Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Bad Chemical Romance

Am I the only who saw the portentous 1981 film The Incredible Shrinking Woman? Starring Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin, the film tells the story of a housewife who begins to shrink in size until she is just a few inches tall. The cause: a toxic chemical mix of regular household products. She can no longer do her household chores and, as she is the size of her children's toys, she is unable to perform any parenting duties, but becomes an iconic figure and national hero. And though it is a tale of science fiction, it has the faint lemony Pinesol scent of something undeniably true and relevant today.

I was reminded of this movie after reading Nicholas Kristof's column this week, "New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer." I read this piece with a big fat "duh!" in mind, as he reported that the president's cancer panel report was "eye-opening" and suggested taking steps toward cancer prevention:
such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.
Eye-opening? Really? Because if you've been hanging out in the world for the past sixty years - or if, like me, you watched the Channel 11 Sunday afternoon movies growing up and caught The Incredible Shrinking Woman - this would not be news. Do we need to see mushroom clouds to believe that chemicals can impact us on the cellular level? Ignoring the toxic behemoths like Agent Orange and Chernobyl, we have linked chemical exposures to all sorts of ailments. And you don't have to watch the news or read the Times online - if you've seen some of the specialty films like Judith Helfand's A Healthy Baby Girl or Blue Vinyl or even mainstream Hollywood movies like Erin Brokovich and A Civil Action you'd already be well aware of the chemotoxic threats we face everyday in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the produce we eat.

Jumping off my Dr. Bronner's soapbox, I figure that rather than tell you what to do, I'll tell you what I do. As a health-conscious nutrition student at a school of natural medicine, I'm often held up to higher standards. That said, I don't always meet these standards for a host of reasons - cost, time, convenience...did I mention cost? Here are a few of my top concerns lately and I'm curious to hear your ideas and reactions.

1. Eating organic
Ah, the big question of organic. Intuitively it makes sense not to ingest chemical pesticides used to kill other living beings but what the FDA labels as organic has been the subject of great scrutiny as has the issue of sustainability. Could a solely-organic agricultural system in this country still provide enough food for the population? Hmm, I don't know. What I do know is that the Environmental Working Group has taken a lot of the work out of deciding when to purchase organic. Check out their list of the Dirty Dozen - these are the items I stress when buying organics. And I happen to patronize many natural foods markets where most of the items are organic, and come summer I will receive weekly deliveries from my CSA, all fresh, local and organic.

2. Beauty and household products
Just to touch on a few of the highlights: upon reflection I realize that every part of my morning routine involved topical use of products that could be toxic. After having gum sensitivity issues I switched to an SLS-free toothpaste, which seems to have done the trick. SLS (sodium laurel sulfate) is the foaming agent found in most toothpastes on the market and you have to look carefully to find ones without it. I also try to use lotions and moisturizers that are paraben-free and petroleum free. After years of swearing by vasoline as the best lip balm out there, I finally decided that ingesting even small amounts of petroleum on a regular basis was something I could give up. Dare I discuss deodorant? For years researchers have been examining the connection between aluminum in antiperspirants and increased risk of breast cancer. While the results are inconclusive I chose to give it up after my mother had breast cancer. Instead I use the natural deodorants on the market - admittedly none are as effective without the aluminum - but I reapply if necessary, shower regularly and welcome the fragrant aroma that generally accompanies a long run, an intense hike or a hard bike ride in the manner of the Europeans who just don't seem to give a damn.

3. Drinking Water
Having long ago developed a taste aversion to soda-like beverages, water and teas constitute most of my fluid intake. On an average day I probably drink somewhere from 2.5-4 L so I should probably be concerned about what's in my water. Recent reports around the country have been reporting high levels of contamination in our tap and this is very alarming. For years I drank only bottled water, convinced that the water quality and taste was superior. As I grew more aware of the realities of bottled water (how Dasani and Aquafina, for example, simply sell us purified tap water), grew slightly more environmentally conscious (for more on this see The Story of Bottled Water) and more financially frugal, I gave up bottled water and jumped on the Sigg train a few years back, embracing the flavor and variety of water from the tap. Then came the big BPA scare of 2008. I moved on to a BPA-free Camelback bottle and haven't looked back. But now I worry that the high levels of chemicals found in my water are just as toxic. I occasionally consider buying a water filter, but as a renter in an old house I wouldn't be able to hook one up to my tap. Instead I've put it on my to-do list for the future.

4. Teflon
Oh the wonders of the non-stick pan! As someone who absolutely hates washing dishes, Teflon means the difference between preparing my own food and ordering take-out. Since they are so easy to clean I am more inclined to cook with Teflon-ware. But it's been five years since the EPA blew the lid on the carcinogenic effects of this brilliant creation, and yet I'm still using them. They're cheap and convenient and sometimes that takes priority. The next set of pots and pans I buy will be stainless steel and cast-iron (did you know that these can boost actually iron content of your food!) but until then I shamefully use my Teflon pans, careful to use only wooden spoons.

5. Sweat!
I've never been one of those girls who didn't like to sweat. With the exception of waiting on the platforms of New York City's overly humid subway, I love pretty much any activity that will cause me to perspire. As it happens, skin is the largest organ in our body and is a major detox organ, a way for our body to release some of the harmful chemicals we've ingested, so sweating can be really good for you (another reason to eschew antiperspirants). This is of course assuming that you stay properly hydrated with electrolytes and all, but that's for another post.

I often hear people gripe that we live in a toxic world. From just these few examples you can see that maybe we do. But from where I'm sitting on a sunny spring day in Seattle, I can only think that the world is nothing short of magnificent. Time to get away from the computer and onto my bike. I anticipate breaking a sweat.

1 comment:

  1. Shoot, i'm using teflon too! and cosmetics - some habits are so hard to kick :)