Pioneering consumer advocate Debra Lynn Dadd -- author of Nontoxic, Natural & Earthwise, The Nontoxic Home & Office, and Home Safe Home - gives advice for choosing products that are better for your health and the environment. She discloses health and environmental effects of commonproducts, reveals harmful ingredients that aren't on product labels, tells how to choose safer products,and offers tips for making products yourself.
Do you want to choose and use products that are better for your health and the environment, but don'tknow how to choose them or where to find them? Then this column is for you.
By Debra Lynn Dadd
If you're interested in products that are safe for your health, your family, andthe planet, you probably look for products labeled "nontoxic." But how accurate are these labels? Can you rely on "nontoxic" products to truly benontoxic? How can you tell if a product is toxic *to you*? Here's what you need to know.
A "nontoxic" substance is one that does not have the capacity to produce personal injury or illness to humans through ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption. But this does not mean that a nontoxic product is completely safe. The scientific measure for toxi city depends on animal studies. If half or more than half of the animals die, then the test substance is toxic; if less than half die, it's not. Up to half of the test animals can die and the product can still legally be called "nontoxic."
Scientifically, there is no experiment that can prove something to be nontoxic. In an article resent issue of Garbagemagazine, toxicologist Dr. Alice Ottoboni, formerly of the California State Department of Public Health wrote, "It is not possible to prove anegative...Many of the questions asked about the effects of environmental chemicals...are unanswerable by science because science cannot conductthe experiments necessary...Toxicologists can answer all questions about what quantities of exposure would be harmful, but they cannot answe rmany questions about what quantities of exposure would be absolutely harmless."
Based on these tests, the EPA has defined four categories of immediate acute toxicity that correspond to different dose levels received through ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact:Category 1-highly toxic- requires the signal word DANGER/POISON.
Category 2-moderately toxic- requires the signal word WARNING.
Category 3-slightly toxic- requires the signal word CAUTION.
If a product does not by law require these signal words, it is considered tobe in category 4-nontoxic.
At one time, these signal words accurately indicated the dose required to cause a toxic effect, but because of poor labeling practices, these words now give only a general degree of danger.
The safety or toxicity of a product is not so cut-and-fried as determining what is "safe" and what is "toxic" as if they were two polar opposites. There are many variations and gradations of inherent toxicity among products,and a number of factors that can affect whether or not the product will cause harm to you individually.
There are two types of toxicity: acute and chronic.
Acute toxicity refers to poisoning as the result of one-time exposure to are latively large amount of a chemical. This applies to most consumer products with warning labels and is the reason we have poison control centers.
Chronic toxicity refers to illness as the result of many repeated exposures to small amounts of a chemical over a long period of time, and this is wha makes it so difficult to identify some toxics. We can easily see the effects when drain cleaner is spilled on someone's hand and the skin burns. Butthe effects of chronic toxicity may not show up for years. Carcinogenic substances take twenty to thirty years to cause cancer. Birth defects and genetic changes don't show up until the next generation.
Whether or not a particular substance creates a toxic effect in youdepends on:
- the quantity of the substance you are exposed to;
- the strength of the substance (a small amount of one substance might bemuch more harmful than a large amount of another);
- the method of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption--somesubstances are safe to inhale, but not to eat or rub on your skin; others are dangerous regardless of how you are exposed;
- how frequently you are exposed -- many substances have a cumulativeeffect on the body and do not cause harm until a certain concentration is reached over repeated exposure; and
- your own individual tolerance for a substance.
Because there are so many factors to consider, determining the toxicity ofany product can be difficult. It is often easier to determine that a product istoxic, than nontoxic, and it is often more accurate to choose nontoxic products by looking for labels that indicate toxicity, and avoiding those, rather than looking for the word "nontoxic."
Ironically, toxic products are not required by law to completely list theiringredients. One way to find out what's in a product that does not list ingredients is to contact the manufacturer and ask for their Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the product. An MSDS lists the ingredients, the manufacturer, hazards to safety and health, and precautions to follow whenusing it. By examining MSDS sheets, I have found toxic ingredients inproducts advertised as "nontoxic" and "environmentally-safe".
For more information on choosing nontoxic products, Home Safe Home.
by Debra Lynn Dadd
Author, Home Safe Home
To contact Debra, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © Debra Lynn Dadd
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"The queen of green" - New York Times
"The guru of nontoxic living" - KCBS-TV News
"One of the country's few authorities on natural and nontoxic consumer affairs"- Boston Globe
"The godmother of natural living" - New Age Journal
Debra's work as a consumer advocate, author, and consultant has been a leading influence on the natural products market-to consumers, marketers, andm anufacturers-for almost two decades. Many refer to her well-researched consumerguidebooks as their "bibles."
Back in 1980, when a "green" product was one the color of grass and "hazardous waste" was something you found only in a factory, Debra was diagnosed with animmune system disorder commonly known now as "environmental illness" or"chemical sensitivity." Her widely varied symptoms were disabling, but she was toldthere was no cure-other than removing toxic chemicals from her home. As no bookson household toxics or nontoxic alternative products were then available, she set out towrite one, and in the process healed herself and countless others.
After self-publishing her first consumer manual for others with chemical sensitivities,the makers of nontoxic Bon Ami Polishing Cleanser sent her on a media tour topromote the concept of nontoxic cleaning products. By then it had become clear thatthe issue of chemicals in products was much larger than a few sensitive individuals; asshe researched toxic chemicals in products Debra found that many products contained chemicals that are harmful to the general public and that illness caused by these household toxics could be prevented. Nontoxic & Natural was published in 1984,followed by The Nontoxic Home. Both books not only alerted consumers totoxic dangers, but offered alternative products.
By 1987, Debra was living in a completely nontoxic home in an idyllic Northern California forest. Having taken the idea of toxics within the home as far as it would go,she realized that our consumer choices also affected the larger environment as well asour own health. She began to research the environmental effects of consumer productsand in 1990 came out with Nontoxic, Natural & Earthwise, adding products that hadenvironmental benefits--such as being recycled, energy-efficient, biodegradable, ororganically-grown--to her lists of nontoxic and natural goods. In 1992, her other bookwas updated to The Nontoxic Home & Office.
As products with environmental claims flooded the market, Debra became concernedthat many of the products that made environmental claims were nothing more thangreen hype. Because there were no standards or guidelines for evaluating green products, Debra set out to discover what it means to truly live in a way that is responsible to the earth. Her book, Sustaining the Earth, called for sustainability to beused as the standard for evaluating consumer products, and told everything a consumer needs to know to evaluate green products for themselves.
Debra's work came full circle in 1997 with the publication of Home Safe Home, anew, completely revised edition of her books on household toxics. With new scientific evidence showing the dangers of common household products to be even worse than previously imagined, her work continues to be timely and valuable.
In addition to writing books, Debra published her own newsletter (1985-1991), and has written occasional articles for Vegetarian Times, New Age Journal, Greenpeace,East West Journal (now Natural Health) and Self magazines as well as majornewspapers, including USA Weekend. She has written columns for Let's Live(1986-1990) and Environmental Action (1990-1991) magazines and is currently acolumnist for Natural Home magazine.
Debra is also a co-founder of WorldWise, Inc., a company that provides useful productsthat enhance sustainable living through mass market outlets.
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