In defense of crunch:  What we use (and don’t)
January 28th, 2011
09:29 AM ET

In defense of crunch: What we use (and don’t)

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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Filed under: Children's Health • Toxic America

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. J

    Good article. I wish more people would research/pay attention to this topic. Manufactures need to quit using toxic chemicals in our personal care products. It is not a coincidence that cancer rates have gone up with the introduction of these new chemicals, that are unknowingly being tested on the general population and being passed off as safe and advanced technology. Most people have no clue that personal care products are not regulated whatsover. These corporations are making millions off us and are trying to kill us slowly at the same time while trying to suck every dollar we have.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pete

      It would be a good article if it included citations to credible research, instead of citations to anti industry propagandists like the EWG. If you have passed your high school science classes you can review any of the EWG's claimed "research" and find that there is no science behind it.

      January 28, 2011 at 14:14 | Report abuse |
    • MrsFizzy

      They are not going to stop unless they have to and that would mean more regulation and enforcement. On the other hand if everyone educated themselves and bought only non-toxic products they'd have to sit up and take notice. But many people would stick to the convenient and economical, of course...! And also, what about the packaging of the products?

      January 28, 2011 at 14:15 | Report abuse |
  2. c

    we don't buy or use lawn care chemicals.

    surely , these products are no way near safe for people or pets.

    weeds are fine.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      We are going organic in our yard too. Conventional herbicides and fertilizers have been directly linked to cancer in dogs, especially bladder. What does that tell you? Want your children running and playing on it?

      January 28, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse |
  3. JeramieH

    Once again, another article that throws around the word "chemical" like it's automatically a bad, artificial thing. Chemicals are everywhere. Vinegar is a chemical. Water is a chemical. Cyanide and ricin come from plants, but just because they're natural doesn't mean they're safe.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Parisa

      Do your research Jerameih. You cannot compare a chemical such as vinegar to bleach. You can eat vinegar but I dare you to take a glass of bleach and drink it. Let's use a little common sense and a little less nit picking:)

      January 28, 2011 at 11:43 | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      Undiluted acetic acid (the active chemical in vinegar) is highly corrosive and a spontaneous ignition hazard, and very lethal upon ingestion. Sufficiently diluted bleach is used to kill pathogenic organisms from contaminated water so you won't die of typhoid fever.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse |
    • Satirev

      Do your research Parisa. There is chlorine (verry, very, diluted bleach) in your tapwater. With out it people all over would be aquiring, and dying, from very preventable infections on a daily basis.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:11 | Report abuse |
    • TinTin

      In toxicology, one of the main principles is that the dose makes the toxic. Any substance, even water can be toxic, and that depends on the dose. If you drink many gallons of water it can kill you, same with salt and any other substance or "chemical" that surrounds us.

      January 30, 2011 at 08:49 | Report abuse |
  4. Craig

    How about those plug in things that a called air freshners and the chemical assosciated with them? My sister used furniture polish, floor polish, she sprayed scented air freshners and used those plug-in things and piled on the make-up and perfume. A few years ago she had breast cancer, and most of us suspected the extensive chemical use in her home. I know it may have been a contributing factor in ther cancer, but not the main cause which is probably genetic, but just like cigarette smoking, the use of household chemicals probably contribute to some getting cancer. I's all about the risk factor. I for one do not put anything on or near my body if it's not safe to put into my mouth. Still more to learn about the chemical soups that exist in our environment.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      Well my reply seems to be blocked for some obscure reason! Just questioning how do we really know the effects of ingesting a c8cktail of chemicals every day, long term??

      January 28, 2011 at 14:25 | Report abuse |
  5. Andy Kaufman


    January 28, 2011 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Parisa

    As usual, the author always delivers important information in the most fun and comical ways. Can't wait for the 3rd part to come out.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Amanda

    We've reduced the toxic chemicals in our house quite a bit. We clean with vinegar and, the thing is, it only smells like vinegar while your cleaning. After it's dried, it has no smell. I'm don't know what this lady is talking about.

    Also, instead of shampoo, I use baking soda. I make a little paste and clean my (really oil hair). I rub it into the roots and then rinse. My hair has more body and is actually less oily than shampooing. The baking soda also makes a great facial exfolliant, too. 🙂

    January 28, 2011 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Carrie

      I like to put a little Dr. Bronner's Peppermint castile soap in with the vinegar, esp. for cleaning floors. Totally natural. I've also used it for shampoo & shower soap, it's great. You dilute it and it goes a long way.

      January 28, 2011 at 14:50 | Report abuse |
  8. rebecca

    I completely agree – it doesn't have to be expensive to be safe. A bottle of Dr. Bronner's soap from the health food store can be used for just about everything and it goes a long, long way. Baking soda and vinegar are great for cleaning and the smell goes away as soon as it's dry, just as the person above stated. I"m a homeschooling, single mom – I have money only for the bare necessities of life, and I don't use anything toxic in my house or with my children. There are a lot of high end, "non-toxic" products but you don't need them to live healthfully. It's as much about what you don't buy as what you do buy.

    January 28, 2011 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jen

    What ever happened to just....soap and water? I know...there's chemicals in the soap. And I don't use antibacterial soaps...but WHY do people insist on spraying their glasstop stoves and counters with Fantastik or 409 or the like?
    I get some soap and water on a sponge, wipe over everything, and by the time I'm dong wiping all the surfaces once, I go back and start again. And by that time, the wate has loosened all grease, stuck on stains and food particles, and it's ready to be wiped clean.
    (remember, you have to wait for the chemicals to loosen the stuff, too!)
    I've even used soap and water for windows and mirrors.
    It just works, people! TRY IT!
    You can eliminate all that spray you breathe in when cleaning.
    And remember...studies are ALSO showing lately, that TOO CLEAN IS UNHEALTHY!!! (it's even a reason for some cancers in kids!!)
    I'm not all crunchy or anything, but there's definately little things you can do to make your air a little fresher.

    January 28, 2011 at 13:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ituri

      Want to know why people use 409? Because they have lives and can't spend every day wiping down every surface twice over.

      I ran out of Lysol with bleach and said to myself, oh, soap and water is fine. A month later, with a layer of grime after having scrubbed twice as much, and having numerous allergy attacks, I bought two bottles so I wouldn't run out again. It doesn't do my health any good to expose myself constantly to things that are bad for me, and allergy attacks are awful things. That, and I was tired of being repulsed by my own counters as I worked my fingers numb scrubbing them only to quit with stains everywhere.

      The moment I bleached them, they came off bright white and clean, no scrubbing necessaray.

      January 29, 2011 at 01:05 | Report abuse |
  10. Lisa

    Whole Foods has their own line of non-toxic shampoos and bath gels at very reasonable prices.

    January 28, 2011 at 14:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. charles s

    For cleaning people, the safest thing is plain water. I know that this sounds strange but use soft, warm water. You can add a small amount of baby oil to dissolve oil on the skin. Water is the universal solvent; almost anything will dissolve in it. As you get older, your need for bathing decline and depends upon how much physical activity you do. Some people may need to bath every day; while other only need to bath once a week. Find what suits your skin. Too much bathing will dry the skin and cause problems.

    January 28, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ituri

      Let me guess, the safest deoderant is oxygen, right? I can smell you guys a mile away, no joke...

      January 29, 2011 at 01:07 | Report abuse |
    • Marisa123

      Better make it apricot baby oil, not the standard baby oil that is derived from petroleum.

      January 30, 2011 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
    • Emmaleah

      This is something a lot of people could stand to learn. I have several friends whose Drs told them to stop washing their kids so much. Seriously. It can cause eczema and acne. Try sponge-bathing kids every night instead of bathtime, then water the garden with what's left in the basin. To cut down on water use, a spot cleaning every other night instead of a bath can be good. Not everyone can get away with it, but it's worth a try. There's a few blogs out there about no-soap, no-shampoo projects. That's all most of us crunchies ask–try it!

      January 30, 2011 at 11:49 | Report abuse |
  12. Kevini

    At times I've sensed that the household atmosphere holds too much bi-product of modern life–often from untrustworthy sources–especially in the New England winter when the house is sealed tight. Purposeful awareness, the first step–thanks, Mandy.

    January 28, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. razzlea


    January 28, 2011 at 17:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Tat-2

    Ok sooo what do they put into your body to help cure your cancer??? Can anyone say CHEMICALS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 28, 2011 at 18:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. clara

    "But then your whole house smells like Greek salad" made me snort out loud. Thank you for that. And thank you for shedding just enough light to give a nudge, but not so much that I feel blind and powerless. Your deftness with words and the subtlety of your approach is appreciated.

    January 28, 2011 at 18:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. what to do

    But what do you do when you are allergic to many natural products? I'm allergic to almonds and almond oils as well as many other natural products. I'm not trying to be negative...just asking if anyone knows what I can do. I would love to get away from the toxins in the products I use.

    January 28, 2011 at 19:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • A. Pie

      Think about making your own products. There are many books with great recipes, including Better Basics for the Home, and the book by Dr. Aubrey Hampton, Natural Organic Hair & Skin Care. It's also generally cheaper to make your own products.

      January 28, 2011 at 23:30 | Report abuse |
  17. squirt


    January 29, 2011 at 15:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. squirt

    i'm going to start using urine for everything; cleaning drinking and bathing. it's natural right?

    January 29, 2011 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • WoodUshutup?

      Ahahhaha. The crunchies will love you! They won't like how you smell, though.....

      January 29, 2011 at 15:18 | Report abuse |
    • Marisa123

      The African Cattle People (our term for them, not theirs) do exactly that: they use cow urine to clean their hands, etc. They seem to survive just fine. Lighten up. You've been brainwashed by the "man" (read: Proctor & Gamble) to believe that you are supposed to smell a certain way, look like a celebrity, etc. They don't really care how you smell or look, by the way. They just want you to buy their stuff, and if it causes cancer later, that's good news for them because they also manufacture cancer "treatment" products.

      January 30, 2011 at 09:55 | Report abuse |
  19. Rachel G.

    Unless the authir is buying green cleaners that come in plastic bottles made from biomass products, she's just transferring the problem of chemical toxicity out of her house and into the environment at large. Recyclable or not, most plastics are made from petrochemicals, which are highly toxic.

    January 29, 2011 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Catherine

    This is the worst sort of writing. "Something bad happened to me and now I will make it the central event of my existence on earth and try to persuade you to do the same." It's a tragic way to obsess and capitalize on one's misfortunes. Got cancer? it's your fault, you used 409 once too often. Geez.

    January 29, 2011 at 16:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Caroline

      Really? That's what you got out of it? Your reading comprehension skills frighten me Catherine.

      January 29, 2011 at 18:23 | Report abuse |
    • Triscuit

      She is right, how many people use chemicals on a daily basis and how many of those people do not develop cancer? 99.99999% of those people. Correlation that someone used chemicals and got cancer does not mean causation.

      January 29, 2011 at 23:43 | Report abuse |
  21. Jolie

    As a mom I reduce the toxic burden by just cleaning less often.

    January 29, 2011 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • teachv

      I think Jolie just posted the winning reply!

      January 30, 2011 at 10:48 | Report abuse |
  22. JewlarkofJewlingrad

    The course of human evolution says our extinction will come from our own hands. toxins, nukes, guns yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

    January 30, 2011 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Emmaleah

    This is worth a try for anyone, whether you think cancer is related or not. Just stepping away from the big industries is worth trying. Kids love this kind of project. Make a list of red-flag substances and packaging and get them to help you change the way you shop. Don't just throw everything out. Make up a few green cleaners and try them. If they work, don't buy the chemicals when they run out.

    I've used vinegar for cleaning with success for years now. Baking soda is another great tool. I used lemon and oil furniture polish that I made up myself, until we changed furniture. You can buy environmentally-friendly versions of both. The Canadian government has pilot projects for 'green' cleaners–you can buy the results at Wal*Mart! They're even packaged in recycled plastics. Find out what you don't need and you'll save money.

    January 30, 2011 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Chris

    SOmething isn't adding up. Has the toxity level of cleaners on average gone up since the 70's? I thought in the 20s, 30s, you heard these horror stories of DET and other poisons being sprayed out and over homes while kids played. It seems hard math. . because before we used this crap was before we measured. . .I'm not sure how much of this concern is valid or not. . .

    January 31, 2011 at 05:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris

      also, a lot of stuff was introduced in the 70's Electronics/computers, video games, kids obesity levels have skyrocked on COrn Sugar stacked soft drinks. Kids stay inside more. ..Plastic innovation. . .Listen people – CORRELATION does not make for CAUSATION.

      January 31, 2011 at 05:40 | Report abuse |
  25. Jennifer

    How about small changes for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle instead of feeling guilty or going to extremes? I still believe that maintaining a healthy weight and diet along with moderate exercise (and no smoking) allows the body to rid itself of most toxins. Take a look at our little website where we blog about this more moderate approach...

    January 31, 2011 at 07:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. AMy

    I use vinegar and water to clean my house. It does not smell like a salad. The smell goes away in about a minute. If anything, it smells like Easter eggs, and that is not a bad association for me. DUMP the cleaners. Baking soda is another good cleaner. The rest are toxic.

    January 31, 2011 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. AMy

    I read some responses....Even if the current cleaners on the market aren't harmful to you, you should still clean with vinegar, water, and baking soda. Those products work AND cost a fraction of what other cleaners cost. So you save money. A TON of money. And who doesn't want more money?

    January 31, 2011 at 07:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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