Cincinnati—If you muster images of dreadlocked hipsters hugging trees and eating tofu when you hear the term “green,” think again: living a green lifestyle is becoming easier every day, and it’s not just beneficial to the planet—it can have a major impact on human health, too.
According to the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, more than 80,000 man-made chemicals exist in the environment but only 500 have been tested for human health effects. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned only one group of chemicals—PCBs—in three decades.
“Flame and stain retardants are added to our clothing, common plastic food storage containers contain bisphenol A (BPA) and arsenic- and chromium- based preservatives were used to treat lumber. The list of potential exposures is extensive,” says Glenn Talaska, a University of Cincinnati (UC) environmental health professor who studies genetic toxicology, industrial hygiene and carcinogenesis. “Convenience comes at a cost that may turn out to be more expensive than what appears on a balance sheet. It’s about personal health and the vitality of the neighborhoods in which we live.”
Talaska urges people to take a closer look at how consumer and lifestyle decisions impact personal and community health—from something as simple as the type of laundry soap you choose to wash your clothes or choosing to walk versus drive to the corner market.
But what is a person to do? Living in a bubble is not an option, nor is becoming 100 percent self-sustaining for the average person. Talaska suggests starting with small changes that have the potential to make a big impact, such as:
- Avoiding products designed to repel soiling, grease and water. These products undoubtedly have appeal to every neat-nick on the planet, but they also contain PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid) and PFC (perfluorochemicals), which once in the body can take years to exit the body and have been linked tentatively to stroke, cancer and increased cholesterol in humans.
- Buy meat and dairy products that are raised without antibiotics and growth hormones. Scientists believe these chemicals can mimic the role of natural hormones in the body and contribute to cancer and severe infections . Most major grocery chains carry at least one brand of beef and chicken raised without antibiotics. Meat is also available from numerous Tristate-based farmers who follow organic practices. For more information, visit localharvest.org.
- Skip products in excessive packaging. According to the Hamilton County Solid Waste District’s 2007 annual report, the average Hamilton County resident generates 5.9 pounds of landfill waste every day. Buy products you like, but send a message to manufacturers that it’s important to eliminate waste where possible by not buying products sheathed in excessive packaging.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle. According to the Hamilton County Solid Waste district, the average county resident produces 690 pounds of waste a year—and that is just at home. Reducing waste through reuse—such as with canvas grocery bags—and recycling would make a major impact. City of Cincinnati residents can take advantage of a free curbside recycling program. For a full list of accepted items, visit: cincinnati-oh.gov/cmgr/pages/-37390-/. For a list of community recycling programs, visit: hcdoes.org/SWMD/Residents/Recycling/recyyourcomm.html. Composting is also a great way to dispose of kitchen and yard waste while contributing to the health of your yard or garden. The Civic Garden Center offers classes to get you started: civicgardencenter.org.
- Buy fresh or frozen produce when possible. Many food cans are lined with a chemical known as BPA, which in recent years has been shown to contribute to heart disease, obesity and cancer in animal studies.
- Ride a bicycle or walk for close-by errands. Driving for short errands is not only fuel inefficient, but it produces traffic-related pollution that contributes to smog and ozone depletion, as well as harm to developing lungs and allergy development. Each gallon of gasoline produces more than 19 pounds of carbon dioxide when it is burned, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
- Dispose of hazardous waste properly. Consumer paints, fluorescent light bulbs and old electronics can all leach dangerous chemicals into the water supply through improper disposal. Take advantage of county-sponsored hazardous waste removal programs to avoid contamination. More information is available at hcdoes.org/sw/HHW/hhw_collection_program.html.
“There is power in numbers—if every person took a hard look at their everyday behaviors and made some simple changes, that cumulative impact would add up to a better world,” says Talaska, who personally bikes eight miles from his Hartwell home to work every day.
More radical reform to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is expected under President Barack Obama’s administration, which would mandate certain chemicals be eliminated from consumer products; however Talaska encourages every person to be more of aware of what they put on and in their bodies.
“Legislation to protect consumers from these potentially dangerous chemicals is important, but it’s also up to all of us to make smarter choices and live a ‘greener’ life.”