Toxic! Book review by Andrew Pickens

16 November 2008
Toxic! Book review by Andrew Pickens

My parents have friends who date well before my birth. Some are actually making a difference in the next generation’s quality of life. One of them is like an intellectual god-father of sorts. His name is Mark Schapiro and he’s based in San Francisco. He has written a book that will make a BIG difference. It’s entitled: "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power" (Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, 2007, ISBN978-1-933392-15-8.)

Mark is a muckraker and we are proud of the fact that he dares to expose the industries and government policies that are allowing toxic toys to be sold and then innocently placed in babies’ cribs. Less than a decade or two, those toys could have been in our cribs, and as the saying goes—any available
orifice. Danger!

Mark also has a blog at the Center for Investigative Reporting based in Berkeley. He is editorial director and tells us that we should not worry as much when we buy a "Made in China" toy here in Europe versus the US. He writes, "Take toys, for example: the Europeans responded to a growing body of evidence suggesting that a plastic additive called phthalates may contribute to decreased production of testosterone in infant boys by banning the substance from use in products aimed at children under the age of three. Much of the evidence used by the Europeans to make that decision came from American scientists, some of whom have been supported in their research by our own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But there has been no one in the US government willing to listen.

The result: toys are manufactured in China without phthalates for export to the European Union, and with phthalates for export to the United States. European manufacturers have found far less toxic alternatives and European kids have as many plastic animals and other goofy playthings as their American counterparts."

Mark has opened up this important environmental time-bomb—so the question arises: Why is the US lagging so far behind Europe?

According to Mark, illegal substances like lead are integrated into toys and shipped to the United States from China. He notes that, "they slip into the country past the eviscerated Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), whose sole toy inspector spends most of his time making sure toys don’t break in children’s hands, rather than assessing the toxic substances that enter into their body. In fact, the CPSC’s budget has dropped almost in parallel with the rising reliance of U.S. toy manufacturers on production in China."

Maybe the US presidential
elections will change the course of events in November 2007. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is calling for vigilance of US imports from China. The others—like Barack Obama-may follow as the political debate heats up.

Mark points out however, "It’s not just illegal substances like lead that are being integrated into an array of consumer products. A host of substances suspected of causing cancer, mutating genes and disrupting the reproductive system are permitted in the US…"

The good news is that Europe (and Switzerland staying on guard), are banning toxins from use. We, Swiss-based families, may be standing on the shoulders of the giant European Union, which now includes 480 million people spreading across 27 countries-but people and businesses here are more aware than in the US of public health risks/costs triggered by exposure to toxic chemicals. We can always do more in Switzerland.

More good news is that people are opting to act, while the United States, as Mark confides, "remains complacent with the status quo." So for those parents with second thoughts about raising kids in America versus Europe, can be comforted that aging European politicians worry about removing toys with phthalates from babies’ cribs…and ultimately their mouths.

So having a long-time friend is a valuable asset. Having a really smart one who is making a difference in shaping the next generation and keeping it a healthier and safer world for our kids, is the cherry on the cake.

Mark Schapiro is the editorial director of Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), and author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

Andrew Pickens, Grade 11, Chataigneraie, International School of Geneva, age 16