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Why It's Impossible to Create a Top 10 List of the Most Neurotoxic Man-Made Chemicals

Toxins are hard to classify, harder to regulate, and even harder to remove from the products we consume.

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Yet Gearhart still finds well-known neurotoxins like lead in the consumer products he tests. He notes that while we still had a significant problem with lead in toys only a decade ago, it took public outrage and federal regulations like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to greatly reduce the number of toys with lead in them. Today, says Gearhart, only 2-3% of products they test have lead in them, a significant reduction.

But the products Gearhart still finds lead in may surprise you. His organization recently found lead in a pair of infant shoes, and found dangerous levels of lead, other toxic metals and toxic flame retardants in Mardis Gras beads.

In these enlightened times, how is it that we're still finding lead in common consumer products? Gearhart says chunks of waste electronics, which contain hazardous compounds, are being recycled, shredded and finding their way back into consumer products. In Mardis Gras beads, this toxic recycled material is used as filler.

When lead and other chemicals pop up in seemingly random ways like this, danger could lurk around any corner—or in any product. So what's the fix for this problem? Gearhart calls for a systemic approach to fix our problems.

“Our public policy on how we regulate chemicals in our material economy is not proactive,” says Gearhart, so we should come to expect lead to show up in seemingly random places. “We don't have a comprehensive way to have public policy around chemistries going into commerce. As a result, why should you be surprised about things popping up where they shouldn't be?”

“We have the right tools in place, we can actually change things. But the key thing is that we have to bring that systems approach to that," says Gearhart.

The current status quo is to react to chemicals in products when they're identified to be hazardous. For example, BPA (bisphenol A), a compound found in plastic bottles was found toxic, many manufacturers switched to a different "safer" plastic, Tritan, now suspected of posing health risks. Gearhart says were "jumping from one hazard into another."

Gearhart is proposing a systemic approach to thoroughly test chemicals before using them in consumer products. He believes that this would give the most protection to consumers.

Even pesticides, compounds created solely for their toxic properties, are not thoroughly tested before commercial use as they should. There are legal loopholes in place that allow for them to be tested after they're put on the market. 

Most other chemicals are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act. But the TSCA, which is four decades old, grandfathers in the chemicals on the market before its implementation, and gives the government very little leeway to stop new chemicals from entering the market or removing them after they're already there.

Gearhart works directly with retailers and manufacturers to put safer products on the market and has found success using this approach.

“It's leap-frogging where we are in terms of policy,” Gearhart says. Companies are evolving from a chemical-by-chemical approach to product safety and are now using a systems-oriented approach. For example, a company is using flammable polyurethane foam in a product that requires them to use a chemical flame retardant, they might consider using a less flammable alternative to polyurethane to avoid the need for flame retardants. 

But Gearhart admits that appealing to retailers and manufacturers has its limits. “We've got to have the policy piece in place to make the whole market change, particularly the international component,” he says.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."

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