Persistent Pollutants

Recently I read McKay Jenkins’s What’s Gotten Into Us?. The book, like many others in recent years, attempted to catalog the ways in which we’ve invisibly transformed our lived environment over the last several decades to incorporate all sorts of synthetic compounds, many of which stick around for decades more, many of which are extremely toxic to animals, both humans and non-humans alike, and many of which accumulate in our bodies, in our waterways, and in our land.

What differentiates Jenkins’s take from books like High-Tech Trash is that the things Jenkins describes aren’t waste products (e.g., junk left over from manufacturing or using something) and aren’t side effects (e.g., the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning).  These toxins are by and large the things we want in the first place.  Pesticides.  Perfumes.  Preservatives.  Flame retardants.

Jenkins explores five areas of our lives—the body, the home, the big box store, the tap, and the lawn—and in each he finds a vast array of products that we all recognize and treat as ordinary, and yet use compounds we’re scarcely familiar with.  And, as he discovered when investigating studies of persistent compounds in the human body, these things are in all of us.  One study from rural Maine, a place thought to be free of pollution, found dozens of known toxins at high levels in the bodies of almost all people tested, young and old, rich and poor.  (And it’s not just Maine—it’s true across the country and across the world.)

Jenkins invited a toxicologist to do a walk through of his house, and describes an experiment he suggested—take everything that has a smell of any sort—soaps, sprays, detergent, perfume, cleaners, deodorizers, dryer sheets, candles, etc.—and put it all in a big plastic trash bag, and tie it closed. Leave it for one month, and then reopen it.  That’s what you’re inhaling regularly; it’s just not all in one place so you don’t notice it.  A simpler solution, though, is to just throw that stuff away and never take a whiff of it at all.

I had never noticed it until he mentioned it, but most stores do have a kind of funny smell from a combination of all the products.  As he went on a tour of a local big box store, it became quickly apparent what all is being bought and sold on a daily basis.  Among hardware—everything from caulk and sealants, ceiling textures and spray-on products, all with warning labels as to their toxicity.  Pesticides have a few warnings.  Cosmetics and personal care products have none despite their dozens of unpronounceable chemicals, many of which are known toxins.

Companies have realized that people are concerned about these mystery ingredients and instead of fixing the problem, have launched greenwashing efforts to sell the same stuff as “natural” or “green”.  Take fragrances that’re found in almost every personal care product (including, apparently, many products labeled “all natural” or “unscented”): it’s from phthalates, a compound otherwise used to make plastics flexible and last longer.  They’re in virtually everything you can buy in a big box store, and in one population study were found in 75% of participants’ bodies.  Phthalates are endocrine disruptors.

That’s just a small sampling of what he found—there’s plenty more, like flame retardants that cause cancer that are in everything from pajamas to sofas to mattresses to electronics and like non-stick cookware that when used emit toxic compounds that kill pet birds (canaries, perhaps?).

In all, it was a compelling assessment of how invisibly bad our lived environments have become.  In many ways, Jenkins’s writing reminded me of Michael Pollan’s about the food system, lifting the veil of something we depend upon that we know so little about.  Jenkins makes the parallel as well:

The parallels between the food section and the rest of the store were hard to miss, and raised difficult questions. If you are what you eat, this thinking goes—if you are what you put in your body—then aren’t you also what you put on your body? Or what, in your home, you use to surround your body? In another parallel with the food industry, a discussion of the products sold in big box stores inevitably brings up questions of class. Like organic foods, nontoxic products tend to be more expensive. Does this make them an indulgence available only to the wealthy? Is it reasonable to expect people to spend more money on nontoxic products when they can get similar products cheaper in a big box store? By extension, is it fair to criticize a business that caters—first, last, and always—to people trying to save money?

But what if the question is asked another way? What are the ethics of limiting a person’s consumer choices to products made with unhealthy ingredients? If someone living in a poor city neighborhood can choose only between eating at a fast food restaurant and from a convenience store, their chances of becoming obese and diabetic skyrocket. Is that a fair trade? So what do we say about the impact on people’s health from the myriad products for sale in a big box store?

I’m not so sure, though, that we need many or any of those products that are for sale with all sorts of mystery ingredients.  There are alternatives, and over the last few years I’ve been slowly switching to them.  In the appendix, Jenkins offers a few rules of thumb: avoid fragrances and “fresheners”, pesticides, and carpets.  Stick with natural fabrics.  Avoid products that don’t list all their ingredients, and have anything unpronounceable.  Ignore claims like “eco-friendly” or “green”.  Avoid plastic.

Breaking this down into categories, here are a few approaches I’ve preferred, for what it’s worth:

Shampoo: baking soda, water, and a few drops of tea tree oil.
Soap: Dr. Bronners
Clothing: natural fibers (cotton, wool, etc.)
Paints: milk/clay-based paints
Dishware: ceramics, stainless steel, and glass
Cookware: ceramics, stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel
Bedding: wool blankets, buckwheat hull mattresses
Pesticides: diatomaceous earth
Flooring: wood, cork, or tile
Cleaning products: baking soda (when scrubbing) and vinegar (when wiping), lemon juice, eucalyptus oil
Dryer sheets: unnecessary (though I’ve heard about using a ball of wool)
Scented products: none

I’m still investigating better options than what I’ve found for deodorants, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, and I’d be interested in hearing about other ideas and categories as well. In all, I think it’s easy to avoid many of the toxic compounds and save money doing it, and it’s a process that has to happen one person and family at a time.

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