Christina Medina and Rebecca Fuoco
June 28, 2012

On Sunday an unusual and quirky red carpet award show in Hollywood brought the normally faceless and intangible issue of chemical exposure and regulation to life. The Third Annual “Toxies”, an event put on by Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy, featured actors in colorful costumes in-character as toxic chemicals accepting “awards” for the harm they are doing to the American public.

D.W. Moffett who stars in the ABC Family series Switched at Birth and TV Land’s Happily Divorced emceed the event portraying Tex Doolittle, an agent who promotes positive PR for the chemicals by twisting or even denying evidence of their toxicity, the role played in real life by chemical industry lobbyists.

The theatrics of the costumes, red carpet interviews, and acceptance speeches told a story of the overwhelming amount of toxic or untested chemicals (“bad actors”) and their myriad usages (“roles”) in our homes and environment. Halogenated Flame Retardant, dressed in a super hero cape representing her purported (but inaccurate) life-saving fire squelching, accepted her award for “Best Replacement in a Series” by thanking her lobbyists for keeping her in furniture and baby products by altering her chemical formulas and names several times to escape regulation.

Spinning a human twist on the issue made our exposure to these invisible threats more vivid. Simply promoting shopping and personal hygiene tips to avoid these chemicals would be a feeble campaign against this goliath issue. Instead, event coordinator Ana Mascarenas, ended the ceremony by calling for support for the Safe Chemicals Act, Safe Cosmetics Act, and other state and national measures that can help prevent and clean up toxic chemical exposures.

Whereas the upstream solution focuses on reducing the entry of chemicals to homes in the first place, most national and local public health programs use a downstream approach. Instead of limiting production of potentially hazardous chemicals or even requiring manufacturers to submit any toxicity information on new chemicals, the U.S. government spends most of its environmental health resources providing information to consumers on how to reduce exposure to the chemicals already in their homes.  Countless glossy pamphlets are produced each year instructing concerned individuals to take on strict, time-consuming, and quite often expensive house cleaning, food washing, personal hygiene regimens, and shopping guides to prevent chemical ingestion and inhalation.

For example, health department lead prevention programs in areas with lead smelters (such as in Tennessee and Texas) more often distribute information on housekeeping to keep household dust levels down than enforce emission restrictions on the smelter companies. Other brochures suggest frequent vacuuming with a HEPA filter and purchasing organic furniture to avoid flame retardants. Maybe the Transport Security Administration could hand out martial arts brochures to airline passengers instead of screening for weapons.

Rather than placing the burden on consumers to prevent disease caused by chemicals, shouldn’t the burden be placed on those who profit (handsomely) from their use? The chemical manufacturers can certainly afford it–the chemical lobby’s PR team rivals that of Hollywood’s top movie stars. In fact, their communications are led by Dick Cheney’s former press secretary and funded by Exxon and Dow Chemical. With a little Hollywood flair and creativity the annual Toxies events aim to inspire the enthusiasm and political pressure necessary to compete with the chemical industry’s powerful wallet.

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