Toxic chemicals can have an impact

By Dr. Gary Laustsen January 22, 2014 09:54 am
My grandmother who lived to be 92, often said, “If you have your health, you have everything.” Our health depends on three main things: the bodies we’re born with, the places we live and situations we’re exposed to and how we take care of ourselves. While some of those factors fall to chance, we do have some control over vital parts of our own and our children’s lives.

As a nursing educator and family nurse practitioner, I try to promote healthy-living practices to my students and my patients that will protect and improve their health over the long run. I am also interested in the actions we all can take to create safer, healthier communities. Reducing our exposure to hazardous industrial chemicals is one strategy that we can undertake.

An ever-increasing number of toxic chemicals are used to make everyday products or are the byproducts of industrial processes. Scientific evidence keeps mounting that links these toxic chemicals — even at low levels — to a range of chronic diseases and disabilities, including cancers, reproductive harm, birth defects, asthma, learning and developmental disabilities, and neurodegenerative diseases. 

You’ve probably heard of some of these chemicals, such as formaldehyde. Others, such as phthalates, may be less well known but are widely used in commerce. Phthalate is a chemical used to soften the vinyl plastic in products like shower curtains and children’s toys and to bind fragrances in personal care products. Hundreds of studies have linked low-level phthalate exposure to reproductive problems, asthma, liver and kidney damage. Another example is the chemical group known as brominated flame retardants. These are added to televisions and mattresses to make them less likely to catch fire, but they have also been linked to neurological and developmental damage and may cause thyroid cancer. 

I am particularly concerned about the effects exposure to toxic chemicals may have on infants and children. Children are more vulnerable than adults, and exposure early in life can lead to chronic illnesses later on. Their organs, nervous and immune systems are immature and developing. They crawl on the floor, play in the dirt, put everything into their mouths and are at risk for transferring more pollution into their bodies. 

Unlike drugs and medications, federal law does not require products all around us to be thoroughly tested for chemical safety before they reach consumers. We lack basic health and safety information on many chemicals used in everyday products. Of the more than 83,000 chemicals registered for commercial use in the United States, only a few are regulated under the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. 

Reforming the federal laws is necessary but not likely to happen soon, and this is where Oregon citizens and legislators can step in. Our state legislators have an opportunity and obligation to pass legislation that would make products safer, starting with children’s products. The Toxics Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act was introduced to the Oregon Legislature last session and is up again for consideration in 2014. Under this act, manufacturers would be required to disclose whether their children’s products contain certain chemicals and to replace them with safer ingredients over time. This act is not designed to harm manufacturers; it is meant to protect our children. We already know, for example, that diapers can be made cost effectively without formaldehyde, party hats can be made without arsenic and dolls can be made without phthalates. 

Parents spend countless hours taking care of their children, getting them to the clinic for check-ups, making sure they have healthy food, and enjoying their developing minds and bodies. They should not have to worry that the toys they give their children may also carry hidden health risks. We have the knowledge of what can cause our children harm and we should use that knowledge to seek safe products. The Toxics Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act will make sure we use this science to protect all of Oregon’s children. Please contact your representatives and ask them to support this legislation.

My Voice

Dr. Gary Laustsen, 60, is a family nurse practitioner and associate professor with the Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Nursing in La Grande.

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