Starting out in the sphere of hazardous chemicals and diving head first into the harsh reality and devastating effects of man-made chemicals on our bodies and the environment can be overwhelming. ChemSec’s Communication Officer Karin Forslund recounts her first steps as a new employee with the NGO and likens the experience to a grieving process.
Joining the ChemSec team has been the most thrilling and fulfilling experience of my professional life thus far. When Executive Director Anne-Sofie Bäckar called me on that sunny autumn day of 2020 to offer me the position of ChemSec’s new communications officer, in the middle of a raging pandemic that had cost countless lives and jobs, I had to restrain myself from squealing into the phone. Rendering your boss deaf before you’ve even started definitely doesn’t qualify as a good first impression.
It wasn’t simply the fact that I had a job again, a professional purpose – not to mention a paycheck. It was the fact that I had become part of a greater cause, with a platform and the opportunity to help make the world a better and chemically safer place. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way my new job would cause me to lose my innocence. My chemical innocence, that is. I’m not going to lie; as fulfilling as the work I and my stellar co-workers do every day, that loss was painful – and necessary.
Stage one: Denial
Of course, I knew that we’re surrounded by hazardous chemicals, even before joining ChemSec. Of course, I knew that there was some bad stuff in consumer products – occasionally even in the ones intended for very young children.
But like so many other consumers, I bought the greenwashing of products claiming to be free from ONE hazardous chemical – without any information of what that chemical had been replaced with – and brought them home to my precious family.
“Surely, established manufacturers would never intentionally add anything that could harm the users of their products”
Surely, established manufacturers would never intentionally add anything that could harm the users of their products. Surely, the trusted store where I bought the items would never sell products with questionable content. Right?
Stage two: Anger
Wrong. I remember sitting up straight on the edge of our couch, body trembling and tears streaming down my face, as Mark Ruffalo’s Rob Bilott went up against the giant chemical company responsible for contaminating an entire town with harmful PFAS chemicals in Dark Waters.
My new colleagues had advised me to watch the movie, as well as the related documentary The Devil We Know and some other notable resources to get a grasp of the situation. And boy, did I grasp it… For a while, Teflon, harmful textile dyes, and toxics in cosmetics – some of the topics of my research and infotainment consumption – were all I could think about. I vividly remember getting into quite the row with a loved one over their non-stick pans.
Stage three: Bargaining
Unable to make my chemically induced rage subside, I knew I had to convert it into something useful. Apart from my daily efforts at ChemSec, I decided to take a good look at the stuff my family bought and used. Where was it possible for us to make chemically safer and more sustainable choices?
This was, and remains, the sound of a very typical Saturday shopping tour for our family: “No, don’t take the plastic lunch boxes. Let’s buy these glass ones instead. Should we really get this bamboo cutting board? There could be melamine in it. Why is every single garment here made from polyester? That rinse aid contains PFAS. Let’s use vinegar instead.”
Stage four: Depression
In March of 2021, we began remodeling our home and suddenly, “safe and sustainable” became incompatible with “budget and time plan”.
Although our original plan was to make the project as chemically safe and environmentally friendly as possible, cost and planning issues soon had us opting for a common construction set-up: styrofoam (who knew you can build a house out of plastic?), concrete and good ol’ lumber.
Even though deep down I knew this was the only sensible course of action, I felt defeated. Is this really the best modern society can achieve? Have we peaked at styrofoam and concrete?
“Is this really the best modern society can achieve? Have we peaked at styrofoam and concrete?”
Does a truly safe and sustainable construction project require both me and my significant other to take a leave of absence for a year, painstakingly and lovingly building our own home using hay bales and lime cement, like something out of Grand Designs?
Stage five: Acceptance
I still slip into both the anger and depression stages every once and a while, when the implementation of the EU:s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is not progressing as fast as we want it to, when representatives of the chemical industry spew some variant of “salt can kill you too”, or when another heartbreaking PFAS exposure story surfaces somewhere in the world. In time, it has gotten easier to get up, brush off that sense of hopelessness, roll up my sleeves and get back to work.
I will never accept unjustified use of toxic chemicals in consumer products. Nor will I ever accept arguments from those who say the transition to safer chemicals can’t be done, when that very shift is happening right now. What I do accept is that this is our fight, and the only way to win it is by working together – for better or worse, through joy and grief.