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The Double Edged Sword of Educating People About Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products

I posted a reel on Instagram that showed just a few examples of products I saw at the store made from PVC plastic. The connection was to an article I wrote about the Ohio train derailment, showcasing how the toxic chemicals transported and released on that train were the building blocks of products we all have in our home. As part of the reel I showed images of pools, floaties, bath mats and kids rain boots, all of which are products I have in my home. The comments and conversations I had via DM were interesting and highlighted a missing piece of the current debate around education vs fear mongering within the non-toxic living community.

Educating people about the problem with toxic chemicals in consumer products is the first step towards change

Long before “clean” was a term, there were scientists, environmental leaders and public health activists like myself talking about the need to remove toxic chemicals from consumer products. At the time it was called simply “consumer safety” and to the scientific world, it was/is called “environmental health,” how the environment (inside and outside our homes) impacts our health. Some have been openly critical of anyone attempting to educate the masses about toxic chemicals saying you can only share something if there is a viable alternative on the market to point people to.

As someone who has been doing this work for nearly two decades, I can assure you that is EXACTLY what the chemical industry wants. Without widespread and broad consumer education, industries don’t change and health protective laws don’t get passed. So therein lies a conundrum, how do we properly educate people on the topic, to help drive change while still being scientifically accurate? I’ve been one of many voices trying to train and share best practices like some of my articles here, but social media is exploding with so-called “experts”.

While I am encouraged by the volume of people chiming in on this topic, it’s concerning when they don’t properly contextualize the science. That concern however doesn’t mean we stop talking about these issues.

There doesn’t always need to be a viable solution for people to switch to, for years there were NO solutions

Parents raising kids 15+ years ago had limited options for BPA-free baby bottles, most mattresses had toxic flame retardants in them, and there was essential no clean makeup, skin care, or supplements brands. Through scientific research being published and non-profit organizations attempts to translate that science, CEOs emerged to help create products in a better, safer, more sustainable way. A great example is a PVC pool I have for my kids, where there are very limited alternatives on the market. The science calls us to stop using toxic plastics like PVC and I use my platforms to help draw attention to that. This isn’t to say people shouldn’t have pools for their kids, it simply means the pools shouldn’t have PVC. See the difference? By driving a conversation forward it allows us to create the future we want to see, one with a material economy without toxic chemicals.

People are triggered by products that they have an emotional connection to

There is a lot of emotion when you see the same pool your kids love playing in appear on my social media feed. Well guess what, it’s emotional for me too, which is why I don’t want PVC in the pool in the first place. But as I have talked about for years, you can’t shop or control your way to zero exposures to toxic chemicals, it doesn’t exist. So I do make strategic choices that still allow my kids to enjoy time in a pool during the hot summer months, this doesn’t make me a hypocrite it makes me balanced. I have my eyes on the larger prize which is phasing out problematic materials and driving enough interest for new companies to make solutions.

It’s important for people to examine why they may feel triggered by seeing a product they love or want highlighted in communications about toxic chemicals. Sometimes (this is true for everyone) we have emotional connections we don’t realize to consumer goods, our society is built this way. I’m asking everyone to take a step back and think about why we are so attached to our perfume, lipstick, home goods and clothes. Giving yourself space will also allow yourself to be engaged in this fight for larger systemic change, not one that only revolves around buying more and new things.

Policy change is the way to truly fix the problem

And in order to pass laws, you need the masses to be educated. Complicated right? I have been lucky enough to work on and pass over 20 laws banning toxic chemicals from consumer products at the state and federal level. This progress has helped moved companies away from toxic chemicals and hold the laggards accountable. There are three things that need to happen in order to pass legislation, you need to lobby elected officials directly, the press needs to be talking about the topic and grassroots constituents need to call in to their government to ask for policy change.

If we’re going to ensure that everyone has access to safer products, regardless of where you live, how much money you make, or how much time you have, then we need people talking about consumer safety. I will continue to help be a steward of accurate and effective communications, I hope you will too.

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