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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Household Toxics

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks about the health effects of household chemicals with Nancy Sokol-Green, author of Poisoning Our Children: Surviving in A Toxic World.


CURWOOD: Some human beings have bad reactions to chemicals in far smaller concentrations than government regulations allow. Nancy Sokol Green, a former school teacher, has documented several such cases in her new book Poisoning Our Children: Surviving in a Toxic World. Ms. Green says pesticide spraying is one of the problems, but common household chemicals and furnishings can also prompt severe toxic reactions. New rugs, for example, can give off formaldehyde if they're made from synthetics, and be loaded with pesticides if they're made from natural fibers. Ms. Green wrote her book after she became severely ill herself from environmental causes, and had to purge her family's home of many chemicals. I asked her how did she discovered that household chemicals were making her sick.

GREEN: Actually it was a long process of a year of being incredibly ill, from going from a healthy person to all of a sudden a bunch of bizarre symptoms that would come and go -- dizzy spells, nausea, headaches, nerve pains. I became weaker and weaker and finally ended up being hooked up to oxygen, unable to breathe, and it wasn't until three surgeries, which we now know were misdiagnosed, and probably cupboards and cupboards full of medication that it turned out I didn't need that I was correctly diagnosed by a doctor of environmental medicine as literally being poisoned by the everyday chemicals in my home.

CURWOOD: Was there a particular poison that had --

GREEN: Yes, for me there was two main problem areas. One was pesticides, which I had done to myself by hiring a pesticide service, and the other was formaldehyde, which was primarily from many products. The home was a new home, two and a half years earlier when we moved into it.

CURWOOD: Now are there a lot of people that have this problem?

GREEN: The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 15 to 20% of the population has some level of chemical sensitivity. The question is, and that's why I wrote the book, how many people really may have made that connection? Because there's a lot of really symptoms that people don't associate with possibly an environmental exposure like recurrent ear infections, bed-wetting, hyperactivity. In many cases these types of symptoms have actually been completely eliminated when they discovered what environmental trigger was causing the symptoms. And I should, as a footnote, add that I am very, very, very healthy today, but when we made all these changes that I talk about in the book to quote "get me better," we didn't think that they were for my husband or my two children. And the interesting thing was that his legendary sinus problem disappeared, and we only lived three miles from the house that was doing me in; my two children, who are now 5 and 6, have not been to see a doctor for any kind of health reason in four years.

CURWOOD: What are the top priorities for a parent to do to protect a child?

GREEN: The first thing we have to understand is how chemicals get in the body. I think a lot of parents all know that when they have little children they put locks on their cupboards and so the kids can't get into the cleaning products, but we don't -- I know I never thought about it -- equally, those toxic chemicals that you wouldn't want your child to swallow get into the body through inhalation, so if I'm spraying one of those products when my child's sitting right there, he or she is getting it in your body, or through skin absorption, if we're touching it. And the good news is there's so many safe, safe, easy, inexpensive alternatives to the rows and rows now that we find in the stores of things that we've come to believe we need to clean. And also, for example, disinfectants -- it turns out that 60% of all data on file with the EPA for disinfectant is inaccurate or missing. And the actual active ingredient of a well-known disinfectant is actually a pesticide. Now on the flip side then you've got Borax, which with hot water is past even hospitals on satisfying germicidal requirements. So the cleaning products to me is a very easy one to substitute and eliminate a lot of exposures.

CURWOOD: Chemicals have become a major part of the American lifestyle. How far can you really go towards detoxifying our world, do you think?

GREEN: Well that's, that's a great question because I don't think we have to get rid of every chemical, that's not my point. The question is how far have we gone? I think that people are going to look back at the last part of the century, hopefully, when all this becomes such common knowledge, and think that we just went nuts with chemicals. I think kids are gonna look at us in ten, twenty years and say, Mom, you really thought you could go to the store and buy a can of chemicals and because it said "air freshener" it would freshen the air? So I think it's just sort of turning back the clock, 50, 60 years ago, probably how our parents or grandparents were raised, not so you have to live in a bubble or live off the land but just to really consider, do we need that great degree of all these chemicals that we're using, and especially the effect they're having not only on people but the planet too.

CURWOOD: Nancy Sokol Green is the author of Poisoning Our Children: Surviving in a Toxic World. She spoke with us from member station K-P-B-S in San Diego.



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