Professor McKay Jenkins helps us answer the question: Are the toxins in everyday products healthy?

We’ve launched a year-long series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products.  Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment.

The Beneath the Surface series was inspired by Professor McKay Jenkins’s book: What’s Gotten into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World.  After learning he had a tumor the size of an orange, McKay’s cancer scare led him to research and write this important book.  Based in Baltimore, McKay has authored numerous books, and he’s currently the Cornelius Tilghman Professor of English, Journalism and Environmental Humanities at the University of Delaware. Yes, he commutes to the campus and has for 18 years! 

What’s alarming is how prevalent some nasty chemicals are in our bodies. The real risk to our families is that since our world practically marinates in synthetic chemicals, scientific research is now uncovering links between big-time health issues and these widely-used synthetic chemicals.  Adding to the potential health risks, little governmental regulation exists for many products sold in the U.S. 

The article punch list includes: genetically modified organisms (GMOs,) lawn care and pesticides, home cleaning products, phthalates (a.k.a fragrance,) organic versus conventional foods and personal care products. Leave a comment below if you’re curious about a topic you’d like us to research and cover.   

With McKay’s help, we seek to answer the simple question: Are the toxins in everyday products healthy for us? If not, what can we do about it?  

You wrote in your book, ‘What’s Gotten into Us?’: “Everyone goes through a kind of awakening when they get a cancer scare.”  What was your personal awakening?

I went from being a passive observer of other people’s suffering to a feeling that I wanted to prevent this suffering. Before my is-it-cancer-or-not MRI, a pair of researchers asked me about my lifestyle. The initial questions they asked seemed reasonable: Had I smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol? Had I used illicit drugs? But, soon they were badgering me with questions about my exposure to toxic chemicals and contaminants. Huh? Yes, I had painted my home’s walls. Yes, I sent my shirts to the dry cleaner. Yes, we cleaned our home with store-bought cleaning products. Why were they asking me these questions? It seemed to me that the researcher’s were trying to find out what I had done to get the possible cancer. I think the question should be: what are U.S. manufacturers creating that may be causing the increasing cancers and sicknesses?

What’s the key point we should know in regard to the everyday chemicals that we’re exposed to regularly?

Our expectation is that someone is looking out for us and our family’s safety. We assume that the products on American shelves have been tested and that the ingredients are safe for consumption. That’s just not the case. We try to take precautions to keep our families safe. We buy plastic outlet plugs so kids don’t get electrocuted. We vaccinate our children to avoid major sicknesses.

Yet, we’ve delegated so much knowledge and responsibility about many of the products that we consume every day to a group called “professionals.” This group of “experts” grows our food, makes our consumer products, manages our lawns and treats our water. As the physician and editor of British medical journal Lancet states, “we are treating people like experimental animals in a vast and uncontrolled study.” I think we are paying the consequences.

I read that U.S. consumer product firms reformulated their personal care products for European markets in response to chemical regulations, but still include the banned chemicals in U.S. markets.

In 2006, European Union countries passed the far-reaching REACH – ECHA regulations which banned 1,100 toxic chemicals. Yet, those banned chemicals are in your products on U.S. store shelves. Consumer products are regulated in Europe, but regulation is voluntary in the United States.   Europe practices the “precautionary principle,” meaning that companies should take preventative action in the face of uncertainty. Where as the U.S. practices a different strategy, the “dose makes the poison principle.” American manufacturers and our government support an approach that the amount of a chemical’s exposure predicts the chemical’s toxicity and safety. This policy inherently assumes we understand the minimum levels of various chemicals and therefore we understand their safety. We don’t. 

Only when independent and non-profit groups like the Environmental Working Group and consumer movements start to make a fuss, do U.S. manufacturers make large-scale changes. 

In my book, I document in detail the all out war U.S. companies fought to make sure regulations similar to Europe’s REACH-ECHA didn’t cross the pond to America. To that end, the Safe Chemicals Act, intended to better regulate consumer products, died in committee.

I’m starting to freak out a little. Do we have any control in reducing our exposure to toxins?

Yes! It’s a consumer-driven world and it’s all about getting women of childbearing age to start paying attention to toxic chemicals. Women make most buying decisions and they have the power to vote with their wallets. Better educated moms and citizens can definitely take proactive steps to avoid buying certain products. Plus, this powerful group can use their computers and social media to effectively push against companies and collectively ask them to discontinue using toxic chemicals. I come back to this point: Why is it okay for an American to be exposed to potentially risky chemicals, but not a European? 

What are few tips readers can do today to live more toxin-free?

The Beneath the Surface series will offer a host of simple and effective actions readers can take to reduce toxin exposure, but here’s a few.  For the products you use often, find out what’s in them. Ask yourself: What do I know about the product and its safety and who told me the information? Consider switching to less toxic formulas if you learn that a favorite product of yours has questionable ingredients. The good news is that cost-effective alternatives often exist.

Another simple change is to store any paint and chemical products outside in a garage or a shed, not in your basement or home. Those containers are slowly emitting chemicals that you don’t want inside your home.

This question in your book cracked me up, so I have to ask: How flame retardant are American breasts?

A lot more than European breasts!  The flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), was used prior to 2005 to treat the foam products found in furniture, bed mattresses, fabrics and carpet pads.  Scientists are learning that the substitute chemical, TDCPP, may be just as harmful. The widely-used flame retardants are present in most people’s blood and also in human breast milk; flame retardants pass from moms to their children via breast milk. The quantity of flame retardants detected in people has doubled in North American every four years for three decades now.  Oddly, the chemical is found as far away as the Arctic where polar bears have tested positive for the chemical.

The key point is that a whole host of health impacts have been linked to flame retardants. In children, research reveals attentional issues, obesity and even autism. One study found that women with elevated blood levels of flame retardants took longer to become pregnant. Wouldn’t you like to know this information before you begin a family?

You’re currently writing a book about genetically modified organisms.  What’s the top-line about G.M.O.s?

An enormous amount of the food we eat — virtually anything made with (or fed on) corn or soybeans — contains genetically modified ingredients. This is a very complex issue, but it includes concerns about the vast amounts of pesticides these crops require, as well as fundamental questions about our dependence on industrial food produced by a very small handful of very powerful food companies.

What do you for fun?

I’m an avid cyclist, canoe paddler, and cross-country skier, depending on the season. My wife and I are both teachers, so we have lots of opportunities to take our kids on wilderness adventures in the summertime.

Read more from ‘Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products’ :

1. Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

One reply on “Big Fish: Get Smart About Chemicals with Baltimore’s Toxin Guru McKay Jenkins”

  1. I am looking forward to this series! I am curious how the average consumer can quickly look at a house cleaning project and know whether it is safe or not? Are there some key words to look for? How do I know if some of the “natural” or “toxic free” products are really safe? Will they still kill the germs if they are free of all the chemicals? And how safe are hand sanitizers? Thanks Laurel for putting this series together. I look forward to learning more.

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