Family Ties and Toxic Free Generations
OEC’s Devon Downeysmith, OEC’s climate communications and outreach manager, and her dad, David Michael Smith, a veteran journalist and videographer, share a deep concern for the potential health hazards posed by the presence of toxic chemicals in many children’s toys, apparel and furniture. Dad and daughter agree that the debate over the issue has been going on far too long. It’s time to pass the Toxic Free Kids Act – a bill that will likely be up for a vote in the next week.
Devon was born and raised in Portland and has lived there her entire life. Devon married her high school sweetheart, Bryce. They’re expecting their first child in December. David, who lives West Linn with his wife Sam Downey has been a freelance writer, biographer and director of video presentations. A dedicated environmentalist, he has sailed with Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the key figure in Animal Planet’s provocative reality cable series “Whale Wars.”
What started you thinking about toxic hazards in children’s toys, apparel and the like?
Devon: I had heard murmurings of this issue at various stages throughout my life, but it never struck me until I started to consider having my own family. It scares me to think that corporations would put toxic chemicals into the things I buy for my new baby, chemicals that could affect the health of my baby for the rest of their life. When I’m already concerned about how to make healthy choices for both my baby and me, it’s just distressing to think about having to educate myself about toxics, too. It shouldn’t be something we have to deal with. I want to believe that companies care about their customers and wouldn’t want to harm them. But the more I learn about the toxics-in-toys issue, the more I realize this isn’t always true.
David: I’m just concerned about my unborn grandchild – and everyone else’s grandchildren, frankly. I have long been aware of the claim that the origin of many illnesses, especially cancer, may be closely associated with hazardous chemicals in the things we buy for our homes and children. According to reports I’ve seen by the Washington State Department of Ecology, more than 5,000 children’s products contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive problems. And this isn’t obscure stuff: Major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gap, Gymboree, Hallmark and H&M have reported using these substances in the products they sell.
Are these toxic ingredients a concern among your family and friends?
Devon: I feel like it’s an issue. But we have to really educate people about what “toxics” means. It’s such a broad term–a kind of buzzword that loses its impact because of cleanses and other pseudo-science. People need to be informed about specific hazardous chemicals and their risks to our health, and have the ability to acquire the science-based information they need. Of course, it can get overwhelming. But I do think that small changes, like the disclosure that this bill requires, can make a difference and allow us to feel – and be – empowered.
David: There are so many seminal issues facing the public today – climate change leading the pack – that it’s difficult for people to focus on an issue unless it directly affects their immediate world. Because of my age, I rarely hear my contemporaries raise this issue, but I do notice that the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), where Devon works, is doing an excellent job of bringing this topic into the public arena. Unless there is some tragedy involved, the mainstream media seems disinclined to shed much light on an issue.
As you know, Oregon’s state legislature is currently considering the Toxic Free Kids Act. What do you think of the bill?
Devon: I think it’s a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t we be informed about chemicals of concern in children’s products? We get to see an ingredients list on things we eat, why not this? Shouldn’t this be law already? I feel like this bill will correct an injustice that’s been with us too long.
David: It’s a good start. But disclosure is hardly adequate. Legislation should be proposed that, based on scientific evidence, disallows the use of toxic substances in the manufacture of children’s toys, furniture and clothing. For that matter, such substances should be probably be banned altogether.
What responsibilities do various segments of society share in addressing issues related to toxic hazards?
Devon: As a soon-to-be mom, I’m keenly aware that, as adults, it’s our responsibility to care for our children – the most vulnerable members of society who depend on us completely. Whether you’re talking about your own children or a child you’ve never met, the type of environment we create for our kids now will determine the emotional, physical and even spiritual health of the environment we all share. It may sound corny, but they’re our future. Our kids reflect our priorities and values now, while also illustrating the possibility of who we, as a society, can become. That’s the beauty of life, and every time I see that little moving figure on an ultrasound screen and know I love it already, I’m filled with awe at that beauty, as well an urge to protect it at any cost. Let’s protect our kids together so that when we look back, we know we’ve created a better world through how we cared for them.