I Didn’t Think

In recognition of CHE’s 10th anniversary, colleagues who have been particularly instrumental to shaping CHE this past decade will be invited to write an introduction. This month’s introduction is by Nancy Hepp, MS, CHE’s Research and Communications Specialist.

Many years ago, I heard Paul Harvey on the radio describe two women, typical housewives, who were each cleaning their bathtubs with an ammonia-based product. Both women were unsatisfied with the level of sparkle that they achieved and decided to add some chlorine bleach to the process. One woman spent a long time in the hospital recovering from the damage that the combination of ammonia and chlorine inflicted on her. The other woman wasn’t so lucky, according to Harvey. He described how warning labels on ammonia and chlorine products warn against mixing the two, but these women hadn’t read the labels thoroughly. I thought, “I’m sorry for these women and their families, and I wish they had read the labels more thoroughly.” I didn’t think, “These products shouldn’t be in our stores and our homes.”

Then in the late 1980s I was living in Germany and discovered that the Germans were far ahead of the US in recycling and toxic waste awareness. Signs at the garbage dump instructed me to separate out not only recyclables but also hazardous materials from my trash—something I’d never done before. I read the long list of materials that were too hazardous to dispose of in a landfill: paints and batteries, of course, but also pesticides and laundry detergents (even the empty bottles that had residues), cosmetics, household cleaners…products I used every day. I thought “These Germans sure are picky.” I didn’t think, “Why are cleaning products and cosmetics considered hazardous waste? These products shouldn’t be in our stores and our lives.”

Nancy takes every opportunity to engage with the natural environment.

My awareness of the toxic nature of many of the products we use was, as for most Americans, slow to develop. We just don’t expect something that we buy at the grocery store to be harmful when used according to its intent. We think that the government, the lawyers, the consumer groups—somebody—is keeping an eye on these things. But that hasn’t always been true. In fact, it has often not been true, as CHE’s partners know.

But this is changing. The last three decades or so have seen an acceleration of federal or state legislative bans or restrictions on tobacco smoke, lead in paint and children’s products, PCBs, some carcinogenic ingredients in foods, certain flame retardants, bisphenol A, some pesticides, and other hazardous substances. Warnings are issued about food and consumer products that are contaminated at unsafe levels. Even more meaningful, however, is the amount of press that these issues are getting. As the editor of CHE’s news feed, I’m struck by the large and growing number of articles I see every day about environmental hazards to our health. At last, this information is becoming part of our media and societal conversations. We still have much to discover and discuss, but my sense is that at least the topics are on the agenda. I see progress in the growing demand for organically grown food and the resurgence of farmers markets. Some manufacturers have voluntarily stopped producing problematic products. When Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s started highlighting their “green” products, I knew the conversation was shifting.

I’m proud and delighted to be part of CHE’s contributions to this conversation. CHE’s partners include national and international leaders in research, advocacy and policy. CHE’s offerings to our partners help move discussions and decisions forward. From our partnership and working group calls for scientists to our Practice Prevention columns for parents, from our much-used Toxicant and Disease Databasec to our well-attended conferences, from our daily listing of top news and announcements for several of our listservs to our blog as a forum for analysis and commentary, and with our new Top 10 selections, we’re raising awareness, generating conversation, and catalyzing collaboration among diverse segments of the environmental and health fields. Perhaps most important, we’re providing people who might think that everything we consume is safe—as I did—with the latest science about the products and substances, electromagnetic fields and other environmental stressors that shouldn’t be in our stores and our homes and our lives—and in turn, partnering with them to press for healthier choices individually and collectively.

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