Merlene Davis: Exhibit, forum alert us to chemical dangers in environment

Although she doesn't want to appear to be shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, Elizabeth Crowe does want to sound an environmental alarm, especially for women, concerning the toxic chemicals that are all around us.

While we may be aware of the pollutants we inhale, Crowe, executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, believes we should also be alerted to the chemicals in the products we buy and use on a daily basis.

"Those are things that we put directly on our bodies and that are in the foods we eat," she said.

For women, those products could be the lipsticks we use, hair straightening products and skin lighteners. A couple of those products are uniquely targeted to black and Hispanic women, who have been shown to have higher rates of cancers than women of other ethnicities.

Some environmentalists believe there is a direct correlation between that disheartening health data and the chemicals that surround us.

But we women are known to ignore the cumulative effect of some chemicals that give us an outward sense of beauty. Otherwise, we would be repelled by the smells generated in nail salons.

To help us better comprehend our environment and, in some cases, avoid it, the foundation is presenting a traveling photography exhibit featuring three Kentucky women who are living with chemical toxicity. Burden of Proof: Living with Toxic Chemicals was financed by a grant from The Kentucky Foundation for Women and features the works of Ashley Stinson Campbell, Rebecca Gayle Howell and Amber Sigman. It premiered in Berea in August.

In Lexington, the photographs will be on display at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center. The exhibit, which runs through November 17, opens tonight with a community forum with grassroots activists discussing the toxic chemicals and ways we can either change our behavior or demand changes.

Speakers will include Eboni Cochran, director of Louisville environmental justice group Rubbertown Emergency Action (REACT); Monica Unseld, a health advocate expert on endocrine-disrupting chemicals; and Andrea James, Kentucky Environmental Foundation community educator and former Urban County Council member.

"What we will have is the bad news and an opportunity for people to take action," Crowe said.

For example, Crowe said, the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an additive in plastic bottles and in the lining of metal food cans.

"When we eat foods from cans or drink beverages from plastic containers, we are getting that chemical directly into our bodies," she said.

Latinos and blacks have been shown to have a disproportionately high level of BPA in their bodies, perhaps due to eating more canned foods than fresh products that aren't always available in lower-income neighborhoods.

Plus, she said, the chemical found in flame retardants that are used in virtually all the foam found in our couches and chairs has been found in black women at a higher level. Crowe suggested the higher levels may occur because people with lower incomes may have more secondhand or less expensive furniture that is more likely to leech the chemical.

Although we cannot avoid all toxic chemicals as we move through daily activities, we can pressure our political leaders and manufacturers to switch the chemicals they use.

Once manufacturers learned consumers were concerned with the BPA in baby bottles, for example, they took it out.

"And more and more food can companies are pulling BPA out," Crowe said. "Not because of laws, but because they know people are voting with their dollars."

The same will be true of the cosmetic industry, she said, if women become more aware of what is contained in the products they use.

"Our challenge is to deliver information so people can act," Crowe said of the event.