Neurotic Mothers or Inattentive Government?

When my three daughters were small, I didn’t worry about lead poisoning, because the main sources I could think of--gasoline and paint--had been prohibited by law. And the only health concern I had about all their plastic Polly-Pocket toys was whether or not they would choke on them.


Mothers today can’t be quite so sanguine. They have to worry about the long list of toys recalled due to lead contamination. And they have to scour the Internet for the rare baby bottle or plastic teething ring that doesn’t include phthalates or bisphenol-A--proven endocrine disruptors associated with cancer, abnormalities in reproductive organs, and infertility.


In their attention to the toxic details of their children’s every day lives, these concerned parents have become a staple of parody: the neurotic mother who will throw herself between her precious offspring and non-organic mac and cheese.


But in my view, the trouble isn’t with the over-protective mothers. It’s with our inattentive government. We like to assume that someone is carefully regulating the levels of toxins in our food and household goods, but that simply isn’t the case. Of the approximately 87,000 total chemicals now in common use, only 1,350 have been tested to see if they lead to cancer or other health risks. That’s 7 percent.


Too often, when toxins are called into question in court rooms or statehouses, scientists must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a chemical has an irrefutably harmful effect. The EU prefers the “precautionary principle.” It doesn’t wait for 100 percent proof of harm--after all, once that arrives, it generally too late to protect people. Instead, when there is solid of evidence that a chemical is hazardous, the EU typically acts to regulate it. That’s why the EU banned several phthalates in toys years ago.


Luckily, Americans are beginning to catch on. In October, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a law that bans the use of certain phthalates in toys and childcare products for kids 3 years old and younger. We should call on our representatives to expand that into a national law and use it as a model for the other hazards lurking in nurseries.


We live in a chemical society now. When I look around my house and see all the ways plastic has insinuated itself into my daily life, I get nervous. And I don’t even have small kids at home anymore. Today’s parents have to work hard to keep their children safe from toxins, but it shouldn’t be their job. That job belongs to the government, and we should demand that it get to work.