Safe Enough to Eat

I recently had a strange experience at our local craft store. I needed an especially strong glue for a project, and as I pondered the many choices, I found myself skipping past the ones labelled ‘non-toxic.’ This was curious behavior for a person who usually tries to buy products that are not hazardous.

Why, indeed, would anyone in her right mind choose a more toxic item when a ‘non-toxic’ one is close at hand? I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that less harmful products often don’t perform as well as their nastier counterparts. Certainly there are cases where this bias is correct. Bleach, for example, is a great stain remover, but it’s also a strong and dangerous chemical. Ordinary laundry detergent, while less harmful to people and the environment, simply doesn’t pack the same punch.

Yet, it’s also clear that there are many products for which added toxicity does nothing to improve functioning. Take the latest brouhaha about flame retardants. These chemicals, purported to reduce flammability, were added to a range of items, such as bedding, children’s pajamas, and couches.

As evidence mounted that the chemicals were quite poisonous they were voluntarily removed from children’s pajamas, but remained in mattresses and furniture. And in staggering quantities. A recent expose by the Chicago Tribune found that a large couch can contain 2 pounds of flame retardants. The real kicker is that testing shows these chemicals do virtually nothing to retard the spread of fire.

You may wonder why we didn’t know such products were dangerous before they wound up in our homes. The answer is that government oversight of chemical use and manufacturing is astoundingly lax.

The business of regulating chemicals got off on the wrong foot in 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act grandfathered in more than 60,000 chemicals already on the market. Since then, only 200 of these chemicals have undergone significant safety testing by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and only 5 of the very most toxic have been restricted under this act. Although some of the chemicals currently in consumer products are governed by other sets of regulations and other agencies, those covered by the EPA represent a large fraction of what’s out there.

Equally disturbing, manufacturers are allowed to keep some ingredients secret, especially in additives such as ‘fragrance.’ How is anyone supposed to regulate the safety of a secret ingredient? Nor is there a requirement for manufacturers to prove that a chemical is safe before it appears in merchandise on store shelves. The premise is largely “innocent until proven guilty.”

One could make the argument that fully testing new chemicals for deleterious effects on human health and the environment would be so costly and onerous as to be nearly impossible. While this may or may not be true, it certainly behooves us consumers to be a little wary of, well, pretty much everything.

Just in the last few years, scientists have amassed compelling evidence that the linings of many food cans leach out a chemical called bisphenol A, which is linked to a host of bad health outcomes. They’ve also found lead in lipstick and raised alarms about anti-bacterial products. The list goes on and on.

I don’t try to assess the possible dangers lurking in every item I encounter. Sunscreen? A new computer? My cell phone? It’s simply too exhausting and sometimes you just have to have faith that you’ll dodge some of life’s bullets.

I do, however, try to opt for simpler items when I have the choice, such as buying fragrance-free soaps and shampoos. I usually avoid products with new-fangled claims such as the power to eliminate bacteria, straighten your hair, resist wrinkles, or whiten your teeth. All of these promises, true or not, are probably the result of some chemical(s) that I don’t feel a compelling need play the guinea pig for.

I also try not to let marketing messages get in the way of common sense. So, last month when I read on a blog that you can wash your hair with baking soda and vinegar, resulting in more shine, more body, less frizz, and more glory, I rushed to try it.

Well, actually I didn’t. I thought it sounded pretty weird, and even, I must say, a bit icky. What about that nice lathery experience I’ve come to associate with getting my hair clean? And the vinegar rinse? Did I really need to start my day smelling like a pickle?

But shampoos are known to harbor all sorts of potential health hazards and the promise of body and glory had piqued my curiosity. So I tried it. And… yes it really works, yes, my hair really is less tangled and shiner, and no, I don’t smell like a pickled herring.

At first I told people about my exciting discovery. But I quickly stopped doing this when even my back-to-the-land-grow-your-own-food-hunt-your-own-venison-friends looked at me as though I’d gone off the deep end.

In the end, I was struck by how far astray my instincts had lead me. A lifetime of hearing marketing claims for newer and better products, lathery shampoos, glues with super-powers, had distorted my ability to believe that low-tech, simple, non-toxic products could get the job done.

When you think about it, how hard can it be to reject the expensive chemical soup that we call shampoo in favor of two cheap ingredients that are safe enough to eat? It shouldn’t be hard at all.

In the early 1960s, when my young father-to-be wanted an adventure overseas, he lugged his trunk to a boat in the New York City harbor. No doubt the idea of backtracking the path of his immigrant parents held some appeal. But the choice of this long watery route over the grey Atlantic was also partly driven by the fact that flying was prohibitively expensive. This was about to change.

The first regularly scheduled transcontinental jet service began operation in 1959. Within the next 15 years half of all Americans, mostly business travelers, would experience flying. As tickets dropped in price, the doors were opened to families and recreational travelers.

In 1965, when my mother emigrated from the Old Country to marry my father in the New World, she did not worry that she would never see her family again. How strange, not to have this consequence, the bane of most world travelers for all of recorded history before her.

Today, it would be hard for many of us to imagine a world without air travel. To be sure, there are exotic, interesting places we might like to see, but more compellingly, air travel has made it possible for our families to sprinkle themselves willy nilly around the globe, and still be within reach.

My sister lives in Urbana, Illinois. Just a hundred years back, getting to her house would have been an epic journey. I’d need to cross the full length of Massachusetts, leaving the state through the low lying range of the Berkshire Mountains. From there, I’d climb a little north, to skirt New York’s finger lakes and most of the southern shore of Lake Eire, the 10th largest lake in the world. Then, still, I’d have to cut across a large chunk of Ohio and all of Indiana. It’s a 1,200 mile trip.

How many days would it take by horse-drawn wagon? How many days on foot? How many days, by bicycle? How long, even now, by train or car? Too long for a week of vacation. And so, we fly.

Writer William Burroughs once said that humans were living in the “gasoline crack of history.” This phrase has stayed with me. Are we, in fact, living in a thin sliver of time in which we can, with relative ease, see those we love, even when separated by thousands of miles, mountain ranges, tremendous lakes and vast plains? I take it for granted that I can simply fly over that whole rumpled, pitted mess down on the surface.

Why must it ever end? Air travel, it turns out, spews staggering volumes of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The New York Times recently reported that a single round trip flight across the country creates approximately 2-3 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. Given that the average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide annually, a few long flights a year could easily account for the largest chunk of an individual’s contribution to climate change. This is something to think about.

It’s something that regular people might want to think about, because our government, as usual, does not seem to be doing so. Indeed, while the European Union is planning to tax carbon emissions above a pre-determined amount on flights in and out of its airports, the US government has bowed to the airline industry and tried to block such measures.

I usually make about one long flight a year. And now I must admit that despite driving a hybrid and turning down the heat, this one flight undoes a lot of those efforts. What to do?

I will think about flying less. Although this will be hard, rising ticket prices and increasingly unpleasant flying experiences will help considerably.

I will think about buying carbon offsets; in fact I like the idea more and more. Here’s how it works: you do something which emits carbon – for example fly to California or drive to Frosty’s for a donut every morning for a entire year. The money you pay for a carbon offset funds a carbon-reducing project, such as a wind farm. You can visit any number of on-line sources and purchase an offset for each ton of carbon you’d like to have expunged from your conscience.

Native Energy, one popular carbon management company (did you even know there was such a thing?), charges about $15 per ton of carbon to be offset. Of course it’s still better to vacation in Maine and bike to Frosty’s every morning, but $15/ton is not a bad deal for saving your soul.

And finally, I will think about a polar bear, looking out across the dwindling ice pack wondering how she is going to feed her cubs this year. Does she care if the cause of her trouble is folks driving around in gas-guzzling Humvees or if it’s so-called environmentalists turning the heat down, driving hybrids, and then flying to Costa Rica for eco-tours of the vanishing rain forest? The answer is no, she doesn’t care; the ice is melting either way, and lunch will be hard to find.

Life in Eden

I have a friend who lives in Eden.  While I haul pricey bags of produce to my car, she complains about the persimmons and figs falling on her sidewalk.  The problem, you see, is that there are too many to eat so the walks get messy.

I worry about my kids getting hit by a car; her kids can run for blocks without crossing a single street.  This is because houses in her 70-acre development have small unfenced backyards which open onto car-free paths interconnecting the neighborhood.

I know perhaps a fifth of the people living in a two block radius of my house; she knows triple that number.  The more walkable a community, the more neighbors tend to know each other.

Storm culverts dot my street.  The paths behind my friend’s house are edged by charming streams filled with cattails and nesting birds.  So effective is this system that when surrounding neighborhoods flood, her streets are often dry.

On hot summer days our asphalt roads absorb heat and raise the temperature in town.  The streets in my friend’s neighborhood are tree-lined and unusually narrow, making her community up to 15 degrees cooler than surrounding urban areas.

Houses in her development, because of the narrower streets (less paving), very small lot sizes (less land purchased), natural water retention system (no storm drains), initially cost less than similarly sized houses elsewhere in her town.

Enough money was saved to enable the creation of wonderful community spaces including several parks, an artificial lake, a large sun-drenched garden area, a swimming pool, a daycare, and a big communal kitchen.

Not surprisingly, property in her development has increased in value far more than in the surrounding neighborhoods.  People love to live there.  Indeed, it is so pleasant, that folks from nearby developments come there to jog, walk their dogs, teach their kids to ride bikes, and sneak an occasional persimmon.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

It is important to note that the homes were sized and priced to be affordable for middle-class families.  The fact that the neighborhood is now highly desirable is a testament to good design rather than to a sky-high budget.

Is my friend a back-to-the-earth hippie living in a co-housing commune?  Not at all.  She works for chemical manufacturer, Monsanto, and her neighbors are regular people, living regular lives, with regular jobs.

You may wonder why builders are not falling over themselves to re-create this type of development elsewhere.  In large part it is because in most towns such development would not be allowed under current building and zoning codes.

The developers who built my friend’s neighborhood, called Village Homes in Davis, California, fought a long battle for exemptions from existing regulations.  For example, special permission was needed to build on smaller lots, at higher density, with narrower streets, and to use a natural water collection system.

There is a lot of inertia to changing ‘business as usual.’  Towns and builders believe that the regulations they have in place are working and it seems too risky to try anything else.

Yet by any number of measures, what we are building now is not working.  Our homes are not built to minimize heating and cooling costs, yet many people already have trouble affording heat and air-conditioning.  Most people live in car-dependent neighborhoods, yet the price of fuel is already a stretch.  Our cities and towns are not equipped to deal with the planet’s rising temperatures or to manage the regional effects of climate change such as increased precipitation, drought, and sea-level rise.  On that note, New England is predicted to experience a 74% increase in precipitation by the end of the century.

As the climate shifts under our feet, developments such as Village Homes are far better positioned than most to handle these upcoming changes.  Replace the figs and persimmons with blueberries and raspberries, and there is no reason we could not be creating this type of innovative development here in Maine.

With the redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create something better than business as usual.  The possibilities are not limited to residential areas.  All development at the base will need to address issues such as storm-water management, street width, energy use, landscaping, building materials, lot sizes, transportation options, walkability, bikeability, and wildlife habitat.

We can build spaces that people love to use, that do less damage to the environment, and that are cheaper to maintain, heat, and cool.  We can build spaces that are more resilient to the changes in weather patterns that have already begun to affect us.  This type of development would position Brunswick to thrive into the future, come what may.

Recently my 12-year old asked me to sign her up for a weekly activity requiring a half hour car drive each way. I try the quick and easy rebuffs: she was plenty busy already, driving back and forth was expensive, the activity was expensive, when would she do her homework?

With more than a bit of adolescent attitude, she concludes, “You just don’t want to take the time to drive me.” I look at the clock. It’s past 7:00 PM, we haven’t eaten dinner and no one has finished their homework. There is never a perfect moment to get into the real nitty gritty of why and wherefore. Still, every now and again you have to try to give your kids an honest answer to their questions.

Yes, I tell her, (and her sister too, who has wandered into the kitchen) you’re partly right. It is true that I don’t cherish adding to the time I spend carting you around after school. But there is another reason I hesitate to drive more.

Every time we get in the car we contribute to climate change. By the end of this century–that is, you may still be around–conditions for life on earth are expected to be drastically different from what they are today.

I pause. It’s gloomy stuff, the state of the environment. In this column I generally try not to dwell too much on scientists’ pessimistic forecasts for the planet. After all, nobody, including me, really wants to hear it. Nobody wants to tell their kids about it. Nobody wants to read about it over morning coffee and a golden Frosty’s doughnut.

Yet, I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. I tell them that although no single bout of wild weather can be attributed to climate change, that nevertheless there appear to terrible changes already underway.

I tell them that they have just lived through the hottest years ever recorded (11 of the 12 warmest years were in the last 12 years).

I tell them about Hurricane Katrina. I tell them that in 2010 flooding submerged one fifth of the land surface of Pakistan, washing away 7,000 schools and 5,000 miles of roads. I tell them that extreme weather events such as these are becoming more frequent and stronger, just as predicted.

I tell them that ice in the poles is melting, not as fast as predicted but at rates that are alarmingly faster. I tell them that by the end of the century sea level could rise by 6 feet, or possibly a lot more, putting much of the world’s coastlines under water.

After a long pause, they ask if our house will be okay. On the surface, this question, in its innocent disregard either for the welfare of others or for the fact that if the world disintegrates around them it doesn’t matter if their house is okay, seems to reflect a child’s perspective. But really it’s what all of us adults are doing as well. We may expand our worries a little past the foundations of our own houses, but not much.

So, the winter was warm, so, we had an 80 degree day in March. If this is global warming, it might not be so bad for those of us living in Maine.

I ask them what good it will do to have a dry house high on a hill when everyone else is underwater. We’ve managed to conjure up a demon that will affect everyone, although, as always, wealthy countries have a larger margin of safety before hitting the bottom.

Well then, they say, shouldn’t we do something about it? I tell them they are already helping. I tell them they are contributing by not complaining about riding their bikes and walking whenever they can. They are helping by continuing to be delighted by bags of hand-me-downs rather than shopping trips. They are helping by eating local spinach rather than asking for processed foods from around the world.

Although this cheers them up a bit, they know as well as I do that eating a few leaves of spinach is not going to fix a whole lot. By the end of the conversation, they’re in tears and I’m confused. As does every parent, I want them to believe their futures are full of hope and promise. Yet at some point they also need to look with clear eyes at the world around them. Without this, where does the motivation come from to try to change the status quo? And without that motivation, how do we make anything better?

Our own family’s behavior is utterly riddled with inconsistencies. Save the planet by biking to school, but then drive to Sugarloaf to ski all weekend. Buy local greens at the farmer’s market and then wash them down with inexpensive Californian red wine, trucked from 3,000 miles away.

And yet, humans are uniquely able to live with inconsistency. I tell my kids what I tell myself. For today, pick one action where you can make an improvement. Maybe work on remembering to turn off the lights when you come downstairs. Nudge yourself. I’m a nudger.

But in my heart of hearts I’d like them to be world-changers, not nudgers, and I don’t know where to send them for training.