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Discussion: Green Living and Eliminating Household Toxins

posted on May 6, 2008 at 1:27 PM

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The way we live poses many challenges to our health as well as many questions. Such as why isn't the government doing more? How green is Iowa? And what all does green living encompass? And where can Iowans begin? With us to address these and other questions are author and consultant Linda Mason Hunter and Lynnae Hentzen, Executive Director of the Center on Sustainable Communities in Iowa.

Paul Yeager: Let's first just start with a simple question, what does living green mean? We'll start with you.

Lynnae Hentzen: Well, there are many different definitions of that and Linda and I can debate on that all day. The main categories that we use at the Center on Sustainable Communities are you can look at resource conservation, you can look at energy efficiency and then indoor air quality. And Linda is certainly an expert on the whole indoor air quality and toxicity component which is one of the main things we're going to talk about today.

Yeager: Well, let's get into some of the government regulations. You've spent some time in Canada, you also spent some time in the United States. Compare and contrast the two. Vancouver is where you were at so how does what Iowa does compared with what Vancouver does?

Linda Mason Hunter: Well, Vancouver is touting itself as being the greenest, most sustainable city in North America and that is part of the reason why I chose to buy property there because I wanted to live in a place that was on the cutting edge to see what that was like. And they're doing wonderful things with their transportation. Their buses, you can go anywhere on their buses. They have a light rail system. They have a no idling law which I think is really interesting. If your car is idling for more than 30 seconds you're supposed to turn it off. Right now there is a big controversy over Bisphenol-A, a plasticizer in bottles and they have a 60-day public comment period in Canada which I think is interesting. We don't have a period like that.

Yeager: Is that something that -- did it take a while, a couple of times going to see those changes or to see if they really truly lived up to their billing?

Mason Hunter: Well, it's all a matter of osmosis, you know, how much you take in and I can only take in so much at one time. But I'm learning more and more.

Yeager: How does the U.S. government compare to what the Canadian government is doing? Can the U.S. government learn from Canada?

Mason Hunter: I think so, although both governments could do a lot better on labeling. Right now neither government has a standard or a definition for what is natural, what is organic in a household product. There is a definition for organic in food. Natural doesn't have a legal definition. Non-toxic doesn't have a legal definition. So, when you see those words on a product it means absolutely nothing.

Yeager: Here?

Mason Hunter: And Canada both -- they could both do better there. But it seems that Canada is a step behind the EU and a step ahead of the U.S.

Yeager: So, it's a constant thing. What about in some of the Iowa perspectives? Listening to what Linda is saying in her travels how is Iowa doing nationally and internationally?

Hentzen: We're a bit behind in the Midwest but I think trying to catch up very quickly. Certainly the coasts, California, Austin, there are pockets in the United States that have been doing green and sustainable much longer than us. But we have some really good examples now, the Iowa Power Fund certainly is focusing on the energy piece. Many of the mayors across the state have signed on to the 2030 protocol which sets certain standards by certain dates and there are just all sorts of initiatives going on in the faith based communities, in neighborhood communities, all over the place.

Yeager: What is driving some of this? Is it consumerism? It's becoming expensive in some parts, like if I conserve maybe I'll save? There are some start-up costs to do some of these conservation efforts whether it's a different light bulb or different cleaners. What is driving this market?

Hentzen: I think the consumers are, to a certain extent, on the professional end, national and international organizations are driving the supply side but certainly the demand side, the consumers are out there and they're interested. The hard thing is it's confusing right now and they are very skeptical and they should be in some ways because there is a lot of green anywhere you look and trying to decipher what is darker or lighter green is difficult.

Yeager: It's a shade of green. It's truth in advertising, truth in labeling like you were talking about. This labeling is tied together strongly. Is that where we think some of the best standards or the best improvements can be made in the states?

Mason Hunter: Oh, most definitely.

Hentzen: And also through organizations that can help clarify what some of the different labels mean. But certainly the labels, and I think Linda would agree, 50 years ago we didn't have to worry about the labels because we pretty much had natural material and now we have all these great new products on the market with things that we really don't know what they are or what they'll do.

Mason Hunter: But there are things to look for on a label if you want to make sure that your products are green. Biodegradable is one and it should say readily biodegradable or biodegradable in three to five days because something like plastic is biodegradable but it takes 1000 years. So, readily biodegradable. Plant based is very important. You know if it's plant based it's not made in a laboratory. No fragrance, no synthetic dye or fragrance, no petroleum, hypo-allergenic.

Yeager: That's a big list. How do we boil that down? How does that average consumer get into this and just decide instead of taking a piece of paper with 15 things written down? What are the big three?

Mason Hunter: I've got about six things.

Yeager: Six things. If you're not used to it, it seems a little intimidating.

Mason Hunter: Biodegradable, plant-based, no synthetic dyes or fragrance and if you see a long chemical name chances are it's not green.

Yeager: How did we get to long chemicals? How did we get those in the first place? What drove that market and why we got to here today?

Mason Hunter: It was World War II.

Hentzen: Yes, the Industrial Age and all these new inventions and chemistry experiments.

Mason Hunter: So many of the chemicals we have in our household products were designed for chemical warfare in World War II.

Yeager: So, with these chemicals, do we have study on them? We know that asbestos was a chemical that was used.

Mason Hunter: It's not a chemical, it's a mineral.

Yeager: It's something we found that wasn't good for us. How do we know on long-term studies if some of these chemicals are good or not good for us?

Mason Hunter: There has been testing. Generally the government or somebody will test for acute health effects which is what happens with one-time exposure to a lot of product. But there has been almost no testing on chronic health effects which is using a product a little bit day after day, week after week, month after month which is exactly the way we use these products. And there has been absolutely no testing on synergistic effects which is what happens when chemicals mix and mingle as they do in indoor air and in our bodies.

Yeager: Okay.

Hentzen: And one of the complicating -- Linda talked about this too -- one of the complicating factors these days is our focus on energy efficiency which is great. We have tightened up our homes and therefore all these synthetics that we're putting into our homes, we're cleaning our homes with or whatever are trapped. And so if you're not putting in a good ventilation system -- our homes used to be naturally ventilated -- then you're increasing the effects of these nixing and unknown chemicals.

Yeager: Kind of bottling it up. We've done our part to seal up our windows and we now run the air conditioner maybe when it's 80 and not when it's 90 or we didn't have air conditioning and so we are bottled up more. So, how important is it -- ventilation is just simple, opening up the windows on both sides of the house. I think that's something you talk about in your book as a simple thing to do.

Mason Hunter: And creating the chimney effect so your house pulls air in on the bottom floors and then it's sucked up through the top floors and out so you have a constant supply of fresh air.

Yeager: What are we finding in our homes whether it's the couch or the table or the carpet? I know that was something that was mentioned in the piece that we saw there. What are those doing for us, to us? What do we know about some of those chemicals, I shouldn't say chemicals, but the makeup?

Mason Hunter: They are chemicals, yeah. Do you want me to take that?

Hentzen: I'll answer the one I know and then you can go.

Hentzen: Formaldehyde is a pretty known example now of something that it's contained in many things, in insulation, in furniture, in carpeting, in paints and it is carcinogenic. So, you don't want that in there and trying to get rid of it now because it has become so mainstream has been a bit of a challenge. But there are options out there.

Mason Hunter: There's lots of things but one thing that is almost ubiquitous in everybody's house is some kind of foam product in upholstery or furniture, bedding, pillows, that kind of thing and that polyurethane foam is all synthetic, it's all made in a laboratory and not only is the foam itself synthetic but they add stain resisters, fire resisters, pesticides, it's just terrible. There was a study done on a Dacron foam mattress, 20 pound Dacron foam mattress, lost 10 pounds of weight in 10 years. A 20 pound natural mattress lost 2 pounds in 20 years. So, where does that go? It goes into the air for us to breathe and what this foam is, the chemical that scientists are looking at is called PFOA and it causes reproductive harm and causes harm especially pregnant women, infants, that kind of thing.

Yeager: With chemicals, I think there is a list in one of your books that talks about chemicals that are most dangerous for children or families. Those we know, those have labels and we see them.

Mason Hunter: Not necessarily.

Yeager: But in most cases in our home there's chemicals in it that we don't know and we don't see, that's more of a danger that we need to get the word out? Is that a statement you would agree with?

Mason Hunter: One of my phrases that I use when I'm buying things is sparse and natural. If I go by sparse and natural there is a really good chance that it's also green, that it's good for the planet, that it's good for people too. If it has long chemical names I don't want it.

Yeager: So, that could be one way for us to start moving green is to maybe start eliminating chemicals that we can't pronounce or can't spell on a spelling test?

Hentzen: Yeah, look at the labels and if it makes sense to you and it's relatively short then you're probably better off.

Mason Hunter: Plant-based.

Yeager: Okay, let's continue on. What are some other ways that we can do to start taking steps towards more of a green life?

Hentzen: Two of the things that I like to talk about -- first of all just buying local is a great thing and that includes foods or any kind of products. It's a very green element. It supports our local economy. You have a better chance of knowing what is going into the manufacturing process. If things are made here in Iowa or in the U.S. we usually have stricter standards than other places in the world. Plus there is less energy used in transporting the products here. So, try to buy local as much as possible.

Mason Hunter: There are three things, if you want to reduce climate change and your impact that way, look at heating and cooling, how you heat and cool your house and your water, look at where your food comes from, how it's transported and how it's grown and look at your own transportation. And if you're looking for ways to green your life start with one of those, start with something simple like find out where your neighborhood bus goes and take it once a week or just take it once and see where it goes and how easy it is. And just change your habits, you don't have to change them all at once, don't get uptight about it. It's a process.

Yeager: It sounds like there's Web sites, information, classes. What else is it going to take? Are we going to need more of a governmental incentive or should we just not wait for the government to tell us that we need to do that?

Mason Hunter: Well, we shouldn't wait but it definitely helps if the government is behind it all and urging us to sacrifice like our government has in the past, in the sort of distant past and helping us do that with tax incentive.

Hentzen: Incentives we have found work much better than mandates and people are terrified, professional groups are terrified of mandates.

Yeager: And you're talking -- when you say incentives, what type of incentives here in the final minute do you mean?

Hentzen: Well, any time our state or local governments can help supplement, if there are some more up front costs to making purchases on a grander scale, say with heating and cooling equipment, if they can help supplement that or supplement the professionals who work in those industries more people will move in the direction of sustainability.

Yeager: Final 20 second thought to agree or disagree?

Mason Hunter: Oh, agreed wholeheartedly. But I think a really good thing to do is to get back to the Earth. Tend a garden. Plant some flowers. Get Earth based again.

Yeager: I appreciate you both for coming in. Linda Mason-Hunter and Lynnae Hentzen, thank you very much for coming in tonight.


Tags: cancer conservation ecology Energy/Environment Environmental Protection Agency furniture global warming health HEAT Iowa pollution


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