Living Better Through Chemistry

Lab, Science, Scientific, Chemistry

“Not again,” I sighed as I noticed the familiar chapping and redness around my mouth. What could be causing this fresh allergic response? I was already using the most basic products, with the fewest ingredients. My skin seemed to flare up over nearly anything, and there didn’t seem to be some safe alternatives to my current products.

So I went to my dermatologist to get some patch tests. I had no idea what these strange chemical were. But after some research, I understood that the formaldehyde resin was an ingredient in plastic. This supported the suspicion I had that my toothbrush was causing my allergic reaction. Luckily, switching to a wooden toothbrush quickly relieved me of my ruddy splotches.

With that issue addressed, I wanted to know more about the other allergen: the mercapto mix. When I discovered it and the formaldehyde resin were components in the manufacture of rubber and glue, I picked up the telephone to call my father.

My father had been a chemist. Early in his career, he developed an adhesive, which he manufactured and sold through his own firm. My dad’s interest in chemistry started during the middle of the last century, when people believed in”better living through chemistry.” The phrase, a variant of a DuPont slogan, promoted the concept that chemistry can improve nearly all facets of our lives. This self-serving catchphrase was instrumental in getting consumers to turn away from a nature-based lifestyle and toward purchasing newfangled products made with artificial ingredients.

“Dad, you ever heard of mercapto mix?” I queried.

“Sure! I used it in creating my paste,” he cheerily responded, happy to have a ready answer.

“What about p-tert-butylphenol formaldehyde resin?” I ventured, stumbling over the name.

Why do you ask?”

As I told him about my new allergies, I was struck by the link between Dad’s usage of particular chemicals and my subsequent allergy to them several decades later. I suspected this was not a mere coincidence.

I was hesitant to explore this speculation with Dad because I did not think he would share my perspective.

About a year following this conversation, my father started to experience breathing problems and a persistent cough. A trip to the doctor revealed that he had lung cancer.

My mind began to flash back to all of the compounds my father was exposed to if he manufactured his adhesive. Could his daily exposure to all those noxious chemicals, together with the smoking, have set the stage for his lung cancer? And could my allergies to the formaldehyde resin and the mercapto mix have been initiated from contact with his laden clothes when he arrived home from work?

Along with being horribly grief stricken about my father’s impending death (he had stage 4 cancer), I was outraged by our culture’s shrugging acceptance of chemicals and the implicit trust we put in their safety. Unlike my father, though, I was never under the delusion that synthetic chemicals were our friends. Perhaps this was because I grew up in the’70s, a time of burgeoning interest in returning to a more wholesome way of life. Early on, I began exercising regularly, eating foods that are natural, and consuming an array of beneficial supplements.

Yet, despite my healthy practices, I started to suffer from myriad allergies and sensitivities to environmental elements, such as plants, smoke, mold, chemicals, and foods. Apparently my health-promoting activities were not sufficient to stave off these problems. I knew something was interfering with my body’s natural mechanisms and derailing my efforts. I believed that one major factor may be my early exposure to the chemicals my dad used, which was further exacerbated by the overabundance of toxic chemicals in our air, soil, water, and foods.

While I feel that both my dad and I have been hurt by dangerous chemicals, I don’t think we are the only ones damaged in this way. I believe the overload of toxic chemicals in our world has a negative impact on all of us. We pay the purchase price of exposure in our own unique ways: one person finally gets cancer, another becomes asthmatic, and someone else suffers from persistent rashes.

Recent studies have provided validation for my certainty that chemical toxins negatively impact our health. Asbestos was shown to play a role in respiratory illnesses; arsenic is known to contribute to many different ailments, including diabetes and heart disease; mercury has a deleterious impact on the brain and nervous system; and bisphenol A (BPA) disrupts the endocrine system.

Because chemicals are loosely regulated and only banned after recorded evidence of serious harm, we’re subject to untold risks from our everyday experiences with these substances. Many people may not think they’re being diminished by this exposure. Yet repercussions can occur many years later, when it is nearly impossible to determine if routine chemical exposure was the cause.

Despite not having much control over the chemical element of our planet, I refuse to be a helpless victim of harmful chemicals. I’ve discovered ways to substantially reduce my exposure to noxious substances. This has diminished the injury I experience from living in our less-than-healthy world.

One way I have found to mitigate the toxins in my life is to shop carefully and select safer choices for my household and personal care needs. I look at labels and do a little research before I buy. Environmental Working Group’s website has a comprehensive database of household and personal care products, rated for their safety.

When remodeling or buying new household furnishings, I’ve discovered healthier options. Eco-friendly materials are generally safer, but we must pierce below the surface of the advertising claims. For instance,”green” does not necessarily mean a product is natural or nontoxic. The product may contain recycled materials, which might be off-gassing substances such as plastic.

Because I react horribly to perfumes (with symptoms that include nausea, cognitive impairment, and headaches), I avoid buying any botanical products. After learning that the words”fragrance,” or”parfum,” on a product label usually conceals the presence of numerous hidden toxic chemicals, I finally realized why I have such adverse reactions to these substances.

Driving less, refraining from burning wood or lighting up barbeques, and using biodegradable unscented laundry products are all ways help to reduce unhealthy particulate matter within our shared air. This makes the air safer to breathe for everyone, especially asthmatics and individuals with chemical sensitivities.

Another way I gain some measure of control over our shared environment is by way of making my voice heard. I write to my legislators and sign petitions, like those that prohibit particularly harmful chemicals or request more stringent regulations for the chemical industry. I also support organizations that are doing vital work. Nonprofits like Environmental Working Group; Green America; and Safer Chemicals, Safer Families are working on our behalf to insure greater public health and safer products.

I still must remain alert to possible chemical hazards in each new environment I enter. I also need to refrain from lingering in any location that’s beginning to make my head my stomach feel queasy, despite wanting to shop in a particular store or desiring to attend an event in a public hall.

Obviously, much work remains to be done to clean up our planet. My hope is that through action and education, fewer individuals will get harmed by the chemicals they encounter in our shared environment.

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