Monday, July 14, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, part 1

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Here's Section 1.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

The other day I noticed that had a feature on going green. No crunchy Birkenstocks for Oprah, no: instead this was the "gorgeously green lifestyle checklist." It had a long list -- change your light bulbs, use healthy cosmetics, eat organic -- but my favorite part was the end. It had a checklist for your intentions.

Do you wish to become healthier? Do you want to live according to your deepest values? You actually had to check these off.

And I realized that Oprah is right. Like any other behavior change - diet, exercise, that guy you really need to break up with -- first you have to make up your mind that you're ready to act. And to do that, you need some compelling reasons. This article aims to lay out some compelling reasons for changing your life by changing your cleaning products.

I. Are we ready? or: Times Have Changed

To decide whether to change direction, first we have to know where we are. It's important to understand that much of what we currently know as American culture developed in a different time. Our laws, economic system, shopping habits -- the way we manufacture, transport, use, and throw away all our stuff -- was developed in the late 19th and early-to mid-20th centuries.

This was a time when we thought the earth was limitless -- that we could produce as much as we could, extract as much as we could, and therefore dump as much as we could and pollute as much as we could, and there would be no consequences.

Now we know that isn't true. Now we know there are consequences. First, the Earth has only a certain amount of abuse it can handle, as we clearly see with global warming, drought, wildfires, extinction of whole species, and the perfect balance of nature disrupted.

Currently in the San Francisco Bay Area, several counties are rationing water because the snow pack in the Sierras has fallen so much in the past few years that the reservoirs can't serve the cities.

We now know we are capable of destroying our only home.

But our bodies also have a limit to what we can handle. We see this with rising incidence rates of diseases that are linked to environmental exposure. Things like childhood asthma, childhood cancer, and breast cancer -- diseases that could not be rising so fast based on genetics alone.

I don't like to cite statistics because they tend to be more confusing than helpful, but I want to highlight just one: pre-school asthma rates have gone up 160% in less than 15 years. Obviously toddlers haven't changed that much -- trust me, I have one. So what has?

Something is different in the world than it used to be, and our bodies are fighting hard to keep up.

So we see that the Earth has its limits, and our bodies have their limits. But there's one other thing we now understand more clearly than we did 50 or 100 years ago: corporations don't always tell us the truth.

This is relevant to the marketplace of cleaners, because hundreds of products are on the market, sold to us as healthy for our families. We've all seen the ads with adorable babies crawling on sparkling clean floors. What they don't reveal is which chemicals are absorbing into that baby's skin while she's down there.

In fact, we are still living with the consequences of a mid-20th century, post-War conviction that all industry is good, chemicals are the wave of the future, and government should stay out of the way. So where has this gotten us?

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

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