Archive for April, 2013

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.

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