Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles

My short backstage video for the Anderson appearance this week highlighted how small changes can make a big difference, and that got me thinking about the serious problem of information overload.

The truth is, once you start taking the issue of chemicals and environmental health seriously, it can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, the thing I hear most from people is that they “don’t want to know” about toxics, because they fear it will drive them batty to have to think this hard about choices that should be simple.

This is completely understandable as a sanity-saving response to terrible news. Obviously, I think that the hard work of making sure products are safe is first and foremost a job for the government, and should not rest on the shoulders of individual consumers who, let’s face it, do have lives to lead. (Or so I’ve heard. I obviously wouldn’t know much about that.)

Nonetheless, as the tagline for my blog says, until the government gets on the stick, it certainly seems like it’s up to us. So here’s three principles that I’ve found useful in framing what I care most – and least – about:

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

I’ll do a much more detailed post on a comprehensive and protective approach to pregnancy very soon, but for these purposes, be certain that if you are adopting a careful, even “paranoid” approach to reducing exposure to chemicals while pregnant – and other environmental hazards, including “natural” elements such as mercury and lead that have been put into the environment at much greater levels by humans – that is all to the good.

In utero exposure to pesticides, lead, mercury, solvents, endocrine disruptors and persistent organic pollutants have been linked to autism, cancer, low birth weight, lowered IQ, reproductive health problems, you name it. (I will walk through the evidence on these in that future post; in the meantime, no one makes this case more eloquently than Sandra Steingraber‘s frightening and beautiful book, Having Faith.)

Pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should be incredibly careful in whatever ways that they can be, and should not let anyone talk them out of whatever measures and steps that they can take. Be fierce, my friends. And careful. Or fiercely careful. Carefully fierce? You get my point.

The good news – if there is any in this incredibly annoying situation that puts all the burden on women and none on the chemical companies to stop exposing us – is that once you make these changes, you will be far better prepared for a baby to join your home.

The three months following birth has been called the “fourth trimester” by child specialist Harvey Karp because so much development remains to be done in very young infants. A similar principle should be applied to newborns and chemicals. The skin of new babies is much thinner, and they, like all young children, breathe at a much faster rate than adults, meaning that anything in the air is inhaled at twice the rate or more. They also crawl around in the floor, in the dust, put everything in their mouths, and spend a lot of time indoors, at home.

In addition, we are just learning in recent years about epigenetics, i.e., how chemicals and environmental factors can turn genetic cues on and off, affecting an individual’s health, and it stands to reason that children, who have so much developing left to do, are uniquely vulnerable to these changes.

Then there’s their small size: exposures in an 8-pound, or even, 30-pound person are just larger in relative impact than in an adult, and the dose of many of these chemicals matters (though some, like BPA and similar chemicals, have effects even at tiny doses). Troublingly, most risk assessments on chemicals are modeled on their impacts on an adult over a lifetime of exposure, and are not appropriately adjusted to assess risks for children, meaning that the metrics we use even for the very few chemicals we do regulate are not protective enough for children.

Last, there’s the practical factor that children will have more time to be exposed, meaning that any delay in building up their inevitable future body burden of chemicals has got to be a good thing.

2)    Place:  Look Most Closely at What Goes In or On Your Body or In Your Home

I think of these in three circles. First, and most obvious, think about your food: organic is best, and grass-fed organic is even better. If you can’t afford this for everything, which is understandable, then just change up foods on the list of the Dirty Dozen with the highest levels of pesticides (plus peanut butter).

Second, focus on your personal care products. Going way back to basics makes this much easier: pick up a decent deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, sunscreen, a few cosmetics that you’ll use daily, shampoo, conditioner and soap, check them against the Skin Deep database, and call it enough. (Some truly helpful tips on how to do this are here.) For babies and children, a list of items we use is here.

Toss the fancy face creams full of unpronounceable ingredients that won’t make you look younger anyway and make give you cancer. (This was a hard one for me, as I used to like to believe a miracle in a jar… for fifty bucks and whatever was left of my limited dignity.)

Last, think about your household cleaners. Laundry detergent and dishwasher soap are most important, because you wear and eat them, respectively. Then pick up an all-purpose green cleaner, checkin it on Good Guide, or make one of vinegar, baking soda and lemon. Buy a HEPA filter vacuum for the chemical flame retardants in the dust.

As a final check, think through what you bring into your home. Leave shoes at the door, or better yet, in the garage. Do not use dryer sheets, smelly plug-ins or scented candles: open your windows instead. If you can swing it, to avoid perchloroethylene (a known carcinogen) use a green dry cleaner (but make sure they are really greener, and hang up your clothes as soon as you get home to reduce the bill, which is typically quite a bit higher).

Most difficult of all: if someone in your home works in an industrial setting, or a mechanics’ shop or similar place, or does, say, woodburning or tinkers with electronics as a hobby, ask them, as nicely as you can, to shower, wash and change clothes elsewhere if at all possible. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s sound advice in terms of reducing exposure to potent chemicals within a home.

3)   Opportunity:  Trade Risks Only for Experiences, and Not for Things

One of the consistent, if somewhat unfair, points-of-view expressed in readers’ comments to that New York Times piece went something like, “geez, it would stink to be her daughter. I bet she never lets her out to play.”

Of course, Maya has a full life despite my concerns about toxics. And I understand that I will have less and less control over what’s in her life as she starts school, and obtains far more of a social life than I will ever have again, etc.

That is one additional reason why I do what I can now: because I’m still (mostly) the boss ‘round here, and I like it that way. While she remains an impertinent minion of my realm, and has no other real option despite her protestations, I see no reason not to limit her toxic exposures as I can. But that doesn’t generally mean limiting her play or activities.

At least most of the time. On occasion, there are compromises and trade-offs. On vacation, there were no pans in the house we were renting without a non-stick coating. Too bad, so sad, we ate anyway, of course. (We did keep the heat lowered; here’s why.) The trade-off was that we had a vacation, and just letting go was more important.

In general, if I have a principle here, it’s that at times there will be trade-offs, and those trade-offs should be worth it. Parents do this all the time, as I suggested in this post.

In fact, we’re better at it generally than the government. We look at up-sides and down-sides, and make a call. And one benefit of being uptight, or careful – pick your word – about chemicals more generally is that it creates a bit of margin for these types of judgment calls.

For another example, most sports are at least a little dangerous, but the sociability, physicality and achievement are worth it. Swimming in chlorinated pools may be a small cancer risk, but I can’t imagine a summer without life at the pool. I want that for Maya as well. And it’s good exercise and fun. (I am intrigued, however, by the notion of non-chlorine solutions for pools. Where we can avoid risks, obviously, we should.)

In sum: where the up-side brings substantial value to your life, the trade-offs may be worth it. I don’t feel that way about almost any consumer product, despite the best efforts of companies to brand themselves as essential to our happiness. It basically only applies to experiences, and even then only the ones in which I’m in a decent position – meaning, where I have enough information – to weigh the trade-offs for myself.

As environmentalist Mark Sagoff put it in The Economy of the Earth: “There is an ethical difference between falling and being pushed — even if the risks and benefits are the same.”

I understand that sometimes we fall down, and so be it. Sometimes the risk of falling is worth it, and sometimes accepting and taking that risk is even a part of living. I’ll be happy to choose those for myself, and for Maya whenever she’ll let me.

I just don’t appreciate it very much when the chemicals companies try to push me, just as they try to push all of us around. It therefore seems to me that the best way to send them a message on this point is to sidestep their attempts whenever I possibly can.

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I hope that these three general principles are useful to you. If you’ve had your own environmental health conversations with people who don’t “want to hear about it,” tell me what you did in that situation… Did you give up? Persist? Politely tell them they are going to get cancer?

And if you have other ways that you think about risks, choices and environmental health trade-offs, I’d love to hear them.