I just finished reading an excellent book called The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You, by Deanna Duke, an environmental writer, blogger, wife and mother. The book will simultaneously educate, motivate and scare the wrinkle-resistant pants off of you.
It documents how, one awful week in 2007 Deanna's family received two earth-shaking bits of news: her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (high-functioning autism) and her husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (an often fatal form of leukemia). These diagnoses triggered an array of questions about what caused the two conditions and whether or not exposure to environmental toxins could be a culprit. Her questions led to reading books, research articles, and more questions, until she decided to do some investigating on her own. Are the levels of toxins that we, as Americans, are exposed to every day making us sick? Is a little bit OK? Where does the line get crossed?
“Many companies and individuals representing the chemical industry argue that small doses of potential toxins like parabens and phthalates and polyethylene glycols (PEGs) don’t hurt the human body, that we are capable of processing them and ridding them from our systems. That is true to some degree, but given the fact that there are so many products that contain a maelstrom of chemical ingredients, with some estimates that the average American uses upward of 10 products a day, it begins to add up. And your body has to work that much harder to “process” all those chemicals. With multiple parabens and phthalates in each product, sometimes applied multiple times a day, your body is working full-time to eliminate them. And then those small doses aren’t negligible anymore.”
Deanna felt that a scientific approach would be the best way to get more information, so she made herself a guinea pig, of sorts. At that time she was living the life of an environmentally-minded and generally uncontaminated person, choosing organic food for her family and trying to buy (or make) natural products that were not laced with chemicals, whenever possible. To gather the necessary data for her research, she stopped doing that. Instead, she ate the common foods that an average American eats and she used personal care products that the average American would. Her plan was to let her body simulate the amount of chemicals that most Americans would have in their systems (the toxic body burden), get a complete round of blood work and testing done to find out what those “common” levels are, then go cold turkey off of all toxins…and see how long it would take for her body to become clean again. Luckily for us, she documented this journey in a book.
The book itself is very well written, giving us background on her family’s medical challenges and her motivation for finding out more about environmental toxins, then getting into the nitty gritty of the data gathering phase of the research. She’s a very funny writer and this comes out in the book. I laughed out loud on several occasions. Deanna does a good job of trying to make the information in the book accessible for an average person. She knows that the lifestyle choices that would need to be made in order to reduce toxic exposure have to be reasonable and achievable, or else no one will bother to do it. She pokes fun at herself a lot when she talks about some of the more extreme anti-toxin choices she had to make during the second phase of the project. She refers to herself as the “crazy lady” on several occasions. She’s not crazy, but she is thorough.
I won’t go into many of the details in the book, because frankly, you should buy it and read it for yourself. It’s so full of information, that it can be overwhelming. The questionable chemicals in every aspect of our daily lives are so numerous and pervasive that it’s hard to imagine removing enough of them to actually make a difference. It was hard not to get discouraged, mostly when trying to imagine how to convince people like my sixth grade son, who keeps pestering me to buy toxic bombs like Axe Body Wash, that we should eliminate many heavily marketed or established products from our household repertoire. Ultimately, I took comfort in Deanna’s statement that “It’s about striking a balance between the risks of the problem and the risks of the solution.” To me, this is a variation on the parental axiom: pick your battles.
One major question that I had, which Deanna did address extensively in the book, was regarding the performance of eco-friendly, non-toxic products vs. chemical-laced conventional ones. She struggled with finding effective substitutes for some toxic items like mold fighting cleaners, dishwashing liquid, deodorants and drain cleaners. Happily, she mentions many specific products that she either likes or dislikes (and why) so I have much less research to do on my own now.
I recommend reading this book with a pencil in hand and a hefty pad of post-it markers so that you can refer back to the details at a later date. It's worth your time, because being uninformed can kill you too.
Follow-up post: My Less-Toxic Life