Rachel's Democracy & Health News #992, January 1, 2009


[Rachel's introduction: This short story by Kate Davies is not intended to alarm anyone. It describes a day in the life of two fictional characters, Polly Klorinate and her partner Al Kyle.]

By Kate Davies


This tale describes a day in the lives of two fictional characters - Polly Klorinate and her partner Al Kyle.[1] It tells the story of their exposure to toxic chemicals in personal care products, food items, cleaning supplies, pesticides, children's toys and art materials, as well as their concerns about other types of exposure. Although Polly and Al are not real people, exposures and concerns like theirs are common. Virtually all North Americans have toxic chemical residues in their bodies.[2] Exposure is ubiquitous and involves many different substances.

Exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment can cause many different health problems, including acute effects such as burns to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, nausea, vomiting and chronic effects such as cancer, neurobehavioral problems and reproductive and developmental disorders. Or there may be no health consequences at all. The type and severity of any effects depends on many different factors, including the type of chemical and its toxicity, the exposure pathway, the duration and timing of exposure, the dose received and any genetic predisposition. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly one-quarter of the global burden of disease is caused by environmental risk factors,[3] including toxic chemicals.

This story is not intended to alarm anyone. Rather, I hope it will make readers more aware of their exposure to toxic chemicals.

The Story

Polly woke from sleep feeling restless. She was always tired and anxious these days. Her life was so busy and hectic, she never seemed to have enough time to slow down. With a sigh, she realized it was Saturday and she could relax. She didn't have to go to work today. Standing on her feet six days a week, selling glitzy fashion jewelry at the mall was the only work she could get after her factory job had been outsourced to China. Still, she'd read an article about high levels of lead in cheap jewelry,[4] and she worried about how that might affect the children and teenagers who are most of the store's customers. She didn't want to sell anything that wasn't safe.

Polly got up quietly, leaving Al snoring gently in bed. She went into the bathroom and peered into the shower. Last week, she'd bought a new automatic shower cleaner which promised to "eliminate the build up of tough soap scum and mold and mildew stains" but the fumes made Al's asthma worse and she wanted to know what was in it. I'll just look at the label, she thought, I'm sure it will tell me the contents. But the label didn't tell her what was in the cleaner at all. In fact, it only increased her concern. In very small print, the label said: "WARNING: Eye irritant. Avoid breathing spray mist. Do not get in eyes, on skin or clothes. Keep out of reach of children." Now she was really worried. Why would the manufacturer not want to give consumers as much information as possible about what was in it? Besides, the government should make them disclose the contents. She was puzzled.

With a sigh, she turned on the shower, stepped into the warm water and lathered herself all over with antibacterial soap.[5] She hoped it would kill germs and bacteria and help her stay healthy. A quick shampoo[6] followed.

After drying off, she brushed her teeth with toothpaste,[7] swished with mouthwash[8] and put on her antiperspirant.[9] She got dressed and turned her attention to her hair and makeup. Looking in the mirror, Polly noticed that she was beginning to go a little grey. Then she asked the question most women ask themselves at some time in their lives: Should I color my hair? But she remembered a friend had told her hair dye[10] contained chemicals, so she decided not to -- at least for now. After brushing her hair and using a little hair spray,[11] she put on some makeup. She didn't need much today -- just a little lipstick and mascara.[12] She hoped they didn't contain anything toxic.

Ready to face the day, Polly went downstairs for breakfast. First, she made coffee, adding a little artificial sweetener.[13] Polly was watching her weight, so she didn't want to use real sugar. After making some toast, she spread it with margarine -- the one that says it tastes "just like butter." She was so glad it didn't contain any of those awful trans fats[14] anymore. That meant it had fewer calories, right?

Hearing footsteps, she turned and saw Al coming downstairs. With a grunt, he joined her in the kitchen to make his favorite Saturday morning breakfast of frozen waffles, corn syrup and fake bacon strips.[15] Real bacon contained a lot of fat. Like Polly, Al was watching his weight. But never mind about the corn syrup -- everyone needs a little treat!

After breakfast, it was Al's turn to do the grocery shopping, so he hopped in the car and drove to the nearby supermarket. After buying enough frozen dinners to last the week, he stocked up on soda and chips. He and Polly often enjoyed a snack before going to bed. Realizing fruit might be healthier, Al headed over to the fresh produce aisle. Everything looked so perfect -- big red apples, luscious-looking grapes and pink fuzzy peaches. Then he remembered a recent news story about how fruits and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides.[16] He was worried pesticide residues might make Polly or him sick. He glanced at the organic produce section. Organic produce probably contained lower levels of pesticides,[17] but it was all so expensive. Reluctantly, he chose non-organic apples, bananas and pears.

Meanwhile at home, Polly decided to clean the house. First, she vacuumed the carpets and washed the linoleum floors. Then she dusted the furniture using a lemon-scented spray. Curious if the manufacturer said what was in it, she glanced at the label on the spray can. No, there was no information about the ingredients, but one sentence read: "DOES NOT CONTAIN CFCS." Well, that's a relief, thought Polly, at least it doesn't destroy the ozone layer.[18]

Turning her attention to the kitchen, Polly wiped down the countertop with an all-purpose cleaner. She liked the ones with bleach[19] because they promised to kill germs. Then she opened the oven door and peered inside. It was filthy. She decided to clean it. The oven cleaner[20] was so convenient to use. All you had to do was spray it on, heat up the oven for awhile, then wipe off the foam -- so much easier than hours of scrubbing. Polly followed the instructions on the aerosol can but as soon as began to use the spray, she started to cough and sputter. The fumes were so strong, she could hardly breathe. The kitchen fan didn't seem to help much, either. Then her skin began to itch and her eyes started to water. Forced to leave the kitchen, Polly retreated to clean the bathroom, remembering to turn the oven on just before she closed the kitchen door behind her.

After wiping the bathroom sink and countertop with the same all- purpose bleach cleaner she used in the kitchen, Polly remembered the drain was running very slowly. It must be clogged with hair, she thought. They kept the drain cleaner[21] under the sink, so Polly reached down and poured a generous amount into the sink. But as she poured the thick liquid down the drain, she splashed some on her skin. It stung, so she quickly rinsed her hand under running water, probably washing all the cleaner down the drain before it could do its job. Then she looked at the toilet. It was almost spotless. She hardly ever cleaned it now because she used one of those toilet cleaner tablets[22] with bleach that you just left in the tank.

Finally, Polly cleaned the bathroom faucets and the mirror with a glass cleaner[23] that contained extra ammonia. To wipe the blue liquid off the chrome and glass, she picked up the nearest cloth, not realizing it was the same one she'd used to clean the sink and countertops. Within a few seconds, Polly was coughing again. Little did she know the ammonia in the glass cleaner had reacted with the bleach in the all-purpose one to form chloramine and chlorine gas.[24]

After two hours of hard work, Polly was done -- in more ways than one. Yes, the cleaning was finished, but so was she. Polly's body ached from coughing, her skin itched, her eyes stung and were all red and teary. Using chemical products to clean the house just isn't worth it, she thought. Perhaps she'd buy some nontoxic cleaners or even make her own.

After loading the plastic shopping bags into the car, Al called Polly on his cell phone. They arranged to meet for lunch at the local McDonald's -- it would save time and the effort of making lunch at home. But as he put the cell phone back in his pocket, Al wondered if it was really safe to use. He used his cell phone a lot and he'd heard that cell phones may cause brain cancer. And then there was the recent news story about the head of a cancer research institute warning the staff not to use their cell phones too much.[25] What should he do? Al felt confused and uncertain.

After meeting Polly and sharing a lunch of Big Macs, French Fries and Coke, they drove home. As they approached the house, Polly and Al noticed the garden needed some attention. With the shopping unpacked and put away, Al decided it was time to get outside to do some yardwork.

It was a hot day, so he decided to take a drink of water with him. Al went to the kitchen cupboard and pulled out a large plastic water bottle. He'd heard some environmentalist say polycarbonate plastic contained something called bisphenol A[26] that could leach out and cause cancer and reproductive problems but it was probably safe - right? He filled the bottle and headed outside.

Al tackled the lawn first. As he cut the lawn with his gas-powered mower, he noticed a new crop of weeds had sprouted in the green, well watered grass. Wherever did they come from so fast? It was only a few weeks since he'd sprayed the entire lawn with weed killer and the weeds were back already.

Not wanting to be defeated by Mother Nature, Al got out the jug of weed killer with an automatic sprayer attached and doused the whole lawn -- twice for good measure. That should do it! Just as he was putting the weed killer back in the garage, their neighbor, Dave, came outside and Al stopped to chat. Dave told him about his family's pet terrier, who had recently died of bladder cancer. Dave's two children were heartbroken. The vet had said something about a link between pesticides and cancer in dogs.[27] Al was horrified. His weed killer couldn't possibly have caused Max's cancer, could it?

While Al was outside, Polly put in a load of laundry. She was careful to use a phosphorus-free detergent because she'd heard that too much phosphorus wasn't good for the environment. After the washing machine stopped, she put the wet clothes in the dryer and added plenty of fabric softener.[28] She liked the smell and the product names were so enticing -- Downy, Comfort and Snuggle, for instance. Polly wondered what was in the fabric softener that made the clothes smell so good, but the label on the bottle didn't tell her anything. Once again, she was frustrated by the lack of information about a product's contents.

Once the clothes were in the dryer, Polly decided to go to the mall to buy some toys for her friend Betty's two year old. As a single mom, Betty couldn't afford to buy many playthings for the little girl, so Polly thought it would be fun to surprise her with a few small gifts. At the mall, Polly went straight to the toy store. Perhaps she'd get a doll or some bath toys. But before she bought anything, Polly wanted to know if the toys contained phthalates.[29] She didn't really know what phthalates were, but she knew they weren't good for children. A local TV channel had done a consumer feature about toxic chemicals in children's toys and reported phthalates could leach out of children's plastic toys and cause health problems. So Polly asked the assistant behind the counter. She told Polly there was nothing to worry about because Congress had just passed a law making children's toys safer.[30] Polly felt relieved, then began to wonder if the toys already on the store shelves were safe. Deciding not to take a chance, she went over to look at the children's art supplies. There were brightly colored paints and markers, glues[31] with sparkles and lots of different sorts of paper. She started to question all the chemicals the art supplies might contain. Better safe than sorry, Polly thought, and left the store empty-handed. Perhaps she'd buy a nice handmade wooden toy instead.

On her way out of the mall, Polly stopped to get a quick manicure. A small personal indulgence, she liked having perfectly shaped, polished nails. At the nail salon, Polly's favorite manicurist, Tien, put her fingers to soak in warm soapy water. As she did this, Polly noticed Tien had a red, unpleasant looking rash on her arms and face. She said it was from all the toxic chemicals in the nail products.[32] Polly was horrified. Didn't the salon owner know what the chemicals were doing to Tien's health? The shy, rather petite Vietnamese woman looked embarrassed and asked Polly not to say anything. Tien didn't want to be a focus of attention because she was worried that she might lose her job.

After she got home from the mall, Polly cooked dinner. She made a large tuna casserole and slid the dish into the clean oven. It still smelled of that awful oven cleaner a bit. Then, just as she closed the oven door, Polly remembered tuna could contain high levels of mercury.[33] I'll go to the government's website, she thought, they'll tell me if it's safe to eat tuna. The Food and Drug Administration's website[34] said she could eat "up to six ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna a week" and more of canned light tuna, so she went ahead and cooked the casserole. After all, it was one of Al's favorite dishes. To go with the casserole, Polly decided to fry some tomatoes and mushrooms. They'd complement the tuna nicely, she thought. So she got out the new Teflon-coated fry pan[35] and cooked them, trying not to breathe in the chemical fumes that wafted toward her nostrils from the hot pan.

Relaxing after dinner, Polly and Al watched TV together. The movie Erin Brockovich was on. They both liked the actress Julia Roberts and settled in to watch the real-life story about a single mom who almost single-handedly brought down a California power company accused of polluting a city's water supply with chromium.

After the movie, they went to bed. Polly took her contraceptive pill,[36] and used the toilet at the same time. As she swallowed the pill, she wondered what happened to all the chemical hormones in it? Did her body break them down or did they end up in her urine? If they stayed in her urine and got into the sewage system, did they pollute the river downstream from the treatment plant? She flushed the toilet and tried not to think about it.

In bed at last, Polly turned to Al and sighed.

"That movie was scary. What if our water contained chromium and made us sick? What would we do?"

"We're exposed to chemicals in lots of other ways, too," said Al. "Maybe we should go on the Internet and find out what we can do to reduce our risks."

"Good idea," said Polly. "I'm really worried. Let's try not to buy or use products with toxics in them anymore."

"It's worth it, even if it costs a bit more," said Al, turning off the bedside light. "I don't want us to get sick from a bunch of chemicals."

"But even if we don't buy things that contain toxics, they're still all around us," said Polly, "and most people don't know about the risks. The government should do a better job protecting us."

"Maybe we should do our bit to lobby the government to do more," said Al. "We can write to the newspaper, at least, and to our Congressman. We could join an environmental group."

As she fell asleep, Polly grunted her approval.


Some twenty years later, Polly vomited into a bucket beside the bed. After she was done, she lowered her bald head back on to the pillow and relaxed. Polly was just finishing her third round of chemo. She'd been diagnosed with breast cancer[37] several years earlier and had already had a mastectomy and two rounds of chemo. But after three years' remission, the cancer was back with a vengeance. She couldn't understand it. Why had she gotten breast cancer in the first place? No-one in her family had had the disease before. It all seemed so unfair. So many of her friends had cancer too.[38]

Meanwhile, Al lay beside her, gasping for air. He reached for his asthma inhalers -- again. In the past few years, he'd had to go to the Emergency Room on several occasions because he couldn't breathe. Now, his asthma[39] seemed to be getting worse.

As they lay on the bed together, Polly reached for Al's hand. Even though they had done what they could to safeguard their health, they still got sick. But on the bright side, in the years since they had decided to stop using toxic chemicals and become politically active, a lot had changed. Consumer boycotts had reduced the demand for products containing toxics to almost zero, and people who still wanted to buy them could easily find out the contents. Moreover, the government has passed stringent new legislation requiring manufacturers to show that chemicals were safe before they could be sold to the public or put into products. Polly sighed. It was probably too late for her and Al, but at least they still had each other.



[1] These names are derived from two real life groups of chemicals - polychlorinated substances, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and alkylated substances, like alkyl lead.

[2] The U.S. Centers for Disease Control monitors levels of environmental chemicals in human tissues.

[3] In 2006, the World Health Organization published a report on "Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: Towards an Estimate of the Environmental Burden of Disease"

[4] There are no federally enforceable limits on the amount of lead in jewelry intended for children or teenagers. In 2007, California enacted the Lead-Containing Jewelry Law to limit the amount of lead in jewelry, including children's jewelry and body piercing jewelry.

[5] A scientific study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2007 found that washing with antimicrobial soap is no more effective at reducing levels of bacteria or preventing illness than washing with ordinary soap. Moreover, the soaps, most of which contain the antimicrobial triclosan, produced antibiotic cross-resistance among different species of bacteria. Triclosan is a chlorinated aromatic substance, with a chemical structure similar to dioxins and PCBs.

[6] Many shampoos contain methylisothiazoline (MIT), a toxic chemical that causes nervous system damage in laboratory animals.

[7] Some toothpastes contain fluoride and triclosan. High doses of fluoride can cause dental fluorosis or tooth mottling. Fluoride has also been associated with an increase in hip fractures and there is equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity.

[8] Mouthwash can contain alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, fluoride, cetylpyridinium chloride, sodium saccharin, and parabens. These chemicals can cause a variety of adverse effects. For instance, parabens can disrupt the endocrine hormone system.

[9] Antiperspirants and other cosmetic products contain parabens.

[10] Hair dyes contain toxic chemicals such as p-phenlyendamine, phenlymethylpyrazolene, m-aminophenol, N,N-bis, 4-Amino-2- hydroxytoluene, and toluene-2.5-diamine. All of these chemicals are skin sensitizers and irritants. Some have been associated with cancer.

[11] Hairspray contains chemical polymers such as polyvinylpyrrolidine, polydimethylsiloxane and vinyl acetate.

[12] Lipsticks can contain lead and mascara can contain mercury.

[13] There are five high intensity artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes approved for use in the U.S: Saccaharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame and acesulfame potassium. There is evidence that they may cause health effects, such as headache, depression, cancer, dizziness, vomiting and nausea.

[14] Trans fats increase levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad cholesterol," which increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

[15] Heavily processed foods like these contain many chemical additives, including preservatives, colorants, "flavor enhancers," stabilizers and artificial sweeteners. More than 6,000 synthetic chemicals have been approved for use in the processed food industry.

[16] Many fruits and vegetables contain residues of pesticides. Fruits tend to be more contaminated than vegetables.

[17] Organically grown food contains about one-third as many pesticide residues as conventionally grown foods.

[18] Some of the replacements for CFCs, such as HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) are ozone depleters, although to a much less extent than CFCs.

[19] Bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, is corrosive, causes skin and eye burns and is a skin irritant. It is also harmful by ingestion and inhalation. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), there are almost 3,500 accidents a year in the UK involving bleach where the victims need hospital treatment. The number of accidents involving bleach in the U.S. is unknown.

[20] Oven cleaners contain ethers, ethylene glycol, sodium and potassium hydroxide (lye), methylene chloride, petroleum distillates and pine oil. The most toxic of these is probably lye. Lye can irritate skin and cause skin burns and eye damage, including blindness. When inhaled, it can irritate and burn the respiratory tract.

[21] Drain cleaners contain chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite (bleach), sodium and potassium hydroxide (lye) in concentrations up to 40%.

[22] Toilet bowl cleaners contain sodium hypochlorite (bleach).

[23] The basic chemical components of window cleaner are ammonia and isopropanol.

[24] These gases cause respiratory tract irritation and burns, tearing and nausea.

[25] There is some evidence of an association between cell phone use and brain cancer, although more research is needed. In July 2008, the head of a cancer research institute in Pittsburgh warned the faculty and staff to limit their use of cell phones because of the possible risk of cancer.

[26] Studies have shown that bisphenol A may cause developmental toxicity, cancer and neurotoxic effects. In April 2008, Canada became the first country to conclude that bisphenol A is a toxic substance.

[27] Exposure to lawns and gardens treated with weed killer increases the risk of lymphoma in dogs. A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association in 2004 found that weed killer can increase the risk of bladder cancer in Scottish Terriers by four to seven times.

[28] Fabric softeners contain chemicals including benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, ethanol, limonene, A-terpineol, ethyl acetate, camphor, chloroform, linalool and pentane.

[29] Phthalates disrupt the endocrine hormone system and can cause developmental effects. There is some evidence they are carcinogenic.

[30] In August 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which limits levels of some phthalates in children's toys. It also limits levels of lead and cadmium.

[31] Children's paints can contain methyl alcohol, toluene and turpentine; markers can contain xylene, toluene, ketone and alcohol; and glues can contain hexane, heptane, toluene and trichloroethane.

[32] Nail products contain a variety of toxic chemicals including toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate and methylacrylates. Health hazards associated with these substances include skin rashes and irritation, headaches, respiratory problems, asthma, central nervous system disorders and kidney and liver damage.

[33] Mercury is a common contaminant in tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and some shellfish. Mercury can cause neurological and developmental effects.

[34] In March 2004, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory on mercury in fish and shellfish, including tuna. See: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/admehg3.html

[35] One of the constituents of Teflon is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA can cause cancer, liver damage and birth defects and it is present in the blood of most Americans as well as in wildlife. PFOA is one of the most persistent synthetic chemicals known.

[36] Hormones from birth control pills are often found in rivers and streams, having been excreted in urine that enters municipal sewer systems. These contaminants disrupt the ratio of male to female fish, resulting in lower fertility rates.

[37] Breast cancer now strikes more women in the world than any other type of cancer except skin cancer. Today, a woman's lifetime risk of the disease is one in eight in the U.S. Genetic factors account for 10 percent, at most, of all breast cancer. Other risk factors have been identified, including toxic chemicals. Over 200 chemicals have been identified as mammary carcinogens.

[38] According to the World Health Organization, about 19 percent of all cancers globally are due to environmental exposures, resulting in 1.3 million deaths a year.

[39] About 44 percent of all asthma is due to poor air quality, according to the World Health Organization.