The Ever-Increasing Hazards of the Household

Mothballs and dental floss are now on the danger list. What else lurks in my closets?

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My household routines have been changing, radically, over the last few years — because of what I’ve been learning about toxic chemicals. But last week, I snapped. It was either the mothballs or the dental floss that did it. I’m still not sure which makes me angrier.

It started with the mothballs. Part of the ritual of putting away wool clothes in homes across the country, mothballs have been marketed for decades as the most effective way to keep away the critters that chew holes in our sweaters. Then I got an email from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health about a new study on the toxicity of naphthalene, considered a common air pollutant: “Children Exposed to Naphthalene Show Signs of Chromosomal Damage.” What’s the primary component of some types of mothballs? Naphthalene. Derived from coal tar, Naphthalene is also present in the exhaust of cars and trucks, paint fumes and tobacco smoke.

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The study found that the frequency of chromosomal translocations, “a potentially more harmful and long-lasting subtype of chromosomal aberrations,” found in the DNA of 5-year old children was correlated with their level of exposure to naphthalene. Chromosomal aberrations have been associated with increased cancer risk in adults. The senior author on the paper, Dr. Frederica Perera, points out that “the findings provide yet more evidence of the vulnerability of the young child to carcinogenic air pollutants.”

And then there’s my dental floss — or what Katherine Hepburn, with classic charm, used to called “tooth twine.” I am a dedicated, once-a-day flosser. I taught my children to do the same. My gums are sensitive, so I’ve been devoted to GLIDE and Colgate flosses — they are coated, so they slide through easily.

Then one morning I read about PFCs — perfluroinated polymers, a family of fluorine-containing chemicals that make materials stain and stick resistant — in household products. We’ve all heard of — we’ve all taken home — products with Scotchgard, Gore-Tex, Teflon, Stainmaster. In the last couple of decade, some PFCs have become notorious as chemical contaminants — joining the ranks of PCBs, DDT, and others. They were once thought to be inert chemicals, made of essentially indestructible bonds. No longer. They are extraordinarily persistent once they enter our environment, and some are now being found to be toxic.

And yes. My dental flosses may be coated with PFCs — Teflon, and PTFE. A colleague at Moms Clean Air Force, Molly Rauch, who called Oral B about Glide was told by a customer rep they use a “Teflon-like compound in some but not all of their flosses — but a lot of this is considered proprietary.” Thanks.

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The serious health concerns associated with PFCs include an increased risk of cancers of the liver, breast, prostate, and testicles. PFCs are also associated with hyperthyroidism, immune system problems, and birth defects.

So. I’m avoiding nonstick products. I’ve switched to a clean dental floss (because that coating does come off in my mouth). I’ve changed every single product I use — shampoos, conditioners, soaps, moisturizers, powders, perfumes, lip glosses, you name it. I check what’s in my product against a list from the Environmental Working Group. I’m going for lavender for my clothes. And I’ve found a good weaver for damage from larval moths.

It is impossible to dodge chemicals entirely — nor should we. It isn’t that everything is killing us. Rather, we don’t have a viable system for sorting out the good from the bad. We are left, as individuals, to become anxious, figure out what to do, boycott products or ignore the problems. That’s why we need strong chemical legislation reform — and the Safe Chemicals Act introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg and 16 Senate co-sponsors, is a bill that embodies much of the solution.

Enough already. We cannot do the impossible: the job that the government should be doing for us and our children — getting harmful chemicals off the market, out of our homes, and out of our air. We are all racing for cures. We need to start waking up to causes.

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