MY MOTHER was an early adherent to the warnings against DDT in Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental exposé Silent Spring. So after the U.S. government finally banned the carcinogenic pesticide in 1972—the year I was born—she was spurred to even greater vigilance in protecting our family from chemical threats. We avoided nitrates, sulfites, and MSG in our food; growth hormones in meat; and household products containing PFOS, the carcinogenic ingredient then found in Scotchgard. “Read the label,” my mother would say in a tone reserved for moral cautions. M-e-t-h-y-l-p-a-r-a-b-e-n. I became a champion speller.
Thirty-six years after the DDT ban, some things haven’t changed. Chemicals still permeate our food, household goods, air, water, and even our bodies (as evidenced last year in an Oregon Environmental Council study that turned up 19 toxic chemicals in the blood and urine of 10 volunteer test subjects from around the state). But what has changed, for shoppers like me, is the array of products we can buy that are purported to be safer.
To wit: I wash my dishes with nontoxic soap, sleep in a room colored by paint that’s free of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and sit down to mostly organic meals, on chair cushions treated with PFOS-free stain repellent (it doesn’t really work, but as my mother would say, wine spots never killed anyone). Almost anywhere I have the power to make a consumer choice, I have the power to make a healthier one, it seems. Because, usually, I can afford to do so.
And that makes me lucky. Consider that at the Fred Meyer near my house, organic apples sell for $2.99 per pound, whereas across the aisle, conventionally grown ones, the kind sprayed with heavy doses of chemical pesticides, cost one-third less. Were I making only $26,409—the median income of a one-person household in Portland—I might reach for the cheaper ones. Greener options are proliferating, yes, but they remain a luxury for most. Hence, a dividing line is forming in our society between those who can afford to avoid exposure to chemicals and other harmful pollutants, and those who can’t.
A line is forming between those who can afford to avoid exposure to chemicals and those who can’t.
Cost, though, isn’t the only barrier to making safer choices. So is a lack of knowledge about what risks to avoid—and that’s affected by your educational status. According to a 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 62 percent of college graduates read newspapers or magazines every day, but less than half of those without degrees do. So, while few of us might actually take the time to vet our skin-care products with the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database (where you’d learn that 63 percent of the ingredients in Coppertone’s Continuous Kids Sunblock Spray SPF 50 have not been subjected to FDA review, and that 18 percent are linked by some studies to cancer), those of us with college degrees are more likely to have read a news account warning about dangerous ingredients in lotions.