On Wednesday (24 August) I attended my first Perth Green Drinks event to watch three panellists discuss a topic of great interest and concern: “Sustainability and Health”. The Green Drinks crew lived up to their mantra ‘conversation, education and community’ and the speakers were fabulous and SO informed – so then, why did I walk away feeling so damn frustrated?
On the way home my husband and I realised why: it was because the solutions that the experts provided for opting out of the chemical maze were not quick fixes. It seems I am another victim of the ‘quick convenient trap’. We are smack bang in the middle of a very sticky web and sadly ‘just look for this little symbol’ doesn’t cut it anymore. Sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. Like a light switch going off, I felt empowered again. This is why I want to share the information with you so that if it concerns you as well you can take the necessary steps to leading a toxic free life.
Who, What, Why
The event flyer pointed at the ever increasing links of ‘convenience chemicals’ and the ever declining health of the environment and those that inhabit it. Allotted 10 minutes each the three experts were (drum roll please)…
Jane Bremmer - an environmental health and justice activist. Chair of the Alliance for a Clean Environment and secretary for the National Toxics Network (Australia’s peak toxic and pollution reduction NGO).
Dr. George Crisp - a GP who is WA’s chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, a voluntary group interested in the relationship between human health and environmental damage.
Dianne Caine –On her crusade to help her daughter survive an inoperable brain tumour, Dianne was alarmed at the level of harmful chemicals in popular products that we use every day. She consequently went on to create her own very successful product range Always Purer.
After they spoke there was a short Q&A session which bubbled over into drinks and nibbles (not very vegetarian/vegan friendly I am afraid). It was a fantastic event and I only have one major gripe: the speakers were all given a plastic bottle of water! Not only is this one of the easiest steps one can take towards being a bit greener but when we are discussing chemicals in products (including BPA in plastic bottles) I found it a very bizarre choice. This being said that is a nitpick (i just found it odd). If you have a chance to get to one of these events make sure you go. The information I have learnt is invaluable (see their Facebook page here).
Here Is What I Learnt…
Where/When Are We Exposed To These Chemicals?
- Food –pesticides used in agriculture, chemical additives used in production
- Personal Care products
- Consumer Goods
- Environmental exposure (there is no legal requirement to put any signage in a public urban area that is being sprayed with potentially dangerous agricultural chemicals)
An Overview of Chemical ‘Regulation’ in Australia
The chemical regulation in Australia is complex and fragmented and – let’s face it – a bit of a joke! In fact, chemical regulation in Australia and New Zealand is considered amongst the worst in the world. We have a host of government bodies dedicated to the regulation of them yet when we look at the AICS – the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances – we see that there are a whopping 38,000 chemicals that have not been assessed.
A huge amount of chemicals that we are readily using in Australia are completely banned elsewhere. One example is Dimethyl Fumarate, a mould prevention chemical (fungicide) commonly found in shoes, jackets and furniture. Banned in EU, Used unhesitatingly in Australia.
Who Regulates Chemicals in Australia
The (self-regulated) government bodies that are responsible for the assessment and registration of chemicals within Australia and NZ are as follows;
- NICNAS (National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme).
- APVMA (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority) – The rightly infamous Monsanto lists them under their ‘Who Are We’ section… just sayin.
- TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration)
- FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand)
Luckily, those organisations (ACE and NTN) that Jane is involved in are working towards better accountability, public knowledge and regulation for Australia.
Stockholm Convention and POPs
My completely unscientific interpretation of a POP (Persistent Organic Pollutants) is this: a chemical that once created does not ever leave the planet, once ingested never leaves the body. It is rarely naturally occurring more commonly a huge by-product of industry: a Frankenstein. Because these POPs do not breakdown they accumulate in our environment and bodies and are major area of concern in terms of global warming and health. The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment from them.
3 chemicals you need to get out of your life RIGHT NOW!
Triclosan – is an antibacterial and antifungal chemical that was originally developed for medical settings. It is now used extensively in hand washes and other personal care products and its overuse has exploded since Swine Flu came about. In Australia we currently have no limitations on its use whereas it is completely banned in Canada and EU and limited in USA.
Triclosan is an endocrine disrupter – which basically means it messes with your hormones in a very scary way. A major area of Global Concern is its link to worldwide trends of antibiotic resistance. It has also been linked to impairing muscle functions (see the study here) at our current level of exposure.
If Triclosan is affecting humans in this way you can only imagine what happens when it hits the aquatic environment which inevitably all products do! It damages ecosystems and the organisms within them, bioaccumulates and then ends up back in the food chain.
Bisphenol A (BPA) – this is the guy that you hear about the most. He is found in plastic containers, water bottles, canned food and drinks and (alarmingly) baby products. Bisphenol A is another endocrine disruptor: it mimics oestrogen and may fool the body by stimulating reactions that are unnecessary and potentially harmful. In 2010 all the aforementioned government bodies (in conjunction with ACCC) collectively considered the possible risks of BPA and they remain convinced that BPA is safe for the whole population at the very low levels of current exposure. Canada, Japan and parts of Europe and USA obviously disagree and have banned it in all infant products.
Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs or PBDEs) – Jane feels that this is the biggest con of our time. These chemicals apparently contribute to public safety by reducing flammability of products like computers, furnishings and mattresses. Same issues – hormone disruption, environmental damage, stuck record. Following strong evidence of increasing contamination of the environment, wildlife, and people this POP is soon to be phased out under the Stockholm Convention (see it here with the 8 other chemicals added to the annexes).
Before learning about this I had never seriously thought about how important organic materials and mattresses were. I thought you would invest in them as an environmental decision only -which of course is important too – but it is now very clear that there are strong causes for concern regarding our health. We sleep inhaling the chemicals released from these mattresses as well as wrapping our bare skin within then. I am expecting a baby in November and this has hugely affected my decision towards mattress selection.
What can we do?
The resounding pieces of advice from the panel were;
- Use chemicals as little as possible
- Read the label
This is the hard bit…
- Investigate the companies
Apparently even certified organic ingredients can be manufactured in a way that can damage the ingredient and lead to some sort of chemical contamination. What? So even making all the right choices, supporting all the right companies I am not doing enough? I was getting mad. I make all my own beauty products (like this deodorant) and cleaning products from natural ingredients like Bicarb, vinegar and coconut oils. Surely this is okay? Well this is better but we still need to take a serious look into the companies and processes used in the production of products. For example, in terms of Bicarb soda, truly natural products are mined from the ground and are presented as untreated, pure sodium bicarbonate… the way the earth made it. Others however are heated, treated and processed and are therefore not as great.
I calmed myself down and reasoned with myself. I have figured that it goes back to the primary principle of awareness – educate and investigate. But now there is an added dimension. We all need to read our information as critically as possible and try to avoid green-washing (see here). It frustrates me unbelievably that we need to look this damn hard to verify that natural products are what they say. Why is it that we need to prove that big companies are doing the wrong thing? Surely the big companies should have to prove to us that they are doing the right thing? Oh well.
I am sorry if that was incredibly long, wordy and dry. I try to steer away from articles like that but the information I learnt was so shocking and important that I really felt I needed to share it. I hope it helped! Would love to hear from you in the comments as always. In the meantime I love the way Annie Leonard explains things.. it is light and bright and always provides solutions. Here is here take on the chemicals in cosmetics…