We warn children to be wary of venomous creatures like snakes, but do we see our modern homes as places where they might encounter deadly poisons? We should. As our standard of living grows, so does the number of toxic substances to which families are exposed.
As humanity’s understanding of the toxicity of widely used chemicals improved, many hazardous substances were removed from workplaces. A number of pesticides found to be harmful were also banned. We discovered that even though insecticides and chemical fertilisers increase yields, excessive use can lead to water pollution and harm to consumers of agricultural products.
In general, we trust legislation to protect us from excessive use of harmful agricultural chemicals and other toxins in our environment. However, to assume that current regulations are failsafe would be naïve – and it is not always insufficient legislation which allows toxic or even banned chemicals to pollute our environment, homes and bodies.
Initially, paints used privately and commercially in Europe and the US contained toxic metals like lead, mercury and arsenic to ensure colours would not fade over time. Some famous artists suffered the consequences: poisoning which caused physical and mental illness or even death. Today, such paints are banned in some countries but still widespread in others where manufacturers and importers rely on the public being unaware of health risks. Naturally, producers of potentially harmful products are unlikely to spoil their profits by conducting research or education campaigns which could ruin their business.
But even studies conducted by reliable government and non-profit organisations rarely measure how chemicals in homes, workplaces and our environment interact with one another to damage our health long-term. Trustworthy organisations may determine safe levels of exposure to common chemicals, but individual citizens may still be at risk of serious harm if exposed to higher levels due to personal lifestyle circumstances or if regular contact with other toxins increases their health risks when toxic substances combine.
Even some glazes and paints on coffee mugs, ceramic cookware and items used to serve food contain lead which can leach into the food and become a health hazard, especially for small children and pregnant women. Because lead accumulates in the body, frequent exposure to small amounts can lead to lead poisoning later.
Our own initiative may be the most important strategy to protect ourselves. We should seek information about harmful substances and avoid them via everyday shopping and lifestyle choices. Becoming informed, critical consumers can reduce our families’ exposure to poisons – at least in our own households.
Many toxic chemicals in cleaning products, air fresheners, cosmetics and personal care products like fragrant shampoos and conditioners have been linked to allergies, infertility, asthma, cancer and other serious illnesses. Do we really need such products - or could we revert to old-fashioned, harmless alternatives?
Ladies, our pursuit of unattainable standards of beauty may increase our risk further, especially if we buy cosmetics laden with harmful substances. Surprisingly resilient is the bizarre and dangerous practice of skin-whitening, which has been causing lead poisoning over centuries and is believed to have killed Queen Elizabeth I. Many hold onto the misconception that “whiter” is generally considered more attractive. It clearly is not, or Europeans would not roast themselves in the sun or even spray fake tans onto their skin to appear darker.
We should view all chemicals which dramatically change our appearance with suspicion and prioritise our health. Modern skin lightening-creams still contain toxins like mercury, titanium dioxide, and steroids which cause serious health problems after prolonged use – especially to unborn children. Fake tan ingredients are thought to cause DNA damage. While laws and policing have not stopped the supply of toxic, sub-standard products, a lack of demand due to smarter consumer choices certainly could.