Gazette Highlights Talk by Ann Blake ’85

Environmental activist Ann Blake returns to Mount Holyoke to describe impact of chemicals on health, environment

This article appeared in the November 6, 2013 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By Lauren Quirici [FP’14]

Gazette contributing writer

SOUTH HADLEY — Environmental activist Ann Blake returned to Mount Holyoke last month and used a package of toy rubber ducks to illustrate how potentially harmful chemicals are pervasive.

Blake, who has lived in Alameda, Calif., since 1993, is a 1985 graduate of the college with a degree in biology, and a current Mount Holyoke trustee. She has run her own consulting business since 2002, focusing on the impact of chemicals on health and the environment, and has designed curriculum and taught courses on green chemistry.

The self-described “scientist with the heart of an activist” in her talk “Travels of a Rubber Duck: Science and Policy on Chemicals in Global Manufacturing” related how 28,000 rubber ducks fell from a container ship that was crossing the ocean from Japan to the United States. Blake raised questions about why 28,000 rubber ducks were on a ship in the first place.

She used a package of rubber ducks with batteries that lit up and flashed different colors as an example. The toy was sold in California, a state which requires a warning label for hazardous elements. The label warned that the toy contained cadmium and lead in the battery.

“There are likely phthalates in the plastic to make it soft, which is a hormone-disrupting reproductive toxin,” added Blake. The label also advised people to “wash hands thoroughly after using this product.”

Blake added that the use of these materials should not be surprising. “We ship out electronic waste to China where it gets piled in heaps out next to rivers, burned in open pits for recovery of cheap metals, and we demand a cheap toy coming back the other way, and we’re surprised it has lead paint on it? Really?”

Blake, who has a doctorate in molecular genetics from the Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon in Eugene, told about 70 people at Mount Holyoke Oct. 24 that “the environment is now in us. Every single one of us is carrying between 200 and 250 chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens, reproductive toxins, neurotoxins, and links to hormone disruption.”

Blake reported that in a single generation, the asthma rate has risen 100 percent, the rate of breast cancer has gone from one in 20 to one in eight, impaired fertility has risen 40 percent, autism has grown 1,000 percent, and 30 percent more babies are being born prematurely, causing permanent developmental problems.

Blake encouraged her audience to verify the data themselves by visiting the Environmental Working Group website at

Blake, who has worked to reform chemical policy on local, state, national, and international levels, said she and her colleagues are used to encountering resistance.

“A lot of the push-back we hear are things like, ‘fewer people are dying of cancer,’ or ‘we have more cancer because we’re living longer,’ ” she said.

Blake pointed out that while we are indeed living longer and diagnosing more cancer, these arguments ignore the fact that there is a “massive increase correlated with chemical use in childhood cancer.”

According to Blake, childhood cancers in particular have been linked directly to chemical use, and pesticides in particular.

“Yes, mortality is going down,” Blake said. “We’re getting really good at diagnosing and curing cancer. But more and more children are getting cancer. We haven’t solved the underlying problem. The numbers are absolutely staggering.”

Blake said attention must be focused on finding a better way of making products and services available to the public without endangering their health and the environment.

Blake is currently working to change policies governing a manufacturer which is unsure of the harmful effects of a chemical it wants to use. Regulations have been changed so far to require considering a full range of alternatives if there is any question regarding the harmfulness of a chemical.

While this is not a new concept regarding chemicals in food, drugs and cosmetics, it has not before been considered for chemicals in other products or in the environment.

Reform can be slow, Blake said, as some policy changes have taken 20 to 50 years to be implement.

But there are some positive changes, she said. The European Union has changed part of its Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restrictions of Chemicals regulation to require that manufacturers provide data proving that their products are safe.

And Wal-Mart, a company with a heavy influence on global manufacturing, and which Blake considers to be “at times, the essence of non-sustainable production,” has named ten chemicals it wants suppliers to phase out of their products by 2015.