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North Hills Monthly

How Can You Protect Children from Toxins in the Environment?

Jun 30, 2015 09:42PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Our environment is loaded with toxins, both indoors and outdoors. Women for a Healthy Environment, an advocacy and educational nonprofit, is working hard to raise awareness and make changes. Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis is the executive director.

North Hills Monthly Magazine (NHMM): How did you first become interested in environmental topics?
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis: I’ve always had a great appreciation for the outdoors. During my childhood, I loved exploring nature and actually looked forward to tending to the family garden, both of which I still enjoy today. For 13 years, I worked for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, an organization that was involved with various environmental projects and initiatives. My work allowed me to see the connection between exposures in the environment and their impact on our health. My experience led me to want to lead an organization that raises awareness of and takes action on these risks.

NHMM: What is the mission of Women for a Healthy Environment?
Naccarati-Chapkis: To educate and empower community members about environmental risks and exposures in everyday living, as well as provide tools, tips, resources and solutions for change that creates healthy communities. We accomplish this work through federal, state and local advocacy initiatives that promote healthier communities, such as green cleaning and radon testing in schools. We also offer community, school and workplace programming.

NHMM: Why is it called Women for a Healthy Environment?
Naccarati-Chapkis: We know that women have consumer-spending power. They are making decisions on which products to use in the home, and they are also making health care decisions. From that perspective, we know that women can help drive change that leads to healthier communities.

NHMM: What are some environmental toxins to which we are unknowingly exposed?
Naccarati-Chapkis: Outdoors, we are increasingly focusing programming and initiatives on raising awareness about our region’s air quality. The pollution comes from many different sources. A lot can be traced to the high diesel emissions and coke-fired power plants in our region. Our other focus areas are healthy homes and schools. There are thousands of consumer products, such as cleaning products and personal care items, which have ingredients in them that are largely unregulated.

NHMM: Are we facing an increase in the number of toxins compared to previous decades?
Naccarati-Chapkis: The Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976. At that time, there were already thousands of chemicals in production. It grandfathered from testing 67,000 chemicals. We know that there are more than 85,000 chemicals today; only 200 of these have been reviewed, with only five having been regulated. Harmful chemicals are still being used in production today, and that number has risen over the last several decades. The problem is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the burden of proving that a chemical is harmful, rather than the manufacturer. In Europe, rigorous testing is required of the manufacturer. It’s a case of, unfortunately, a broken regulatory system in the U.S. that needs to be repaired.

NHMM: Are some people more vulnerable than others?
Naccarati-Chapkis: Infants and children are the most vulnerable—pound for pound, they drink more water, breathe more air and consume more food. They are on the floor and crawling; their noses are to the ground, where they have greater exposure to chemicals. We have to do everything in our power to protect their developing brains and bodies. We know through scientific studies that we have rising rates of children’s illnesses. For example, asthma rates of children in Pennsylvania have increased dramatically over the last decade.

NHMM: Can you give us an example of a chemical that is of major concern?
Naccarati-Chapkis: There are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can be found in a host of consumer products that we use every day. Some of these chemicals interfere with or mimic the natural hormones in our bodies, which can interfere with our reproductive systems. One that has been the focus of scientific study is phthalates, which give plastic its elasticity. You’ll find it in plastic products, toys, vinyl flooring, personal care products and fragrances. When the term ‘fragrance’ is listed on a product, consumers don’t realize that 3,000 chemicals can make up that ingredient. It’s a federal loophole that companies don’t have to disclose all ingredients on a label, including cleaning products, because of proprietary secrets.

NHMM: Are there any solutions on the horizon? How optimistic are you about the future?
Naccarati-Chapkis: I am optimistic. Looking at what’s going on at the federal level is encouraging. Two bills are in Congress trying to change the way that chemicals are being introduced into commerce. We know that there is very significant progress being made in the field of green chemistry as well.

NHMM: In the meantime, what can parents do to protect their children?
Naccarati-Chapkis: Visit the farmers’ markets or start your own garden. Children should eat lots of fresh (unprocessed) foods. Leave shoes at the door. Switch to green cleaning products, such as vinegar and baking soda. Dust frequently and change air filters regularly. Look for personal care products that are plant-based and contain fewer ingredients—ones that you can pronounce. Use low- or no-VOC paint. Be cautious of plastic toys; instead look for those made of wood and cloth. Keep children indoors and close windows on Air Quality Action Days.