Do you spray toxic chemicals around baseboards, leave poisoned bait in dark corners, bug-bomb your home and office, or douse yourself (and your kids) with DEET to keep pests at bay? Using pesticides might rid your surroundings of pests, but what are you doing to your health in the process? ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher
Studies indicate that a lot of the pesticides that were used even a decade ago can present short-term and long-term poisoning symptoms in both people and animals. Some of the safest pest control products can be made at home in your own kitchen, while at other times you’ll need to use a company that specializes in organic non-toxic pest control solutions. Here are some ideas for approaching pest control in healthier ways.
Prevention is Part of the Cure
There are a lot of things you can do to prevent a pest infestation from occurring or to keep one from becoming worse. By making sure that there are no food particles around for either insects or rodents to eat, you’ll have a running start at prevention.
Take the trash out every night, and wipe down your cupboards and kitchen counters daily to get rid of all the sources of food. Sweep the floor often and go through your kitchen cupboards and pantry to make sure that all food supplies are sealed tightly.
An easy way to deter insects and rodents from entering your home or letting the ones that are already there know that they are not welcome is to use bay leaves. These are readily available at the grocery store, and bugs and small rodents simply hate them! Place these leaves around your kitchen, and you’ll start to see fewer of these pests.
Dried whole nutmeg, chili pepper, mint, cloves, and basil are also effective for natural pest control and will send a message out to insects and small critters that they are not allowed in your home.
Because these are natural food substances, you won’t have to worry about accidental poisonings and can safely position them near any food supplies. (Do be careful to keep them out of reach of toddlers, of course. Bay leaves and chili peppers can cause severe discomfort if ingested.)
Certain essential oils, such as peppermint and citronella, will also help to keep the pest population under control in your home. Dilute these oils with water and spray the areas where the pests are entering your home or where you have seen them lurking.
Ants and fleas hate vinegar. To control fleas in your home, add one teaspoon of vinegar per quart of your pet’s drinking water. This will help keep the fleas off your pet while you are busy vacuuming them up around the house.
For ant control, wash your floor, cabinets, and counter tops with equal parts of water and vinegar.
When You Need the Experts
When an infestation becomes too big to handle, it’s time to call in professionals. Be sure they use only natural, organic pest control products. Most pest-control companies today have these products available and are more than willing to use them to help get your pest problems under complete control.
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Posts in Blue Planet Green Living’s “Notes from…” category provide readers with a personal viewpoint, often an essay, from a writer whose views are intrinsically linked to their own nation or locale. In this case, we present reflections on a needless and gruesome tragedy that occurred 26 years ago in Bhopal. Those responsible for operations at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant in Bhopal were convicted of “causing death by negligence,” according to Wikipedia. In this post, writer Dipak Kumar offers us a look back at the tragedy in his nation and shares his thoughts about preventing future ones. He calls his post an effort to “derive at a ‘wisdom‘ “ regarding the tragedy. We share his hope that wisdom will one day prevail. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
On the night of December 2nd 1984, I was traveling from Jorhat to Guwahati, in Assam, more than 2,000 miles away from Bhopal. I, a medical representative, was in an overnight bus for the 250-mile journey.
I had to take this bus ride every month for my cycle meeting. I liked this journey immensely, as the bus passed through the Kajiranga forests, and I stayed awake in anticipation of spotting a rhinoceros. I had no luck on this night, and I recall telling this to my co-passenger, Jinoo, who sold baby food and prickly heat powder.
In the cold morning of December, bleary eyed, I knocked at Subrato’s door. I stayed with him to save on the hotel bill, which we spent on booze. The radio news was all over. We all understood something terrible had just happened.
On the night of 2nd December, while I was trying hard to get a glimpse of a rhinoceros, 42,000 kg of lethal gas had leaked out of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)’s pesticide plant in Bhopal. By the time I pressed my friend’s doorbell, about 4,000 people were already dead.
Our cycle meeting started sharp at nine a.m. Mr. Ghatak from Calcutta had come to conduct the meeting. After the sales review, we had a tea break. He told us about methyl isocyanate (MIC). He also told us that our colleagues in Bhopal were in great danger.
Today, 2010, we know that more than 500,000 people have been affected by the Bhopal gas leak, and this is still not all the aftermath. Now, as you read this, 400 tons of chemicals that lie in the UCIL plant still trickle down into the groundwater resources of Bhopal.
We know about the “business decision” at UCIL to use methyl isocyanate (MIC) instead of less hazardous (but more expensive) material to make Carbaryl, the product UCIL made. We also know of a “business decision” at UCIL that shut down the MIC tank cooling system, with the sole intent to save money — for the shareholders, of course — and, one could argue, to improve the performance of the management.
The most important “business decision,” of course, was to completely ignore the 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which had identified 30 major problem areas that could cause a hazard. Choosing not to correct these problems would not have saved a lot of money for the company. These problems, however, were fixed at the company’s identical plant in the U.S.
Was the Bhopal gas leak a disaster? It was going to happen eventually. UCIL’s management team knew about the safety violations. But possibly they wouldn’t have imagined the effects would be this enormous.
Why do intelligent people at responsible positions tend to make such “business decisions”? These kind (they are of a kind, I have no doubt; let us call them the “D” people) have a priority of immense self interest, and they take huge risks on other people to save their own face. You will find this kind of people at the centre of all disasters. For example, we know of such people having an important role in the 2008 economic meltdown.
We should all be concerned that many such “D” people would be manning important positions in our society right now. “D” people cause disasters, given sufficient time. “D” people can also develop into dictators if the ground they walk on is fertile enough. Don’t we have such “D” people near the BP oil leak? Think of them, the ones who chose the cheaper designs.
Can we have a sieving system to identify and prevent such people from reaching responsible positions in our society? Maybe at the school, the university, and definitely at management institutes. Or, is it that human beings cease to be so when they are saddled with a certain kind of responsibility? Or, for some people, is looking good all that matters in life?
There are another set of people who are “oh, so true to their profession” but not to their evolution as humans. Great lawyers from India argued in the courts of the USA that the compensation case of the native Indians be conducted in India. The laws in the US were far too in favor of the victims “and the company might go bankrupt.”
In addition to UCIL management and the lawyers, there have been hundreds of people — the police, the judiciary, and politicians of all inclinations — who worked hard 24×7 to ensure that the court case of UCIL would take only 26 years.
That is time enough for genetic defects to show up. Perhaps it is time for another court case — on behalf of the children born of survivors.
Of Standards — Poor and Double
Every day when I travel in crowded buses and local trains, I go through the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome. On the platform I am Dr. Jekyll, just eager to enter the train. The moment I am in, I turn into Mr. Hyde and do my best to prevent others from entering the train. I hate crowds, you see, though I am seldom alone.
The Mr. Hydes at Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) reportedly never shared any research reports of over a dozen studies on methyl isocyanate (MIC) with the medical fraternity. Either the reports were/are very damaging, in which case MIC should never have been used — or, the reports were not so damaging, in which case, antidotes to MIC would have been ready in 1984.
Today we know that injections of sodium thiosulphide would have saved thousands of lives on the night of 2nd December 1984 at Bhopal. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was then doing a double-blind trial on effectiveness of this drug as a de-toxifier, but the report came 22 years too late.
The gas cloud on that night was denser than air and stayed close to the ground, affecting children and shorter people and those who never woke up. In the area declared as “gas affected,” there were 200,000 children of age less than 15 yrs and 3,000 pregnant women.
On the morning of 3rd December 1984, almost all the trees in the “gas-affected” area had shed all their leaves and developed burn patches. The Xerophytes suffered more because these plants keep their stomata (nose) open at night. Chromosomal abnormalities have since been found in eggplant, tomato, radish, and other shrubs.
The bank of the Narmada River was a horrific site of innumerable mass cremations of men, women, children, and cattle. Those who ran that night inhaled more poison than the few who had a ride. Of the 154 people studied between 1986 and 1988, more than 20 percent had at least two chromosomal abnormalities, the more common type being translocation in chromosomes 13 and 21. MIC was found to have changed ovarian epithelial cell production, leading to permanent damage and carcinogenesis.
Dow Chemicals USA purchased UCIL in 2001. Although it denies any responsibility for damages caused by UCIL in Bhopal, Dow fights more than 75,000 asbestos-related lawsuits for Union Carbide in the USA. Twenty-six years later, contamination at the site has still not been cleaned up.
On its cover following the Bhopal gas leak, TIME magazine wrote, “INDIA’S DISASTER.” To me, the Bhopal gas leak is as much India’s disaster as was slave trade Africa’s disaster or Hiroshima Japan’s disaster. It is a human disaster.
I guess we are waiting for some sensible evolution to occur in ourselves, so that no more disasters happen. Will we ever see the day that Mr. Hydes no longer run the world?
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When friends and family ask, “What are you reading?” they can pretty much expect my answer isn’t going to be a mystery or a romance or even an engaging novel (though I do miss great novels), at least these days. So, when my sister-in-law, Judy, and I discussed books the other day, she probably had a pretty good idea of what she was in for.
When I said I’m reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, at first she laughed — it sounds like a lighthearted title or maybe a bizarre mystery where the victim dies from having a rubber duck stuffed down his throat.
“No,” I said, responding to her quizzical look. “It’s not a mystery. It’s about the toxic chemicals found in all sorts of items we come into contact with each day — including toy rubber ducks.” That got her attention; Judy has grandchildren, one of whom is just six months old. The full title of the book is Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. (Titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health in Canada.) Not exactly a bodice ripper, legal thriller, or gumshoe tale.
Taking Risks in the Name of Science
The information in Slow Death by Rubber Duck doesn’t make for relaxing reading, even though the authors, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, do a masterful job of translating statistics and technical data (sometimes very technical) into highly readable prose. The problem is, the book is about a very unsettling topic.
When I first received my review copy and read the introduction, I was struck by the experiment that forms the basis for the book: The authors voluntarily and quite deliberately exposed themselves to toxic chemicals — lots of them.
Now, why would these men risk their health by loading their bodies with toxins? Isn’t that irresponsible? I wondered. It sounded so dangerous. And, from the way they tell it, their families were none too thrilled by their participation, either.
How They Did It
The scary thing is, the test the authors ran on themselves, the one in which levels of toxins in their blood and urine shot up (“from 64 to 1,410 nanograms per millilitre” of urine for monoethyl phthalate [MEP], for example), involved ordinary exposure to regular household items. They didn’t do anything extraordinary, other than to purposely select products they knew contained high levels of toxins.
The authors tried to stay away from products containing the chemicals and metals in question before immersing themselves in products heavily laden with toxins.
Bruce avoided eating fish for one month before the tests, and Rick tried to steer clear of phthalates, bisphenol A and triclosan for 2 days [48 hours] prior to the tests. We measured any increases or decreases by methodically taking blood and urine samples before and after performing our planned activities.
It wasn’t easy to eliminate phthalates and Bisphenol A, as Rick recounts: “This is a lot harder than it sounds. Try it. I dare you.” Because he couldn’t be sure which plastics contain these chemicals, he decided to avoid plastics completely. “I sort of knew it already, but once you start carefully keeping track, it really hits you: plastic has taken over our lives…. I started to realize that virtually everything … with a few notable exceptions … are [sic] covered in plastic.”
To control their exposure to the chemicals they were testing, the men spent two 12-hour days together in Bruce’s condo in their “test room”:
About 10 by 12 1/2 feet, the room was much like any bedroom, TV room or home office in any apartment across North America.
Mimicking Real Life
Looking at their test schedule, I’m struck by how ordinary their testing days were. The only thing that seems at all unusual (to me, a recently converted vegetarian) is that they ate a large amount of fish during the two days. (Fish is a staple in many people’s diets, of course, so I’m the odd one out here.)
Otherwise, the two Canadian environmentalists do mundane activities like drink Earl Grey tea, “drink coffee brewed in a polycarbonate French press,” have a carpet company come “to protect/STAIN-MASTER the test-room carpet & couch,” use antibacterial soap, microwave chicken noodle soup & canned spaghetti “in Rubbermaid microwavable containers,” wash dishes, use lotion, brush their teeth and wash their hands, and so on. Nothing really out of the ordinary at all. In fact, they write, “We set only one ironclad rule: Our efforts had to mimic real life….”
As we started consulting experts and poring over scientific studies, it frequently felt as if we were assembling a giant puzzle. the critical pieces that needed fitting together were a list of chemicals for which there was mounting human health concern, a good sense of daily activities that might expose the average person to these chemicals and the outline of an experiment that would reveal whether these daily activities measurably affect the levels of the chemical in question in our bodies.
The authors alternate writing the chapters, each one chronicling his own chemical exposure and test results.
In Chapter 2, “Rubber Duck Wars,” I found it touching to read Rick’s worries about the phthalates his own small sons are consuming as he writes about the ubiquitous chemical and how impossible it seems to avoid it.
He has very real concerns, as Dr. Ted Schettler, the Science Director at the Science and Environmental Health Network, tells him —
“The child is going to encounter the same environment as an adult but in a different way. They’re going to be playing and moving around in it in a different way and putting their fingers in their mouths much more frequently than you are. They’re going to be more intimately in contact with their physical environment than adults are, and this will be reflected in their level of exposure.”
In other words, by virtue of being closer to the dust bunnies, licking their fingers relentlessly and chewing on phthalate-containing items that they shouldn’t be putting in their mouths, my kids are sucking in more of this stuff than I am.
And so are everyone else’s kids.
In Chapter 3, “The World’s Slipperiest Substance,” Bruce writes about perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a major chemical ingredient in Teflon, Silverstone, and Capstone, non-stick coatings for cookware. PFOA “is considered by many scientists to be toxic and to cause birth defects, developmental problems, hormone disruption and high cholesterol. The EPA has labelled it a ‘likely carcinogen,’ and it’s now found in every corner of the globe,” he writes.
To no one’s great surprise, PFOA is also found in drinking water in the town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Teflon is manufactured. Bruce writes of the class action lawsuit filed by some of the town’s residents against DuPont, the sole manufacturer of PFOA. It’s an intriguing story, and about as close to a legal thriller as the book gets.
Parkersburg is at the center of the PFOA story. We can all likely think of more than enough examples of people being polluted by the chemical factory or toxic waste dump ‘next door’. And this is one of the dimensions of the Parkersburg experience. But the tale of Parkersburg may be the first environmental-disaster story in which a small town is also responsible for contaminating the entire world and almost every living thing in it.
“It turns out that DuPont knew of health risks associated with PFOA as far back as 1961,” Bruce writes, though the company wouldn’t admit to it when sued in 2001. This chapter alone makes the corporation seem to be out for profit at any cost, and damn the consumer. ” ‘They knew [PFOA] was in the water, they knew it caused deformities, they knew of the problem and they knew how to solve it,’ ” said Joe Kiger, the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against DuPont.
But there was one surprising result. The authors tried to raise their own levels of PFOA during their experiment, but two days of exposure to what they believed to be Teflon Advanced stain protectant on the test room’s furniture didn’t do the trick. Why not? They later learned that the buildup of PFOA in the blood takes time. Still, they, like just about every other living thing on this planet, already had some levels of PFOA in their bloodstream.
I don’t want to spoil the read by giving you a blow-by-blow account of every chapter. And, I really couldn’t, because there’s just so much information woven into each one. But here’s a taste of what you’ll find if you give it a read (and I recommend that you do, whether or not you have kids or grandkids).
In Chapter 4, “The New PCBs,” Rick learns about flame-retardant clothing and “brominated flame retardants, a family of compounds that seems to be repeating the nasty history of PCBs.” Again, Rick uses his own small children’s clothing as an example of the dangerous toxins we unthinkingly expose our little ones to.
Chapter 5, “Quicksilver, Slow Death,” explains how all that fish Bruce ate quickly elevated his blood mercury level. “After seven meals/snacks in three days, I had managed to more than double the mercury levels in my blood! Almost two and a half times, in fact…. After reading these results, I got a firsthand understanding of how communities that depend on fish in their diets can quietly poison themselves.”
Chapter 6, “Germophobia,” Rick explains that the chemical triclosan, which was originally used only in hospitals, is now ubiquitous. You can’t get away from “antibacterial” products. And even if you want to, you’ll find that many people around you are trying to use more and more of them.
The Environmental Working Group has found the chemical in household items as disparate as liquid hand soap, toothpaste, underwear, towels, mattresses, sponges, shower curtains, phones, flooring, cutting boards, fabric and children’s toys. One hundred and forty kinds of consumer products in all.
He goes on to say that, by 2007, the Canadian government had “registered 1,200 brands of cosmetics containing triclosan.”
We all should. According to Stuart Levy, Director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University, “wide-scale antimicrobial misuse and related drug resistance is challenging infectious disease treatment and health care budgets worldwide.”
The (Im)Perfect Lawn
And then there’s Chapter 7: “Risky Business: 2,4-D and the Sound of Science.” Here we meet up with pesticides and herbicides. We learn about the health effects of DDT, long-since banned, but still present in our environment, it contributes to both testicular and breast cancers.
And let’s not forget the herbicide named in the chapter title. 2,4-D is used to “beautify” lawns (a matter of opinion), but it’s been banned in some parts of Canada:
Like many pesticides 2,4-D is associated with a number of potentially serious health hazards for humans. In fact, the list of known or suspected health effects reads like an inventory of the worst possible things that could happen to a human…. non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a form of blood cancer), neurological impairment, asthma, immune system suppression, reproductive problems and birth defects….
[I]n a subsample of the U.S. population between the ages of 6 and 59… one-quarter of Americans who had their blood tested in 2001 or 2001 has detectable levels of 2.4-D in their bodies.
So why isn’t 2,4-D banned everywhere?
Danger Lurking in Sippy Cups
In Chapter 8: “Mothers Know Best,” Rick talks about the power of moms to persuade the Canadian government to ban bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that’s frequently found in children’s toys, baby bottles, and sippy cups. It’s also found in the lining of food cans, in microwaveable containers, and in plastic thermal mugs, among a whole lot of other things.
Rick describes his diet and the containers he used for cooking and eating. It’s not much different from most people who haven’t gone organic and natural — the majority of North Americans, I’d wager: lots of canned food and a couple of Cokes (there’s BPA lining the cans). He made coffee in a polycarbonate French press he purchased at Starbucks, drank it from a child’s plastic bottle, and microwaved his food in a Rubbermaid microwaveable container.
And the result? His BPA levels shot up “more than sevenfold from before exposure to after exposure.”
But there was also BPA in his blood even after trying to detox before the test. I was amazed to learn some of the sources, as was Rick.
So-called “carbonless” paper—the very white, glossy, coated paper that most cash register receipts are printed on these days—has very high levels of BPA. High enough levels that absorption of BPA through the skin on the fingers is likely an increasing source in daily life. printers ink used in newspapers also contains BPA. Because these high-BPA-content papers end up in the recycling bin in many places, levels of BPA in recycled paper are generally extremely high.
Maybe you’d like to know why BPA is such a bad thing to have in your blood. It’s a hormone disruptor that has potentially disastrous effects. In 2005 —
the U.S. National Toxicology Program … raised concerns regarding BPA’s links to early puberty, breast cancer, prostate effects and behavioural problems and highlighted that pregnancy and early life are especially sensitive periods, given higher exposure to the chemical and limited ability to metabolize it.
Remember, BPA is in baby bottles and sippy cups! As I checked on line to find out if the U.S. has followed Canada and the E.U. in banning BPA, I’ve found mention of two bills being “introduced” in the House of Representatives in March 2009. Their intent was to ban BPA in food and beverage containers in the U.S. But I haven’t seen anything that says either bill has been passed. What are we waiting for?
Still, There’s Hope
There’s so much that’s worth reading in Slow Death by Rubber Duck. And it’s not all depressing, despite what I’ve written above. I’ll leave you with a short excerpt from Chapter 9: “Detox.”
It would be easy, given the daunting nature of the toxic dilemma we’ve laid out, to be either paralyzed into inaction or driven to distraction with anxiety or both. But there’s no need for this. We’re trying to instill some concern, not worry. As we outline in this chapter, there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your family. And many that will start to take effect almost immediately.
So buy the book. Learn about the perils of the chemicals discussed in it, then find out what you can do to make your home — and your family’s — a safer, healthier place to live. The book cover lists the price at U.S. $25, and, in my opinion, it’s worth every dime.
Blue Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. Other than the review copy, we received no compensation or incentive for reviewing the book. No one influences the content of any of our reviews other than the writer. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.
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Recently, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) wrote in praise of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and encouraged readers to consider supporting the important work of this nonprofit organization. Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking with Ken Cook, who heads EWG. We wanted to know about EWG’s history, its major areas of focus, and what he sees as the most critical issue on the group’s docket today. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
COOK: I started the Environmental Working Group in the early 1990s, with my colleague Richard Wiles, whom I consider to be a co-founder of the organization. He brought to us a lot of talent — in particular, a great deal of information, knowledge, and experience on toxic chemicals, specifically pesticides.
BPGL: You publish an impressive amount of research at EWG. Who are your researchers?
COOK: They’re all on the staff. We have chemists, engineers, a lot of public health experts and so forth. Over the years, we have built up a program that is heavy on original research and computer analysis. We were one of the first groups in the public interest community, and certainly in Washington, to have a full-time database programmer (who is still with us, by the way).
We started churning out major studies based on government data that hardly anyone had ever seen except the government bureaucrats who were paid to collect it and store it. We started using that information to help make the case for all kinds of policy reforms within the areas of toxic chemicals and pesticides, but also agricultural subsidies.
We’ve done research on the use and destruction of public lands out west by oil and gas exploration and hard-rock mining. The damage that’s been done out there has been tremendous.
And, we’ve put the names of all farm subsidy recipients in the country on line. That has gotten us some notoriety, but it has also had a big influence on the farm subsidy debate.
BPGL: What is the most pressing issue you are working on at EWG today?
COOK: The issue that’s coming to a boil in Washington right now is a debate over reform of the decades-old law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which covers industrial chemicals in this country. This is the group of chemicals that is used in consumer products and automobiles, building materials, and so forth. Not pesticides, but just about every other category of chemical.
This is central to the Environmental Working Group today. We’ve been mounting this campaign, hoping that we’d get momentum for a reform of this federal law for almost ten years. And now we’re right on the cusp of it.
Just today [Tuesday], in fact, there was a big step forward by the American Chemistry Council, which is the trade association of the chemical industry here in Washington. They have announced a set of ten principles to modernize the 1976 law. And we’re encouraged.
I’m sure we’ll probably disagree on more of the fine points than we agree on, but they have stepped up and said, “We need a standard that protects human health. We don’t have that now. We need much more data on chemicals than we have now, in terms of their health and environmental effects, and so forth.” The debate is really starting to unfold, and we’re smack in the middle of it.
BPGL: What actions would you recommend for the average consumer? How can we help support a change in this legislation — besides the obvious action of contacting our legislators?
COOK: First of all, we’re in favor of people getting informed and getting engaged with the debate. The best thing to do, in our opinion, is to go to our website, find the page marked “Kid-Safe Chemicals,” and learn about the legislation.
We feel that this is going to be the basis for the conversation, just like the Cap and Trade concept is in the climate change debate. The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act is going to be the foundation around which the debate is built over the next couple of years.
It’s our opinion that consumers can do two things. You can protect your family and take smart, sensible steps to substantially reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, such as reducing your exposure to pesticides by shopping from our list (Shoppers Guide to Pesticides) on fruits and vegetables. If you can find them organically grown, you should shop that way. But if you can’t, there are other fruits and vegetables that are pretty low in pesticides, and our list shows you which ones they are. And, you can take steps to reduce exposures in personal care products and furniture items. All those tips are on our website.
But we also know at this stage that we can’t just shop our way out of this. We’re going to have to require some change in government policy that can provide some smarter, more up-to-date rules of the road, if you will, about what kinds of chemicals can be used in what products. And the thing that’s driven the message home for us is the research we conducted looking at chemicals in people, because, if you’re finding chemicals showing up in the blood of people, there’s no question that exposure has happened. So then, the question is, Is the exposure serious enough to be concerned about? How do we cut down on it? Is that something we can, or should, be expected to do as a consumer? Or is that something we should expect companies to do by reformulation, shifting to chemicals that don’t get in people, aren’t as hazardous, and so forth?
And, of course, the ultimate concern is raised when you find chemicals in umbilical cord blood — which we did in a study a few years ago, where, for the first time, we looked at a wide range of toxic chemicals in umbilical cord blood. In just ten babies, we found 280+ chemicals — and that’s when we spent $10,000 in chemical labs for the analysis. If we’d spent $15-, or $20-, or $30,000, for example, who knows how many chemicals we might have found? Maybe 600 or 800 or 1,000 or more. We have another study forthcoming.
BPGL: What will be the difference in the new study? Or will it be a repeat of the original?
COOK: We’ll be screening for some new chemicals and some that we’ve already looked at. And we’ll have an unusual group of babies. I don’t want to reveal who they are just yet. We’ll be releasing that in September. But we did look at some new chemicals that we hadn’t looked for in the previous study.
Most of the chemicals we studied are in everyday consumer products. And we did detect those chemicals in most or all of the ten babies in the second set that we tested.
BPGL: Are these results also from prenatal tests?
COOK: Yes. These are prenatal, umbilical cord blood tests.
We’ve already documented that babies are born with chemicals that were banned in this country 30 years ago. It’s shocking to people, but the umbilical cords of babies born in 2004 — the babies we tested through the American Red Cross research program — contained PCBs and DDT and other chemicals that were banned in the 1970s.
The lesson there is that you don’t want to wait too long. If you know a chemical is dangerous, and it lasts, you definitely want to take steps to ban it, because it will be around for a long time.
BPGL: Did you test for BPA in the second study?
COOK: I’d rather not say yet, but we’re looking for a wide range of chemicals.
BPGL: Your wife gave birth not long after the results of the first study came out. How did the results of the study change your life and your wife’s?
COOK: It had a big effect. The whole point of what we experienced, my wife and I, was that we realized that, as much as we would be careful in what we bought, what we put in the baby’s room, what we fed the baby, all those steps — we were just as careful as we could possibly be — we know that that’s not enough.
I came to resent having to go to my own website [for product safety information], because I came to the conclusion — as she did, and I think a lot of other parents do — that with all the things on the mind of an expectant family, the last thing you feel like you really ought to have to do is what the government ought to be doing, which is standing behind the safety of everyday products, and making sure that, if babies are exposed to them, they’re going to be okay.
When I give our “10 Americans” talk, one of the first things I look for in the audience ahead of time, if I can, is any pregnant women. I want to tell them a little bit about the talk in advance, and say, “Just stick with me. We’ve all been through this. Instead of getting angry, let’s get even. Instead of getting paralyzed, let’s get feisty here.”
BPGL: I’ve wondered about the diversity of topics that you focus on at EWG. How did you get started working in the different major areas you address?
COOK: We started off working mostly on agricultural subsidies. After that, we got involved in pesticides when Richard Wiles came on board, and we developed that area into the broader issues of toxic chemicals.
In the case of public lands, we had a number of prospective supporters come to us and basically say, “Look, we saw what you did on a range of other topics, can you take on the damage being done to our public lands by oil and gas exploration and hard-rock mining?” So, in some ways, the ability to do this kind of research has attracted support.
And now we’ve added a new dimension, which we’re very excited about. It’s very relevant to your work [at Blue Planet Green Living], which is, our online presence has just sort of exploded. We are developing a very large list, approaching 600,000 people who are online supporters. It’s a very active group, and we get suggestions from them, all the time, on topics to look into.
We can’t always look into all of them, or even most of them, but they say things like, “Tell us about toxic chemicals under the sink. We’d like to know what’s in those products.” We get that question all the time. We’re doing research in California now that should begin to shed some light on it, and begin to get us working more in that area. We get questions about nutrition, as another dimension of food safety. We’re starting to do some research on that.
[Our work] has evolved from the basic skill set we put together in forming the Environmental Working Group — the ability to analyze large sets of data; commission original laboratory work; do good, smart writing; and, at the same time, do quantitative analysis — that, in combination, has really helped us make the case to supporters to take on this range of issues.
BPGL: Who are EWG’s major supporters?
COOK: Almost all of our support comes from major donors and foundations, with a growing list of online supporters — we’re very encouraged that we’re able to add more and more of those every day. We’ve been fortunate to put together the kind of content that people want, and more of them are writing and giving us even a small contribution. As you know, on the worldwide web, you can reach a lot of people very quickly and, if they value what you’re doing — as many people do our Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database website and our food news website — even small amounts of money make a big difference.
EWG TOOLS FOR CONSUMERS
Environmental Working Group has a long list of helpful guides to protect your family and pets from environmental toxins. A few of the resource links are included here. For a full list, go to the “Health Tips” section of the EWG website.
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The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
First published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is undoubtedly one of the founding texts of the modern environmental movement. Indeed, as Al Gore noted in his introduction to a 1994 edition, “without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.” I suppose it is a credit to the book’s influence and power that many of its ideas have become widely accepted by the great majority of the public (surely by visitors to this site) and appear so obvious that it seems incredible someone had to write a book to prove them.
Silent Spring was the first popular work of nonfiction to document the dangerous and deadly effects of pesticides on the environment. We now take for granted that chemicals can blight the landscape and cause cancer, but in Carson’s day those ideas were largely unheard of, at least among the general public. The book was actually quite unusual for its time, not only for its scientific revelations, but also for the fact that it flew in the face of Progress — that great American ideal — and refuted the common view that the natural world was a limitless, yet easily subjugated, resource. In Silent Spring, Carson contended that science and industry would perhaps not be able to deliver on their promise of a better world. On the contrary, she told us, the scientific wonders ostensibly developed to help grow the food of humanity could perhaps be the end of it.
The present-day reader can be forgiven for being less than awed by Carson’s thesis, which is as follows: Through an overuse and over-reliance on pesticides, humanity is poisoning the flora and fauna of the land, as well as itself. The application of these chemicals causes them to become a toxic, almost ineradicable presence in the ecosystem, a presence which affects virtually all plants and animals. In addition, it is nearly certain that exposure to these substances causes disease (especially cancer) in humans. Oh, and by the way, pesticides are largely ineffective.
The impact of this book is hard to overstate. It is one of the few books in American literature that can safely be said to have changed the national discourse, belonging to the same rarefied circle as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Upon its publication, it was immediately the subject of much discussion and controversy (as it is even today). As the clamor grew, so did the sales. The general public was fascinated and appalled by Carson’s findings, and Silent Spring enjoyed a long stay on the bestseller list, helped by its excerpting in The New Yorker and its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her critics denounced her as a fraud, a liar, a pagan, and a Communist. (The reasoning behind this last epithet followed from the observation that Carson was unmarried, despite being attractive.) Ironically, the massive propaganda campaign waged against her by the chemical industry and big business only contributed to the book’s fame.
Before long, President Kennedy was forced to appoint a special panel to investigate the book’s dire findings. The panel confirmed Carson’s claims, and eventually Congress held hearings on the matter; Carson herself testified. Though she died of breast cancer in 1964, her book and her ideas lived on. The major environmental achievements of that era — the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the banning of the pesticide DDT, the passage of the Endangered Species Act — can be directly or indirectly traced to Carson’s explosive book and the outrage it provoked among the general public.
Silent Spring is one of those books that is talked about more than it is read, its fame and influence overshadowing its very considerable merits. This is really too bad, because the work is beautifully written, and Carson’s arguments are as devastating and persistent as DDT.
The book begins with a pastoral portrait of a prosperous, small, American town. The crops are plentiful, the fish bite, the birds sing, etc. But suddenly, the crops begin to wither and die, the fish are found belly-up in the river, and no birds sing. This results in a (wait for it) — silent spring! The rest of the book is an attempt to explain “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countess towns in America.”
Carson was a naturalist before she became a writer, and her fine prose demonstrates that the project was the perfect pairing of author and subject. She was already recognized as a great writer before Silent Spring, her fourth book — she was so good that The Atlantic Monthly even published her brochure copy — but she clearly pulls off something quite remarkable in this work. She writes like a woman who divides her reading time between scientific studies and poetry (the title was inspired by a John Keats poem). Here’s a sample:
“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.”
In chapters with names like “Rivers of Death,” “Indiscriminately from the Skies,” and “Needless Havoc,” Carson thoroughly makes her case against the careless and excessive use of pesticides (she never comes out against them entirely, as her detractors have claimed). She touches upon many subjects: the toxic effect of pesticides and their misuse, the prevalence of carcinogenic chemicals in daily life, the deceptive practices of the chemical industry, the natural cycles of different ecosystems, and the better, less dangerous (and even more effective), alternatives to pesticides.
Along the way, Carson takes the reader on a tour through the natural world, and I think it is this aspect of the book that makes it something special. Carson’s passion and enthusiasm for the natural world are evident even when she is writing about dirt (the “realms of the soil,” she eloquently calls it); the reader cannot help but share in her wonder. She reveals nature to be an extraordinarily interconnected system, a glorious monument to complexity, diversity, and — ultimately — empathy. In charting the murderous journey of a drop of poison up and down the food chain, she demonstrates that every living thing is connected to every other living thing. “In nature nothing exists alone,” Carson tells us.
For me, this revelation is what makes Silent Spring worth reading, because it is a revelation that is so easily forgotten. Sure, the science and statistics are old, but the message, the overriding theme of the book, is just as relevant today as it was then, if not more so. Indeed, if we consider ourselves environmentalists, it is our duty to remind ourselves and others of the reality of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. The book is almost fifty years old, so read it not for an up-to-date account of agriculture or medical science today, but to be inspired and stirred, as others were before you. Unless we do something soon, we will inhabit “a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight,” a world of devastation, of silent springs.
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