In 2006, I woke to an unfathomable world of environmental health science and legislation. My mainstream mama-hood had sharply detoured after the discovery of Stage III breast cancer and what I learned was jaw-dropping. Mind-blowing. I fiercely wanted every woman to have a chance to be aware of what unfolded (and is unfolding) in our lifetime. This week, in our countries Capitol, news will unfold about 'TSCA.' For a bit of behind-the-headlines prepping, I want to share this story. Admittedly, the intimate revelations below - an excerpt of Little Changes - aren't a scroll through tip-post. But if there was one gem of content to lose yourself in today, it would be this story. One that defines the framework of our generation -TSCA - and its implications on our right to health.
Seeking to Understand Harmful Chemicals
Voracious to understand, yet without a chemist in the family tree to call, I turned to reading. The search for information took time, and for that matter, it wasn’t always easy or positive. Academic articles and science reports became unlikely companions with my morning tea. Websites for nonprofit organizations, such as Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) and Environmental Working Group (EWG), provided stepping-stones from one insight to another. While searching the Internet, I was comforted to find other women blogging about quests similar to mine. I made constant trips to the library and anxiously awaited the neat, rectangular boxes of books I ordered online as I sought to fill my brain with information. Some books preached through doom-colored glasses, and I immediately set them aside. Other books ripped my mind open and filled it with brilliant illumination. After only a few months, cockeyed piles of well-loved books with warped covers, dog-eared pages, and cryptic, penciled notes begging to be re-read surrounded me.
As a domestic archeologist, I slowly uncovered the information I craved. The puzzle pieces were shifting into place in my mind; the picture was beginning to come together. My “a-ha” moments built the frame, moments of clarity cemented the corners, and my constant reading filled in the image. I kept picking up one particular piece repeatedly, fingering it, and tapping it on the table. How did it fit in? It was a number recurring in my research, one with little significance to me. It was the number 83,000, referencing the number of inventoried synthetic chemicals.
Was I supposed to be scared? The number was so unfathomable; my mind kept trying to file it under Unnecessary Information. Yet, the number kept reappearing, haunting me, triggering a sinister villain soundtrack when I came across it in my reading. Obviously, it begged for my attention.
I scanned the chemical science timeline for a place to immerse myself. I could start as far back as Ancient Egypt, when they mixed together compounds for cosmetics. Or I could jump in after the Plague bombarded medieval Europe, resulting in advances in medicine. It was the late 1800s, though, which created a convenient entry point to learning, when European chemists started synthesizing molecules that did not exist in nature. As we turned the corner of the century, World War I and World War II increased the demand for chemical resources.
As peacetime descended, petrochemicals and plastics revamped domestic life with new products. Poisonous gases were repurposed into insecticides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The daunting name polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) became popular under Teflon. Polystyrene found uses in radios, clocks, packaging, insulation, and electrical equipment. Celluloid and Bakelite, the first synthetic plastics, became part of clothing, kitchenware, and ping-pong balls. Super glues, Formica, and Saran Wrap became household jargon. Tide, with its clean new scent, changed laundry forever as the first heavy-duty detergent based on synthetic compounds. Through these products and many others like them, the synthetic chemical movement had successfully infiltrated our homes and our culture.
We Want What We Want When We Want It
What I consider quality of life—convenience, price point, and choice—is largely a result of the synthetic chemical revolution. An emergency pair of nylons on the way to work? Convenience store. Children's pain medicine at two a.m.? I can name eight pharmacies within five minutes. Shopping for two weeks’ worth of boxed and frozen foods?  Heck, I don't even have to leave my house; I can have it delivered right after Grey’s Anatomy. What an opulent, lavish world I live in! Everything is at my fingertips. Our choices are so diverse; entire aisles are devoted to products that didn't even exist for the colonial women who once occupied this town of Boston. Soda. Breakfast cereals. Bleached paper goods. Red, blue, and green sports drinks. Plug-in air fresheners heavily scented with cinnamon apples and vanilla fields. 
This is my life. We want what we want when we want it. We want it year round and in every town. And we can have it. I had never thought to stop and question, is our excessiveness the right choice? Why would I? This was the world I was born into. It’s all I’ve known.
She Who Could Not Bear to Be Silent
Thankfully, someone wiser was deeply concerned, could not bear to be silent, and passionately spoke up. In 1962, Rachel Carson, an ecologist-biologist-author, published the book, Silent Spring. It was the first book to raise awareness of the interaction between chemical usage and its effect on our environment. Rachel Carson was deeply disturbed by the irresponsible manner in which we used chemicals without understanding the long-term effects. Through Silent Spring, she challenged our society and government to question our prolific chemical use. Carson described how, in such a fraction of time, humans have altered the dynamics of their surroundings:
To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.[i]
My father, a geology hobbyist, demonstrated by extending his arm-span from his six-foot frame, stating, “This is Earth’s timeline, fingertip to fingertip.” Turning his head toward his right hand, he continued, “If you take an emery board and swipe my fingernail once (with his forefinger wiggling), that one swipe would erase the human timeline.” To Rachel's point, within dust particles of that swipe lies just one century, during which we allowed powerful synthetic chemicals to recklessly alter animal species, plant life, and entire intricate ecosystems.
How I wish I could have invited Rachel Carson to dinner! Sat down with her over an arugula salad and conversed about the plight of robins, elm trees, and sagebrush shared in Silent Spring. What would it have been like to have insight on the relationship between nature and our bodies at a time when the terms pollution, green, or eco-anything, were barely concepts?
Maybe we would have ended our meal with a cup of tea and moved to the fireplace. I would have asked what it was like to speak out as a writer—to say nothing about being a woman—against monolithic industries in the 1950s and 60s. What did it feel like to swim upstream against science that proudly advanced American pop culture? No doubt, I would have sat in stunned silence as she shared how chemical manufacturers ran ads telling Americans to ignore Silent Spring. And how she wisely responded to them, “As you listen to the present controversy about pesticides, I recommend that you ask yourself: Who speaks? And why?”[ii]
This invitation to supper will never happen, as Rachel Carson lost her battle with breast cancer in 1964 at age fifty-seven. In the decade following her death, the United States continued to produce synthetic chemicals. During the 1970s, an average of six hundred new compounds were introduced to the market every year.
Oh, Thank You, Leaders of My Childhood!
Fortunately, those who had been listening eventually took action. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the first successful attempt at creating national standards to control air pollution,[iii] and the Clean Water Act, which established new regulations for water.[iv] In 1976, while I was playing with hula-hoops and big wheels in the cul-de-sac until bedtime with no bug spray on, President Ford signed into law the Toxic Substance Control Act, or TSCA (referred to as “toss-ca”). It was a radical document publicly acknowledging links between environmental hazards and health, which also created an inventory of chemicals. I clicked on a press release from the then-EPA Administrator expounding on our government’s shift in thinking:
…we know so little—so abysmally little—about these chemicals. We know little about their health effects, especially over the long term at low levels of exposure. We know little about how many humans are exposed, and how and to what degree. We do not even know precisely how many—much less precisely which—new chemical compounds are made and marketed every year.
It brought tears to my eyes to realize this proclamation was almost forty years old. We really did know better, didn’t we? Then another sentence caught my eye:
.. the Toxic Substances Control Act is “one of the most important pieces of ‘preventive medicine’ legislation” ever passed by Congress. The legislation represents a major step toward an increasingly effective preventive approach toward the ‘environmental disease’ that has been called the ‘disease of the century.’[v]
Oh, thank you, leaders of my childhood! So much was cocooned in TSCA’s intentions! On the year of our bicentennial, we were taking a stand, enacting profound legislation, protecting our people, our bodies, and our beautiful American environment. I love our country—our progressive leaders willing to stand up for its children. Like a season finale, I wanted to know what happened next. What did we do? Tell me, what did we accomplish? I know I was alive then, but Sesame Street was my main source of current events, updating me on the antics of the letter Q. I had to re-live this as an adult.
I Had Never Thought To Question
The use of synthetic chemicals in our products existed, albeit silently, way before I was born. This movement shifted us from the multi-functional ingredients our great-grandparents used to the foreign-to-pronounce ingredients and a disposable product-for-every-use that we have today. While we have been cleaning homes, using cosmetics, eating and drinking throughout human history, it is only in the last six decades that have we been inundating our bodies daily with thousands of substances never encountered before the twentieth century.
I only had a narrow, self-centered understanding of what existed since 1970, or even really, since the mid-1980s, when I became a teenage card-carrying consumer, purchasing McDonald’s lunches and Obsession perfume on my own. I have a hard time understanding how Ma on Little House on the Prairie, one of my favorite childhood shows, kept her one-room house so spiffy without blue window spray and disinfecting, lemon-scented floor cleaner. Did the upstanding citizens of Walnut Grove deal with asthma, allergies, autism, or attention disorders with common familiarity? Were any of those words even in their vocabulary? How in the world did their farm animals grow large enough to eat without hormones and antibiotics? How did Pa nurture successful crops without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides? Why are those ingredients so widely used today?
My self-questioning made me feel reluctant. If I swayed from what I was raised on, would I put my family in danger? Without the list of chemicals on the back of my counter spray, would it be effective? Would I encourage swine-flu-inducing countertops? Would straying from mainstream choices lead to eating salmonella-tainted suppers with decaying teeth? The lost feeling in the pit of my stomach was like a young love break-up. I had trusted so unconditionally, so fully. I had never thought to question. I could feel imminent change, but writhing and wiggling out of my comfortable skin toward understanding would take time.
Understanding the momentum of the synthetic chemical revolution was essential for me. Trying to regurgitate it was twice the struggle. I had to reduce the information to Kristi-checklist style and big-picture events:
- Post World War eras saw the advancement of synthetic chemicals and integrated them into our society. Their benefits catapulted easier living through variety and affordability.
- Rachel Carson energized environmentalism by challenging our prolific use of these substances without understanding the complete ramifications to our bodies and our environment.
- Her shadow reached out and infused 1970s culture. With the EPA established, PCBs were banned under TSCA. (Enough letters… now I’m starting to sound like Sesame Street.)
We Should Have the Freedom to Live Without the Unknown.
Then, there it was. I spotted the number again, only this time its ominous weight made sense. The mystery behind the 83,000 reference unfolded. The chemical inventory system swelled over my lifetime to the unfathomable inventory of nearly 83,000 chemicals. I found myself holding my breath as I absorbed a just-as-staggering number: 62,000 synthetic chemicals were simply grandfathered in when TSCA was created. Complete toxicological screening data are available for just seven percent of these chemicals, leaving more than ninety percent that have never been tested for their effects on human health.[vii]
TSCA failed to protect public health to its potential. In my teen years, TSCA’s assertiveness weakened, and since its inception, has only banned a whopping five chemicals. Instead of requiring that all chemicals be proven safe before usage, the United States produces or imports forty-two billion pounds of chemicals annually.[viii] Annually.
Instead of reducing the inventory of toxic chemicals, we pump, circulate, absorb, and burn unknowns into our world. While TSCA seemed to be the panacea at first, disillusionment hit me, as I realized it wasn’t really protecting us.
Deep, slow exhale.
Fortunately, other governments are blazing protective trails in varying degrees, insisting on bans and regulations. Through Exposed, a book by Mark Shapiro, I learned how our lax leadership on environmental regulation leaves a choice, “either to adapt to Europe’s more aggressive standards for protecting the health of its citizens, or risk losing what is now the biggest and most affluent market in the world.”[ix] Shapiro states:
The frequent result is that the European Union and the United States review the same scientific studies, have access to the same toxicity data and come to entirely different conclusions. The European approach is called the precautionary principle, and the result is that many substances now banned in Europe are in wide use in the United States.[x]
In the personal care products industry alone, the European Union has banned eleven hundred ingredients.[xi] The United States has banned only nine.[xii] It is business as usual; companies that sell to both sides of the ocean adapt to separate regulations. It’s a little bit like opening the passenger door and buckling your son in with a kiss on the cheek, while letting his brother play freely in the back seat. Why isn't the same rule applied to both? Many companies are making two batches—one with safer ingredients and one without them.
But enough. I am constantly telling my children whining won’t get them anywhere. The bittersweet news I can take from Shapiro’s message is that if we were to commit to using safer ingredients today, it wouldn’t take decades to develop new formulas and secret-pressed-powder recipes. Last I heard, people strolling the Champs-Élysées in Paris didn’t have mangy, greasy hair or smell like a cattle farm on a warm day. When governmental regulations state that carcinogenic and mutagenic ingredients are prohibited, the Europeans still find ways to use deodorant, shampoo, and hand soaps. Their women still wear makeup. It’s Europe, for heaven’s sake—the epicentre of all things stylish and couture. Do you think those women are going to give up their lipstick? Puh-leaze.
Many options already exist. We just need the correct legislation. Here in the United States, we should also have the freedom to live without fear of the unknown.
~ Little Changes: Tales of a Reluctant Eco-Enthusiast
Over the last four years, since publishing Little Changes, TSCA Reform has become a personal passion. I eagerly enlisted into a world of long time advocates and activists, of policy makers and visionary businesses. I am just a young whippersnapper mesmerized by their conversations coming from around the world and I eagerly raise my hand at every possible chance to participate. (My high moment was passionately delivering a speech at a TSCA Reform press conference in the Senate House.)
Today, after the lengthy drawn out way legislation is created, with hundreds of hands sculpting words and millions of dollars spent lobbying, TSCA reform is unfolding. It will be an improvement.
But not in the the sweeping 'we-will-lead-the-world-in-health' protection that any of us would want for our children. It will leave us deigned and baptized THE protetctors of our own health. It will solidify the need for us to be aware, vigilient and standing guard as the new mainstream norm.
Return to this post this week and we will will update you with the here-and-now events in Washington D.C. We will talk about what we can do and what we have to do. Today will mark the end of a chapter. But not the book. The rest will continue, written by us. Together.
 The process of distilling petroleum, produced descendents of tar, benzene, naphthalene, and gasoline. Vinyl chloride gas, born a century ago, evolved into the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) of today, sporting its own identifiable #3 recycle code on plastics, clothing, and building materials. Acetone, neoprene, polyethylene, nylon, and toluene are some of the substances that were invented or discovered around these decades. I never paid attention to them before but found I regularly used them in our home.
 Synthetic preservatives, found in many boxed and frozen foods, extend product shelf life, allowing us to ship farther and store longer. I can find butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) listed on the box of cereal at breakfast, on the frozen pizza for lunch, and again on my tube of lipstick, in each instance preserving the fats and oils within.
 The proliferation of synthetic chemicals grew rapidly in the late 1800s, resulting in the founding of the American Chemical Society in 1876. In 1888, Massachusetts Institute of Technology recognized the movement and created the first Chemical Engineering curriculum.
 PCBs have been shown to cause skin cancer, reproductive failures, gastric disorders, skin lesions, and other serious effects in laboratory animals. Reportedly odorless and tasteless, I wonder who volunteered to taste test it.
[i] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. (New York: Mariner Books, 1990) 1.
[ii] Scholastic website, http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=4964.
[iii] United States Environmental Protection Agency website, http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/history/topics/.
[v] United States Environmental Protection Agency website, http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/history/topics/.
[vii] Gray, Janet, Ph.D., State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer And The Environment (Breast Cancer Fund: Sixth Edition 2010).
[viii] WBUR On Point Radio website, Our Toxic Environment, http://onpoint.wbur.org/2007/10/29/our-toxic-environment.
[ix] Mark Schapiro, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products And What’s At Stake For American Power (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007), 10.
[x] Schapiro, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products And What’s At Stake For American Power, 11.
[xi] Schapiro, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products And What’s At Stake For American Power, 24.
[xii] Cosmetic Ingredient Review website, http://www.cir-safety.org/.