MY MOTHER was an early adherent to the warnings against DDT in Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental exposé Silent Spring. So after the U.S. government finally banned the carcinogenic pesticide in 1972—the year I was born—she was spurred to even greater vigilance in protecting our family from chemical threats. We avoided nitrates, sulfites, and MSG in our food; growth hormones in meat; and household products containing PFOS, the carcinogenic ingredient then found in Scotchgard. “Read the label,” my mother would say in a tone reserved for moral cautions. M-e-t-h-y-l-p-a-r-a-b-e-n. I became a champion speller.
Thirty-six years after the DDT ban, some things haven’t changed. Chemicals still permeate our food, household goods, air, water, and even our bodies (as evidenced last year in an Oregon Environmental Council study that turned up 19 toxic chemicals in the blood and urine of 10 volunteer test subjects from around the state). But what has changed, for shoppers like me, is the array of products we can buy that are purported to be safer.
To wit: I wash my dishes with nontoxic soap, sleep in a room colored by paint that’s free of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and sit down to mostly organic meals, on chair cushions treated with PFOS-free stain repellent (it doesn’t really work, but as my mother would say, wine spots never killed anyone). Almost anywhere I have the power to make a consumer choice, I have the power to make a healthier one, it seems. Because, usually, I can afford to do so.
And that makes me lucky. Consider that at the Fred Meyer near my house, organic apples sell for $2.99 per pound, whereas across the aisle, conventionally grown ones, the kind sprayed with heavy doses of chemical pesticides, cost one-third less. Were I making only $26,409—the median income of a one-person household in Portland—I might reach for the cheaper ones. Greener options are proliferating, yes, but they remain a luxury for most. Hence, a dividing line is forming in our society between those who can afford to avoid exposure to chemicals and other harmful pollutants, and those who can’t.
A line is forming between those who can afford to avoid exposure to chemicals and those who can’t.
Cost, though, isn’t the only barrier to making safer choices. So is a lack of knowledge about what risks to avoid—and that’s affected by your educational status. According to a 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 62 percent of college graduates read newspapers or magazines every day, but less than half of those without degrees do. So, while few of us might actually take the time to vet our skin-care products with the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database (where you’d learn that 63 percent of the ingredients in Coppertone’s Continuous Kids Sunblock Spray SPF 50 have not been subjected to FDA review, and that 18 percent are linked by some studies to cancer), those of us with college degrees are more likely to have read a news account warning about dangerous ingredients in lotions.
It’s not just what’s inside our kitchen and bathroom cupboards that divides the environmental haves and have-nots, though; it’s also the cupboards and walls themselves. Those of us who own our houses, and who have extra cash, can rid our homes of mold and mildew—which can trigger respiratory problems including asthma—by fixing the plumbing and roof leaks that cause them. And we can invest in cabinetry and paint that don’t off-gas toxic VOCs.
Renters, on the other hand, are largely powerless in this regard. Portland’s outdated property-maintenance codes don’t address indoor air quality, except indirectly (they require landlords to maintain openable windows and to keep rooms free of garbage). As for mold, city inspectors ascertain its presence on the basis of whether it’s visible to the eye—enabling landlords to mask the problem with a couple of coats of paint, instead of incurring the expense of attacking root causes.
Guarding everyone’s health requires more than just a few raised gardens.
Even air pollution tends to be worse in poorer neighborhoods. While a 2005 national study by the Boston-based nonprofit Clean Air Task Force ranked the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton area in the fifth “unhealthiest” percentile for diesel soot (in other words, we’ve got more diesel particulate matter in our air than 95 percent of other U.S. metro areas), these conditions are worst in neighborhoods near freeways—where, not coincidentally, there are a disproportionately large number of poor households. A 2001 survey led by Lewis & Clark College associate professor Bruce Podobnik found that of those respondents living near the Interstate 5 corridor in North and Northeast Portland, 14.7 percent reported having asthma—twice the national average. For many of these households, moving is simply not an economically feasible option.
Fortunately, Portlanders are working to narrow the environmental health gap. For instance, Growing Gardens is among several nonprofits helping to bring pesticide-free food to the poor—in its case, by helping impoverished East Side households grow organic fruits and vegetables in their backyards. Multnomah County residents who are vulnerable to asthma are getting free help to manage the disease from agencies like the county’s Environmental Health Department, which works with families (albeit only poor ones with asthmatic children under the age of 6) to reduce indoor air pollutants that exacerbate the illness, as well as to adjust kids’ medications. And as this issue goes to press, Portland City Council is preparing to hear recommendations for updating the property-maintenance code. This might mean that protocols for mold inspection will become more stringent, though the code adjustments probably won’t address tenants’ exposure to other indoor air pollutants like formaldehyde gas, which leaches from particleboard cabinetry.
But while these initiatives are commendable and well worth supporting, they don’t go far enough. In fact, by helping only the most vulnerable segments of the population, they merely divide us into three classes instead of two: the environmentally empowered, the environmentally subsidized, and the masses in the middle, who continue to make consumer decisions based on stretching their paychecks as far as they can. To better guard everyone’s health will require something much bigger than raised garden beds. As a society, we’ll need to transform the market such that it can supply essential goods—from food to housing to sunblock—that are both safe and affordable to the masses.
Is this even possible? Can we produce inexpensive, pesticide-free apples? Concoct cheaper, carcinogen-free skin lotion? No one knows, actually. What we can be sure of is that success, if achieved, will depend on stupendous technological innovations from industry, which—given the cost of researching these kinds of solutions—the free market is not likely to catalyze on its own.
Thus, public interventions are as crucial to protecting public health as they’ve ever been. Local initiatives, like Oregon’s new statewide Environmental Justice Task Force, or the Oregon Environmental Council’s soon-to-be-introduced bills that would regulate the use of toxics in children’s toys and in schools’ cleaning products and pesticides, will help. But to be truly effective, these sorts of policy reforms have to occur at the federal level as well. Our country must, for example, revise the notoriously weak Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and follow the lead of the European Union, which has shifted the burden of testing chemicals from government regulators onto the companies that profit from their use.
My paranoid shopping practices aren’t necessarily protecting me.
What we can’t do, as individuals, is kid ourselves into believing that we’re doing much to change the paradigm by casting our dollar-votes for foods and goods that most people can’t afford. In fact, I’m starting to realize that my paranoid shopping practices aren’t necessarily even protecting me. For one thing, there’s far too much greenwashing going on to be certain that my leaf-motif-bedecked bottle of face cream really is safer than others. Furthermore, my habit of eating organic food does nothing to insulate me from the pesticides used to grow my neighbor’s conventional produce, which filter, in one form or another, into the water and air I drink and breathe.
So my mom is right, as usual. At 70 years old, this poster girl for health-conscious living doesn’t spend her hard-earned money on Avalon Organics’ petrolatum- and paraben-free $25 Wrinkle Defense Serum, or Ecco Bella’s $37 organic, no-preservative day cream. Nope. My mom moisturizes her well-preserved face with plain old, unrefined, organic coconut oil—at $0.71 per ounce. “I kind of smell like a crayon,” she admitted to me on the phone. But I know the rest: Smelling like a crayon never killed anyone. Complacency, on the other hand, has.