The Precautionary Principle
The authors of Naturally Clean make frequent reference to the "Precautionary Principle," a concept that was first articulated at a conference of scientists and environmentalists in 1998. In the historic Wingspread Statement, they wrote "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
Critics have called the principle too vague to provide meaningful guidance, but in an article published by the Environmental Research Foundation (August, 2005) author Peter Montague provides a sharper focus: "1) When we have a reasonable suspicion of harm, and 2) scientific uncertainty about cause and effect, then 3) we have a duty to take action to prevent harm.
"The precautionary approach suggests five actions we can take: (1) Set a goal (or goals); (2) Examine all reasonable ways of achieving the goal, intending to choose the least-harmful way; (3) Monitor results, heed early warnings, and make mid-course corrections as needed; (4) Shift the burden of proof -- when consequences are uncertain, give the benefit of the doubt to nature, public health and community well-being. Expect responsible parties (not governments or the public) to bear the burden of producing needed information. Expect reasonable assurances of safety for products before they can be marketed -- just as the Food and Drug Administration expects reasonable assurances of safety before new pharmaceutical products can be marketed. (5) Throughout the decision-making process, honor the knowledge of those who will be affected by the decisions, and give them a real 'say' in the outcome."
We apply the Precautionary Principle every time we buckle a seatbelt. Why doesn't it make sense to do the same with the chemicals that surround us?
Editor and Publisher
Naturally Clean is a "company book," meaning that it quietly, but unabashedly, promotes awareness of issues that are addressed by the products it sells. The company, in this case, is Vermont-based Seventh Generation, the nation's leading provider of natural and non-toxic cleaning products and household goods. Proponents of journalistic independence might argue that such a book is inevitably biased by business self-interests, to which this reviewer responds:
"Yeah, but so what?" Companies, especially in Vermont, have learned that it can be a good brand strategy to have a strong and very public sense of values.
There are other strengths to "company" books. Businesses have in-depth product knowledge; businesses have broad experience with consumers; and businesses have resources that run much deeper than the average freelance writer toiling away on a laptop. The team that Seventh Generation President Jeffrey Hollender has assembled for Naturally Clean includes a wordsmith (Geoff Davis), a researcher who specializes in product analysis (Reed Doyle), and a "nice touch", a representative of the next generation, Jeffrey's daughter Meika, a student at New York University.
Companies are also well-connected on both the technical and promotional fronts. Naturally Clean benefits from glowing testimonials from eco-celebrities Nell Newman and Robert Kennedy, Jr. At the other end of the spectrum its content was influenced by, and in some cases scrutinized by, prominent doctors, scientists, and environmentalists.
The result is a credible, attractive volume broken into forty-seven brief chapters with several useful appendices including a resource guide and glossary. There's enough science for the skeptic, but not so much that the reader needs to revisit high school chemistry class.
The "why" of this book is deeply troubling and the authors spend nearly the first one hundred pages why a company like Seventh Generation is necessary. Under the guise of progress we have surrounded ourselves with products that poison us. "Clearly, chemistry itself is not a bad thing," say the authors. "It's the kinds of chemicals we make and use that matter. Like most anything else, there is a good side and a bad side to all the molecular manipulation chemists practice. There are safe chemicals, and there are unsafe chemicals. Our problem today is that we don't really know which are which."
I thought this book might fall into the trap of "don't buy their bad chemicals, buy our good ones," but, refreshingly, many of the recommended cleaning solutions are in the "less is more" category. You will find yourself wanting to go out and buy economy-sized packages of baking soda and vinegar, two inexpensive, non-toxic products that can be used for an infinite number of cleaning challenges. To wit:
Baked-on goo at the bottom of your oven? Been ignoring it since Thanksgiving? Just sprinkle on baking soda and moisten with water. Leave overnight, then wipe off with a wet paper towel the next day. No spray cleaner, no rubber gloves, no fumes, no energy gobbling oven to run, and no threats of divorce!
This book is not for everyone, however. It is not, for instance, for people (like me) who like to keep their heads in the sand about certain unpleasant subjects. When grilling, for example, my approach to sanitation is to scrape the grill with the spatula. No stranger to the cliche "a little dirt never killed anyone" I've been called a guy who keeps the "fun" in "fungus."
Thus, it was difficult for me to read about the myriad of nastiness that could be lurking in my cutting board. It was stressful to learn that up to half of the weight of my pillow could be dust and other mites (half?). I could live easily without knowing the difference between a Perfluorochemical (the basic compound used in non-stick pans)and a Phthlates (an industrial compound used in a variety of products to make them more pliant).
This is not a book for people who want to believe that our governmental institutions are keeping them safe from toxic products. On the contrary, of the 80,000 chemical compounds now in use, only a tiny percentage (one half of one per cent) have ever been tested for carcinogenicity. The rest? We simply do not know.
The operative standard in this country is to base most regulation on a system that says an activity is innocent until proven guilty. While this is effective in keeping Big Brother at bay, it means there are a huge number products in everyday use whose impact on your health is unknown. Seen from this perspective Naturally Clean becomes an important tool to empower individuals to make their own regulatory decisions.
The cheapskate in me loved Naturally Clean for its alternatives to expensive household cleaners. My rebel, pagan, and nostalgic sides were similarly delighted. "Once upon a time, things were different in America's cleaning cupboards. In the days before the chemical revolution of the 20th century, our ancestors relied on naturally occurring materials and substances to help them with the housework. These included things like pure vegetable soaps, grease-cutting vinegars, abrasives like calcium carbonate and baking soda, citrus oils to remove odors and grime, and essential oils of plants like birch and lavender to sanitize surfaces in the home.
DuPont promises "Better Living Through Chemistry." Seventh Generation promises to consider the impact of their deliberations on the seventh generation (adapted from a Native American proverb).
I will take my chances with them.
Excerpt from Naturally Clean
A critical epicenter of activity in our kitchens is the dishwasher. Fifty-one percent of all American homes have one of these time- and labor-saving devices, yet it surprises many to learn that they're the most toxic appliance in the modern home.
Over the course of approximately 30 experiments, researchers at the EPA and the University of Texas recently documented the dishwasher's role as a leading cause of indoor air pollution. Pollutants released by dishwashers include the chlorine added to both public water supplies and dishwasher detergents, volatile organic compounds like chloroform, radioactive radon naturally present in some water sources, and other volatile contaminants that have worked their way into public water supplies. When these materials are exposed to the piping hot water that circulates through your dishwasher as it cleans, they are easily "stripped out" and evaporated into the air.
Depending on the material in question and your water temperature, dishwashers can reach 100 percent efficiency when it comes to transferring water pollutants and detergent chemicals to indoor air. Because these machines vent about six liters of air per minute into your home as they work, they're continuously releasing any water-borne toxins throughout each operating cycle. Even more problematically, the air pollution created by routine venting is often exceeded by the single large burst of contaminated steam that's released whenever a dishwasher is opened before its contents have cooled.
Although it certainly sounds a little odd to say, protecting yourself from your dishwasher means taking steps like these:
- Use a chlorine-free dishwasher detergent. This will greatly reduce the burden of chlorine and other chemicals in its water, which in turn reduces your exposure to them.
- Ventilate your kitchen during and after dishwasher operation. This can mean opening windows, running your stove's ventilation fan (assuming it vents outside and not back into your kitchen), and using window fans.
- If you're connected to a public water system that's using chlorine to treat drinking water, filter your home's water supply. An activated carbon filter placed where water enters your home will remove chlorine and most volatile chemicals. It will also filter water used in your washing machine and shower — two other hot-water sources of chlorine fumes.
- Have your water tested for radon. If results are positive seek solutions from radon abatement professionals.
- Keep your dishwasher closed and sealed for at least an hour following a completed cleaning cycle. This will prevent the hot burst of pollutant-laden steam that escapes when dishwashers are opened immediately following their use.
- If you have a "no dry heat" option on your dishwasher, use it. This prevents the activation of its heating coils. These coils heat up the inside of your dishwasher and quickly evaporate the final rinse water, which allows that water to transfer its toxic load to indoor air. Deactivating the heated dry cycle also saves energy.
- Only run your dishwasher when it's completely full. Running a dishwasher when it's less than full means you're using it more often than necessary and increasing its contributions to unhealthy indoor air. And it means you're using more water and energy than needed.
- Make sure your detergent is phosphate-free, too. Contrary to popular belief, phosphate use is still legally permitted in dishwasher detergents, and phosphates may constitute as much as 20 percent of a product's formula. (Dishwasher detergents contain levels of phosphorus as high as 8 percent, which translates to a phosphate level of 20 percent.) Once phosphates are discharged into the environment they promote massive algae growth in local waters. These sudden blooms of algae trigger a process called eutrophication in which local waters become starved of oxygen and devoid of life. This issue is of special concern to anyone living near a lake or pond.
buy this book