Jessica Alba and the Chemistry Thing

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Incredible as it seems, lawmakers have not sought out my opinion on the proposed Senate Safe Chemicals Act even though – geez – didn’t I just brilliantly blog on the subject last week?

Instead  the woman standing next to chemical bill sponsor U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg this week was film actor Jessica Alba, who turns out to be the new spokesperson for the advocacy group, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Photo credit: AP

Okay, the resulting, widely circulated photo doesn’t exactly show her at her chemical crusader best here but apparently she was reacting to a buzzer signalling a vote, not trying to explain the importance of the legislation.

Still, The Washington Post couldn’t resist poking fun at her chemical qualifications: Credentials: Pin-up, nerdfare starlet (“Sin City”, “Fantastic Four”), mom now expecting her second child. NPR health journalist and blogger, Scott Hensley, felt compelled to ask his readers how they felt about celebrities advocating for legislation. Mostly they were fine with it, especially if the stars were, you know, sincere.

Still, Henley’s  multiple choice survey and didn’t offer the option I planned to check, the  “I-like-celebrities-who-care-enough-to-crusade-and-she-does-seem-sincere- but–can-I-just-bitch-a-little-anyway?” option.

Because when I read her statements on the subject, they suggest that a) she doesn’t actually know anything about the chemicals in question b) she believes potential followers will be put off by actual, genuine, technical information c) someone else wrote them anyway.

Her post on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Family website features a lovely picture of Ms. Alba and a heartfelt call to action. Beyond that, it tends to play “guess the compound” with the reader.   There’s a reference to “toxic chemicals in plastics used to make baby bottles”, which I deduce refers to bisphenol-A (BPA), the current poster child for evil compounds in household products. There’s another reference to “brain toxins in children’s toys,” which I puzzled over – I mean, “brain toxins?” – before concluding that she was talking about the heavy metal lead, which as I’ve also noted -  once or twice - turns up far too often in consumer products and is, indeed, a dangerously poisonous element.

On the other hand, maybe that’s not what she means by “brain toxins” at all. But then what does she mean? And – and here is my real bitch/concern/question – shouldn’t the campaign for safer chemicals be wonderfully, usefully clear instead of giving us this this rather alarmist “chemistry thing” call to action?

The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act is, in fact, woefully inadequate and it’s ridiculous that we’ve put up with it this long. And the current push for new legislation, the discussion over how we study, understand, and (thoughtfully) regulate industrial chemicals matters.  I’m glad that, as the  journal Chemical and Engineering News notes,  Alba is injecting “pizzazz” into the conversation. I’m glad that, as Hensley points out, her interest helps lift the Safe Chemicals Act out of relative obscurity.

I’d still like to argue celebrities – and more so the advocacy groups they represent – should be held to at least a minimum standard of responsibility; that we have a right to expect crusaders, famous or no, to demonstrate clear and credible knowledge of their chosen issue.

And that ends my little bitch session. Because on the larger point Alba is right there: “I was shocked to learn that it is perfectly legal to have known toxic chemicals in consumer products that are on our shelves,” she said in the D.C. press briefing with Lautenberg. “Like most people, I thought the government regulated [industrial] chemicals the way they regulate drugs. I was wrong.”

Wouldn’t it be smart to fix that situation? she asked. Isn’t it basic “common sense” to want reasonable testing and evaluation? I believe I will be checking the “yes-works-for-me” option on that one. And on her ability to remind people that these  “chemistry thing” questions that we should all be asking – count me a fan.

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