BPA in can linings, lead in our children’s jewelry, persistent chemicals in our bedclothes; if it seems to you that everything in your home has the potential to kill you, you’re right. When Seattle environmental blogger (The Crunchy Chicken) Deanna Duke’s family received two devastating diagnoses in the same week — Multiple Myeloma for her husband and Asperger’s Syndrome for her son — she seriously started to question what impact environmental toxins might have had on these conditions. The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You (New Society, 2011) is a chronicle of her search to find answers as well as to chart a safer, more healthy way to live.
Included with concerns about toxins in our environments is usually an equal dose of curiosity about what our individual chemical body burdens might be, but very few of us have the resources to find out that information. With the help of some key players and the legitimizing justification of “book research” Duke was able to find a lab willing to work with her. Using urine and blood sampling, she discovered her personal levels of phthalates, parabens, polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs), heavy metals (mercury, lead, arsenic), perfluorinated compounds (nonstick chemicals), pesticides, persistent toxic chemicals (like DDT and PCBs), BPA, and the antibacterial triclosan. Each of these is known to cause (or is strongly linked to) harm in the human body. Companies who use them explain this away by claiming that the levels present in any one product are far too low to do any real damage. The problem here, and one of the issues that Duke explores, is that there have been no tests about the cumulative effects of these chemicals. Those low levels of parabens in your shampoo alone might not give you breast cancer, but when there are parabens in your shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand soap, make-up, hair gel, food…you catch my drift.
After setting a baseline, Duke then tried to eliminate these substances from her home environment in an attempt to reduce her body burden. The final step before retesting her levels was to do a body cleanse that included fasting, sweat therapy, lymphatic brushing, among other techniques. The book reads like a journal of this journey. We witness as Duke makes discoveries about the surprising and insidious ways these chemicals enter our homes (cadmium in old Legos, anyone?) and as she strategizes alternatives to using them. Along the way she provides background information about why these chemicals are used, their proven or probable health effects, and how they end up in our bodies. She shows us her success as well as her failures.
While the results of Duke’s experiment are somewhat specific to her, or individuals who lead similar lives, her findings do resonate for the average person. She veers away from taking any stance that most people would consider “extreme.” She does choose to make some of her own personal care items (like deodorant) when she can’t find suitable alternatives, but for the most part she’s an average woman who wants to be able to wear make-up and straighten her hair without getting cancer as a result. What was most interesting was that before embarking on this quest, Duke was already living a “clean” lifestyle by most standards. Her family was eating mostly organic foods and she chose “natural” products whenever she could. Despite this, her initial levels of parabens and phthalates were off the charts. While we trust governmental agencies are protecting us and keeping us “safe,” this is clearly not the case. Even when products are labeled “natural” or even “organic,” they are not necessarily safe. We still have to do the work of label-reading and researching.
In an attempt to lighten the perhaps doom-and-gloom feeling the reader might be left with, Duke closes by providing a very useful summary of personal actions that she felt were the most beneficial in creating a safer home environment and which cleanse techniques she felt were the most successful. These are things that we can all do and it leaves one with a feeling of agency in this quest. She recognizes, though, that personal action can only go so far and that the real battle is an overhaul of the outdated and overly-corporate-friendly Toxic Substances Control Act so that it is more in line with the rest of the developed world’s use of the precautionary principle in regards to what is allowed in consumer products. Overall, the message is one of empowerment. Our individual actions, whether they be our consumer choices or our activism, are important and in the aggregate they can enact great social change.