A friend of mine, an English professor, recently got chickens. Because they are still young, she keeps them in a woodchip-lined crib in her garage, and brings them outside once a day for exercise. She told me about the first time she brought them out, how excited she was: What would the great world be like for the fluffy-feathered chicks? What would they—who had all their lives been contained—make of the sky, the grass, the daffodils now blooming in late spring? She set the chicks on the grass one by one, then stepped back to watch.
But the chickens surprised her. Instead of exploring the yard, they rushed as one to crowd around her feet, where they began pecking determinedly at her toenails. Why? “I was wearing glitter nail polish,” my friend said, laughing. “It was all they were interested in.”
It occurred to me, hearing this, that young women are not entirely unlike chickens. I think of myself in high school, and how intrigued I was by the prospect of “dressing up”—styling my hair, putting on lipstick to go out at night. I never wore much makeup; my parents work in public health and were concerned about toxic exposures, so I was limited to whatever I could get away with without their noticing. But their worries seemed silly to me, anyway. What harm was there in a little hairspray or mascara? After all, everyone else seemed fine.
I couldn’t have guessed that four years later, I would be campaigning against toxic substances in the same products I myself once used. I’m majoring in environmental policy at Colby College, and it was through one of my classes—“The Environment and Human Health,” taught by Gail Carlson—that I first heard about the health problems associated with unregulated consumer products. When I learned, earlier this year, about a group of young women forming to investigate toxics in personal care products, I jumped at the chance to participate.
We called ourselves WATCH (“Women Against Toxic Cosmetics Harm”), and, with help from the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Environmental Health Strategy Center, we were able to send twelve common personal care products to a lab, where they were tested for the presence of several toxic substances. Over the next few months we held press releases in Waterville and at the state house in Augusta, hosted an event for the public in downtown Waterville, were profiled by local TV stations and newspapers, and were interviewed on Maine public radio (MPBN).
But my favorite part of the whole thing is when I hear people talking about our work, or when I’m approached by friends or strangers. People are horrified to learn that personal care products are virtually unregulated, and that’s exactly the right response—we should be horrified. It’s nearly inconceivable to me that the substances we’re exposed to every day may be untested, or, worse, already known to be harmful—and yet we keep using them.
And what were the results of WATCH’s tests? We found that of the twelve products, ten contained one or more chemicals that have been banned or restricted elsewhere in the world, are known carcinogens, or are linked to reproductive problems. For more on this project you can read my editorial printed in the Morning Sentinel or read the report, That’s a Killer Look.
After all, if we’re going to go for the glitter, we should at least know what we’re pecking at.
-Blair Braverman, is a student at Colby College in Waterville, class of 2011. An environmental policy major, she is interested in environmental justice, health and toxicology.