The Toxic Truth, Part 1

November 27, 1998

In a three-part series beginning today, Michael Jessen uncovers the toxic truth about everyday household products. Long known to be unsafe in our landfills, evidence is now accumulating these products may cause human health problems. Part 1 explores the nature of the problem; Part 2 will focus on safe alternatives; and Part 3 will deal with safe disposal.

By Michael Jessen

Name the place where you get the greatest exposure to toxic substances. Surprise, it's your own home.

Oven cleaners, garden pesticides, paints, drain cleaners, furniture polish, furniture strippers, antifreeze, used oil, gasoline, glues, medications -- these are just some of the hazardous substances found in our homes. Most of these are discarded after use without careful consideration of their negative impacts.

Just how big is the problem of household hazardous waste? The average BC household creates between 20 and 40 litres of hazardous wastes annually. Much of this is thrown down the drain or placed in the regular household garbage.

This waste includes products that are toxic, corrosive, flammable, caustic, volatile, or explosive. There are literally thousands of household products that contain toxic ingredients which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, changes in genetic structure and weakening of the immune system.

Every year, between 5 and 10 million household poisonings are reported in North America. The Clean Water Fund, a non-profit organization, estimates the average North American uses forty pounds of unsafe household cleaners each year.

These products not only present disposal problems by creating a toxic soup called leachate in landfills, but many contain undisclosed ingredients and contaminants that pose hidden, long-term health hazards.

A National Academy of Sciences workshop concluded that at least 15 percent of the American population suffers from chemical sensitivity. Researchers have traced this increased sensitivity to the proliferation of synthetic chemicals in consumer products and furnishings.

Household products have changed radically since the post-World War II "petrochemical" revolution when industry discovered that a wide range of new chemicals could be synthesized from petroleum. Production rates for synthetic petrochemicals have soared from 1 billion pounds in 1940 to over 400 billion pounds in the 1980s.

An estimated 100,000 chemicals are used today in manufacturing world-wide. "To meet society's acquired taste for bigger, brighter, shinier stuff at rock-bottom prices, more than one tonne of chemicals is produced each year for every person on earth," says researcher and writer Laurel Aziz.

Residues of more than 400 toxic chemicals -- some found in household products and foods -- have been identified in human blood and fat tissue.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 50 million kilograms of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides alone are used annually in Canada; more than 850 of the products are registered for use around the house. Research has shown the risk for leukemia increases by four to seven times for children, ages 10 and under, whose parents use home or garden pesticides.

In 1997, World Wildlife Fund Canada sent samples of 30 common household products, such as soaps and detergents, for testing. Nearly 25 percent of the samples were found to contain hormone-mimicking chemicals. A class of phthalates, used in the manufacture of flexible plastics, were found potentially dangerous. (Health Canada issued a warning to parents last week to discard certain brands of toxic vinyl infant toys.)

If you want to learn more, here are some reading suggestions: Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn; Sustaining the Earth: Choosing Consumer Products that are Safe forYou, Your Family, and the Earth by Debra Dadd-Redalia; The Safe Shopper's Bible by David Steinman and Samuel Epstein; Healthy Homes, Healthy Kids by Joyce Schoemaker and Charity Vitale; and Living Healthy in a Toxic World by David Steinman and R. Michael Wisner.

TRASH TIP- Consumer Reports found that plain water was more effective than half the glass cleaners on the market and that the most effective way to remove greasy fingerprints from glass is using lemon juice and water.

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