Laura MacCleery was four months pregnant when she parked herself on the couch and started an inventory of the chemicals in her Alexandria, Va., town house.
First, MacCleery, 40, a lawyer and women's health advocate, collected 70 products in a pile: things such as makeup, shampoo, detergents and sink cleaners.
Then she typed the names of the cosmetics into an online database called Skin Deep, created by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org/skindeep), a research and advocacy organization.
The results were not comforting. MacCleery's $25 lipsticks contained a dizzying brew of chemicals, including ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, a possible endocrine disruptor.
"When I bought them, I thought I was doing something special for myself," she said. "But then it turned out I was probably eating petrochemicals."
The lipsticks went into the trash bag.
For some products, the site listed dozens of exotic chemicals and compounds. There were estrogenic hormones and neurotoxins and bioaccumulators. For other items, there was almost no information at all.
What effects could these substances have on her baby? MacCleery didn't know and didn't intend to find out. By the time the inventory was over, "I threw out, I would say, all but three or four of the items," she said. "Everything was toxic. Everything."
MacCleery had previously spent eight years working for Public Citizen, a consumer product-safety organization. After the birth of her baby, Maya, in fall 2010, she "became obsessed" with monitoring the health of her own home. How could she determine whether the wall stickers in the nursery contained polyvinyl chloride, a suspected lung irritant? She interrogated the merchant by email. (Surprise! MacCleery had inadvertently stuck PVC above Maya's crib.)
"Professional experience showed me that neither corporations nor the government could be counted on to care for my family," MacCleery said. So she did it herself, establishing a shelf of environmental-health books and a regime of natural baby products.
In lieu of a hazmat onesie, the household chemical purge may be developing into a ritual of new parenthood, a counterpoint to the traditional baby shower. Talk to pediatricians, medical historians and environmental scientists, and they will tell you the social phenomenon hasn't been studied much. Depending on whom you ask, it's a media-induced mass hysteria, an eco-marketing trend, a public health campaign or a stealth environmental movement possibly all of the above.
Forecasts from Mintel, a market research firm, say concerns about chemicals have made natural baby goods "some of the hottest green-product categories."
The mood of the times must be anxious, indeed, when an entertainer such as Jessica Alba starts not a perfume line but a subscription service for nontoxic baby products (the Honest Co.).
Parents can consult websites including Healthy Child Healthy World (healthychild.org), whose mission is to "ignite the movement that empowers parents to protect children from harmful chemicals."
Or they can pore over safety ratings for children's clothes, furniture and toys at GoodGuide (goodguide. com) and Healthy Stuff (healthystuff.org).
And once baby finally goes down for the night, new parents can fret along with the documentary "My Toxic Baby." Or they can seek succor in a library of horror: books like "What's Toxic, What's Not," "Raising Elijah" and "Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World." The title of one volume suggests the pervasiveness of the threat: "Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things."
American parents (mothers in particular) have forever worried about the health of their children at home. Sarah Leavitt, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., cites the early 20th century campaign to banish the "Turkish cozy corner." Domestic-advice writers condemned this tenting of draped cloth and stacked pillows as a breeding ground for germs.
Perhaps every era gets the anxiety it deserves. After all, many of today's hyper-vigilant parents grew up in the who's-watching-the-kids '70s, burning plastic bags in the back yard and spraying poison on anything that crawled. Back then, typical lead levels in children registered at five to six times today's average reading. And didn't most of those kids turn out (more or less) OK?
But what this argument misses is the wild pro- liferation of chemicals in the marketplace, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University.
"One thousand to three thousand new chemicals were introduced into our environment every year over the past 30 years," Trasande said.
According to published counts, more than 80,000 chemicals go into American industry, from the manufacturing process in a factory to the end product at the big-box store. These compounds may be innocuous (like water) or pernicious (like methylmercury). With so many substances around, it's hard to know.
Hundreds of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, fire retardants and PCBs, can be found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, according to studies by the Environmental Working Group. It's particularly unsettling to imagine how these chemicals might affect fetal development, as a single cell turns into trillions, said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment, at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
And from birth, chemical exposure only grows. Young children eat and drink more, as a share of their body weight, than adults do. They breathe more air. Playing on the floor, they absorb chemicals through the skin.
As the chemical load, or "body burden," has increased, Trasande said, "we've seen an increase in chronic childhood diseases: asthma, developmental disabilities, certain birth defects, certain childhood cancers. And these aren't just two trends that exist at the same time. There are scientific studies that have tied the two together."
Health or safety data exist for approximately only 15 percent of new chemicals submitted for approval to the Environmental Protection Agency, Paulson wrote in a May 2011 policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of older chemicals those on the market before the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 typically require no safety testing at all.
In an email, Kathryn St. John of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, maintained that manufacturers "go to great lengths to make their chemicals safe for industrial uses, for commercial uses and for consumer uses."
St. John, the group's senior director for product communications, said the chemical industry strongly believes the Toxic Substances Control Act should be modernized, in part "to reflect improved understanding of the way chemicals interact with the human body and the environment."
But even under today's standards, she argued, the "EPA has full authority and uses it to demand additional information and testing, impose labeling requirements, limit uses to manage potential risks and deny the application for manufacture."
The debate may seem suited to a slow day on C-SPAN3, but the stakes could scarcely be higher. In May 2011, Trasande published a paper in Health Affairs calculating recent costs of treating pediatric diseases of possible environmental origin like asthma, childhood cancer and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
A portion of the total societal costs attributable to toxic exposures: $76.6 billion for a single year.
Some parents take up the research into chemical safety with intellectual rigor, and remain unconvinced of a high threat level.
Adam Zeiger, father to 6-month-old Eyal, is a 27-year-old doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering in Cambridge, Mass. His wife, Danna, 27, is earning her doctorate in molecular and cell biology.
Even so, "If my Ph.D. process has taught me anything," he wrote in an email, it's that "I know absolutely nothing. But at least I can do my homework."
Zeiger's inquiries have left him unconvinced about the toxic threat.
"There are tons of people and forums against this chemical," he wrote. "Or saying to avoid that product. Or, 'Don't touch X, Y or Z because they contain something that resembles something, that came from something, that if used otherwise would cause cancer when given to rats in a million times higher doses.' "