Now that we’re officially Londoners, I have recently been preparing the family with what I would have come to learn as essential UK equipment – a public transportation (oyster) card for each member of the family (our two year-old insists on his own), an A to Z map (I’ve been too spoiled by Manhattan’s grid system), and of course, rain gear. Umbrellas aside, my life has recently been taken over by the encyclopedic search that I’ve had to undertake in order to find the perfect rain protection and in particular, rain-jackets. While adult rain jackets are more often made of sensible material, or at the very least, a type of synthetic not as toxic as PVC, almost all of the jackets for the under 12 set are made of shiny, rubbery PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which, is commonly referred to by environmental groups as “poison plastic” (http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/usa/press-center/reports4/pvc-the-poison-plastic.html)
The harm of PVC is not simply that it is man-made, leaches harmful carcinogens and is an unrecyclable item – it usually also contains a number of toxic additives that are phthalates, heavy metals such as lead (?!) that easily leach out and accumulate in increased exposure, meaning the longer a child is exposed, the more likely he will be incur a risk of brain development, an impact on the nervous system or disrupt the endocrine system. This is certainly not news to me – I have seen Blue Vinyl: A Toxic Comedy (2002) a documentary that the filmmaker, Judith Helfand embarked upon as an investigation into the toxic life cycle of polyvinyl chloride.
But, even though there are efforts to educate and encourage a more natural transition to sustainable materials, our lives are already so embedded and bombarded by the plastic conglomerates that they can operate almost entirely undetected and we need constant vigilant attention in order to make sure that the products we purchase are indeed non-toxic. I'll certainly be the first to admit that I didn't look at the material label for Henry's wellies. I just bought them in a hurry as he was running about the store in a shoe frenzy. (A trait I’m sure he inherited from my side of the family.) But frankly, even through frantic running, mothers ought to have the PVC-option clearly displayed and not have anything that challenges the large vinyl conglomerates hidden away and it’s up to the consumers to be active in order to change this paradigm. The good news is, there have been previous articles in the past helping chemical-conscious parents navigate this mire, such as the report on raingear that Planet Green did early last year. Though it seems like we’re making progress, the bad news was that all of the stores listed were US-oriented (boy did I miss America then), meaning that I was still stuck here in the UK without a suitable alternative, particularly as the alternative stores don’t have the budget to market and export their products worldwide. Back to the drawing board – but with a few leads, which eventually led me to some corner shops that coincidentally carried Hatley, one of the only 100% polyurethane kid-friendly stores. I was ecstatic – even more so than when I saw David Sedaris in New York spring of 2007 – so really ecstatic. (You can also find Hatley products from a limited number of retailers online, anywhere in the world - and they are just as fun and colorful without the hazardous carcinogenic effects of the standard jackets.)
So what was the take-away from this experience? It was tiring and certainly worth it, but surely there has to be a better way! I think the mistake is that each of us conscious mothers continues to privately research for hours on end the products best for our kids, the toxic chemicals that we should avoid, as our neighbors do the exact same thing when we should be sharing our findings so that our better product choices can be multiplied at a higher level of impact (and our research time spent on better things – a nice glass of wine, for one) that will eventually lead to greater exposure for the Hatleys of the world and certainly encourage more innovative natural products in the future.