Passion Points: Green/Eco
MacKay Jenkins, an author and the director of Journalism at the University of Delaware, never set out to write about the toxic world we inhabit—until he went for a regular health check-up and discovered that he had a potentially malignant tumor beside his hip. The health scare passed (the tumor turned out to be benign) but right before undergoing surgery, Jenkins was interviewed by two researchers whose questions left him deeply shaken. They asked about how many toxic chemicals he had been exposed to in his life, honing in not on industrial chemicals but those, they explained, are found in everyday objects: “On and on it went. Detergents or fumes from plastic meat wrap? Benzene or other solvents? Formaldehyde? Varnishes? Adhesives? Lacquers? Glues? Acrylic or oil paints? Inks or dyes? Tanning solutions? Cotton textiles? Fiberglass? Bug killers or pesticides? Weed killers or herbicides…”
The journalist in Jenkins perked up and set out to conduct some of his own research, the results of which are now published in the fascinating, informative and at turns shocking book, What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World (www.amazon.com). In it, Jenkins takes readers through some startling statistics, like the fact that 99 percent of chemicals in use today (there are close to 80,000) have never been tested for their effects on human health. When it comes to beauty products, the EU has banned hundreds of ingredients as hazardous that are still widely in use in the U.S.; Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year; and every year some 40 million pounds of herbicide are used on lawns (including a chemical that is a primary constituent of the infamous Agent Orange once used to defoliate forests in Vietnam).
Jenkins book starts with the personal but evolves to dispense practical advice on what everyone can—and should—know about this pressing issue, as well as what you can do to reduce the toxins in your own life. “No one goes through a cancer scare without experiencing a kind of awakening,” writes Jenkins. “I went from being a passive observer of other people’s suffering to feeling an intimate desire to prevent that suffering.” Jenkins spoke to Indagare about the desperate need for change—both small-scale and big-scale—and what you can do to phase out the toxins from your home.
The facts in your book are extremely alarming. Do you think we’re already past the tipping point when it comes to toxins in our homes/lives?
A “tipping point” is one way to look at this – clearly, we have been using synthetic chemicals without thinking about them for far too long. But my hope is that a little bit of information will also be empowering. Just as a new awareness of where your food comes from (and what goes into it) can help you make better eating choices, so a little bit of information about the other products you consume can be empowering.
At first, when you realize where industrial food comes from, you get depressed. But then you wake up and realize there are many, many ways you can make better choices. In this way, my book is very much in the tradition of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he first unsettles you by taking you inside an industrial meat processor or inside the way processed food is made, and then shows just how many other —and better—options you have to choose from.
What needs to change in order for us to “clean up” our act?
It’s very important to think about this in two ways: as individual consumers, and as collective voters. Just as you can improve your health by giving up smoking, making individual choices about which products to buy and which to avoid can demonstrably improve your health.
But in another way, this issue is like climate change: driving a hybrid car will only do so much to reduce the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, we need, collectively, to change federal and state laws to limit our exposure to these toxins. If your uphill neighbor is allowed to continue spraying toxic pesticides on his lawns, and it flows downhill into your garden, your being “organic” doesn’t mean very much. If every baby bottle on the market is made with toxic plastics, it’s pretty hard to make a choice.
You are ambiguous about products labeled “green”. Why is that and what are better catch-words to look for on the products we purchase?
The trouble with “green” is that the term, like so much else, has been co-opted by marketers. As soon as marketers recognize that a word has currency, they use it to sell things that may or may not have any relation to the word itself. Words lose their meaning.
Again, think of the parallels to food: instead of looking for the word “green,” look for products made with ingredients you can pronounce. Look for products (toys, for example) made of wood instead of plastic; products (detergents, cosmetics, shampoos) made of plants instead of synthetics you don’t recognize. There are all kinds of companies discovering just how many people are interested in these kinds of products, so shopping for them has never been easier.
What would you say to people who don’t want to switch brands because green/organic brands are not as effective or are cost-prohibitive.
Again, think about the parallels to food. Do you want to fill your body with the cheapest, most artificial ingredients? Is cheap and synthetic really what you want to be putting on your body? There are plenty of places to save a few bucks that don’t include exposing yourself to toxic chemicals. The argument that healthy products are too expensive does not take into account long-term health costs, to say nothing of long-term environmental costs. “Cheap” often means only “cheap in the short term, and costly in the long.”
Are there any responsible beauty companies you would recommend?
Using a database like Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org) is a good way to see just how dangerous, indeed carcinogenic, some mainstream cosmetics are. It’s important to realize, for example, that there are some 400 ingredients in cosmetics that are illegal in Europe that are still used in products here.
What are some of the things to look out for and be aware of in one’s home?
Get rid of all those old half-empty cans of paint, lacquers, thinners, and caulks you have piled up in the basement. These things are full of things like carcinogens and neurotoxins, and you don’t want those vapors wafting up through your house. Try to buy window blinds, rugs, shower curtains, and upholstery made from materials you recognize, like wool, or cotton, rather than synthetics that are typically treated with toxic flame retardants and/or stain resisters. Throw out air “fresheners” which typically contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals; if you want your house to smell “fresh,” open a window! If you want it to smell like apple pie, bake an apple pie!
If someone wants to start heading into a healthier, less-toxic direction but can’t commit to changing everything about their behavior overnight, how would you prioritize?
A lot of folks open their minds to this issue when they have children, especially when they learn how easily many of these toxins pass through the placenta or breast milk. For example, consider the outcry over a chemical called Bisphenol A, which is used to make hard plastic bottles (including baby bottles) and has been shown to interfere with human hormones. When parents learned that these chemicals not only leak from the bottles into things like breast milk, but do so much faster as a bottle is warmed up, they refused to buy them, some states banned them, and companies began making bottles without BPA.
Another group of toxins that has gotten a lot of attention recently is flame retardants, which are used to make everything from mattresses to children’s pajamas to electronics. The anxiety over these, which are known to be neurotoxic, has gotten so acute that states (like Maine) have banned them, and even Wal-Mart has decided to ban products made with them. These are great, important steps, but these are individual chemicals. There are some 80,000 chemicals in common use today, and only 200 have been adequately tested for their impacts on human health. That’s an absurdly low percentage.
What can parents do to stay informed about their children’s toys?
A couple of years ago parents were disheartened to learn that some 20 million toys and pieces of children jewelry imported from China had been painted with lead paint. Lead is something we thought we’d gotten a handle on decades ago – it causes problems with childhood brain development – and here it was showing up in toys our kids were putting into their mouths. A good place to look for nontoxic toys is a Web site called Healthy Stuff (www.healthystuff.org). Many other toys are made with toxic plastics like phthaltes, which goes into soft plastic toys, or polyvinyl chloride, which goes into vinyl. Since kids put everything in their mouths, this is something parents ought to be aware of.
You write in the book that “what’s gotten into us is not just chemicals but culture.” What do you mean by this statement?
Just as we have been saturated with synthetic chemicals over the years, we have also been saturated by advertising and marketing. Think of the way lawn chemicals are marketed – your grass will be greener, your kids will be happier, your spouse will be prettier, your neighbors will be more envious. Never a word about the health consequences of these chemicals, let alone the terrible cumulative damage these products do to our drinking water and the health of our rivers and bays.
Where I live, the Chesapeake Bay has gigantic “dead zones” created in part by the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers running off suburban lawns. People need to remember that synthetic chemicals don’t “disappear.” They just move around the world. Scientists have found synthetic chemicals on the top of Acongagua, the highest mountain in South America; they have found them in the bodies of the Inuit in the Arctic; they have found them in the bodies of Beluga whales, where are now showing up with breast cancer. Chemicals are not something that “goes away” just because you can’t see them.
Many people know the key-word “phthalates” but have little idea what this plasticizer is, where it’s found and why it’s bad. Can you elaborate
Phthalates are incredibly ubiquitous – they are used to make soft plastic toys (like rubber duckies), but the are also used in air fresheners, body lotions, and all kinds of personal care products. These chemicals can be found in virtually every person that is tested for them, and they have been shown to mess with a person’s endocrine system—they disrupt hormones. Scientists have tested fish in places like the Potomac River and discovered “intersex” fish – that is, fish that have changed gender – contaminated with these and other chemicals. There is a growing fear that the volume of such endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be contributing to everything from early-onset puberty in girls to low-sperm density in boys. Both are becoming genuine public health concerns.
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