Do You Have a Detoxifying Obsession?
By Linda Formichelli
It all started, innocently enough, with the dryer sheets a few months ago.
While they might make your laundry smell like a summer day, I had just read that the flimsy leaflets actually coat your clothes with a thin layer of toxic chemicals. As a health writer, I regularly come across a fair number of startling facts about contaminants, but this time was different: I had an infant in the next room. I threw our box of dryer sheets in the trash that day.
Problem solved. Until I read about dust.
A little online searching revealed that not only is common house dust loaded with noxious particles and allergenic dead bug bits like dust mites (eww), but the cleaning solution used to wipe it up could cause just about every ailment known to mankind (breast cancer, diabetes, memory impairment…oh my!). And then there were our bedsheets and towels, all crawling with germs that could be killed only by bleach—the same bleach that could lead to respiratory problems. What’s more, wearing your sneakers indoors tracks dangerous pesticides (and other nasties you pick up outside) through the house.
So I banned chemical-laden cleaning products, made guests remove their shoes at the door, and launched an all-out assault on dust and dirt. Soon what little free time I had was spent vacuuming toxins off the lampshades. All worth it, I figured, to keep my family safe from crippling illnesses and premature death.
Of course, feeding them was another challenge entirely. I began paying double for organic, pesticide-free produce and hormone-free milk. Free-range chicken at the co-op set me back $9 for three small halves. But even as these changes lightened my wallet, they did nothing to ease my mind, because the threats were piling up faster than the laundry. One week it was the electromagnetic-frequency-emitting cell phone I used as an alarm clock; the next, the baby monitor. After I’d banished both, I still found myself lying awake at night, plagued by worry.
It was money that finally brought me to my senses. Not the small fortune I was shelling out for elite food and eco-cleaners, but the actual greenbacks themselves. A new study trumpeted that bills are tainted with bisphenol-A (BPA), which, according to the National Toxicology Program, can have negative effects on “the brain, behavior, and prostate glands in fetuses, infants, and children.”
With that news, I was done. It made no difference how many hours I spent researching dangers, naturally disinfecting surfaces, arguing with my laidback husband (who insisted I was driving myself crazy over nothing), and fighting the world’s worst case of static cling. I couldn’t quit cash.
Surprisingly, instead of feeling defeated, I felt free. I realized I couldn’t be expected to purify every aspect of my family’s life. News headlines emphasize life’s dangers and then tantalizingly offer solutions for ridding your home, your food, and your body of contaminants. I’m not the first to be sucked in by those claims—or hopelessly confused by them. Just to be sure, though, I called a few experts for a second opinion.
“‘Detoxing’ can become a coping skill that’s used to gain a sense of control when life feels overwhelming,” says psychotherapist Julie Hanks, M.S.W. In other words, you may not be able to control stock-market crashes or terrorism, but you can nix pesticides from your kitchen.
But this control tactic can backfire: When you spend all of your time worrying about everything that could possibly harm you, and spend a hunk of your money trying to delete those dangers from your life, the intense stress it causes can have a bigger impact on your lifestyle than BPA or any other scary-sounding acronym.
“Detoxing is about taking a break and renewing and rejuvenating ourselves,” says Gerard E. Mullin, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “But if you take it to extremes, you may do yourself more harm by living in a state of anxiety.”
Balance is the only approach that works for me. Some changes are so easy that it doesn’t make sense not to make them—toting a stainless-steel water bottle in lieu of a BPA-containing plastic one to the gym, for example. I’m still not ecstatic about the static in my clothes, but because it’s easier and cheaper—as well as healthier—not to use dryer sheets, I’m willing to put up with a little shock therapy. But I gave up the $8 organic shampoo and went back to my $3 suds. I still buy my toddler organic, hormone-free milk, but my husband and I stick with the regular stuff.
And something amazing has happened: I’ve stopped lying awake at night, worrying that our toilet-bowl cleaner will give me cancer or that the carpeting in the nursery might off-gas and melt my son’s brain. Even though I’ve let my guard down, my family and I are way happier than we were when I was spending my precious spare time hunting down pesticides, synthetic chemicals, and stray electromagnetic waves. I can now actually enjoy our home—and start letting good things in instead of keeping bad things out.
Here are a few of the chemicals you can live with and the ones you definitely shouldn’t:
- Dishwasher Detergent: One sniff will tell you how toxic the fumes from a bleach-containing detergent can be, so be sure to use one that is bleach-free.
- The “Dirty Dozen:” Buy organic versions of the 12 most pesticide-laden produce (you can download the list at foodnews.org) and you can reduce your pesticide exposure by up to 80 percent.
- Nix the Air Fresheners: Hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates were found in 12 out of 14 commercial fresheners, according to a 2007 Natural Resources Defense Council study.