everything is killing me
March 23, 2010 11:49 AM   Subscribe

Since having a baby, I've been trying to pay more attention to the types of products we use and now I'm pretty sure that everything is killing us. How do I become better informed about hidden toxins and chemicals and other nasties and learn to eliminate them from my life without going completely crazy and running off to the forest with my tinfoil hat?

I store my leftovers in containers full of BPA, I'm ingesting melamine from my cute cheap dishware, my baby's toys are oozing phthalates, I'm breathing in petrochemicals every night, artificial food colorings are going to give my child ADHD, my shampoo has dioxane, my conditioner has methylparaben, and I am starting to freak out just a little.

It doesn't help that I get conflicting information everywhere and more overzealous proselytizing than actual facts.

What are some nice, factual, non-crazy, non-fear-based resources for becoming more informed about this kind of stuff? And how do I stay sane while learning more and decide what HAS TO GO NOW and what I don't mind accepting?

And bonus question: What are your favorite, more natural/healthy alternatives to [INSERT SCARY THING]?
posted by logic vs love to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I'd start with the first principle of Operational Risk Management.
posted by tybstar at 12:08 PM on March 23, 2010

Stuff today is about a zillion times less toxic than when we were kids. Hell, playgrounds used to be made of wood treated with arsenic and steel covered in lead paint.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:17 PM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ - ewg has a nice database for personal care products.

My rule of thumb is stolen from food advice: if you can't pronounce a chemical, it's probably no good. Read ingredient lists when available.

http://www.goodguide.com/ - more general but not as exhaustive. Also has recommendations of what to use instead of the toxic things.

And, relax. Make small changes where you can, work toward a healthier life, and generally avoid plastic and smelly things when you can. Even if you stripped out everything you could, you'd still be exposed to toxins in ways you can't control.

Bonus: you were raised in this toxic soup and had a perfectly healthy baby.
posted by arabelladragon at 12:18 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

And don't forget your cell phone is radiating your brain and the power lines all around you are melting your insides...There's global warming and the people in India and China are killing themselves making your too cheap clothes. There's no telling if the chem trails are poisons floating down on our ORGANIC food supply.

All of my Mom's side of the family smoked, ate and drank too much and probably lived on saturated fats cooked in Tupperware. Mom's 80 and her Mom lived to be 83.

You can't rout out every threat in the universe--but you can make yourself sick and neurotic over-thinking stuff. Just be moderate, don't do anything too much. Shoot for simple foods and look for the stuff your Mom used to use...If it's still around it's probably not that much of a threat. Johnson's Baby Shampoo and plain old Prell always worked great for everybody.
posted by AuntieRuth at 12:19 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take a breath. There's 6.6 billion of us on this little marble-- how dangerous can it really be? :)
posted by Static Vagabond at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2010

Don't become like these people...
Part 1
Part 2
Being safe with what you eat and the products you use is always a good thing, but don't let it "freak you out." Just remember that your body is extremely adept at keeping you healthy. The lists of things that we should or shouldn't eat or be around grows every day, so, no matter what you do to stay away completely from "bad" things there are tons of other "bad" things that we don't even know about yet! Sorry if that freaks you out even more!

P.S. John Stossel is incredible.
posted by alextprice at 12:26 PM on March 23, 2010

Best answer: If I were feeling overwhelmed by this stuff, I'd start by prioritizing. First would probably be: things we ingest. So, for instance:

I store my leftovers in containers full of BPA

Use Pyrex for food storage. It's relatively cheap, if you buy a set from Costco or similar. If you use the newer stuff, with rubber lids, take the lid off and put a dishtowel or paper towel over the food to reheat.

I'm ingesting melamine from my cute cheap dishware

Again, I'd go with tempered glass. It's very cheap, and it's less breakable than you'd think -- I give my 1-year-old foods in Pyrex dishes, and she hasn't managed to break one yet. (Cold foods I do put on plastic dishes.)

artificial food colorings are going to give my child ADHD

I haven't found it to be a huge deal to (almost?) completely eliminate food dyes from my kids' food. A few dye-free processed snacks and treats from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, and other than that, simple, from-scratch cooking. If it seems overwhelming, I've read that artificial yellows have shown the strongest correlation with behavior abnormalities, so it might be worth it to start by dropping foods with yellow food dye first.

Finally, I'd remember that, with all its vicissitudes, modern life has been pretty good to us, as a species. So, you know, we eat some plastic, but we don't get eaten by bears. Not that we can't do better, but we're doing pretty great as it is. In fact, I wonder if some of the hyper-worry around these relatively vague risks is because we're so naturally protective of our children, and we don't have so many really big risks to worry about, as parents, so we end up getting a little irrationally worked up about these smaller things. Anyway, something to think about.
posted by palliser at 12:29 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Boy, do I hear you! I've gotten my paranoia under control with a few simple steps.

a) I buy as-natural-as-possible personal care products. This shampoo and conditioner is the best I've ever used. I like moisturizers by J.R. Watson and Alba (this is really the big one to worry about as you use a bunch and it absorbs into your skin). I'm not so fussed about cosmetics as I use them sparingly. I get all my baby stuff (cleanser, diaper cream, etc.) from the local health food store. Baby Hugo Naturals Cleanser is especially good--it smells delicious. Ever read the label on a Johnson's & Johnson's bottle? Yow!

b) I use all-natural cleaning products (dish soap, laundry detergent, etc.) and clean only with steam or hot water whenever possible.

c) I use glass and ceramic containers for all my food storage needs. It's a bigger initial outlay in terms of cost, but they last practically forever.

In terms of baby toys, I try to stick to wooden/cloth/rubber where possible, but you know how babies are--they're generally off chewing on dirty shoes in the hall, so I try not to worry too much. Really there's only so much you can do, so focus on a few key things and accept that a lot of stuff will be out of your control.
posted by Go Banana at 12:31 PM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

I like Medline Plus for making health-related decisions.

As far as healthy substitutes:

Food storage: glass/pyrex

Shampoo: baking soda and apple cider vinegar (google "no poo")

Cleaning around the house: hot water, white vinegar, baking soda, lemon, hydrogen peroxide

Food colorings: Don't buy processed food. Concentrate on whole foods (preferably organic).
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:31 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

My rule of thumb is stolen from food advice: if you can't pronounce a chemical, it's probably no good. Read ingredient lists when available.

I honestly don't understand that rationale. What does leaving an ingredient's name in its more scientific nomenclature have to do with food safety?
posted by jmd82 at 12:33 PM on March 23, 2010 [14 favorites]

Avoid mom blogs. :D And stuff made in China, whenever possible.*

It's pretty disheartening to find an angry, extremely loud (all-caps) mom blog screaming about a letter campaign to some peanut butter manufacturer because the hydrogenated oil in its product is going to kill her kids with trans fats.

....When it turns out fully hydrogenated fats are much better than partially hydrogenated fats because they actually contain no trans-fatty acids.

Be cautious but skeptical, and be prepared to debunk a bunch of beliefs you find throughout the internats. If you hear about something specific, like reusing plastic bottles will kill you or that so-called organic food (a lot being imported from China now) is always best, don't be afraid to really dig into the topic. (There are a number of venues for that kind of discussion, including Snopes for lots of urban legends and skeptics' podcasts and stuff.) Oh, by the way, twitch video games will totally give your kid ADHD and those "learning" television videos actually make kids dumber. ;) Tis true.

I personally just go with the assumption that life itself is lethal.

*I'm only partially kidding.
posted by Ky at 12:36 PM on March 23, 2010

And I agree with jmd82 with the chemical name business.

I took AP chemistry in high school and ended up being able to pronounce pretty much all chemicals.

There goes that "rule of thumb" by virtue of my higher education, I guess?
posted by Ky at 12:38 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Put it in perspective. In a few years, you will look out your window to check on your young child playing in the backyard and you will find her rolling around on the lawn eating dirt. Or petting the dog who just rolled in dead bird and then putting her fingers in her mouth. Or chasing the neighbor's boy around with a can of spray paint she found God-knows-where. (All three of these examples are real. I can neither confirm nor deny personal involvement.)

Limiting your child's exposure to toxins is a great idea, and you're a good parent for doing so. But you can't raise your child in a bubble, you can't exert control over every aspect of her life, and you'll drive yourself insane trying to do so. So relax. You're doing what you can. Stay vigilant, stay informed, and be resigned to the fact that it'll never be perfect and that children are remarkably resilient little critters.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:57 PM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

I grew up in India and probably inhaled a lot of fumes and may have played with lead toys. I turned out (mostly) fine. Kids are amazingly resilient. I did develop allergies upon moving to New England in my late teens for college.
posted by anniecat at 1:02 PM on March 23, 2010

BPA is a really big one. Thankfully, plastics manufacturers are falling all over themselves trying to crank out products that don't have BPA. Just look on the label for "BPA-free".

Phtalates are harder to get rid of. The best advice I can give you is to avoid using any home fragrances. Most of them have pthalates, and the fragrance misters send it airborne.

And, the thing closest to my heart: The more fresh food you cook, the more additives you avoid by default. Yeah, your food will never be 100% free of better-living-through-chemistry synth-stuff. But, you'll be cutting a huge share of it out by avoiding processed pre-fab foods.
posted by Citrus at 1:20 PM on March 23, 2010

I used safemama.com to filter through things. It can get really nasty out there. They have cheat sheets that helped for the registry and when I buy toys, teethers, etc.

My rule, if they can ingest it, be concerned. Sure I try to use organic baby shampoo (Method--love it) but in reality, when I'm low, he has to use the Johnson's.

My friend works in the environmental field so shes' gun ho from organic clothes to food. That's fine for her and nothing wrong with it. But just you wait, her kid is going to eat a Dorito one day and love them. :)

My ped said organics or not, it doesn't matter. Just watch BPA, fats and high fructose corn syrup, the rest is 'meh' and logic (like don't go to the Dollar Store for anything--high lead, cadmium, and other toxic issues arise weekly in recalls)
posted by stormpooper at 1:29 PM on March 23, 2010

Best answer: The world is incredibly safe compared to what it once was, but our baseline level of fear is the same. Unfortunately, that means we direct it at things that aren't really worthy of fear.

Some quick points:
* Organic does not mean safer or healthier. There's simply no proof of this.
* Kids will eat vegetables when they need to, as long as they're always around. Forcing veggies on them will just make them hate food.
* Alternative medicine is usually just code for "untested and based on anecdote".
* Again, with alternative medicine: recognize that the vast majority of the people practicing "natural" therapies are trying to exploit your misunderstanding of science. It is a fear- and ignorance-based industry like none other. Literally 90% of what you read in the crap on the magazine rack at Whole Foods is bullshit.
* That said, don't believe everything a real MD says, either.
* Long names are precise, not scary. A lot of them are things we've used by other names for thousands of years. Some of the synthetics replace natural products that are even worse for you. Acetic acid is just vinegar. Amino acid sulfoxides are what make you cry when you cut an onion. Calcium carbonate is rock ground up as an antacid. A of those chemicals are completely biologically inert.
* People used to eat fermented meats (and still do).
* We used to burn lead in our cars. Mercury was handled by grade school students. Think about that for a minute.
* If you're reading about a new scientific study, it's probably wrong. Most new science is wrong. The media makes money by scaring you. Do they ever followup and tell you "wait, don't worry!"? No.
* Most bacteria are entirely harmless. You could lick a urinal and not get sick.
* There's pretty good evidence that trying to keep kids away from environmental risks makes them more prone to problems with their immune system.

You're better off than 95% of people if you do a few things:
* Join a CSA, learn to love cooking and make your own food from scratch with real ingredients. Not because the long chemical names are scary, but because they often conceal a fundamental lack of nutritional value. If you're cooking from scratch and not basing meals around just meat, it's almost impossible to eat poorly.
* Exercise. Try to work it into your day-to-day life as much as possible (commute by bike, walk to school, take the stairs).
* Don't smoke, don't drink excessively, and don't be fat.
* Relax. Get a good night's sleep. Have a beer or glass of wine. Listen to some music. Read a book. Turn off the scary TV news. FDA, EPA, OSHA, NHTSA and their ilk are, in spite of their flaws, doing an OK job watching your back.

Good resources:
* Any book my Michael Pollan.
* The Skeptics Guide
* PubMed and the Cochrane Review
* Free Range Kids
* 50 dangerous things
posted by paanta at 1:47 PM on March 23, 2010 [22 favorites]

Best answer: The Ecoholic column in NOW magazine's question/answer format often provides the good-better-best solutions you're looking for. And I think her books are great, and use the guide often.

And my favourite, more healthy alternative to the scary things in toys or in baby things is...fewer toys and baby things. Sure, we have a houseful, we're victims of generous family and friends. But she's spent more time playing with rocks, pinecones, snail shells and sticks in the last two weeks than she did with the giant animatronic horse that she wanted for two years, got for her birthday - and now ignores. So we've cut back drastically now. No toy pots, pans, dishes - she just plays with ours. No play food, she just uses real food. And the more time she spends outside, on big long walks around the neighbourhood or digging in the back yard with a spoon or painting the deck with water - the fewer toys she needs. If I could go back six years, I would not have bought things like natural wooden teething rings - she was happier with a spoon. I would not have bought rattles - she liked a can of Poppadums. Seriously, in looking back, I can see that the times she was most absorbed and happiest were when she let a snail crawl on her or when she had a stick in the dirt. Even washing her hands with plain old soap and water was good for twenty minutes of playing. Fewer things mean fewer things to worry about.
posted by peagood at 2:08 PM on March 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you have a local co-op/health food store they can be a good source of information. Mine gives out a lot of brochures and info sheets, and their merchandising policy is a good guide for shopping anywhere. I buy as much as I can from there, but the fact is it's a) expensive; and b) there's not enough time to shop at two stores and they don't carry a lot of basics. Do the best you can and try not to worry too much.
posted by greensalsa at 2:15 PM on March 23, 2010

The most dangerous thing for you, saying you live in the U.S., is driving. Driving kills a lot of people every year. More than almost any kind of phalate poisoning, yellow dye, or BPA from a gladware dish.

Drive safely. Drive on in a car that's in good repair, with a high quality baby seat. And drive as little as possible. This is a good way to maximize your chances of living to 100.
posted by zpousman at 2:21 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

All good advice so far (except I have read Johnsons & Johnsons and actually visited their plant, and I would use it on my baby in a heartbeat. They really do research the hell out of that "no more tears" claim).

I would also add that you really DON'T want to create a totally sterile environment. Protect against BPA and the lead and metals in Chinese imports, sure, but your child is going to also be developing a healthy immune system simply by occasionally being exposed to germs and dirt, just as you were as a child.
posted by misha at 2:23 PM on March 23, 2010

A lot of these things are tradeoffs. One of the things i get all the time is fears over what is in our drinking water. Chlorine is a poision, that is actually why it is in municipal water, to kill things. However if it didn't kill all the little nasties they would kill you way faster than the bit of chlorine you get in your water. So your choice here is dying from dysentary at 20 (a huge problem in the third world) or dying from cancer at 75. This is true of a lot of things we deal with on a daily basis. That being said I do what i can to limit exposure where it isn't too much of a hassle-I ditched all my plastic containers for pyrex. I cook on either pyrex or cast iron. My dishes are all ceramic. However I also don't sweat what little exposure I get to bad stuff when working on a car, or spraying dandelions down in the yard(and I am very careful about not broadcast spraying-just spot applications when problems get out of hand). Just be thoughtful and live your life, its too short to live in fear. And all these convienences allow us to live in a manner that even Emporers in the ancient world didn't have access too.
posted by bartonlong at 2:54 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Keep in mind the old saying of toxicologists that the dose makes the poison. It's meaningless to talk about the effects of ingesting a substance without also talking about exactly how much of that substance is being ingested; it is simply impossible to avoid trace amounts of many scary things in our modern world. Therefore as a rule of thumb any article that is trying to convince you to alter your behavior that can't point to specific evidence of the amount of substance involved is probably worthless. Unfortunately, the trend of even well-meaning science reporting in popular media these days is to scrub all actual scientific language and instead rely on emotional weasel words, so you often have to skip the newspaper article completely and find the study that generated the university press release that generated the impetus for the reporter to write the article in the first place.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:31 PM on March 23, 2010

With BPA, it seems as though the highest risk may come from eating canned food.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 5:51 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

What does leaving an ingredient's name in its more scientific nomenclature have to do with food safety? - jmd82

It's meant to be a quick and dirty way to simplify things for people who don't have hard science backgrounds and who have busy lives, not a hard and fast never-break-it rule. When you're standing in the store, and you only have 20 seconds to decide if you want to buy this new face lotion or microwaveable food before the baby starts screaming, and you don't have the time to google its toxicity rating at skin deep, and it's got 15 lines of this that and the other, versus the product that has four ingredients and you recognize all four - that's when you'd apply the rule. It's supposed to make things simpler when in a hurry.

Another way to word it would be "Keep it Simple." Like RabbitRabbit wrote - simple things.

Credentials: degrees in sciences including several years of post-high school chemistry.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:31 PM on March 23, 2010

I was listening to NPR the other morning and someone was being interviewed about a book that sounds like exactly like what you want. Unfortunately I can't remember the name and a search for "dangerous products book" doesn't yield any results.
posted by ropeladder at 8:46 PM on March 23, 2010

For selecting less toxic household products, including baby stuff, check out http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/.

By the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia (EHANS), Canada.
posted by SarahbytheSea at 8:49 PM on March 23, 2010

There's lots of good advice in here already. One thing I'll add is that although at first it's pretty overwhelming to try to find substitutes for all the stuff you've already got and take for granted, it'll get easier over time. You'll get to know which brands you trust, pick some reliable favourites, and therefore won't need to spend so much time reading ingredients labels.

Start with the stuff you ingest, move on to stuff you rub all over your body, then if you feel like it move on to other things. And as peagood already said, just buy less stuff. Most of it is unneccessary, and it's just more stuff for you to tidy away or clean instead of spending time with your baby.
posted by harriet vane at 5:28 AM on March 24, 2010

One thing to be aware of when using "natural" cleaners is that sometimes the plant-extracts or whatever actually attract bugs! We tried using that Greenworks line, and bugs came all out the woodwork to dine on it!

Also, when you're cleaning up after chicken, eggs, etc, use 409 for peets sake!
posted by radioamy at 10:02 AM on March 24, 2010

409 ? Hot soapy water is adequate.

I found that just buying less products for everything made a big difference in my life.
posted by threesquare at 11:06 AM on March 24, 2010

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