How to avoid toxins in fabrics – and other products

6 12 2013

In response to a post a few weeks back, Susan Lanham wrote to us:  “I initially signed on to get this blog because I thought you would give practical ways to avoid these carcinogens. However, they are so pervasive, and there doesn’t seem to be any practical way to avoid them, so that reading your blog just makes me feel helpless and hopeless. More and more I just delete without reading: it’s like diagnosing a disease early when there is nothing to be done for it.”

Yikes.  We certainly didn’t want to turn people off in despair!  There is much you can do armed with a bit of knowledge.

We have always thought that information is the great motivator – that if people knew what they were buying, then they would demand changes in those products.  Remember that each time you purchase something,  you’re ensuring that the product you bought will keep being produced, in the same  way.  If you support new ideas, find that creative way to use something or insist that what you buy meets certain parameters, then new research will be done to meet consumer demand and new processes will be developed that don’t leave a legacy of destruction.

At least in theory, right?

The reality is that change takes a long time, and we’re living in a toxic soup now – so what can we do to protect ourselves right now?

And after all, just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.  So here’s my list of things you can do to begin to protect yourself from toxins in fabrics:

  1. Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can  – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now.   If you can’t find GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics, try to use 100% organic natural fibers.  Certifications are a shorthand which allows us to accept that the certified products are safe, but if you want to get granular, you can find out what they’re certifying (i.e., what the certifications are telling you).  Be sure to differentiate between, for example, a GOTS certified fiber and a GOTS certified fabric.  Big difference:  A product which uses GOTS certified fibers only may have been processed conventionally, which means it could be full of chemicals of concern.
  2. If it’s cheap, it probably has hidden costs, like your health or our ecosystem.  It’s expensive to go against the flow, and natural fibers cost way more than synthetics, even though the price of crude is going up.  So pay more, use less.
  3. Never buy anything made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or acrylic (which can be used as finishes or backings as well as fibers) and generally avoid other synthetics (such as polyester).  They ALL start with toxic inputs (like ethylene glycol), but the profiles of both PVC and acrylic makes polyester look benign by comparison.  In that same vein, avoid fabrics that are pretending to be something they’re not – polyester can be made to look like practically anything (one of the things we love about it), but it won’t have the characteristics of the natural fibers that make them such good choices for us.
  4. If you must use synthetic fibers, the best choice would be GRS Gold level recycled polyester.  This new certification means that the recycled content really is  95-100%, with the added assurance that chemicals used in the manufacture abide by the GOTS standards (eliminating endocrine disrupting chemicals, heavy metals, and a long list of other chemicals of concern); water is treated and workers are given minimal rights.
  5. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. The wrinkle free finishes are formaldehyde resins, and there simply are no safe stain protection treatments.
  6. Fly less.  (I never said these would be easy, but it’s good to know, right?)  In this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible.  Same is true of fabrics on cruise ships.
  7. Trust your nose.  If a fabric stinks, what does that tell you about it?
  8. Ask questions!  If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it.
  9. Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.  And share what you’ve learned.  This is an evolving industry, and we’re all looking for answers. But I know you’re just ONE person – and the problems do seem overwhelming.  Can just ONE person change the world? Margaret Meade said that committed people, banding together, is the only thing that ever has.
  10. Be aware of greenwashing.  This doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect product but it does mean honesty in letting you (the consumer) know exactly what is in the fabric.  If you see a green claim, Google the company name + environment and see what pops up.  If it’s a big company, do they spend a significant portion of their R&D budget on green initiatives?  What percent of their product offerings are “green” vs. “conventional”?

That does it for fabrics, but here are a few more things you can do to protect yourself :

  • Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.
  • Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals – wafted there from the other products in our homes.
  • Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the United States – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times.
  • Avoid polyurethane (i.e., poly foam, found in cushions and many other products) if you’re in the market for a new sofa or mattress, look for 100% natural – and certified – latex.
  • Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.
  • About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.
  • As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.
  • Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.
  • And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

I know that even that is a daunting list – it’s really hard to avoid some products and growing an organic garden just isn’t in the cards for some of us.  But if you do even some of these things your health – and ours! – will benefit.  Not to mention all the living things on Earth which depend on our good stewardship of this planet.

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What you can do to avoid toxins

27 06 2013

North-Cascades-e1346800825850I’ll be taking a few weeks off so instead of sitting in front of the computer I’ll be hiking in the mountains and sitting by a lake. Have a wonderful fourth, and see you in August.

Last week I promised you the list of things to do to avoid toxins in your life. In putting together the list, it all became a bit overwhelming and I found myself asking whether it would really make a difference. I mean, the chemicals in use are so pervasive and ubiquitous that I wasn’t sure whether my puny attempts at reducing exposure would result in any improvements. Like that old adage: you can’t buy health – can you protect yourself from exposure? I mean, they found GMO wheat in a remote field in Oregon. Then I ran across the Michael Pollan piece in the New York Times (for the full article, click here) in which he talks about what we can do to fight climate change and it seems to reflect my own feelings about chemical exposure:

Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

But then he answers his own question: “Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

The fact that chemicals are not being directly linked to health issues is largely because of the long delay between time of exposure and effect, so causation is difficult to prove. As Ed Brown points out in his new documentary “Unacceptable Levels” (click here for more information), it’s only because these chemicals have been in our environment for so long that we can now start to monitor their results. Another reason it’s difficult to prove the effects of these chemicals is that we’re exposed to low levels of individual chemicals from different sources – and they enter your body and react with all the other chemicals found there. Yet chemicals are tested for safety only one by one. As Ken Cook points out, no doctor will prescribe a new drug for a patient before finding out what other drugs that patient is taking.

So, yes, it’s overwhelming but that’s okay. Now that you know, begin to read up a bit and learn what all the fuss is about. Then you can start to make some changes that might mean all the difference.

Back to my list: my top 11 suggestions to avoid toxins are below. If you can do even some of those, you’ll be ahead of the game:

• Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.

• Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals (want proof? click here )

• Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the US – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times. Click here.

• Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. Fabrics – even those made of organic cotton – are, by weight, 27% synthetic chemicals. Click here to get started on what that means!

• Check the labels on your furniture. The California Furniture Flammability Standard essentially requires that cushioned furniture, children’s car seats, diaper-changing tables and other products containing polyurethane foam be drenched in flame retardants – and most manufacturers build to that standard, so don’t think you’re off the hook just because you don’t live in California. (Click here to read why that’s important). Check the labels on electronics, too. Avoid polyurethane if possible.

• Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.

• About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.

* As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists (EWG has a good one, click here) that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.

• Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.

• And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

• Fly less – in this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible (click here and here ).

• Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.





50th Anniversary of SILENT SPRING

24 07 2012

I just read the article by Lynne Peeples in Huffington Post Green, entitled “Chemistry Lessons:  Living with Rachel Carson’s Legacy” which caught my eye because I’ve been reading about Merchants of Doubt, the new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, in which they conclude that the far right in America, in its quest to ensure the perpetuation of the free market, is now hell-bent on destroying the cause of environmentalism.   One of the icons of the environmental movement,  Rachel Carson,  has come under attack [1]: she is  being blamed for deaths caused by the banning of DDT.

“Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm,” states one site set up by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “That person is Rachel Carson.” Another site goes further: “Fifty million dead,” while a third claims: “More deaths likely.” [2]  As Merchants of Doubt makes clear, DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it. The pesticide was losing its usefulness long before it was taken out of commercial production.  “And in the demonising of Rachel Carson, free marketeers realised that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn’t, in fact, successful – that it was actually a mistake – you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general,” state Oreskes and Conway.

But you should read Merchants of Doubt for yourself.

Lynne Peeples’ article examines five of the assumptions Carson intuitively suspected, and compares them with newfound research which corroborates Carson’s assumptions.  It’s a chilling read, and I think so important that I’ve reproduced it below in full:

As you read this, a menagerie of chemical pollutants is coursing through your body. What you do and how you live doesn’t matter. You have inhaled them, you’ve eaten them, you’ve absorbed them through your skin. You’re doing it right now.

If you are an average American, your personal chemical inventory — embedded in your blood, your breath and your bones — will include an alphabet soup of phthalates, mercury, perfluorinated compounds, bisphenol A, and assorted chemical flame retardants.

If you are a new mother, you are passing these chemicals to your child through your breast milk. If you are pregnant, you are delivering them through your umbilical cord.

These inescapable realities of modern life — realities that have vexed environmental advocates and worried scientists for years — are not new. They were all foreseen, with sometimes chilling accuracy, 50 years ago this summer, when an unassuming marine biologist from Springdale, Penn., named Rachel Carson began publishing a series of articles in The New Yorker Magazine. Carson’s essays, which accused the chemical industry of calculated deception and American regulators of wanton disregard for the proliferation of pesticides and other chemical pollutants released into the environment, would ultimately be published as the book “Silent Spring” — considered by many to be the clarion call of the modern environmental movement.

Today, one study after another repeats the same cautions Carson raised decades ago, including how the tiniest chemical exposures can lead to long-term harm, especially to children.

“We’ve discovered many things that Carson intuitively anticipated, and also some things that she would’ve never imagined,” says John Peterson Myers, CEO and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences.

Optimists, Myers included, suggest that, by combining Carson’s prescient insights with modern advancements in biology and chemistry, we can preserve the health of future generations.

In 2010, chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer surpassed infectious diseases as the leading causes of death across the world, notes Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “That can be seen as both troubling and an opportunity,” he says, suggesting that we have the potential to eliminate some of the exposures now implicated in chronic diseases. “The problem is that it is really the mega-corporations that are designing, or keeping us from developing, regulatory policies to protect people.”

More than 80,000 chemicals currently used in the U.S. have never been fully tested for their potential to harm humans or the environment, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Maybe we didn’t heed a warning,” says environmental activist and lawyer Erin Brockovich. “Can we really afford to wait another 50 years?”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Huffington decided to review five of Rachel Carson’s warnings made decades ago to see how they measure up today.

#1: “Every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”

A few years before she was pregnant with her first child, Elsie, Hannah Pingree got tested for toxic chemicals as part of a demonstration study by public health groups.

Although she has lived most of her life on an island 12 miles off the coast of Maine, her blood, hair and urine showed high levels of flame retardants, mercury and phthalates. “I was living nowhere near anything industrial,” says Pingree, former Speaker of the Maine House and now a consultant for “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families,” a national coalition working to reform toxic chemical regulation. “This was simply from interacting with the environment and in my home.”

Pingree is now pregnant with her second child. As she knows, and as Carson suggested but had no way of proving at the time, exposures to toxic chemicals begin in the womb. Whatever exposures a mother encounters, so too does her future child.
As Carson wrote in The New Yorker on June 30, 1962: toxic chemicals have “entered the environment of almost everyone — even of children as yet unborn.” Within the body of the story, was an ad from the chemical giant Dupont Co. promoting its motto: “Better Things For Better Living … Through Chemistry.”

“Back in mid-century, a lot of people thought that the placenta was a barrier to environmental chemicals,” says Tracey Woodruff, a reproductive health expert at the University of California, San Francisco. It was some 40 years after Silent Spring’s publication when scientists finally confirmed Carson’s hunch — finding nearly 300 different industrial chemicals in samples of umbilical cord blood.

Pingree also knows, as did Carson, that a rapidly developing fetus or child is particularly vulnerable to the effects of those chemical exposures. Childhood cancer may be one tragic consequence. Carson pointed out that “more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease.” A statistic that holds true today.

In many cases, however, the effects of early life exposures don’t appear for decades, and once they do, they’re almost impossible to trace back to their origins, Carson noted. “A child is not going to necessarily wake up with some rash, but they may later have cancer at age 50,” says Pingree. She is less worried about her now 16-month-old’s “daily survival,” and more about the long-term effects of “things like pesticides and the plastic she’s chewing on.”

Still, Myers, the chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, points to a “remarkable ray of hope.”

“We’re learning that we actually may be able to prevent chronic diseases of adulthood by reducing exposures in the womb,” he says.


#2: “Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones.”

Pingree does everything she can to limit both her and Elsie’s chemical exposures. Like other parents, however, she finds the task frustrating.

“It’s impossible for a parent to live their life trying to make the right decisions about chemicals. There are so many things we don’t know,” says Pingree. “We have this system that allows all of us to have these levels of consumer and industrial chemicals without any idea how they got in there.”

Potentially toxic chemicals are pervasive yet generally invisible — from pajamas treated with flame retardants to bisphenol-A leaching out of plastic bottles to pesticides lingering on fruits.

Parents faced much the same predicament 50 years ago. “Lulled by the soft sell and the hidden persuader,” wrote Carson, “the average citizen is seldom aware of the deadly materials with which he is surrounding himself.”

Manufacturers are rarely required to disclose ingredients in their products, notes Woodruff. And when they do, there are often loopholes such as the requirement that a pesticide label need only include the names of “active” ingredients.

“You can’t know it if you don’t see it,” she says.

Further, disclosures are irrelevant if no tests have been done to identify harmful effects. This is the case for tens of thousands of chemicals common in consumer products. Aside from substances designed to be ingested as food or drug, newly developed commercial chemicals are virtually unregulated in the U.S. — until and unless they are proven harmful.

“The burden of proof in this country is on proving a chemical is dangerous rather than on the side of those who introduce the chemical to prove that it is safe,” says Eric Chivian, director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Europe, he notes, has it the other way around.

Carson expressed her own frustration with the U.S. government’s lack of chemical regulation.” If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials,” wrote Carson, “it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

Of course, there are also those unintentional ingredients that find their way into products today without anyone’s knowledge. A study published in May suggested that peanut butter can be a source of trace amounts of flame retardants.

“There are always little surprises that we’re finding,” says Woodruff.
#3: “The chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.”

Though women’s nylons were the subject of the 1962 DuPont ad that adorned Carson’s New Yorker article, the company also had a big hand in the pesticide business. In fact, DuPont was a major manufacturer of the prime antagonist in Silent Spring: DDT.

Worry over the widespread aerial spraying of the pesticide inspired Carson to pursue her book.

“Not only forests and cultivated fields are sprayed, but towns and cities as well,” she wrote. “The legend that the herbicides are toxic only to plants and so pose no threat to animal life has been widely disseminated, but unfortunately it is not true.”

While DDT was banned in the U.S. a decade after the publication of her book, and subsequently banned for agricultural use worldwide, Carson’s concerns persist. DDT remains in limited use for the control of mosquito-borne diseases and replacement pesticides now pose their own risks.

Environmental advocates fear widespread poisoning, as well as a continuing arms race with nature that they say humans are destined to lose.

“Evidence of aerial spraying this year in California points to the pesticide treadmill that Carson had acknowledged 50 years ago,” says Paul Towers of the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network.

Mosquito districts in the state are enlisting more toxic chemicals than they had in years past for the control of West Nile Virus due to concerns over pesticide resistance in mosquitoes. Insects that can withstand a spray are more likely to spawn the next generation of pests. And over time, this survival of the fittest can render useless whatever chemical concoction is employed.

Meanwhile, industrial agriculture may soon transition to a genetically-modified corn resistant to two common pesticides, Roundup and 2,4-D, in response to growing resistance among weeds. The result, advocates fear, is the use of stronger doses of the herbicides. Roundup has been shown to disrupt human hormones; 2,4-D was a component of Agent Orange.

Matt Liebman, of Iowa State University, foresees weeds evolving resistance to the new variety of corn within a few years. “Then we’ll be on same treadmill that we’ve been on,” he says.

“Carson was not arguing for banning all pesticides,” notes John Wargo of Yale University, who spent six months going through 117 boxes of Carson’s personal files. “She was simply arguing against the broad-scale prophylactic application that would lead to widespread contamination and exposure. Her arguments follow a train of logic and a narrative that would be extremely useful today.”

#4: “The contamination of our world is not alone a matter of mass spraying. Indeed, for most of us this is of less importance than the innumerable small-scale exposures to which we are subjected day by day, year after year.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that there is no safe level of lead in the bloodstreams of children. Even in tiny amounts, exposures to the heavy metal via dust and flakes of lead paint can damage a child’s developing brain.

Scientists today are also heard stating similarly grim warnings about a growing number of environmental toxins, found in a lengthening list of places.

“People took Carson somewhat seriously in the case of DDT, but she was also talking in very broad terms about chemicals,” says Pingree. Whether from eating a piece of salmon or breathing in second-hand smoke or chemicals sprayed on a lawn, each of our everyday exposures may be tiny, though not necessarily insignificant.

“One part in a million sounds like a very small amount — and so it is,” wrote Carson, referencing a likely amount of pesticide residue on food. “But such substances are so potent that a minute quantity can bring about vast changes in the body.”

Lanphear of Simon Frasier University notes that we are now worrying about even smaller exposures than Carson was suggesting. “Parts per billion,” he says.

Recent research has also questioned the popular notion that “the dose makes the poison.” Minuscule concentrations of chemicals that disrupt hormones — common in industrial pollution, pesticides and plastics — may have potent effects, sometimes even when large doses of the same chemical appear harmless. Some chemicals also can accumulate in the environment and the human body, where they can combine and interact with other chemicals.

“This is why there is no ‘safe’ dose of a carcinogen,” Carson wrote. Carson pointed out one combination of chemicals that had already raised red flags among scientists: malathion mixed with other organophosphate pesticides. Administered together, she wrote, “a massive poisoning results — up to 50 times as severe as would be predicted on the basis of adding together the toxicities of the two.”

Organophosphates, including malathion, are still in use today.

“Things are far more complicated chemically than they were in Carson’s time,” says Wargo. “There are so many uses of many more active ingredients, inert ingredients and differently formulated products that it’s become difficult for governments to identify the risks.”

“We are now living in a world probably beyond what Carson could have ever imagined, in terms of the number of chemicals kids interact with every day,” says Pingree. “And we’re having all the impacts that she worried about.”

#5: “These injuries to the genetic material are of a kind that may lead to disease in the individual exposed or they may make their effects felt in future generations.”

In other words, if you happen to be obese or infertile, facing cancer or diabetes or any number of other diseases, it might well have something to do with your father’s exposure to a plastic toy in 1955, or even his father’s exposure to his comrades’ chemical-laced second-hand smoke after he successfully stormed the beach at Normandy. Your own children and grandchildren may even pay the price of the ancestral exposures.

Carson hinted at this possible new spin on nature versus nurture 50 years ago, and scientists are only now confirming her suspicions.

“That was a very insightful comment for the time,” says Michael Skinner, a leading expert in an emerging field called epigenetics at Washington State University. “It came long before we had any data, before anything was appreciated about this.”

Studies published over the last couple of months have bolstered the notion that toxic chemicals in our ancestors’ environment could help explain cases of a variety of diseases and cognitive problems that we and our children suffer today — even without exposure to the contaminants ourselves.

“Many behavioral diseases like autism run in families but do not follow normal genetic patterns,” says Skinner. “Our findings really fit the bill.”

Environmental insults don’t necessarily have to alter our genetic code to cause lasting trouble, Skinner and other scientists have discovered. They also can disrupt the body’s ability to interpret these inherited instructions, and in certain cases, this so-called epigenetic defect is handed down and becomes more pronounced in subsequent generations.

A young soldier exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, or a kid caught in a drift of DDT insect repellant on his 1950s cul-de-sac, might well pass on health consequences to their children, and then to their children’s children, and so on down the family line.

Myers says that he used to “draw solace” from the belief that environmental contaminants such as plasticizers and flame retardants, now likely linked to conditions such as diabetes and asthma, were not affecting any inheritable information. In other words, if you were to remove the exposure, most people thought that the next generation would be spared.

“This casts a significant shadow of a doubt,” he said, “on that assumption.”