Changing Habits

My garage is full of chemicals.  I can kill wasps, ants, and weeds.   I can kill weeds but keep the grass alive.  I can weed and feed, I can fertilize, I can clean.   I can clean grease, stains, and various surfaces of my car.

I have spent most of my life under the illusion that most of these materials sold to make life easier are relatively safe.   I know you shouldn’t mix various cleaning materials, with some you should wear gloves (something I’ve generally neglected to do), and that too much could be bad.   Yet certainly the companies that make all these things for home and garden have tested them out.   And even if the market couldn’t prevent dangerous items from being made available, government regulations must focus on safety.

I’ve been using speed stick deodorant, Nivea shaving cream and moisturizer, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, and the kids have enjoyed yummy smelling colorful soaps, and plastic tub toys.   We’ve been cooking with no stick pans, and drinking sodas from plastic bottles, even if they’ve been sitting in the car on hot days.   It’s just life.   We don’t smoke, we try to have healthy habits, but plastics, chemicals and additives are ubiquitous.    The idea I should have a lush green lawn not marred by clover and crab grass seems normal.   Everybody, save a few old hippies, lives this way.

I’ve now come to the realization that how we live with chemicals is analogous to how the Romans lived with lead poisoning.   We’re poisoning ourselves and our children (look how autism and ADHD rates have skyrocketed) by injecting massive amounts of under tested chemicals in every aspect of our lives.    I’m not sure how much poison we’re getting.   People still live long, but chemicals seem to play a role in making us fatter and creating expensive health problems.    Rates of cancer are up, so are a variety of other health problems.    Moreover, the generation now in their 20s and 30s are far more affected by these chemicals than people my age, since widespread usage really got going in the 80s and 90s.   We may not know the real impact for quite some time.

This creates a perfect storm.   There is a danger that seems obvious, but it can’t be verified with certainty, and the exact impact is unknown.   Moreover, studies can always be criticized (and a very well oiled chemical industry lobbying machine responds to everything) and it may be decades before we know for sure just what the impact of all this is.   Humans tend to ignore issues like that — if the problems aren’t obvious, why bother?

That’s been me for years.   I’ve known the chemicals in our lives are dangerous and under tested.   I’ve had suspicions that my use of them was probably not all that wise.   But those have been fleeting thoughts at the back of my head.   They haven’t been strong enough to get me to actually dig into the science and think about changing my ways.   There are classes to teach, kids to take care of, things to do.   So it’s grab what’s at Walmart and whether in cleaning or lawn care, take the easy route.

In May I read What’s Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins, a book that gave an excellent and well supported overview of the scope of the problem, showing clearly how little we know, how studies are often hidden and attacked, and just how powerful the chemical lobby is in the US.   In the EU there are far stricter regulations (so I’m going to keep using my made in Germany Nivea skin care products), here the burden of proof is not on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe, but for others to give definitive proof that there are dangers.

My wife read the book as well, and was convinced.    She replaced most of our household cleaning and personal hygiene materials with Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine, or Burt’s Bees.   I went along with it, figuring that at the very least this is the kind of thing that companies will pay attention to — if the market shifted towards low chemical alternatives businesses would have to follow.   But I was still skeptical.   The thing about books with a mission — and Jenkins’ clearly is convinced of his argument and has a desire to open peoples’ eyes — is that they are prone to overstatement.   The book cited science, but the author is not a scientist.   So I’ve been investigating further.

But the more I read the more convinced I am that not only is there a lot of uncertainty on what these chemicals are doing to us, but that the massive increase in chemical use and our exposure, especially children, is by definition extremely risky.     Chemicals are powerful, they have side effects that often aren’t understood.    The websites and blogs criticizing those concerned about chemicals tend to have weak arguments.   They either deride/ridicue “anti-chemical” folk for being too alarmist and blaming things on chemicals that might be caused by something else.

Both of those points may be true, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that chemicals aren’t a problem.   Same for the statement that ‘just because it’s not natural doesn’t make it bad.’   That’s true.  But it doesn’t mean they are good or harmless either.  Defenders of chemical usage rest on the arguments that: a) they are beneficial in helping us achieve our goals; and b) studies haven’t definitively shown the specific harm being done.   Most of the evidence against chemicals is circumstantial.

OK.  Consider this chart:

This rapid and alarming rate of increased obesity corresponds to the rise of chemical additives in food, many of which affect hormones and other aspects of the anatomy that influence fat retention.   Is this circumstantial?   Yes.   The causes of increased obesity are many, despite many links connecting the two (see: The Body Restoration Plan by Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton for a good argument on this issue), definitive proof remains elusive.

The same goes for the rapidly growing rates of autism (and other neurological disorders) in children, increases in depression and psychological problems in adults, hyper sensitivity issues, increased allergies, and increased incidences of cancer (even if medical science is much better at curing it).   If I demanded total proof that these chemicals are harmful before deciding not to use them, I could find arguments that cast doubt on every claim of harm made.

But my health is at stake.   The lives and health of my children are at stake.  And the evidence that harm is likely is very persuasive, even if absolute proof is elusive (it was also elusive for cigarette smoking for decades, where another powerful lobby tried to fight making such a connection).  Simply the fact that chemical usage has risen so dramatically is enough to get me to realize it is irrational for me not to be concerned — throw that much new artificial under tested chemicals into our bodies and homes and its clear no one knows exactly what the result will be.

So my habits are changing.   Some changes are gradual, others are instantaneous.   I’ll not try to get a perfect lawn, so no more weed and feed.  I will finish my Speed Stick before using the natural (no aluminum) deodorant.    I’ll try to hit the Farmers’ Market more frequently and buy organic/local as much as possible, but now and then we’ll still get some fast food.   Most importantly I’m going to start thinking about these things, investigating the products we use and the food we eat.   Big agribusiness doesn’t care about us.   Regulators lack staff and the politicians listen to the lobbyists of big money more than they listen to scientists or citizens.     We have to educate ourselves and hope that enough people see the danger that we can have an impact on the market.

Chemicals are everywhere, no matter how much I change at home our world is defined by chemical usage at work, by local governments, stores, and other people.   This is something we have to live with.   But making some different choices at home can’t hurt — and may yield long term benefits.

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  1. #1 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on June 18, 2011 - 03:12

    Scott,

    You would have loved the Army.

    I routinely worked around depleted uranium, I deployed smoke pots without wearing a chemical mask, and my chemical alarm was crushed by the breech of a tank’s 120mm cannon (the alarm apparently releases radioactive alpha particles if it is deployed in the wrong way). The tank’s hydraulic fluid apparently can cause paralysis if you are exposed to too much of it as well (though you might have to drink — I cannot recall).

    All in a day’s work. I’m probably screwed…

    • #2 by Scott Erb on June 19, 2011 - 01:59

      The healthy human body is as adept as anything at filtering and repairing, so hopefully you’ll be fine!

      • #3 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on June 20, 2011 - 03:13

        Scott,

        I agree.

        Plus, I have good genes.

        My grandfather has been smoking multiple packs of cigarettes all his life and he is nearing 90.

        I’ll be fine.

  2. #4 by modestypress on June 18, 2011 - 04:57

    Sean,

    That is very sad. I’ve been hearing about the Hanford “tank farms” (nuclear /energy pocessing areas in Washington state). History is replete with sad tales about asbestos, lead, etc. etc.

    Life is very dangerous and none of us gets out alive. The best we can do is live as safely and healthfully as long as we can and to try and provide as much safety as we can for our children.

    Then there are the supervolcanoes….

    • #5 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on June 20, 2011 - 03:17

      “Then there are the supervolcanoes….”

      Exactly…and asteroids…and super vovae…

  3. #6 by renaissanceguy on June 19, 2011 - 00:47

    I applaud your concern and your taking this issue seriously. I think about it a lot myself. I do not disagree with you.

    I wonder if there is not a better way to talk about it, though. Your wife has switched to certain products, but those products also contain chemicals, since everything is made of chemicals. You are made of chemicals. Every bite of food you eat consists of nothing but chemicals.

    It’s also not a question of things being natural or artificial. Snake venom is natural but poinsonous. To some people bee stings are deadly, but they are natural. A woven grass mat is artifical but probably safe, at least for most people. A candle made of bee’s wax is artifical but safe, unless it gets knocked over while lit.

    So banning or eliminating “chemicals” or everything “artificial” is not the answer Determining what products are safe, and in what amounts, is the answer. It would be nice if the manufacturers were honest and if they cared about safety. One way to learn more might be to find out what chemists and biologists, who understand these things, do. Once I had a friend whose job was to test water supplies. He told me that he would never drink the water in my municipality. I started filtering my water.

    I knew a woman once who had intestinal parasites. She took massive amounts of garlic for about two weeks. All it did was make her sweat smell bad. She finally, reluctancly took the appropirate medicine, and the parasites were destroyed. I asked her why she didn’t just take the medicine and she said, “Oh, I don’t like to put chemicals in my body.” I explained that the garlic was made of chemicals too, just like everything that she ever ate and drank. I explained that the medicine was developed by scientists precisely because it was the thing that could kill the parasites and that, although it is hard on the human body, it was the only thing that so far has proven effective in killing those creatures. She seemed unmoved. She still said that she was going to keep avoiding “chemicals”–as she sipped her latte.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on June 19, 2011 - 02:04

      Oh, you’re right RG — I would never suggest (or even consider possible) eliminating artificial chemicals. One reason I’d not focused on this before is because my thinking is much like yours on this. But the plethora of new and powerful chemicals being used in unprecedented quantities concerns me that there are likely a number that do have long term negative impacts (or are causing things like increased autism rates) which we aren’t taking seriously. I’m not dogmatic about any of this, just more aware and willing to alter some of my habits. I also think that our bodies are resilient, especially if we have a good attitude (I’m increasingly convinced that how we think really effects how well our bodies operate). In any event, it’s a bit liberating to think “I can not spend so much time working on my lawn and feel virtuous about it!”

  4. #8 by Scott Erb on June 20, 2011 - 04:13

    Sean — I also think attitude is really important. If I had to choose who would likely be healthier between someone who was diligent at avoiding all unnecessary chemical and dangerous substance exposure but had a pessimistic dour attitude and someone who lived without thinking much about it but was positive and cheerful, I suspect the positive person would be healthier.

    • #9 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on June 20, 2011 - 04:34

      I agree.

      My favorite example is that woman whose son you “ruined” at the pizza parlor (as per the restaurant story you related on Vern Rigg Kaine’s blog). I think it typies exactly what you are saying.

      Plus, it was also a hilarious story. As you noted, I suspect the boy’s mother “ruined” him far more than your honest mistake did.

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