This blog post has been a tough one to write. I attended a Healthy Homes Conference in May, hosted by Build It Green. It was a breakneck tour through the world of indoor air quality, chemical exposure, and toxin build-up. And it was hard not to feel the doom and gloom. I admit I go pretty quickly into the “How can we avoid it? Why bother trying?” response, and frequently stick my head in the proverbial sand. I’ve been hung up looking for something positive – or at least something constructive – to put in front of you, and it’s taken a while.
Recently a friend who is a new mom emailed several parents she knew asking where they sit on the plastics debate for their children – BPA free? Glass only? Who cares? I and several others replied with the terrifying statistics going around about bioaccumulation, endocrine-disrupters, and plastic leaching. Doom and gloom indeed. But someone on that email chain made a comment that changed everything for me. She said, approximately, “Yes, we grew up in this world of untested chemical exposure, and we are certainly paying the price for it. And yes, it’s all around our children and we can’t completely protect them. But certainly knowing what we know now means they are safer already. And certainly there are steps we CAN take, even though we don’t know everything.”
Perhaps we can’t avoid the chemicals out there. But we can educate ourselves and make better choices moving forward. We can if not completely protect ourselves and our families, move towards better and safer lifestyles. That is motivating for me: even in the midst of a war I cannot win (at least not today), I can still fight battles that are worthwhile.
So with that, I would encourage you to think about how big a bite you can chew, and start there. Don’t try to rid your life of any and all unhealthy chemicals – that is an exercise in futility. There is so much we don’t know. There is conflicting science and marketing and greenwashing galore. But there are some known problems, and there are more solutions to avoiding those problems available today than ever before. Let’s avail ourselves of the knowledge and alternatives we can get our hands on, and keep asking for more.
The big bad companies are taking short cuts and using toxic chemicals to maintain their business. It’s cheaper, easier, and more reliable to sell the dangerous stuff to us than it is to do things right. That’s sad and wrong, but that ultimately means that our dollars drive change. BPA is a great example of that. Once that story broke, companies everywhere switched to BPA-free recipes lickety-split, rather than lose customer dollars. The sad dark underbelly of the BPA story is that the new alternative recipe is not necessarily safer – it’s just less understood and therefore less regulated. Yes, in this country ignorance is bliss on a scary scale. If it’s an unknown, unstudied chemical it’s likely not regulated – which then disincentivizes companies from testing chemicals, since testing will likely get them more rules to follow! But it’s still an example of consumer outrage making change – and it could happen again. If we demanded a known-safe recipe, do you think any companies would want to be still using unknown, not-proven-safe recipes? I suspect not.
Let’s begin by removing our collective heads from the sand. The Six Classes website is a great place to start. Six Classes is a webinar series produced by chemical experts to summarize the various kinds of health concerns associated with the chemical world we live in. It is informative, insightful, and motivating. It’s broken down into manageable packets of information. As they say, “Instead of worrying about tens of thousands of untested chemicals, we will learn from distinguished scientists who are outstanding teachers about six classes containing many of the bad actor chemicals in consumer products. In addition, the series will move us towards solutions by asking, ‘Do we need these chemicals?’ and when the answer is ‘Yes,’ we will explore safer green chemistry alternatives.”
It’s helpful to know that these videos were made for chemical experts by chemical experts. As such, there is a lot of technical jargon and a lot of assuming we can recognize chemical chain diagrams. Don’t let that dissuade you – consider these videos your fly-over tour of the world of chemical exposure. Find the area that concerns you most, google the relevant terms, and dig in. It turns out, really smart people have been raising these flags for a while, and really practical people have been pointing out the alternatives that are already out there. Really passionate people are fighting for change on a number of topics and at a variety of levels. Pick the topic and level you want to engage in (Total technical knowledge? Practical choices? Community activism? All three?) and take a step forward. Often it will mean taking a step backwards – towards tried and true, simple products and practices that have been used for generations with far fewer consequences. Baking soda and vinegar don’t sound revolutionary, do they? See, we can do this. We’re getting smarter already.