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Latte Chemoccino

| Lewis Akenji

“Industry has persistently used its deep pockets to downplay the
consequences of accumulation of synthetic chemical cocktails in humans,
manoeuvring policy processes while driving volumes of consumption
through massive marketing campaigns. But as more and more chemicals are
released on the market, consumers’ health and the environment are
beginning to pay the price of such corporate and political gangbanging.”

I laughed when my colleague in Canada first told
me that fishes in ponds and rivers are changing their sex rather fast.
As an ecologist, he wasn’t impressed by the laughter. Of course it
wasn’t funny, but who would have thought of gay or lesbian fish, or of
surgery to change their sex. (Leave aside the political/moral debate on
the rights of gay and lesbian humans.) Yet that was one of the points,
these fishes did not opt for their sexual orientation to be changed; it
was a direct consequence of industry’s attitude and consumer behaviour
that was affecting the rest of nature at its reproductive genesis.
Scientist John Trent at the Maryland University, among several others,
has shown that chemicals contained in our everyday products are capable
of large scale effects on our ecosystems – the natural support system
upon which our existence depends. In a report in the New Scientist
(17 August 2002), one chemical (nonylphenol) found in many household
products helps convert the male hormone testosterone into the female
hormone oestrogen leading to sex change in fishes.

The
above is just one example among other such not-funny consequences –
intended or not – of our lifestyles; a wider angle of rather acute
health and social issues that inflict us in our homes. For years
chemical companies argued that synthetic chemicals cannot breakdown and
out of the products in which they are contained and thus pose no risk
to users. It turns out in one research after another that these
chemicals do not only harm the natural environment, they also have
serious damaging consequences on their users. We’re not talking about
chemicals contained in rare or far-off products. In an analyses funded
by a coalition of American environmental and public health
organisations (see Nexus, 1 August 2002, page 7), laboratory
analyses of 72 name-brand, off-the-shelf beauty products found that 52
contained phthalates (9 of the 14 deodorants tested, all 17 fragrances,
6 of the 7 hair gels, 4 of the 7 mousses, 14 of the 18 hair sprays, and
2 of the 9 hand and body lotions) although these were not noted on
their ingredients lists. (Potential effects of phthalates include
reducing fertility, causing reproductive mutation and damaging
embryos.)

Industry has persistently used its deep
pockets to downplay the consequences of accumulation of synthetic
chemical cocktails in humans, manoeuvring policy processes while
driving volumes of consumption through massive marketing campaigns. But
as more and more chemicals are released on the market, consumers’
health and the environment are beginning to pay the price of such
corporate and political gangbanging. Although manufacture and use of
certain chemicals has been tightly regulated, global sales of chemicals
have increased ninefold since 1970, according to Matilda Lee in the Ecologist
(September 2002). There are between 70,000 and 100,000 chemicals on the
market; each year 1,500 more are introduced. “The WorldWatch Institute
states that there is no basic environmental or health data on 71% of
the most widely used chemicals, and that less than a tenth of the new
chemicals are adequately tested before being licensed,” (greenhealthwatch, Edition 6.2).

At
the personal level, increased occurrences of cancer, proneness to
allergy and failures in reproductivity have been blamed by
well-researched science on several of the above chemicals. Due to poor
information to consumers about the contents of their products, most
people are unaware of the relationship between, say, the dizziness they
experience at home after cleaning, and the cleaning fluid they’ve used;
or the allergic reaction of their body, and the detergent they use for
laundry; or the itches on their throat and eyes, and headaches, and the
sprays they use. Between 1991 and 2000 the number of persons allergic
to the chemical methyldibromoglutaronitrile (a substance widely used in
toiletries, cosmetics, moisturisers and suntan lotions) increased five
times. The European commission was alarmed enough to impose
restrictions on its use (Dan Gledhill, the UK Independent, 8 August 2002, page 3).

 

A Clean Rinse

Before
the alarm bells start going off in your head, there is some good news.
Once an average consumer understands how such chemicals pile up in our
bodies, and the available alternatives, it is surprisingly easy to
steer away from most of the damage.

In household
cleaning, for example, the use of many of the products that contain
synthesized chemicals is superfluous, only directed by advertising.
Quite often, the chemical content of a single product alone might not
be harmful enough to damage one’s health. However, we use several of
these products – washing up liquids, soaps, laundry detergents,
cosmetics, air sprays and fresheners, body lotions – at once, and
repeatedly. Because they are synthesized, our bodies, biological
functions are unable to cope with them. These several small doses
therefore add up in our bodies and our environment, building up and
mixing with each other. It is these accumulated synthetic chemicals
that is a potent brew.

Look around in your bathroom, the
cleaning stuff locker, makeup desk. What do you have there; how many
chemicals do you come in contact with per day? – and that’s just at
home. Do not get frightened. The good thing is, with chemicals it is
fairly easy to avoid several of them if we choose to. As a consumer,
there are several simple suggestions: find out the natural alternatives
to what you now have at home; buy less, and only what is necessary;
read the label of your products to find out its contents. Start
thinking for yourself about the choices you make, rather than letting
the advert do the thinking for you. Interesting enough, the bulk of
scientists researching on chemicals have been raising their voice: the
squeaky-clean houses that several of the marketed products promise but
fail to deliver, some of the simplest time-tested solutions hold true
and even better. The Good Shopping Guide (Ethical Company
Organisation, 2004) sums it up well: “Keep it simple; white vinegar,
baking soda, salt, lemon juice and olive oil” keep their promises
better.

Have we become so market-tuned as to reject better solutions just because they don’t have a price tag or a flashy TV advert?

 

This article first appeared in the Conscious Consumer magazine, issue 7.

Lewis Akenji is Editor-in-Chief of
Conscious Consumer magazine, and a consultant on Sustainable Consumption.

 

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