Potentially Hazardous Chemicals: Precaution Is In Order

Whether it’s pesticides or foods, you should know whether or not it contains hazardous chemicals. If a product’s label doesn’t provide full disclosure, we suggest you don’t buy it.
June/July 2010
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Are these helpful chemicals or hazardous chemicals? Before you buy anything you deserve to know.

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Modern chemicals do many good things for us. But some also do harm — to us, wildlife or the environment. With U.S. industries now using some 75,000 chemicals, and as we discover more about their downsides, public demand for greater precaution is growing. The dramatic increase in organic food sales in the last two decades is one sign of this growing public concern.

In 2002, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog, released the results of a “body burden” study that found 167 chemicals present in the blood and urine of nine volunteers. Then in 2005, the group reported the results of its tests of 10 newborn babies, in whom it found 287 chemicals present.

Should we be worried? How can everyday people, or even scientists and activists, figure out which are benign chemicals and which are hazardous chemicals?

Take pesticides, for example. There are more than 1,000 “active” ingredients currently being used in insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other “cides” — all are products designed to kill some type of living thing. There are also about 4,000 additional chemicals in those products that manufacturers claim are “inert” ingredients. Federal law requires that companies reveal the active ingredients on the products’ labels. But the law allows companies to conceal any ingredients they say are “inert,” even though at least 374 inerts are known to be hazardous and another 1,863 were of unknown toxicity in 2006, when 22 advocacy groups and 15 state attorneys general petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require disclosure of hazardous inerts. In fall 2009, the EPA announced it would pursue a change in disclosure rules for hazardous inert ingredients in pesticides.

It’s about time! Hats off to the activists who continue to lead this decades-long effort. The only way the public can use our power in the marketplace to protect ourselves against hazardous chemicals is by demanding to know what’s in the products companies urge us to buy. (Ditto for foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, by the way.)

Here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, when a company sends us a news release about a new pesticide, we first ask whether the product is allowed for use under the national organic law. If the answer is yes, then we know the product has been carefully screened and meets high safety standards. If the product is not allowed for organic farming, we then ask the company to tell us all of the ingredients in the product. If the company won’t, then we opt to not report on the product because, given the current loopholes in the federal law, we have no way of assessing its safety.

We suggest you use similar guidelines when you are shopping, and support only companies that are willing to be transparent about all the contents of their products. If a product’s label doesn’t say everything it contains, we suggest you don’t buy it.

Information in this editorial came from an article by Bob Weinhold published in Environmental Health Perspectives and articles on the Environmental Working Group website.

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