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June 28, 2008

Editor’s Letter: Step Aside Chemical Cleaning Products (and Waylon)

 by Heather Mueller, ed.

Our editor-in-chief’s personal, controversial letter supporting the rights of same-sex couples to marry last issue (you can still read it on elephantjournal.com) is a tough act to follow. But that’s how it goes—sometimes “the mindful life” means fighting for equal rights…and sometimes it means choosing the right product to dissolve the hair stuck in your drain.

If anything, living a responsible life is in the un-sexy, everyday details that we’d rather skip over. Noticing my silly, neurotic mind spin in circles in meditation practice or comparing brands of detergent are actually radical actions in a world of distraction. Mindfulness practice is, simply, not just reaching for the default shampoo or fabric softener because it’s on sale at Targé. And walking the talk sucks, sometimes. For years, I’ve shampooed with Pantene Pro-V because I looove how soft and non-frizzy it leaves my hair—and it’s way cheaper than the hair products at Whole Foods. But every time that I come up with some excuse (“It doesn’t make that much of a difference”) I feel like I’m tuning out, taking a backseat—giving up a bit of my own power to live the kind of life I can feel good about in the kind of world I want my children, someday, to grow up in.

And so global change comes down to simple moments like these, standing in Aisle 11 between the Q-Tips and nail polish remover. It’s not about guilt. It’s just that when I’m paying attention, I’m out of excuses. And thanks to the rise of eco-friendly businesses and media, living responsibly is getting more convenient—and more affordable.

The history of cleaning products in America began just after WWII. When hostilities ended, the same companies that poured research into chemicals for nerve gas and other weapons began to market their suddenly-obsolete inventions to the general public. Thus was born SPAM, plastic wrap and pesticides. Chlorine and other chemicals were poured into spray bottles and marketed as…cleaning products! Today, your average under-the-kitchen-sink cupboard contains as many hazardous poisons as a pre-WWII chemistry lab, about 10 gallons of harmful chemicals. Children under the age of six are more likely to be poisoned by liquid dish soap than anything else in the home.

A few months ago, we elephants watched a barista spray bright blue Windex onto a glass case covering a platter of muffins. That’s when I realized that 50 years of “New and Improved!” marketing has accomplished a basic disconnect between toxic cleaning agents and our health (one of this issue’s cover designers pointed to a headline and said, “Of course ‘Chemicals Kill.’ That’s why we use ‘em to clean!”) Instead of associating chemicals with “weapons,” “poison” or “hazard,” we think “disinfectant” and “sparkly clean!”

It’s like cigarettes—people puffed away, oblivious to health consequences, until lung cancer and emphysema were traced to their sources. It’s easy to ignore long-term consequences—like chemicals, pollution and global warming—because it can be hard to see them. But “conscious consumerism” isn’t just for hippies and eco-moms who shop at Whole Foods. This is for my boyfriend’s mom, who loves dollar stores and Wal-Mart. This is for my grandmother, who douses everything in Clorox Bleach because she hates germs. This is for all those who work at home—and are therefore 54% more likely to die from cancer, because of exposure to toxic cleaning products, than those who work outside of it. It sounds dramatic, but this is, literally, about life and death.

Luckily, we’ve been disinfecting (performing surgery, even) long before the chemical devolution. There are plenty of options (page 73) to help us clean up our act. Studies show that indoor air quality can be twice as bad as it is inside, so throw open the windows this summer and try detoxing your home. Your children and pets, and our watershed—and the next seven generations will thank you.

1. Kick off your shoes at the door—it’ll help reduce indoor air pollution by up to 74 percent (the bottoms of shoes are worse than the fabled peanut bowl in a bar—showing traces of chemicals, dog poo…)

2. Replace all cleaning products and detergents with eco alternatives (our favorites are reviewed here.

3.Trade in your plastic P.V.C. shower curtain for organic cotton or hemp. Many children’s bath toys, including the ubiquitous “rubber” ducky, are made of P.V.C.—a known carcinogen that can mess with your children’s “development.”

4. Ignite romance with organic or pure beeswax candles instead of paraffin or petroleum-based wax. And avoid artificially scented candles—they’re toxic when they burn.

5. Houseplants, like little vacuums, actually suck up and process up to 90% of the toxins in your air.

6. Re-use glass jars (salsa and nut butters are the perfect size) to store leftovers, instead of plastic Tupperware, which can leech chemicals into food over time.

7. Fill your fridge with organic fruits, veggies, grains and dairy products from your local farmers’ market!

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