated. So the battle is never easily won without a strong base of support from average families who want safer products. “Most people think these products are already regulated,” she says. “We tend to be surprised to learn that they are not.”
The current battle over labeling products – not keeping customers in the dark – is currently waging especially over food.
The positive steps: the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, for example, is endorsing efforts by manufacturers to take responsibility for the toxic chemicals that otherwise get dumped into the waste stream, such as with electronics,Schüler says.
More people – it is still an uphill battle in Minneapolis with the Parks board – are asking for bans on pesticides for purely cosmetic reasons, such as to fertilize front yards and public parks. The runoff from stormwater drainage is poisoning our lakes and rivers, advocates have been pointing out for a few years.
One hurdle, Schüler suggests, is that there are few incentives for manufacturers to go through the expensive process of swapping out a readily accessible existing chemical in order to find an alternative option. [See this interview with John Warner, a mentor for green chemistry.] She says that only five chemicals in 40 years of the Toxic Substances Act have been banned. [See this article from Duke University to learn more.]
The industry, EPA and advocates agree that the Toxic Substances Act (i.e., Tosca) is overdue for reform, since it is a weak federal law. In the meantime, states like Minnesota – thanks to efforts of nonprofits like Healthy Legacy – are tackling products one step at a time. Flooring, flame retardant furniture, baby bottles and changing pads, and upholstery are a few of the products that have been remade in healthier ways. Firefighters, for example, joined in the effort to ban flame retardant chemicals, because of the carcinogenic dioxins. Manufacturers have made changes thanks to public pressure.
Link here to a list of the 100 most hazardous chemicals – what they do. As noted, Minnesota’s Toxic Free Kids Act identifies nine priority chemicals, while Washington state lists 66 chemicals of concern. So, there is a long way we could travel together to create a more Sustainable We.
Healthy Legacy, a 35-member public health coalition led by Conservation Minnesota and Clean Water Action, works with consumers/citizens to host healthy home parties and creates consumer fact sheets.