What are We Doing to Ourselves?: The Ubiquity of Chemicals

I suppose this was inevitable.  Yesterday was Saturday, and being in  the Yucatán, with no interviews lined up for today, my options were 1) hang around the hostel, and continue working on my paper via notepad and pencil (taking it back to ’92, y’all), or 2) go to the beach.  Only a madman would have chosen number 1.

The Obvious Choice

So: I took a shared taxi to Puerto Juárez, then a $7 ferry to Isla Mujeres.  Lovely beach on Playa Norte – you can walk out 100m, and never have the absolutely crystal water go further than chest high.  But here’s the thing: this is a highly touristic zone, and the sun-sensitive visitors to Mexico also take this ferry all day for sand-and-beach.  I happen to be highly allergic to oxybenzone, one of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen, and all it takes is one brush against, say, a deck chair recently used by a Coppertone-slathered individual, for me to break out in rashes, itching, and suppurating swelling (helpfully alleviated right now by very, very high doses of Benadryl – which also has the side effect of making me high as a kite).

Now, I’ve thought a lot about oxybenzone over the years, having had multiple reactions and exposures to it, despite my best efforts to avoid it (I once unwittingly shared a straw with an amiga that used an oxybenzone-laden chapstick and came off looking like Mick Jagger), and have focused on two things that I find interesting/aggravating.  First, as many of you will find out, it is found in a wide, wide range of cosmetic products – look at anything that has the letters SPF on it, and chances are it has oxybenzone, or its relative, benzophene-3.  Second, it is an endocrine disruptor (see above link).  Now, it’s not the only way to get sunscreen; you can use anything that has inert chemicals, such as titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide and get much, much better coverage.  Problematically, the metallic sunblock is oldschool, and leaves a faint, whitish layer on your skin when you brush it on.  Not very stylish, yeah?  Plus, I am sure that the vast, vast majority of users are completely unaware that oxybenzone is harmful, not just to myself, but to all users, in particular infants and small children.

Spraying DDT in the United States

But this I thought was symptomatic of one of the major challenges to human health: we are surrounded by potentially harmful chemicals every day, ostensibly in the name of convenience.  Eventually, we learn about them, but often only after concerted action against the inertia, apathy, and perhaps active resistance of those who receive some benefits from distributing them.

While we, as an international community, have eventually responded to some of these concerns, banning some harmful but ubiquitous products at the domestic level in the 1970s and 1980s, and by internationalizing the campaign against toxic substances through instruments such as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, it is still clear that in many ways, our attitudes towards dangerous chemicals hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.  The types of chemicals and products vary, and over time, awareness-raising leads to some civil society challenges to particular compounds, but toxins remain profitable, and information moves more slowly than commerce: hence, the continued ubiquity of harmful chemicals.