To find out the answer to that question, I reviewed two books on environmental health.
Healthy Home Healthy Family: Is Where You Live Affecting Your Health?
(Joshua Books, 2010)
Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
Everything gives you cancer
There’s no cure, there’s no answer
Everything gives you cancer
In a world awash with chemicals that most of us can’t even pronounce, like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and triclosan, perhaps if Joe Jackson wrote the song now, the refrain would be “everything is an endocrine disrupter”. From the air (freshener) we breathe to invisible electromagnetic radiation, or how our food is grown, packaged and prepared, it appears that the world we’ve created is out to get us.
But can we do anything about it?
I first met Nicole Bijlsma as a fellow naturopathic student at the Southern School of Natural Therapies. She completed the gruelling four-year naturopathy course studying acupuncture at the same time. But she didn’t stop her quest for knowledge there. After experiencing health issues of her own, she turned her focus to the environment and forged a career in building biology. Healthy Home Healthy Family: Is Where You Live Affecting Your Health? is a testament to her years of research in environmental health.
The book covers almost every imaginable nasty you could come across in your home – from allergens and chemicals through to the insidious nature of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). It includes the seemingly innocuous products used to clean the house or put on our skin and toys children play with. It also provides a comprehensive checklist to assess the health of your home.
The author is clearly passionate about her subject but at times I found Healthy Home Healthy Family difficult to read. The sheer number and variety of domestic hazards is overwhelming. While the work is liberally peppered with references, it’s a mix of hard science, e.g. linking medical research correlating Phthalates with ADHD and fuzzier logic (like dowsing for geopathic stress). But if I was going to buy or build a new house, would I consult Nicole Bijlsma for a building biology audit? Hell yes!
While immersed in the horrors of the world I thought it was timely to revisit Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie and their environmental health experiment Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. Their book doesn’t cover the same breadth of environmental nasties as Bijlsma. It mainly focuses on a handful of household standards – plastics used in baby bottles, children’s toys and “microwavable” containers, non-stick surfaces, antibacterial products, fire retardants, pesticides and our love of eating tuna. Yet despite the Hammer Horror collection of chemical villains they describe the book as “downright hopeful”. Smith and Lourie, who exposed themselves to repeated doses of these domestic toxins in the name of research, blend science with humour and yes, even hope. For those who are easily frightened by the details, you can get a précis of the positive tips to reduce your exposure by skipping to final chapter, aptly titled “detox”.
The combined wisdom of both these books is far too vast to distill into a short list of tips. But a few standouts I gained from reading them include:
• Stop buying and using scented personal care products (shampoo, moisturizers, cosmetics etc) with artificial fragrances.
• Go back to washing with good old (unscented) soap and water instead of using antibacterial hand sanitizers.
• If you need to use plastic-based products, stick to those with the recycle numbers 1,2 4 and 5, ditch the rest.
• Switch to glass baby and drink bottles.
• Stop using plastic containers or coverings in the microwave (or get rid of the microwave altogether).
• Eat more small fish (like sardines) but avoid the big ones. Skip tuna if you’re planning to be, or are, pregnant.
• Avoid electrical appliances in the bedroom, and if you must have them place at least two metres away from the bed. Likewise keep as much distance as possible from your electrical meter box and never position your bed on the adjoining wall.
• Choose clothing and upholstery made from natural fibres like wool, cotton and hemp.
• Invest is a good cast iron pan and throw out the non-stick/Teflon cookware.
Note: The latest USA edition (2011) of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things with Sarah Dopp now available