Last night I read an article by Sandra Steingraber – an ecologist, mother of two, and author of Raising Elijah (a book I plan to purchase, and the one from which the article was born).  The article, titled “Mind Games: How Toxic Chemicals Are Impairing Our Children’s Ability to Learn” appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion Magazine.  Even though it is a rather lengthy article, it spoke volumes to me, and for the first time I felt connected to another mother on an almost spiritual level with regard to the chemicals bombarding our children.  Seriously.  It made me proud to know someone else out there was fighting the same battle with me and feeling the same feelings.  It made me want to storm Capitol Hill and demand change, like NOW.  It made me cry. 

And because I know too many of you will not read the article yourselves (although I ABSOLUTELY encourage it) I am going to hit some key points for you here, and generously sprinkle them with my own thoughts, as you know is my tendency. 

Sandra and her husband learned nearly a decade ago that the arsenic used in treating lumber for decks and play sets caused elevated risks of cancer in children who were around the treated wood.  Being cautious parents, and Sandra being a survivor of bladder cancer herself, the Steingrabers removed their child from the care facility where a pressure-treated wood play set was in use.    By the end of the second paragraph, I could tell they think like I do.  (I like them already!)  It would take another seven years for the EPA to ban arsenic in pressure treating wood used in residential settings, but they did not see fit to recall the play sets and decks that were already in use. 

See, this is what gets me fired up, and what I least understand about our priorities as a nation.  We think it’s okay to use chemicals in every aspect of our lives (as in the case of remarkably sturdy and virtually rot-resistant pressure treated wood).  But it’s not too long before we start to see glimpses of problems – small health problems with increasingly noticeable trends.  Well, hell’s bells…  We’re using a known poison in our product and seeing people handling the product, using the product in their homes and backyards, and on school playgrounds…and we start to wonder if the health problems might just be related.  So some independent people run tests and show a connection.  But pocket politicians or Corporate America – or whoever is steering this buggy – says, “Well, now wait a minute, fellas.  There is nothing conclusive about them-there tests.  We can’t stop using this revolutionary product just because a few people got sick.”  (By the way, in my mind Corporate America is personified as a tall, cigar-smoking, Southern CEO who speaks in a Jock Ewing vernacular and uses phrases like “Girl Friday” and “womenfolk” with an air of disdain. But that’s just me…)

Arsenic is a carcinogen and neurotoxicant that impairs “the growth of the brain in ways that interfere with learning.”  The article also cites that,

Current laws do not require the systematic screening of chemicals for their ability to cause brain damage or alter the pathways of brain growth, and only about 20 percent of the three thousand chemicals produced in high volume in the United States have been tested for developmental toxicity of any kind.”

Only 20% of 3,000?  That’s 600 chemicals that have been tested to see if they have the ability to impair the development (and subsequent learning ability) of our children.  That means 2,400 high-volume chemicals have not even been tested.  But we are using them.  We are touching them.  We are even eating them.  These untested chemicals are controlling cellular function in our bodies and we just sit around and wonder why we have more illnesses than our grandparents had.  We shake our heads at the increasing number of cancer diagnoses.  We marvel at the statistics of children with autism and ADHD.  But we barely test our chemicals.  Instead, we use any and everything until enough bad stuff happens that we finally test, and while we’re waiting on all the tests and trials and reports to be run, we still inundate our society with the chemical in question. Then one day, there is undeniable proof that the chemical actually causes some of the issues we are dealing with.  Oh, no.  What now???? Oh, well….we’ll just ban it from future use, or worse, keep it in production but limit what it can be used for.  Forget what has already been created with it.  Our bad, right?  Let’s just move forward and hope no one notices. 

Good grief, we operate like a hit-and-run accident.  Sandra’s article further points out,

Forty years before it was removed from paint, pediatricians had enough evidence of lead’s ability to maim children’s brains — catastrophically and irreversibly— to warrant discussion in a medical textbook.”

So what’s the cost?  I mean, you know…besides the miscarriages and the cancers and the learning struggles and the tears???  Keep reading.

As Sandra continues the article, she states that,

Child neurodevelopmental disorders…leave economic tracks behind. At $77.3 billion per school year, special educational services, according to the most recent accounting, consume 22 percent of U.S. school spending…ADHD now affects nearly one in every ten children between the ages of four and seventeen. An estimated 5.4 million children are believed to suffer from ADHD…Of these, 2.7 million—nearly 5 percent of all U.S. children—are on medication to control it.” (All italics mine). 

Not only does my radar go haywire when I hear statistics on ADHD, but I have long been interested in the autism spectrum disorders because of my nephew, Zachary.  Just as Zach struggles to relate to us, we struggle to understand how he views the world.  My problems are miniscule compared to the long road my brother- and sister-in-law have travelled.  We know stats on ADHD and autism as well as other learning disorders have increased in recent years.  Today, one in every 110 eight-year olds (Vic’s class) is diagnosed with autism.  If you narrow the selection to just boys, you’re looking at one in every 70.

And yet we allow chemicals in our businesses, homes, schools and foods without even understanding their impact on our health.  This article has made me realize this is about more than just the choices we make as individuals. This is bigger than my desire for organic tomatoes and spinach.  This inflates my desire to encompass our earth in change for the better.  And I feel as long as there is money to be made from the dangers we do not know, we will forever struggle.  We will continue to have learning disabilities and illness.  And we will not see why. 

Sandra goes on to address pesticides and their undeniable impact on our children.  And she makes an excellent point:  that when you use a substance that is intended to fry the neurological system of a typical farm or garden pest, you have to be prepared for the neurological systems of the people who eat foods sprayed with the substance to be fried as well, even if on a smaller scale.  But really, is it enough to just know the dangers are out there?  I completely identified with her as I read,

This sort of public health approach — surround kids with brain poisons and enlist mothers and fathers to serve as security detail—is surely as failure-prone with pesticides as it was with lead paint… Following all the popular advice, I do feed my children organic food…(but) I cannot verify the agricultural origin of every food item served at every birthday party, summer camp, sleepover… I can’t ensure that every backyard soccer field, every patch of lawn…are free of organophosphates… I am a conscientious parent. I am not a HEPA filter.”

If my gratitude for Sandra Steingraber’s article is not profoundly evident, let me now offer my sincerest thanks for her work and information, and the heart that she so generously poured into getting the message across to us.