Toxic Teens

Photo: coka
My babysitter's cheekbones are sparkling. It's kind of distracting as I'm telling her the bedtime routine. Upon closer inspection, I can see a thin layer of silver and green and purple twinkle dust swished around in some gooey gel she has swept across her cheek. I'm too old to understand why she would do that. All I can think is, "What sinister cocktail of chemicals has this vegan A-student smeared across her most porous organ?" I don't have teenagers yet, but everything I read and hear tells me it's going to be a crazy parenting stage. Power struggles, unpredictable moods, bodily changes that both delight and confuse. I believe in the notion that teens need more say, more respect, more faith, and that the more parents can trust them to make responsible decisions themselves, the more empowered they feel and the less angry and rebellious they'll be as a result. Teenagers have always packed up and left their parents to make families of their own; I figure they are hard-wired to rebel and want independence at that age, so why bang our parental heads against the wall or start a fashion war? But what about when their health is on the line? What do we do when the lipstick, the hair gel, whatever product that every socially acceptable being on earth simply must have because it is "totally sick" might actually make them sick in the old-fashioned sense of the word? Most teens, even as sophisticated a generation as the latest crop may be, are likely not checking the labels on their vanilla-pear scented body mist, bubble-gum-flavoured lip gloss, rocker dude hair dye or the stardust face sparkles. Eyes glaze over at the warnings about brominated flame retardants used in cell phones. Whatever. It's about who's on the line (or what tune the ring tone plays), not what's leaking out of the casing. Headlines from coast to coast screamed when Canadian politicians were found to be toxic in the 2007 Environmental Defence report Toxic Nation on Parliament Hill: A Report on Pollution in Four Canadian Politicians. But it is the 2006 study, Polluted Children, Toxic Nation: A Report on Pollution in Canadian Families, that I find the most haunting. Enviromental Defence tested five families across the country for 68 chemicals, including pesticides, PCBs, stain repellants, flame retardants, mercury and lead. Found in countless everyday products, including much of the teen arsenal of cool, these chemicals are associated with cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive disorders, damage to the nervous system, respiratory illnesses and harming children's development. Perhaps most disturbing of all, some of the children in the study had higher levels of some of the chemicals than their parents, indicating that their exposure had been much more intense over their shorter lives. Why does it take an NGO like Environmental Defence to tell us our reliance on chemicals has run amok? It's clear that in the cosmetics industry, like virtually every other, health concerns are not exactly paramount. The prime consideration, or so it would seem at a glance down the cosmetics aisles, is for an even wider array of product choices to prey upon the inevitable insecurities of the teen consumer. As of November, there is now legislation that will require cosmetics companies to list the ingredients in their products, which is a small step in the right direction. It's creepy, once you stop and think about it, that we have been spritzing, lathering and dusting ourselves for this long without much idea of what was in the products we've been using. And those ingredient lists will be mighty long, too. Lots of curious multi-syllabic stuff comes together to make the potions of prettiness and style. But will being able to read about what they're dousing themselves with really make a difference to adolescent cosmetics customers? Let's use that rebellious stage to universal advantage: let's teach our teens to fight the corporate powers that are trying to co-opt their sense of self-image into another kind of chemical addiction. In the end, good health should be every teen's idea of something that's "totally sick." by Gillian Deacon, one of Green Living's contributing editors and host of the The Gill Deacon Show.