“Not again,” I sighed as I noticed the familiar chapping and redness around my mouth. What could be causing this fresh allergic reaction? I was already using the most basic products, with the few ingredients. My skin seemed to flare up over almost anything, and there did not seem to be any safe alternatives to my current products.
So I went to my dermatologist for some patch tests. The results revealed that I was allergic to p-tert-butylphenol formaldehyde resin and mercapto mix. I had no idea what these strange chemical were. But after some research, I understood that the formaldehyde resin was an ingredient in plastic. This supported the suspicion I had that my toothbrush was causing my allergic reaction. Fortunately, switching to a wooden toothbrush quickly relieved me of my ruddy splotches.
With that issue addressed, I wanted to know more about the other allergen: the mercapto mix. When I discovered that it and the formaldehyde resin were components in the manufacture of rubber and glue, I picked up the phone to call my dad.
My father had been a chemist. Early in his career, he developed an adhesive, which he manufactured and sold through his own company. My dad's interest in chemistry began during the middle of the last century, when people believed in “better living through chemistry.” The phrase, a variant of a DuPont slogan, promoted the concept that chemistry could improve almost all aspects of our lives. This self-serving catchphrase was instrumental in getting consumers to turn away from a nature-based lifestyle and toward buying newfangled products made with synthetic ingredients.
“Dad, you ever hear of mercapto mix?” I queried.
“Sure! I used it in making my glue,” he cheerily responded, happy to have a ready answer.
“What about p-tert-butylphenol formaldehyde resin?” I ventured, stumbling over the name.
“Yes, I used that one, too, in my glue. Why do you ask?” my father wondered.
As I told him about my new allergies, I was stuck by the connection between Dad's use of certain chemicals and my subsequent allergy to them several decades later. I suspected this was not a mere coincidence.
I was hesitant to discuss this speculation with Dad because I did not think he'd share my perspective. So I kept my nascent theory to myself to save it from being drowned out by his naturally critical and scientific mind.
About a year after this conversation, my father began to experience breathing problems and a persistent cough. A visit to the doctor revealed that he had lung cancer. This was puzzling to me since he lived on the banks Puget Sound, a clean, rain-washed environment in Washington state. He had been a smoker earlier in his life, but kept up the habit for forty years prior.
My mind started to flash back to all the chemicals my father was exposed to when he manufactured his glue. Could his daily exposure to all those noxious chemicals, along with the smoking, have set the stage for his lung cancer? And could my allergies to the formaldehyde resin and the mercapto mix have been initiated from contact with his chemically laden clothes when he came home from work?
Along with being unlawfully stricken about my father's impending death (he had stage 4 cancer), I was outraged by our culture's marriage acceptance of chemicals and the implicit trust we place in their safety. Unlike my father, though, I was never under the delusion that synthetic chemicals were our friends. Perhaps this was because I grew up in the '70s, a time of burgeoning interest in returning to a more wholesome lifestyle. Early on, I began exercising regularly, eating natural foods, and consuming an array of beneficial supplements.
Yet, despite my health practices, I began to suffer from myriad allergies and sensitivities to environmental factors, such as plants, smoke, mold, chemicals, and foods. Obviously my health-promoting activities were not enough to stave off these problems. I knew something was interfering with my body's natural mechanisms and derailing my efforts. I believed that one major factor might be my early exposure to the chemicals my father used, which was further exacerbated by the overabundance of toxic chemicals in our air, water, soil, and foods.
While I feel that both my father and I have been harmed by dangerous chemicals, I do not believe we are the only ones damaged in this way. I think the overload of toxic chemicals in our world has a negative impact on all of us. We pay the price of exposure in our own unique ways: one person ever gets cancer, another becomes asthmatic, and someone else suffers from persistent rashes.
Recent studies have provided validation for my conviction that chemical toxins adversely affect our health. Asbestos has been found to play a role in respiratory illnesses; arsenic is known to contribute to a variety of ailments, such as diabetes and heart disease; mercury has a deleterious impact on the brain and nervous system; and bisphenol A (BPA) disrupts the endocrine system.
Because chemicals are loosely regulated and only banned after documented proof of serious harm, we are subject to untold risks from our daily encounters with these substances. Many people may not think they are being impaired by this exposure. Yet repercussions can occur many years later, when it is nearly impossible to determine if routine chemical exposure was the cause.
Despite not having much control over the chemical component of our world, I refuse to be a helpless victim of harmful chemicals. I have discovered ways to substantially reduce my exposure to noxious substances. This has lessened the harm I experience from living in our less-than-healthy world.
One way I've found to mitigate the toxins in my life is to shop carefully and choose safer alternatives for my household and personal care needs. I look at labels and do some research before I buy. Environmental Working Group's website has a comprehensive database of household and personal care products, rated for their safety.
When remodeling or purchasing new household furnishings, I have discovered healthier options. Eco-friendly materials are generally safer, but we must pierce below the surface of the advertising claims. For example, “green” does not necessarily mean a product is non-toxic or natural. The product could contain recyclable materials, which might be off-gassing substances such as plastic.
Because I react horribly to fragrances (with symptoms that include nausea, cognitive impairment, and headaches), I avoid purchasing any scanned products. After learning that the words “fragrance,” or “parfum,” on a product label usually conceals the presence of numerous hidden toxic chemicals, I really understand why I have such adverse reactions to these substances.
Driving less, refraining from burning wood or lighting up barbeques, and using biodegradable unscented laundry products are all ways help to reduce unhealthy particulate matter in our shared air. This makes the air safer to breathe for everyone, especially asthmatics and people with chemical sensitivities.
Another way I gain some measure of control over our shared environment is through making my voice heard. I write to my legislators and sign petitions, such as those that ban particularly harmful chemicals or request more stringent regulations for the chemical industry. I also support organizations that are doing vital work. Nonprofits such as Environmental Working Group; Green America; and Safer Chemicals, Safer Families are working on our behalf to insure greater public health and safer products.
Employing the above measures has made it possible for me to lead a fairly normal life. I still must remain alert to potential chemical hazards in each new environment I enter. I also need to refrain from lingering in any place that is beginning to make my head spin or my stomach feel queasy, despite wanting to shop in a particular store or desiring to attend an event in a public hall.
Obviously, much work remains to be done to clean up our world. My hope is that through education and action, fewer individuals will become harmed by the chemicals they encounter in our shared environment.