“Not again,” I sighed as I noticed the familiar chapping and redness around my mouth. What could be causing this fresh allergic reaction? I was already using the most basic products, with the fewest ingredients. My skin seemed to flare up over nearly anything, and there didn’t seem to be any safe alternatives to my current products.
So I went to my dermatologist to get some patch tests. The results demonstrated that I was allergic to p-tert-butylphenol formaldehyde resin and mercapto mix. I had no idea what these strange chemical were. But after some research, I understood that the formaldehyde resin was an ingredient in plastic. This supported the feeling I had my toothbrush was causing my allergic reaction. Luckily, switching to a wooden toothbrush immediately relieved me of my ruddy splotches.
With that issue addressed, I wanted to learn more about another allergen: the mercapto mix. When I discovered that it and the formaldehyde resin were components in the production of rubber and glue, I picked up the phone to call my dad.
My father was a chemist. Early in his career, he developed an adhesive, which he manufactured and marketed through his own firm. My dad’s interest in chemistry started during the middle of the last century, when people believed in”better living through chemistry” The phrase, a version of a DuPont slogan, promoted the concept that chemistry can improve nearly all facets of our lives. This self-serving catchphrase was instrumental in getting consumers to turn away from a nature-based way of life and toward purchasing newfangled products made with artificial ingredients.
“Sure! I used it in making my paste,” he cheerily responded, happy to have a prepared answer.
I ventured, stumbling over the name.
“Yes, I used that one, too, in my glue. Why do you ask?”
As I told him about my new allergies, I was struck by the link between Dad’s usage of particular chemicals and my following allergy to them a few decades later. I suspected this was not a mere coincidence.
I was hesitant to discuss this speculation with Dad because I didn’t think he would share my perspective.
About a year following this conversation, my father started to experience breathing problems and a persistent cough. A trip to the doctor revealed that he had lung cancer. This was puzzling to me because he lived on the banks Puget Sound, a clean, rain-washed environment in Washington state. He was a smoker earlier in his life, but gave up the habit forty years prior.
My mind started to flash back to all of the chemicals my father was exposed to when he made his adhesive. Could his everyday exposure to all those noxious chemicals, together with the smoking, have set the stage for his lung cancer? And could my allergies to the formaldehyde resin and the mercapto mix have been initiated from contact with his chemically laden clothes when he arrived home from work?
Along with being terribly grief stricken about my father’s impending death (he had stage 4 cancer), I was outraged by our culture’s shrugging acceptance of chemicals and the implicit trust we place in their safety. Unlike my father, however , I was never under the delusion that synthetic chemicals were our friends. Perhaps this was because I grew up in the’70s, a time of burgeoning interest in returning to a more wholesome way of life. Early on, I began exercising regularly, eating foods that are natural, and consuming a range of beneficial supplements.
However, despite my healthy practices, I began to suffer with myriad allergies and sensitivities to environmental factors, such as plants, smoke, mold, chemicals, and foods. Apparently my health-promoting activities were not enough to stave off these problems. I knew something was interfering with my body’s natural mechanics and derailing my efforts. I believed that one major factor may be my early exposure to the compounds my father used, which was further exacerbated by the overabundance of toxic chemicals in our air, water, soil, and foods.
While I believe that both my father and I have been harmed by dangerous chemicals, I do not think we’re the only ones damaged in this way. I believe that the overload of toxic chemicals in our world has a negative effect on all people. We pay the purchase price of vulnerability in our own unique ways: one person finally gets cancer, another becomes asthmatic, and someone else suffers from chronic rashes.
Recent studies have provided validation for my certainty that chemical toxins negatively impact our health. Asbestos was found to play a role in respiratory illnesses; arsenic is known to lead to many different ailments, including diabetes and heart disease; mercury has a deleterious impact on the brain and nervous system; and bisphenol A (BPA) disrupts the endocrine system.
Because chemicals are loosely regulated and only banned after documented proof of serious harm, we’re subject to untold dangers from our daily experiences with these substances. Lots of people may not think they are being impaired by this exposure. Yet repercussions can occur many years later, when it is almost impossible to determine if regular chemical exposure was the cause.
Despite not having much control over the chemical component of our planet, I refuse to be a helpless victim of harmful substances. I have found ways to substantially reduce my exposure to noxious substances. This has lessened the harm I experience from living in our less-than-healthy world.
One way I’ve found to mitigate the toxins in my life is to shop carefully and choose safer alternatives for my household and personal care needs. I look at labels and do some research before I buy. Environmental Working Group’s website has a comprehensive database of household and personal care products, rated for their safety.
When remodeling or buying new household furnishings, I have discovered healthier options. Eco-friendly materials are usually safer, but we must pierce beneath the surface of the advertising claims. By way of example,”green” does not necessarily mean a product is natural or nontoxic. The product could contain recycled materials, which might be off-gassing substances such as plastic.
Because I react horribly to perfumes (with symptoms that include nausea, cognitive impairment, and headaches), I avoid buying any botanical products. After learning that the words”odor,” or”parfum,” on a product label usually conceals the existence of numerous hidden toxic chemicals, I finally realized why I have such adverse reactions to these substances.
Driving less, refraining from burning wood or light up barbeques, and using biodegradable unscented laundry products are all ways help to reduce unhealthy particulate matter in our shared air. This makes the air safer to breathe for everybody, especially asthmatics and people with chemical sensitivities.
Another way I gain some measure of control over our shared environment is through making my voice heard. I write to my legislators and sign petitions, like those that prohibit particularly harmful chemicals or ask more stringent regulations for the chemical industry. I also support organizations that are doing critical work. Nonprofits like Environmental Working Group; Green America; and Safer Chemicals, Safer Families are working on our behalf to insure greater public health and safer products.
I still must remain alert to potential chemical hazards in each new environment I enter. I also should refrain from lingering in any place that’s starting to make my head spin or my stomach feel helpless, despite wanting to shop in a particular shop or needing to attend an event in a public hall.
Clearly, much work remains to be done to clean up our planet. My hope is that through education and action, fewer individuals will become harmed by the chemicals they encounter in our shared environment.