18 Questions with Environmental Health Advocate, Bobbi Wilding

by eco18
                 PHOTO: Bobbi Wilding, Deputy Director of Clean & Healthy New York (CHNY)

Bobbi Wilding, Deputy Director of Clean & Healthy New York (CHNY), and Director of the national Getting Ready for Baby Campaign has worked to create a world free of toxic chemicals. She learned to love nature when she was young and realized later while advocating for environmental causes during her summer jobs that our health is inseparable from the health of the planet. This is how she decided to specialize in environmental health. Bobbi has authored and co-authored numerous reports and guides, and most recently helped released The Mattress Still Matters report, which aims to help parents-to-be to make the best choices to protect their babies from manufacturers who do not disclose the chemicals used in crib mattresses. Bobbi gets our Eco Maven spot for the month of August!

1) What inspired you to become an environmental health advocate?

This is a lifelong passion of mine in many ways. My parents inspired a love of nature in my early years– taking me to Cleveland’s Natural History Museum when I was as young as two, going out in the evening to look for rabbits and deer near our home in Ann Arbor, MI when I was four and five, tasking me with delivering door tags explaining the community recycling programs when I was ten.

When I was in junior high school, a line of old-growth trees in a woodlot that had escaped being cut when the area was farmed and then developed, was cut down by new property owners, something they were only able to do because of a loophole in a local law. I was already a treehugger, literally, and losing those trees that would have taken three of me to reach around, as well as the wooded area where we played, broke my heart. It brought home to me just how much control humans had over protecting or destroying nature.

That led me to choose to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York to study Environmental Science, and I had summer jobs going door to door for environmental causes. That’s when I really connected the ways that we cannot separate our fate and our health from that of our planet, and came to focus on environmental health. A Master’s degree in Ecological Economics, Values, and Policy, and an organization co-founded with a longtime colleague, and here we are.

2) How did you get started in the toxic-free baby products industry?

My first daughter was born in 2004, and shortly after came revelations that the things made for her – and that she was putting into her mouth – contained lead and other chemicals that could harm her health. Like many parents, I had generally assumed that companies making products for my young child were being thoughtful about the materials and chemicals they used. And we were wrong. After winning policy changes from county- and state-level bans on the hormone disrupting chemical BPA in baby bottles, to the national Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, it became clear that companies needed to be engaged directly. In 2013, we launched the Getting Ready for Baby campaign, with the goal that is at once simple and incredible complex: every item made for babies and young children should be free of harmful chemicals.

3) You have authored and co-authored numerous reports and guides, what can you tell us about your most recent work with The Mattress Still Matters: Protecting Babies and Toddlers from Toxic Chemicals While They Sleep?

Newborn babies sleep roughly 16 hours a day (even if it doesn’t seem that way to sleep-deprived parents!). That means that they are spending a lot of time in their cribs – and the chemicals used to make the mattress matter a lot. Just like the broader market, it’s sadly not the case that every crib mattress is free of harmful chemicals.

In 2011, we released a market survey report we called The Mattress Matters, and this year we are releasing a follow-up to that report.

We set out to take a look at broad crib mattress marketplace, and identified 37 companies and over 200 specific mattress models. We found good news and bad news. The good news is that there are products made without petroleum as their major input (so no petroleum-based plastic, coatings, or cores) and more and more companies are offering items that meet those criteria, verifying they are free of harmful chemicals through strong independent certifications from Made Safe, GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard), and GOLS (the Global Organic Latex Standard).  

Ten mattresses from six companies met that high bar: Lifekind, Naturepedic, Obasan, OMI, Soaring Heart, and White Lotus Home. Even for the low-priced end of the market, our survey of materials found two mattresses (just) under $100 from Sealy that avoid vinyl, chemical flame retardants, polyurethane foam, and PFAS chemicals.

The not-so-good news is that we tested 13 products and compared that with what the companies disclosed, only 4 matched completely. In several cases, companies didn’t tell that the covers were made of vinyl, and seven had undisclosed flame retardant chemicals. Three mattresses had PFAS, and two possibly had PFAS.

So people understand what’s at stake:

Vinyl means polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC, and it is a cheap waterproof cover material or coating that requires many additives, including bisphenol A and plasticizers. Vinyl is toxic to produce, can make smoke toxic when it burns, and the additives can come out of the vinyl while the product is in use, exposing children.

PFAS is a large class of chemicals made with fluorine, and they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they last so long in the environment. PFAS is used as a waterproofer, and can contribute to immune and thyroid problems, and cancer.

Flame-retardants are used in covers, barriers, or foam to meet federal flammability standards, and there are a wide variety of them, contributing to numerous health problems like cancer, infertility, and learning and developmental challenges.

4) Why was it necessary to release a new crib mattress report? How does the Mattress Still Matters differentiate from the previous report?

The crib mattress markets changes more than you might think it would – and laws and public pressure have changed a lot since 2011. We know parents are (rightly) concerned about what their babies are sleeping on nightly, and so we thought it was time to take another look. 

In 2011, we conducted only a market survey. This time, we combined it with testing for some of the items, which gave us new insights.

Thankfully, the market is evolving, and companies are being more transparent:

  • In 2011, only two companies fully disclosed information about major materials on their websites, and in 2020, ten companies do.
  • In 2011, 40% of mattresses had vinyl covers, in 2020, 27% do.
  • In 2011, few manufacturers disclosed how they met flammability standards, but those that used polyurethane foam cores or padding were presumed to add them there, and today, two thirds of the brands report using flame barriers, with 12% of mattresses being designed to meet flammability standards without the need for barriers or additives.

Further, more and more crib mattresses across all price points are made without polyurethane foam (in part to cut down on the need for flame retardants).

These are all victories for our work and for families! On a personal note, in 2011, we created a cut-away drawing to show mattress layers and explain what was inside. Brands were not doing that. Today, many companies describe each layer using a similar cut-away. That alone shows the power that reports like this can have in moving companies to do better.

5) What are some of the most important takeaways of the report that parents-to-be should know about?

The biggest take away for me looking at what we found was that there’s a pretty wide range of behavior in this market sector – some companies disclose a lot of information, some not as much (though that is improving), and some companies have innovative or old-school solutions to avoid chemicals of concern, and fabricating products with healthy materials, some are somewhere in the middle, and some are still using harmful chemicals. This is pretty reflective of the broader children’s product sector.

We’ve done the work of untangling what companies are disclosing, what they say they’re using, and checked some of those with laboratory tests. The most transparent and healthiest companies are Lifekind, My Green Mattress, Naturepedic, Obasan, OMI, SavvyRest, Sleep Lily, Soaring Heart, and White Lotus Home. Safer mattresses are available from Bloom Baby, Lullaby Earth, and Newton Baby.

We identified the most chemicals of concern and questions about missing information from Colgate Mattress, Delta Children, Dream on Me, Foundations, LA Baby, Millard Bedding, Moonlight Slumber, and Simmons Kids.

And some companies gave varying amounts of information and offered products with a wider range of materials: Kolcraft, Safety 1st, Sealy, Serta, and Stearns & Foster.

6) What should parents look for when choosing safer crib mattresses for their newborns?

First of all, if it is within your budget do to it, look for mattresses that are fully verified as Made Safe or GOTS certified. Then, ask careful questions and review materials to avoid vinyl, flame retardants, PFAS, antimicrobials, and polyurethane foam. Our report should help with that, but new models are introduced frequently, so asking questions is important. If companies use vague language (like, “medical-grade triple layer cover”) be suspicious. If they were proud of the material, they’d just tell you what it is.

I’d also encourage you to go beyond finding the safest mattress for your family – call companies and demand they make all their mattresses from safe materials. Make sure to tell your favorite retailer that’s what you’re looking for. Calling those 800 numbers on product packaging can make a difference.

I’d also urge you to visit the Getting Ready for Baby website and sign up to stay engaged – we’ll give you opportunities to join others in making calls and signing petitions to get retailer and brand attention.

7) When we were reading about the toxic chemicals that can be found in crib mattresses, we couldn’t stop thinking, “how did we get here?” Has it always been this way?

I’m in my 40s, and I’m pretty sure the crib mattress I slept on was covered with vinyl. But historically, no – crib mattresses used to be like adult mattresses, springs, a little padding, and a cloth cover. Parents would use waterproof mattress pads, including those made of wool, to prevent stains.

Over the past few decades, plastics and petroleum-based foams have taken hold of the marketplace, and crib mattresses were included. With those foams came more chemical additives. I am hoping we’re past the peak of nasty chemicals being used in crib mattresses – and public attention and outcry will only move us away faster.

8) How do other countries handle the production and regulations of baby products like crib mattresses?

There’s a lot of variation globally, but Europe has moved much further ahead to restrict harmful chemicals, in products for everyone, and for children and babies. They take a more precautionary approach.

9) How is it that the chemical policies in the U.S. are so far behind when compared with other parts of the world?

We allow financially interested industry players to have a significant voice in our policy discussions. That’s a nice way of saying that the chemical industry through the American Chemistry Council and similar trade associations spend a lot of money and time influencing the way laws are written and regulations crafted. On top of that, quite honestly, other countries have nationalized health care, which means the government pays more when people are sick. This makes taking steps to prevent disease – including by restricting harmful or unknown chemicals – a priority.

 10) Earlier this year, New York signed the Child Safe Products Act, which will help ban harmful toxins from toys and other products. The law will also set the framework for banning a list of toxic chemicals found in children’s products such as toys, car seats, baby care products, toiletries, school supplies, and furniture. Are regulations like this in place in other states? Could NY served as a model to follow?

This law is a crucial component in our work to protect children from harmful chemicals – it will require companies to report chemicals of concern to a central database, and ban the worst of the worst. Even more importantly – it gives the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation the ability to ban other harmful chemicals over time – based on evidence, not just the political will in the Capitol. There are other laws in a few states like Vermont, Washington, Oregon and Maine, and New York is the largest state to take this action. To make it easy for consumers to find this information, most of these states are working together through the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse. Families can get information about reports to Washington and Oregon here.

We need more states to take this kind of action to get families more information, and more importantly to give parents increased peace of mind as harmful chemicals are banned.

 11) What actions can parents take to promote meaningful changes at every level, in the use of  toxic chemicals in baby products, even beyond crib mattresses?

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There is a lot of work to be done – which means there are a lot of opportunities to get involved. Parents can start by identifying the brands that make their kids’ favorite products and call the company, asking not only about what’s in that item, but also asking: do they have a proactive policy to use inherently safe materials? What list of chemicals do they avoid?

Ask candidates for elected office what they will do to make sure toxic chemicals are removed from the market place, and include those answers in your decision about who to vote for. Ask your elected officials to support policies that promote safe solutions and ban harmful chemicals. And note: concern for protecting toxic chemicals.

Check out the Getting Ready for Baby website and learn more about harmful chemicals and what the safer solutions are. Talk with your friends about these issues, and encourage them to join you in taking action. It’s going to take many of us to make these changes, but together, we can do it!

12) There’s no doubt about the impact that COVID-19 is having and will continue to have throughout the future of our society. Do you see a realistic opportunity for changing how we think about hazardous chemicals? Do you think this will impact the behavior of manufacturers in these industries?

One thing that has become clear is that allowing the use of chemicals that contribute to chronic diseases like heart disease, respiratory problems, and cancers leaves us vulnerable to unexpected new threats, like COVID-19. The fact of who is most harmed by this – people of color – has also come into sharp focus. There are lessons here for us to learn as a society, and I hope we will act to shift towards healthier materials to meet everyone’s needs, while repairing harm done in communities of color.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, what I’ve seen from some industries is the use of the pandemic to push back against our progress toward greater environmental health – for example, to argue that polyvinyl chloride is an essential material and to oppose restrictions on it because of its hazard profile, or to fight plastic bag bans by creating fears around reusable bags. Those are industries putting their profit once again ahead of the wellbeing of people.

13) You are dedicated to the wonderful cause of creating a world in which humans, animals and the planet are not contaminated with toxic chemicals. This is a lifetime work! Can you tell us what motivates your pursuit of such an amazing goal?

This is one of the great challenges of our time. We have made amazing advances as a species, but along with that we’ve made a lot of dangerous choices when it comes to the chemicals we use, often before we understand the implications of those choices. In some ways it seems like we’re locked into this pattern, but I believe that we can reach a tipping point of people demanding better, companies finding solutions that are truly sustainable, and government setting stronger standards when, in a short span of time, we can assert a “new normal” – and using toxic chemicals and fossil fuels will confound new generations of young people. Just like watching movies of people smoking in airplanes and office buildings seems strange and disturbing now. 

I guess you could say this work is my expression of hope for our future.

 14) What are the most rewarding, and most challenging parts of your job?

One of the things we say most often at Clean and Healthy New York is “together we win” – and the most rewarding parts of my job has to do with the first half of that – “together.”

My job gives me the chance to work collaboratively with amazing people across the country with a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, and when those days come when we can see our progress, through a new law, or new policy from a company, or just the changing patterns of product design, the “win” is that much sweeter.

The most challenging part is the way that chemical manufacturers find new ways to skirt around those new laws or policies. There’s a lot we just don’t know about the harms of newly-developed chemicals, and they can take advantage of that weakness in our system to keep using the same basic chemical components, many of which are petroleum-based, just in a slightly new way that still results in the same kinds of harms to people’s health and that of the planet. That makes it hard for everyone of good will making products, selling them, or buying and using them to ensure only safer materials are used. However, I see more and more companies looking to use only materials that we know are safer, and that gives me a lot of hope.

 15) How do you balance your professional passion with your personal life?

I’ve often told people that you couldn’t stop me from doing the work I do, whether I was paid or not. My family makes it easy for me, because they know how much my work matters to me, and it matters to them, too.

When my children were younger, they often came and lobbied with me – which meant I could have my nursing baby with me to meet legislators, which was good for both my family and my work – it helps to be reminded who’s interests are really at stake. But everyone needs time away from their vocations or avocations!

I hold weekends (mostly) free to spend time with my family and friends. I am part of the local community theater group, sometimes performing, and sometimes working back stage. This summer my daughters, husband, and I have been taking advantage of the nearby drive-in movie theater to catch up on some classic 80s films.

 16) There are so many riveting environment-focused shows and documentaries on streaming services today. Are there any that have stood out to you or that you would recommend to our readers?

There really have been some great ones. Ed Brown is just rolling out a new one focused on flame retardants called Advanced Warning. And a few years ago, Jon Whelan released Stink! To understand the history of this issue, and what’s been at stake for many decades, I’d recommend Bill Moyer’s oldie-but-goodie from 2001, Trade Secrets, which documents chemical companies’ efforts to keep American workers and the public from knowing the real health and environmental impacts of the chemicals they make. Some things have changed, but seeing how long companies have worked to keep us in the dark is maddening.

 17) What advice would you give to young women who would like to follow in your footsteps? 

First: just do it! Find groups and people who can mentor you, and dive in. There’s always room for one more passionate advocate for a cleaner, healthier world.

People come to this work from a lot of different paths, as activists focused on other issues, policy analysist working with legislators, with scientific backgrounds, as health care professionals, and more. Each of those backgrounds offers skillsets that are needed for this work – so pursue what you’re passionate about.

The most important trait for this work is a hopeful determination to change things and to solve problems. That comes in handy day-to-day, and for holding steady to a vision of the world you want to help make real, even in the face of delays or setbacks.

 18) Can you give us a sneak preview? What does the future hold for you and Clean and Healthy New York?

Our big focus is on ensuring all of our work weaves together to drive a nontoxic, just, sustainable circular economy – which requires transparency, acting to eliminate known hazards, driving innovative solutions, and recognizing that our work is deeply integrated with other environmental and social movements: with climate change advocates, ensuring companies don’t simply move their oil and gas extraction from serving the energy sector to serving the product sector; with racial justice advocates, recognizing that the same racist forces that drive police brutality drive the health consequences of hazardous chemical production, use, and disposal disproportionately into communities of color; with those interested in reducing waste and plastic, recognizing that too much of what we think of as “solid waste” contains chemicals of concern, which make it unworthy of recycling into new products, and that “zero waste” requires designing only healthy materials choices.   

As part of that, we are working to ensure New York State enacts as regulations the strong Guidance they issued for cleaning product ingredient disclosure. As part of that, we have looked at five companies and how they’re addressing requirements under a recent California law and the recommendations issued by New York State while their regulation is formalized. A report on our findings will be out soon!

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