Monday, October 22, 2007

Well, Actually. . .

I'm not quite sure what to make of the science in this article but it doesn't surprise me to learn that we (and our kids) are being exposed to lots and lots of chemicals. I need more information and context to be able to figure this out. If it's true, then yikes! But one article on CNN does not constitute proper research into this matter.

However, I do know what to make of this mother's statement:

"I'm angry at my government for failing to regulate chemicals that are in mass production and in consumer products." Hammond says. "I don't think it should have to be up to me to worry about what's in my couch."


Yes, as a matter of fact it should be up to all of us to research this stuff and become educated and make decisions based on the information we find out and our particular situation. Yes, and shame on you for thinking otherwise!

Most parents I know (myself at the top of the list) get really suspicious of other people and environments if we think our kids might not be safe. Me? I'm constantly scoping out playgrounds and restaurant tables and public places for peanut-containing food wrappers. (It's what I do.) Most parents investigate schools and childcare centers with diligence, and rightly so, because their child's safety is at stake. Some parents will get into a knock-down fight with a child's teacher if they believe the child is being treated unfairly. Probably all of us wonder who that weird guy is on the edge of the park.

This applies to non-parenting situations, too, of course.

How many times do people tackle, say, a home improvement project partly because they know they can do the job better, because they can't find a contractor willing or able to meet their high standards? Almost all of us have muttered to ourselves or our significant others, "Sometimes I just have to do it myself to know that it will be done right. I don't trust anyone else to handle this particular project/situation."

So why doesn't it occur to most people to be suspicious of the government regulations? Why don't we say to ourselves and our neighbors, "Sometimes we need to do it ourselves to make sure it gets done right!" Why do so many people trust an official government regulation created by an official government bureaucrat (peopleguy) in an official government department? We're willing to take the time to research a school or a doctor or a car dealer that will meet our requirements; we're not willing to research products to make sure they don't contain harmful chemicals. Because we shouldn't have to?

This is one of the reasons I oppose the food allergen labeling regulations, because I think it will inspire more lazy complacency on the part of consumers and consolidate more power in the hands of the bureaucrats. Those new regulations have not changed my shopping and food allergen research habits one bit. Having those regulations in place do not make my child any safer. I'm not willing to risk my kid's life on a law.

Regulations are not the answer. The rational purpose of government is to protect individual rights, not make our decisions for us, or mitigate risk, or eliminate the remotest possibility that anything bad will happen in our lives. As the level of government-regulated "protection" increases, the (average) consumer's decision-making skills decrease proportionately. I believe it may even make people dumber, because it's so easy to get used to being spoon-fed information by others. It's quite the opposite approach to the things I wrote about in my post about parenting for independence.

Government regulations such as those advocated by the mother in the article will only serve to obfuscate information beneficial to an objective risk analysis and provide a false sense of security. We won't really be safer than we were without them and only people who choose to evade that fact will feel as if they are.

7 comments:

Monica said...

Some thoughts...

First, I think your assessment of this mother is correct. Did you notice she's campaigned for a state-wide body burden testing program, and the bill passed? blegh. Total overkill. I mean, she or her kids have not even suffered any health effects.

Second, I think there's likely some truth to the article, though. I'm not so much concerned about chemicals in products I buy (well, I am concerned about that, but you make a good point that it's up to all of us to inform ourselves) as I am chemicals released into the environment - i.e. air and water. Stuff that doesn't stay on the property of manufacturers, and is proven to be dangerous. That, IMO, is a target for rational regulatory law.

The problem is, the article doesn't really make the distinction, so we're left wondering, "Is this simply a problem with products we're buying, or are we breathing and drinking this stuff through air and water pollution?" The article doesn't answer that question, and that's annoying. However, if you look at the actual products that carry these chemicals,

http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/10/22/body.burden/index.html#cnnSTCOther1

I'm inclined to think that uptake into our bodies is NOT through a form of pollution... it's through buying and using largely synthetic products.

I had several friends in college that claimed that microwaving plastic creates chemicals that cause breast cancer. In fact, I've received this email about 10 times in the past 5 years. I've been told it's a hoax. However, a lot of people take it seriously. Several of my friends (one that had childhood leukemia) always froze her food in special glass dishes. She never used plastic for any food.

If this article is to be taken seriously, most of those products they list as problematic could easily be avoided: plastic, nonstick frying pans, foam, synthetic soaps, etc. In fact, I know many people who avoid most of these things -- perhaps because they're more educated about this issue than I am.

Monica said...

Oh - another subtlety I just picked up. According to the article, PCBs persist in the environment. (They were banned in the 70s.) The article doesn't mention the rest of those categories as persistent.

On a lighter note, this all reminds me of the funny fourth season episodes of Northern Exposure with Mike, the BubbleMan, who moved to Alaska to live in his geodesic bubble, has "multiple chemical sensitivity" and grows all his own food inside the bubble. For those who haven't seen it, it's a priceless satire on the whole movement (as well as every other possible stereotype). The guy wears gloves all the time and usually doesn't venture outside without a protective suit.

Personally, I eat a lot of organic stuff if I can buy it cheaply. On the other hand, I like the smell of organic solvents, new cars, etc. HA!

Rational Jenn said...

You're absolutely right that the article doesn't make it very clear just what the problem is. I do think I will look into the phthalate (that's a fun word to say!) usage here at the old homestead.

I do agree with you that there are probably instances where a demonstrated harm has come to humans and rational regulations would be called for. I did a bit of a knee-jerk about regulations in general when I wrote the piece. I do recognize when laws and regs are and may be important, even as I veer into snarky territory.

I am underinformed about this stuff myself and it's time I go about correcting that!

Rational Jenn said...

I remember Mike the Bubbleman! He was an interesting character--going by memory, didn't he claim he could smell a chemical spill in the ocean while standing on a mountain? This was after his "remission" or whatever happened to him. I remember his and O'Connell's first date, too. Funny!

Jennifer Snow said...

I find it silly because every physical object in the entire universe is made up of "chemicals". No action of any kind on your part can possibly prevent exposure to chemicals. I laughed my rear off at a commercial for a "natural" supplement that claimed it contained "no chemicals".

Here's the thing, also, natural chemicals tend to be WAY more complex than the synthetic kind. The more complex the chemical, the more difficult it is to figure out what it's going to do to you.

I'm sticking with the synthetics.

Rational Jenn said...

That's a great point, Jennifer. Chemicals, chemicals everywhere! Ye gads!

Monica said...

"Here's the thing, also, natural chemicals tend to be WAY more complex than the synthetic kind. The more complex the chemical, the more difficult it is to figure out what it's going to do to you."

I'm not sure I agree with this. The implication seems to be that there's a world of nature out there that could affect negatively us in all sorts of ways. While I agree that there's a whole lot to discover out there, and a lot of it is likely bad, the more complex chemicals are the less likely they're going to do anything to you at all. Some of the most potent poisons on earth are natural, and we know exactly what they do - most of these are also fairly simple structures. Many potent plant poisons are used for chemotherapy. In fact, my dad is being treated with CHOP series chemotherapy at the moment. All three of these chemotherapy drugs are from plants. At least 25% of our drugs come from plants, unadultered. And most of the rest of the 75% are largely modifications of those. Most pharma is not done by iterative chemistry. It's simply done by modification of known structures.

As for industrial chemicals (the dangerous ones) there are two problems: they're often not biodegradable like natural toxins are, and they're released in large quantities. Since they don't break down as quickly, they build up over time. That's why there's such a focus on modern pesticides and herbicides being able to degrade within a couple of weeks of their release into the environment.

On the whole, though, I'd certainly agree that much chemo-phobia, with some exceptions, is unfounded. Round-Up, for instance. People get all worked up over that. All it is is a high concentration plant hormone (I think it's synthetic, in the auxin class of hormones). You could likely take a completely natural auxin at the same concentration and it would do the same thing to weeds.