You asked me recently what would be a couple of simple changes that you could make to be ‘green’, and lighten your effect on the planet. It was a sweet question to ask me. First it showed you cared enough about a subject I am interested in (some in the family might say it is more like “obsessed with”) to find out more. Secondly it showed you were looking to lessen your effect on the planet.
I think I stammered out a couple of hints, but wanted to take the time to write out a more useful, or in business-speak, actionable list of changes and the reason I think they are important.
As I mentioned, as much as I want to save the world- I care about the health of the people on the planet first. Although Thoreau said, and I agree, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” I would also hold that part of what make this beautiful planet tolerable is that we are healthy enough to find joy in living here.
Therefore, I want to write you first about moving towards more green products in your personal care and household products. There are chemicals in these products that are unhealthy. Our skin is not a barrier, a layer of saran wrap all over our body, but is permeable. Basically anything we can breath, that we eat, or that touches our skin, is absorbed into our body.
In writing about this I feel like the bad aunt telling you that there is no Santa Claus, because the reason that I have concerns about these chemicals is that there is no regulation or law that keeps beautiful you safe. People tend to have a core belief that if a product is on the grocery store shelf, it has been tested for safety. Unfortunately this is not true. The law that regulates chemicals in foods and household products is called the Toxic Substances Control Act (ToSCA), http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/tsca.html and is administered by the EPA. It was passed in 1976, and any chemicals in common use at the time, about 60,000, were grandfathered into the law as already being safe. Since then only 4 chemicals of these chemicals have been further regulated under the act: Asbestos, Radon, Lead and PCBs. The ban on Asbestos, despite evidence of it’s danger, was overturned in 1991. (Cosmetics are regulated by a different rule- the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.)
One problem with regulating chemicals is that it is difficult to show health effects with chemical exposures. Because studies typically show clusters of disease around exposure to a certain chemical, the population exposed tends to have other things in common. It is hard to isolate, and prove cause and effect to the exclusion of all scientific doubt, when there is no control group that has not been exposed. Therefore it is possible to argue (and has been argued by chemical manufacturers) that problems cannot be attributed to one single chemical cause. Another problem is that the EPA must prove harm before denying use of a chemical under consideration. If no testing exists for that chemical, often the case in new formulations, there is little basis for a ban. This creates a dis-incentive for chemical companies to test their chemicals, at all, before submitting them to the EPA for approval.
My feeling is that this leads to us being the test bunnies in a giant experiment exposing us to new chemicals, and new combinations of chemicals, every time a new product comes out.
The European Union takes a different approach to chemical regulation, called the precautionary principle. http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/consumers/consumer_safety/l32042_en.htm This states that if there is a concern that a material might cause harm to the public or the environment, and there is no scientific agreement that it is safe, that material must not be used. The burden of proving that is is safe falls on those manufacturing the product or material. I like this principle very much, and wish that the US would start a similar approach to chemical regulation.
Luckily I am not the only one freaked out about this, there are numerous companies and non profit organizations that also are concerned. This means that there is very good third party research going on, and information available to help you make good decisions. I used a number of them to come up with this list of changes you can make to keep you healthier and greener. However, you might need to start reading labels, since a lot of the changes are related to avoiding specific ingredients. Sorry that I am making your life more complex, I do it because I love you!
So here are four concrete things that I very much wish you would do:
1- Don’t use Talcum powder. Talc is a carcinogen, and it is nutso crazy that it is used on babies. Use an alternative that contains cornstarch. The frustrating thing is that many companies make both types of powder, so you have to read the label on the product. Talc can also be an ingredient in face powder, so before you powder your nose check the ingredient list.
2- Avoid all Parabens. These are used as preservatives in a lot of products, and there has been enough outcry about them that many, many products are now being labeled Paraben-free. Please choose these products!
These preservatives are listed on the label as methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, benzylparaben, isobutylparaben, and propylparaben. Parabens, specifically, are shown to accumulate in breast cancer tissue, and there are concerns that the way they are absorbed by the body leads to breast cancer and reproductive system cancers. These chemicals are in a class of chemicals known as hormonal mimics. They have a similar enough molecular structure that when they are floating around in your body, a receptor in your body that is expecting a hormone to trigger a natural process sees this chemical and grabs onto it. However, since hormonal mimic chemicals are not actually natural hormones, they do not affect the cell in the same way. Therefore they alter natural processes, by being substituted in the cell for the actual hormone. (Do you like my explanation of organic chemistry? Hey, I was an art major) Hormonal mimics, also known as endocrine disrupters, are the subject of growing levels of concern. Although the dose is very low when using this as a preservative in food or cosmetics, I still worry about ANY exposure to a product that might be carcinogenic or disrupt the endocrine system.
3- Skip the hand sanitizers. There are two concerns about the use of this product. Firstly, Triclosan, the primary ingredient in a lot of these products, is another one of those chemicals that acts as an endocrine disrupter. It is in a lot of products, pretty much anything that is labeled “anti-bacterial”, and is definitely being absorbed by people. It is found in the urine of 75% of the U.S. population. (I am glad I did not work on that study) Secondly, there are concerns that use of this product accelerates the process of bacteria evolving to be resistant to antibiotics. The FDA suggests that if you are concerned with the dangers of Tricosan, you should wash with soap and water after using hand sanitizers. Hey, I have a good idea- why not just wash in soap and water!
4. Don’t use Bleached products. I know, this is a tough one, because nothing makes things white quite like bleach. However it is a strong irritant for your eyes, skin and respiratory tract.
My real reason for disliking bleach is different. In use, bleach combines with organic materials to create a class of chemicals called Dioxins. This is especially true when bleach is used in an industrial process, such as making your coffee filter white. The EPA has found that the exposure to dioxin, just from using bleached coffee filters, is enough to exceed your lifetime acceptable limit. YIKES. There is no ‘safe’ level of dioxins, they are a more potent carcinogen that DDT. They also bio-accumulate, build up in the fat cells of your body, so the exposure is additive over time. Dioxins are associated with reproductive system harm, including fertility issues.
Dioxins also do not break down, so once formed they enter the environment and continue to do harm in the environment, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/
Because I do not want to create such a toxic chemical by my actions, and because I personally follow the Precautionary Principle, I never use bleach in my household cleaning. However the primary concern with bleach use and dioxins are because of their use in industrial processes.
So, please do not use products that use chlorine bleach in their manufacture! Buy unbleached paper towels, if you must use paper towels. Often products are bleached with oxygen bleach, (Hydrogen Peroxide is an oxygen bleach) , and this is much safer. Often these products are labeled as “not whitened using chlorine bleach”. You can get printer paper, binder paper, and even (shhhhh) tampons that are whitened using this safer method.
I know this is a lot to take in, the issues are complex, and it is not possible to explain them in a short little note. I find shopping and purchasing products to be increasingly challenging, the more I read and learn. Know that even if you do one of the above actions, or do all of them, but only most of the time, you still will be making a difference.
My hope is that in the future, the potential health and environmental concerns of various chemicals will be the primary way to determine whether they are used in the products that surround us. However, in the current world, it is important to use knowledge as your primary tool. The following web sites are my favorite for getting more information about healthy products and exploring these issues:
This little film explains the problems with chemicals in cosmetics very clearly, much better than I could ever do: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-cosmetics/
A friend is working on a film about this subject, you can see the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRs3-E340-o&feature=g-upl&context=G29b2bb8AUAAAAAAACAA
The most dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) as determined by the United Nations as part of the Stockholm Convention Treaty: http://www.unido.org/index.php?id=5279
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics works to educate consumers and put pressure on manufacturers to create safe products: http://safecosmetics.org/
Information about every kind of environmental chemical pollutant, and useful databases of safer products: http://www.ewg.org/
Healthy Child Healthy World works to limit children’s exposure to chemicals in the environment: http://healthychild.org/
You can also search for information at the EPA web site: http://www.epa.gov/risk/ – Go EPA