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For Father’s Day, Hidden Dangers at the Hardware Store

By Danielle Ohlemacher with Reproductive Health Technologies Project

Originally published June 16, 2011.

Danielle-rhtp-250 As a child, one of my favorite father-daughter activities was trips to Home Depot on Saturday mornings to pick out supplies for around the house projects. We’d buy wood, paint, varnishes and nails. My dad would teach me and my sisters how to build step stools, stain a desk, or paint walls. Of course our little hands near hammers probably wasn’t a dream come true for our mom, but my dad made sure to put our safety and health first with bulky safety goggles and oversized gloves. But sometimes the risks to health and safety aren’t so obvious or easy to avoid.

Mounting scientific evidence indicates that the products we use in our daily lives are not as safe as we might expect. While we constantly take safety steps to protect our eyes and hands, we do not often think to take extra steps to protect our reproductive health. Many everyday products, including the ones we used in our Saturday building projects, contain toxic chemicals linked to birth defects, miscarriage, cancer, and infertility in men and women.

Plywood is a low-cost, strong building material, but it can also contain formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer and has been linked to reproductive problems as well. Varnishes and wood preservatives can transform an old desk but the chemicals they contain – dioxins and glycol ethers – can also transform your hormonal system, reduce fertility, and lead to birth defects. That’s because these compounds contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs mimic the body’s natural hormones and block or accelerate its normal processes. They can have a profound effect on reproductive health, even in very small doses, because tipping this system out of balance impacts the hormones that control human growth and development.

And while my dad always knew the difference between a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver, it isn’t so easy to differentiate the products with toxic chemicals that could be harmful to health from the ones that are safe. Dad had no idea that the toxins we were breathing in could actually be harmful to our reproductive health; most people assume the products on our shelves are safe.

It isn’t so easy to differentiate the products with toxic chemicals that could be harmful to health from the ones that are safe.

However, current law doesn’t actually require that a chemical be proven safe to human health before it is used. In fact, out of more than 84,000 chemicals on the market today, only 200 have been tested by EPA. Even when all the scientific evidence shows a chemical is dangerous, EPA has little ability to protect us because it lacks the authority to regulate chemicals under current law. A chemical like asbestos, for example, which is known to cause mesothelioma and other cancers, is still being used in buildings today even though EPA has been trying to ban it for twenty years.

The good news for Dads – and everyone else – is that there are some simple ways to avoid some dangerous exposures within the household. For example, after working outside, it is a good idea to leave your shoes at the door so you don’t track in any of the chemicals used in yard work. It is also a good idea to dust and clean your house frequently, especially after doing some inside handy work, as dust often times has lots of residual toxic chemicals that you and your family can unknowingly breathe in.

Still, these steps can only reduce exposure, not eliminate it. Most of us don’t have a team of scientists or the hours of spare time to investigate every purchase, but we all deserve safe products.

Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to help families by overhauling the broken system that regulates chemicals in the United States today. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 will make sure manufacturers prove the safety of their products before putting them into our products and lives, and it will start by testing and regulating the chemicals we already know are harmful. When the evidence shows that a chemical in use today is dangerous, the Safe Chemicals Act gives EPA the power to regulate those chemicals to keep them out of products. Congress has a powerful opportunity to protect our families from dangerous chemicals, but so far the bill hasn’t been moved forward. Unless we demand action from our legislators and safer products from chemical companies, the status quo will remain.

As we take time to thank our dads, let’s also provide them with the tools to protect the health of their families and themselves from toxic chemicals. And let’s ask Congress to get tough on toxics so everyone is safer: you can start by encouraging your Senator co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act for Father’s Day.