My wife, bless her heart, goes the extra mile to protect our two boys from ubiquitous nasties, like BPA chemicals, pesticides, and high fructose corn syrup. It’s a fairly impossible task to avoid such exposures in the modern world. Still, the kids have a virtual organic food diet and all our household cleaners are eco-friendly, nice-smelling, biodegradable products. (It makes washing dishes a morally righteous experience.)
I’m a little more lax. For example, I don’t agree with the Fatwa against Pop Tarts. I’m getting better, though; on those infrequent occasions the boys convince me to stop at McDonald’s (when Mom works late), I make sure to substitute the apple slices for french fries. When I was a kid, that sort of deprivation would have been grounds for cruel and unusual punishment. But hey, we live in a different era today.
So with all these health measures in place, it’s a little unnerving to learn that my children are still being exposed to cancer-causing properties in everyday items. Several months ago, just before the new school year started, I saw on TV how toxic chemicals had been found in school supplies. WTF! Now, in addition to the toxic odor in the school cafeteria (our precious ones bring home-made lunches), I have to worry about the cancerous contaminants embedded in their lunch-boxes and backpacks.
A new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that 85 percent of the sofas researchers tested contained flame-retardant chemicals that have been identified as carcinogens and potential neurotoxins.
This grim finding received widespread media coverage. Journalists, understandably, struggled to make sense of it. Few put the information in a helpful context. One of the better stories came from ABC News, which included this quote:
“Some of the chemicals in the flame-retardant group are stronger than others and last longer in our bodies,” Dr. Marcel Casavant, medical director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, said.
“There’s really very limited data on whether these chemicals actually cause trouble to humans. They do accumulate in humans. We do absorb them and store them in our tissues, but we don’t know the real effect curve.”
After absorbing this worrisome news, I tweeted a stream of snark about my toxy, flame retardant filled couch. Had it endangered my family? We’ve had it as long as my oldest–who just turned eight. It’s like discovering someone you thought you knew is really a heartless killer.
This seems so unfair since my wife and I had already done our “household chemical purge,” which as the NYT notes, has become a ritual of new parenthood:
Talk to pediatricians, medical historians and environmental scientists, and they will tell you the social phenomenon hasn’t been studied much. Depending on whom you ask, it’s a media-induced mass hysteria, an eco-marketing trend, a public health campaign or a stealth environmental movement “” possibly all of the above.
By now, some readers will practically be shouting: Everything gives you cancer! Indeed, as one Guardian writer brilliantly laid out a decade ago, that is true. And the media, bless its heart, informs us about every possible cancerous connection to 21st century life. Some outlets just do it with more gusto than others.
None of this is to deny the dangers posed by ATM receipts. (I now wear gloves when holding them.) I’ll also leave it to others to question the scientific literacy of influential thought leaders who have come down with a bad case of “chemphobia.”
In all seriousness, as science writer Deborah Blum says,
there are evil industrial chemicals out there. And, in many cases, they aren’t as well researched or as well regulated as they should be.
I have no doubt that Big Chem would rather keep us in the dark, which tends to make people a little suspicious. Unfortunately, environmental crusaders (and their enablers in the media) too often conclude the worst about the not so well understood effects of chemicals commonly found in just about everything we come into contact with.
So what is the media’s responsibility in sorting all this out? Blum offered some excellent advice in a post earlier this year:
…if we, as journalists, are going to demand meticulous standards for the study and oversight of chemical compounds then we should try to be meticulous ourselves in making the case [for any health concerns].
This is a reasonable argument for context and nuance. Why? There is a constant bombardment of “everything gives you cancer” studies that the media dutifully reports, rather simplistically. It’s time, as Blum and others have pleaded, for journalists and pundits to go beyond the sensationalist, good-vs-evil frame.
Meanwhile, can somebody tell me what to do about my couch?