GUEST COLUMN: (Not) Shopping our way to safety

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 17:34

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By Robyn Lee and Dayna Nadine Scott

Media coverage of the risks posed by brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates almost always includes advice on how to limit exposure to these chemicals in the home. Those seeking policy change often call for effective labelling of consumer products, including  “green consumer” campaigns such as “wallet cards” with long lists of chemical names for shoppers to avoid. Apparently, consumers are expected to pull these out of their wallets in the grocery aisle, at the drugstore, in the electronics superstore. These campaigns attempt to address a lack of effective government regulation of chemicals; however, they overlook the extent to which women carry out the majority of household cleaning, shopping, food preparation, and caring for the health of family members. Attempts to limit household exposure to BFRs and phthalates require additional work that consistently and disproportionately falls to women.


Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are widely used in consumer products—plastics for electronics, foams and textiles—to prevent household fires. Human breast milk is the leading source of lifetime exposure to BFRs and house dust is the highest source of exposure for adults. BFRs are “persistent” chemicals (they do not break down in the body or the environment), and dietary sources are the next highest source for adults as they contaminate ecosystems and agricultural food systems. The “body burden” of BFRs in North Americans has risen sharply since the early 1990s reaching levels among the highest in the world.
BFRs are among the group of chemicals implicated as endocrine-disrupting compounds. Elevated levels of BFRs in breast milk have been linked with lower birth weights and birth sizes. As with other endocrine disruptors, exposure to BFRs is linked with abnormal development of reproductive systems, affecting individual health but also potentially the health of future generations.
Phthalates are a principal component of a wide variety of consumer products: construction materials, cables and wires, floorings, clothing, furnishings, car interiors and car underbody coatings, products made of flexible polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC), cosmetics and other personal care goods, pesticides, lubricants, adhesives, film, toys and food contact materials. Diet is a major source of phthalate exposure in the general population as a result of food packaging and contamination of the environment. Because of the multitude of phthalate sources and the difficulty in controlling these sources, conventionally and organically produced food products may be similarly contaminated with phthalates. Breast milk is a source of phthalate exposure for infants.
Phthalates have also been identified as endocrine disrupters. In utero exposures can result in abnormal development of the male reproductive system. There have also been studies suggesting a possible link between phthalates and increased rates of asthma, obesity, and decreased IQ. The general population is widely and continuously exposed to phthalates, as a result of worldwide ecosystem contamination and direct contact with products containing phthalates.

Since women assume primary responsibility for the running of the household and the health of family members, campaigns to reduce chemical exposures from consumer goods must account for women’s share of work related to “dodging the toxic bullet.” Looking at BFRs and phthalates demonstrate that campaigns aimed at labelling as a policy solution, even as a stop-gap measure, are not only futile but actually increase gender disparities related to toxic chemicals in the environment. We will clearly not “shop our way out” of this problem.

Emerging evidence on our “body burdens” of BFRs and phthalates demonstrates that a key assumption in the promotion of labelling as a policy solution—that individuals will actually be able to reduce their exposures—is questionable.  But even putting this aside, and assuming that individuals are able to reduce their exposures through their own so-called “precautionary consumption,” the promotion of labelling as a policy response can have negative results. It is likely to actually increase the uneven distribution of harms (according to age, sex, race and socioeconomic status) stemming from long-term chronic exposures to toxic chemicals. Worse, our individual attempts to limit exposures may detract from the collective action needed to help bring about regulatory changes. Practising precautionary consumption leaves women with less time and energy to engage in environmental and political action aimed at changing chemical management policies.

The precautionary principle sanctions (or mandates, depending on which version you subscribe to) action in the face of scientific uncertainty to prevent potential harm to human health or the environment. Ultimately, in chemicals management policy, this means that governments should prevent, or minimize, public exposures to chemicals for which there is some evidence of harm, even where that evidence is uncertain. The precautionary principle challenges the conventional “permissive approach” to chemicals regulation, which was founded on the assumption that toxicology can predict the health impacts associated with everyday exposures.

“Precautionary consumption” is a term coined by Norah MacKendrick to describe the practices of individuals trying to reduce their body burdens by purchasing environmentally friendly products. The premise is that individual consumer action is the primary mode of responding to these risks  as opposed to changing government regulation.

Whenever we read stories in the media about toxins, they almost always include advice on how to limit our exposure to these chemicals. BFRs and phthalates are no exception. Advice on how to reduce exposure to BFRs usually focuses on frequent dusting and vacuuming, eating fewer animal products, frequent hand washing, and avoiding purchasing new products containing flame retardants or even suggesting the replacement of existing products with products that do not contain BFRs.

Common advice on reducing exposure to phthalates includes: limiting the amount of personal care products used on children; choosing personal care products that do not contain phthalates (however, phthalates may not be labelled as such, so you may have to call the company or visit the website to find out); finding out if the container the product is sold in contains phthalates (again, you will have to contact the company in order to know for sure); avoiding plastic baby bottles or water bottles or trying to buy phthalate-free bottles; and avoiding heating plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher. Since phthalates can become airborne and wind up in dust in the home, wet mopping is also suggested.

Most of the advice around minimizing exposure to BFRs and phthalates revolves around food preparation, household cleaning, and smart shopping—all activities disproportionately performed by women, especially mothers. When  this work is not performed by mothers, it is often contracted out to other women, who are usually of lower socioeconomic status and often racialized.

Women also do most of the work of caring for family members’ health. As a result, the responsibility of illness linked to pollution may be blamed on women’s bad housekeeping practices rather than attempting to reduce pollution at the source.

Women increasingly make household purchasing decisions, and engage in more environmentally friendly behaviours, such as recycling than men. Women are also more likely to be the ones reading product labels. As household purchasing decisions become more complex (requiring more and more research and reading of labels), women are spending more time to carry them out.

Green products are generally pricier than mainstream brands, and more time is needed to shop for them because they are often only available at smaller, specialty stores. Even the authors of fact sheets on how to avoid BFRs and phthalates admit that it can be difficult and often hardly realistic to follow all of their advice. In one study, student interns took an average of five minutes per product to wade through ingredient lists and environmental and health claims.

Contacting product manufacturers to inquire about ingredients is time-consuming and often of little to no use. Researchers in Massachusetts found that most manufacturers contacted did not provide complete responses, and of 24 conventional product manufacturers contacted, 70 per cent provided no information at all. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported in 2002 that phthalates in 52 of the 72 personal care products tested, even though none of the 52 phthalate-containing products listed the offending chemical on its ingredient label.

Precautionary consumption is a gendered labour practice, yet it’s clear that not all women are affected to the same extent. Women’s capacity to be a precautious consumer varies according to socio-economic status and level of education. It assumes that mothers are free to choose among desirable mothering practices and protective commodities. However, research shows that the choice is highly dependent on having the financial resources.

Significantly higher levels of BFRs have been measured in people with low socio-economic status compared with those of higher socio-economic status. As well, US research has documented racial differences in BFR body burdens, with lower levels of BFR body burdens among whites compared to blacks and Mexican Americans. The researchers suggest that these differences may be due to differences in housing and furniture quality, and in the quality of diet consumed. With phthalates there are also differences in exposure depending on sex and race. Women in the study tended to have a higher level than men and non-Hispanic blacks had higher levels than non-Hispanic whites or Mexican Americans.

Our own federal government’s new and highly touted Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) proclaimed itself to be “tough on toxics.” It includes a program called “The Challenge” aimed at taking quick, decisive action on 200 of the most worrisome substances in commercial use in Canada. But critics now question the extent to which the CMP actually marked a shift towards a “precautionary” chemicals management policy in Canada.  A recent assessment (see also Environmenal Challenges and Opportunities) concludes that, despite the government’s initial stated intention to use the new scheme to designate high priority substances as “toxic,” only a minority of substances assessed in The Challenge were listed as such, and corresponding risk management measures have been inadequate and slow in coming. The result is that the ultimate goal of the CMP—reductions in exposures to these substances for everyone—is unlikely in the near future. 

When faced by a huge number of toxic and potentially toxic chemicals to be avoided, consumers may only make only a few symbolic changes.  These include switching to other products that are perceived to be “greener” but may still contain the undesired chemicals, or switching one or two products but continuing to use many others containing the chemicals. Because BFRs and phthalates are so pervasive in consumer products, are rarely clearly labelled, and alternative products can be difficult or expensive to obtain, consumers are unlikely to be able to avoid exposures. Individual changes in consumption, although important, cannot replace collective action. Education of consumers and pressure applied by consumers to manufacturers are important for change; however it is essential that government take more responsibility for effectively regulating toxic chemicals. We cannot shop our way to safety if there are no (or at least not enough) safe options.


See also the guest column by Abby Lippman and the Network article on "body burden" by Dolon Chakravartty and Robyn Lee

Robyn Lee has a PhD from York University in Social and Political Thought and is a team member of Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) team grants on Brominated Flame Retardants and Phthalates.

Dayna Nadine Scott is an Associate Professor of Law and Environmental Studies at York University. She is the Director of the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health.

Additional resources:

More work for mother: Chemical body burdens as a maternal responsibility, Norah McKendrick, published in Gender & Society, April 2014.