January 28th, 2011
09:29 AM ET
Last week, writer, cancer survivor and mother of two young children, Amanda Enayati wrote about pursuing a healthy life for her family by cutting excessive sugars, bad fats, dyes, preservatives and pesticides from their diet. Today she tells of reducing her household's "toxic burden."
“Crunchy” is what we used to call our handful of friends who seemed to live on the outer edges of reality when it came to healthy foods and personal products. We loved our friends, of course, tolerated their quirks, but mostly passed on using their homemade patchouli bath products or eating their tofu scramble served on a bed of raw zucchini noodles.
In the days when I first began considering how to lower my family’s household toxic burden, I thought of my crunchy friends often—how I had once found them so extreme, so eccentric, perhaps even rolled my eyes inwardly at some of their practices. But here I was all these years later, knee-deep in scientific journals, and suddenly the Mad Hatter seemed … not so mad.
The blissful ease of our modern lives has come at the cost of our near-constant exposure to a barrage of both naturally occurring and man-made chemicals. We can eat, inhale or absorb them through our skins, and collectively they are known as our toxic burden. The human body is incredibly resilient but, like a dam that springs too many leaks, it can be taxed to the point of collapse. Well-publicized studies have found over 200 toxic chemicals in newborn umbilical cord blood. And while it is difficult to establish definitive causation between this mix of toxicity in young children and particular health problems, we do know that since 1970 incidences of cancers in children and adolescents have risen steadily (though due to a number of reasons including medical advances, death rates are declining). Part of the issue is that children’s developing bodies are far more vulnerable than adults’ to harm from even small doses of toxic exposure received at key junctures.
Since I had no idea how to go about reducing my family’s toxic burden, I called the crunchiest person I knew—my girlfriend in Sierra Madre, known to many as Raw Food Mama, who is raising three small children while making her own nut cheeses (no pun), almond milk, granola and kefirs, and probably milking a goat and growing organic cotton in her backyard in all her spare time.
“Where do I start with this whole household toxic burden thing?” I asked.
“First go through your cleaning products,” she replied.
“OK,” I said as I peered into the cupboard under my sink at the half-dozen products lined up in a row.
“Now get rid of them. All you really need for most of the cleaning around your house is a mixture of five parts water and two parts vinegar in a spray bottle.”
I considered her words without comprehending. “Alrighty, but what do you clean your house with?”
“Water and vinegar.”
“But then your whole house smells like vinegar.” I protested.
“You can squeeze a lemon into it.”
“But then your whole house smells like Greek salad.”
Though I had long loved my bleach and its near-magical powers on just about anything, I was game for change. I did, however, draw the line at salad dressing as cleaner. Some research and a call to a slightly less crunchy friend, and I was directed to a line of nontoxic cleaning products at Target—not cheap but tolerable, especially given the low frequency with which we actually clean things around this house.
Much trickier than the household cleaners were our personal products. The problem, as well-articulated by the Environmental Working Group, is that our public health laws contain major gaps that permit health and beauty companies to use virtually any ingredient, with no restriction or requirement for safety testing, in their products. Your skin is your body’s largest organ and while it serves as an effective outer barrier, it is also capable of absorbing potentially carcinogenic substances. A progressive dermatologist once told me: “If it’s not edible then you probably shouldn’t be slathering it on either.”
“But why would I ever want to eat lotion?” I asked.
“It’s not that you’d want to eat it, only that you could if you had to.”
The Environmental Working Group has created a database that provides safety ratings (with zero being the safest and 10 being the most hazardous) for a range of products they have tested, from dyes and shampoos to sunscreen and makeup. The database’s search function makes for hours of neurotic mommy fun. (My hair dye is a 9! My favorite anti-aging lotion is a 10! My lip balm is an 8!)
But, at least in my opinion, there is a fundamental problem with the outright replacing of cosmetic products that contain questionable ingredients like parabens and phthalates with their more naturally made competitors. As it turns out, chemicals are much cheaper. A bottle of the least toxic baby body wash and shampoos can run you about $15-$25 for 8 ounces, whereas a 20 ounce bottle of a baby shampoo with a significantly higher hazard rating is under five bucks. And as far as I have been able to tell in my own search, this rule holds true in many (if not most) categories of products (though to be fair, there are some good, reasonably priced options in some of the categories such as, for example, deodorants).
It would appear that the ability to significantly lower your exposure to chemicals and toxics often correlates with your family’s socioeconomic status.
“But how can you put a value on your children’s health?” A friend once posed, and of course you can’t but if you have $20 between now and payday next Friday to buy baby shampoo and groceries, your choice is clear cut—your child’s need to eat being far more urgent and tangible than her gradual exposure to chemicals that are known to disrupt the body’s endocrine function and perhaps cause cancer later in life.
As with the food issue, there is no fast and easy fix here—which is not to say that we shouldn’t tackle the problem at all—only that we need greater public awareness and also for some of our most creative and forward-thinking minds to begin considering larger-scale solutions.
CNN Senior Medical Producer David S. Martin’s piece, 5 Toxics That Are Everywhere: Protect Yourself is a good report on the top five chemicals we encounter daily.
Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared on CNN.com, Time.com, Salon (named “10 in 2010: Our Favorite Salon Stories”), the Washington Post and "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.
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