Toxic Theatre

When I think of red carpet events, I know one thing for sure: I'm not invited. So imagine my surprise when I discovered a press release in my inbox inviting me to an event with the aforementioned floor covering. I read further and it began to make sense. Spoof, satire, deadly serious. I could not resist.


Leading up to Healthy Legacy's red carpet event, "The Toxie Awards," my mind began to take notice of a myriad of things coming at me in flashes; In my home, in the shower, in the kitchen were unpronounceable things. It started with the shampoo I was using. Since I had nothing to read, I found myself staring at the ingredient list on the bottle. I was lathering something into my hair with 27 letters (methylchloroisothiazolinone), massaging it into my scalp, which is next to my skull, which protects my brain. The rinse was quick.


Finding things like this in my home is a rare occurrence due to my incessant label reading, but it just goes to show that no one is immune. This, I was soon to find out, is the focus of the Toxie Awards and its founders, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy. They found that they needed a way to put a spotlight on some of the known harmful and yet-to-be-tested chemicals that show up all around us.


So why the "Toxies"? I asked this question of Kathleen Schuler, senior policy analyst for IATP. She explained that with something this negative and upsetting, it can be really difficult to engage people on a personal level. By presenting the issues in the realms of art and theatre, it is possible not only to increase awareness, but to engage a whole new sector of the populace, including media members. As I thought about this, it made sense. I remembered the times I had received a warning from a reputable organization about the dangers of this or that, only to delete the message immediately or to tell myself, "I'll read that later."


Not only did the "Toxies" pique my curiosity, more suprisingly, the message seems to have stuck with me. Stored in my memory next to chemical names such as Dioxin and Phthalates are dramatic character images that I now associate with them, whereas before I would simply see the names in type and forget them immediately.


The other nice twist to the event was the positive spin that Healthy Legacy took when it came to policy makers. Instead of the all-too-easy game of badmouthing the enablers, this party chose to put a spotlight on those legislators who are working for positive change. For Minnesota, that person is Kate Knuth, who won the cleverly titled award: Best Performance in a Legislative Session. The award came because of a bill she authored called the Toxic-Free Kids Act, which culminated in the creation of the "Minnesota Priority Chemicals List".


It seems like the new perspective on these "bad actors" is working. In this, just the second year for the "Toxie Awards", it has spread from California to over a dozen states as well as Canada and Austrailia. We can only hope that anything will help in a world where chemical products are pushed through regulation before proper and complete testing can be assured. I now believe that the creative thinking that produced the Toxies may be the next step, not only in awareness, but also in policy change.


Since the event, I have been focused on the substance that won the MN People's Choice Award for Worst Performance of the Year: Bisphenol A or BPA. For some reason this additive was one I could not stop thinking about. I suppose this is because of the attention the chemical has received recently. It was banned from baby bottles and sippy cups in Minnesota last year but still shows up in the linings in food cans and other food packaging (Eden organics is the only canned food brand I know of that guarantees it's canned products are free of BPA). As a matter of fact, 93% of all people have some level of BPA in their system, according to a study by the Center for Disease Control. Equally revealing and encouraging to those of us who love to cook is what a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Health Perspectives found. They discovered that by eliminating canned and prepackaged food from your diet, you can reduce BPA levels by, on average, 66% in just three days!


Once again the answer seems to be found in relying on home grown products that are simple and whose origins are traceable as well as preparing food for yourself and taking the initiative when it comes to what you consume. Sorry, there is no easy way out, no prepackaged, instant miracle product. A great example I always use has to do with beans, yes, I said beans. One of the most commonly purchased canned products at your local coop or whole food store, they are also found in every grocery that has a bulk department. It can be so easy to avoid canned beans if you take a little extra time to soak beans and cook them yourself. Plus, they are so much tastier. As for those canned vegetables, I have found that my community of friends are a great resource when I need to have "canning parties". I purchase bulk beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. and invite people over to spend part of a day processing and canning vegetables and pickles. Everybody leaves having learned something and with a stash of canned goods. It is always more fun than work.


So, what about that methylchloroisothiazolinone in my shampoo? Well, sure enough, turns out it is a neurotoxin, similar in structure to Agent Orange, the chemical used in warfare. Great, hooray, now what the hell is it doing in my shampoo. Well, it seems to kill things, so put it in that convenient category of preservative. I, for one, will stop putting it on my head. Duh.


For more: The Toxies.

To take action: Healthy Legacy protective policies

More on: BPA.

Ask your senator to co-sponsor the Safer Chemicals Act of 2011.

Lawrence Black is a writer, managing editor and owner of 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at