Sunday, October 12, 2008

reading materials

I just read a new book, I told my mum. Oh? she said, politely. And then considered.

Is it anything like that Pollan book you gave me? I haven't been able to think about my meat the same ever since, she said accusingly. Is this new book anything like that? I blinked. My mum, the warrior for the neglected (and occasionally lactating) woman, has been regaling me with green tips for a few months now. Pollan seemed right up her alley.

So, wherefore the oh-so casual (telephonic) inching towards the safety of the other room? The hiding behind old Save Darfur signs?

Um, no, I said. It's different. This one's about the cosmetics industry. On the other end of the line, mum started to relax. Really? she said, trying for mild encouragement. Yep, I said - and launched.

It's about the regulation of the chemicals used in the cosmetics industry, and how America and Europe regulate them differently. Mum made a noncommittal sound. Europe, I explained, makes companies prove that a chemical is safe before use. America, allows companies to use whatever they like until it's proven to be unsafe.

Ah. said the slightly worried voice on the phone.

I grinned. And of course, the industry is largely self-regulated, doing their own research, and the inevitable outcome for such a situation. I could feel the phone's shoulders tensing up. Which is how you end up with two different formulations for products, one that's deemed safe in Europe, and one that's accepted in the USA. Endocrine disruptors and all.

Um, said my mother. I have to go now.

In truth, I think she got off lightly. Tonight, a solid three weeks after finishing the book, I finally muttered, grabbed an armful of our household health and beauty items and looked them up. The database run by the EWG ranks individual products on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the most toxic, or damaging. The information for these chemicals comes from lists made by the FDA, the EPA, National Toxicology Program, European Chemical Bureau, the US health and beauty industry's own standards for use, and peer-reviewed academic journals. No crazy blog ranting or rumormongering allowed.

The database shows you the rank of individual chemicals, and explains why they are a problem. It is, explained Stacey Malkan, the only one of its kind outside of the industry. And the folks who run it, says Malkan, really think someone, um, official should be taking charge. You know, someone who can actually do something about the problems that the database highlights? Yeh. Them.

The boys' food allergies have made me a skeptic in the face of apparent corporate good will and transparency. And if the food industry is hard to get information from, try the health and beauty folks, who have no obligations to tell me diddly about what's in their products, whether it's giving my kid hives or not. So our soaps have had steadily shorter ingredient lists, as have the boys' moisturizers and toothpastes. Shorter = interpretable, I figured. Interpretable = safe.

Shorter, plus avoiding chemicals that I can't pronounce (hey, everyone has a line, and this is where I've drawn it), with a dash of innate crunchiness would combine with poor reading skills...and get us a good score. But, points out Stacey Malkan, the health and beauty industry is not required to give a full listing of ingredients. Oh.

Here's how we did:
kids' toothpaste: 4
kids' shampoo/soap: 2 (and a shout-out to the allergy team, here, for recommending it..)
kids' moisturizer: 4

the Man's shampoo: 5 (so much for the 'pure and natural' bit on the label)
the Man's deoderant: 5 (this was fun: they rank the items against each other, and his was 525th. Yeesh)
the Man's toothpaste: 6 (oh, dear. He's not going to like this one.)

my shampoo: 5 (and another lousy ranking, sigh)
my face washes: 2 (yay!) and 4 (huh?)
my lovely mineral moisturizer: 5 (so much for natural Dead Sea whatevers)
my deoderant: 4 (but, said the database, did I know that it has wheat protein? crud.)
my hydrating toner spray (and my daily burst of ooh la la): 6 (holy fucking hell)

oh, dear.

I've filled a few post-its with scribbles, noting the evils of parabens, biotin, BHT, triclosan, coumarin and more. And used the rankings on the database to find safer toothpastes, shampoo and deoderant options. But can this database come up with the little zing of glamour that is my hydrating spray?

I now understand my mum's tone a bit better. Given the grumpy numbers I'm looking at, the damned thing had better come through. Because mama wants her oooh, la la, and she wants it first thing in the morning when everything else looks like sludge.

Shortly after she apologizes to her mum for the terrible things that this Pollan guy did.
Note: As part of the newly neural hurrah, the Man and I watched the VP debate the other night. Well, okay, so we don't have a working TV. But there were lots of nice live clips online, and we gritted our bandwidth and went for it. Intriguing - and worrying. Biden just didn't have Palin's down home tone, and he was less appealing (less smiling and mugging for the viewer, less inviting the viewer to nod and feel like he got the average Joe. Also bigger words - a double-edged tactic). It worries me.

What fascinated me, though, was the clip on gay rights. Palin said a lot of "tolerant"s in her response to the question of gay marriage. Or, rather, single-sex partnerships. (ahem) Oh, dearie me. Okay, so can we run through this? If you are "tolerant," then you are a bridge-building moment or thirty-seven away from "supportive." I'm not comforted by "tolerant," because it usually comes with a hefty list of exceptions and loopholes. To me, a tolerant person is the same person who parks in the handicapped spots, on those days when she's (um) late getting her kid to school. The parking lot's full, and so, oh, well, just this once. Exceptions and loopholes. And matters of convenience.
(Explanatory Note: yes, I am always late getting the kids to school. But no, unless the Eldest has a bleed, we do the walk of shame, from the not-quite-legal parking spots outside of the school parking lot, all the slow, long way to the office for our ritual pink slip. And, no it's not that I'm that virtuous, it's that someday, I could legitimately need that spot, and I'd hate me if I was one of the people blocking it off for momentary convenience. Sort of preemptive guilt, but it works.)
It's a slippery, worrying word, is "tolerance," for all that it wears a boy scout-ish earnestness. But then again, as before Palin wasn't actually talking to me, as one of those deviants who'd happily call a marriage between two individuals a marriage, regardless of gender. Or sex, for that matter.
(again, noting the distinction)

But what else would you expect from a gimp mama, on the hunt for insincerities? Oh, no - hang on there - she is cultivating my group. How silly of me to forget: she's going to support us, and let the others dangle. Well, phew.
I'll just go grab that nice parking spot, then, shall I?


Rachel L. said...

Hmm, I actually thought Biden was more appealing, more (vice) presidential...I mean he didn't spend his time winking at the camera. And, according to the latest news, McCain's support, particularly among women has shrunk considerably since nominating Palin. I've got high hopes....

Rachel L. said...

And...I just spent way too much time looking up our products, and replacements. And I thought I was doing well by just avoiding parabens. sigh.

Allergy Mom said...

I'm glad you're back and feeling better. Thanks for the link to the database. It was so much easier before I started worrying about these things, but my son's allergies and neurological problems...well, you know how it goes

Anonymous said...

I spent way too much time figuring out this stuff! My kids' toothpastes are 2 (no fluoride) and 3 (fluoride)--so, if Tom's of Maine works for the allergies...the kids seem to like them! I have to pick up this book, and yet I'm not sure that I really want to read it!

If I comment on the debate, I'll say too much for a comment!


dykewife said...

i don't like the word "tolerant". i mean, who wants to be tolerated. i'd rather be accepted, respected and welcomed than tolerated any day. i'm pretty sure that most people feel that way (except for a few paranoid few).

Miryam (mama o' the matrices) said...

Nicole, Rachel - my apologies.

Allergy Mom, glad to help! The database can give you a headache, but naivete just isn't a real option, past a certain point.

I'd peg that point as sitting 'round about a diagnosis or two, but that's too facile. For me, it was a crazy organic veggie grandmother, who smelled wonderfully of tea tree oil. She laid a dangerous foundation - and made amazing sandwiches.

Who knew her ideas would be so useful to her great-grandsons' well being?

Rachel L. said...

What fascinates me is that many companies have two different formulas, one for the crazy americans and one for canadians/europeans. Lucky us. Also, it's not just about avoiding things that are possibly harmful (though it is) but also an education/advocacy tool. How many fed up consumers will it take to for the companies to self-regulate (b/c can we count on the FDA?)

Btw, I'm not watching the debate b/c everytime John McCain answers something I start yelling at the tv and I'm afraid I'll wake the sleeping child.

Miryam (mama o' the matrices) said...


wonder if there's a debate drinking game?

As for the Europeans, don't forget also about the crazy Californians. They also have some chemicals banned from cosmetics...

I think it'll take a major scandal to make people aware of how toothless the FDA is. Right now, you have a very few who not only have the understanding, but are also not willing to pretend to be naive. Unfortunately, that group stands pretty close to the paranoid crowd (with reason), and that makes them dismissable.

Which helps sustain naivete.

Anonymous said...

Palin's use of "tolerate" really got to me. "Tolerate" is below "welcome" which is below "invite" and semantically only brings to mind "barely tolerate." But it is good she used it, so we know how she feels.

During tonight's debate, I thought of you when McCain said that there is no one who understands special-needs families more than Palin. Her child is only a few months old, not years like your sons, and while Downs is serious, she doesn't have to look at little everyday common occurrences as potentially fatal (and much less understood) as you do. McCain invited this comparison by describing Palin superlatively and, sorry, she loses that competition.

And even just having the experience of being a parent of a special needs child does not make one an advocate, does it? What hurdles has Palin yet faced that have taught her how to be an advocate? McCain didn't support his claim by explaining what policies he and Palin believe should be in place to be of help and what she will support and for what she will work and how she will help in her position as an advocate.

Anonymous said...

Great post - my mom sometimes reacts the same way with my crunchy (nut-free) granola leanings! Thanks for the link, and it's good to see you back.

I'm one of those crazy Canadians ;) we just had our election and now I'm following the US election. I hope you get a good voter turnout - this one should stir people up! We had only 59% turnout, one of the worst (perhaps the worst?) ever. But then, our candidates weren't nearly as interesting as yours.

Gary said...

Would you consider mentioning my newly-published memoir on your blog? I would be happy to exchange blog feeds as well.

Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio was recently released by The University of Iowa Press.

The memoir is a history -- an American tale -- of my fifty year wheelchair journey after being struck by both bulbar and lumbar poliomyelitis after a vaccine accident in 1959. The Press says Seven Wheelchairs gives "readers the unromantic truth about life in a wheelchair, he escapes stereotypes about people with disabilities and moves toward a place where every individual is irreplaceable."

Other reviewers have called Seven Wheelchairs "sardonic and blunt," "a compelling account," and "powerful and poetic."

I hope you can mention Seven Wheelchairs on your blog. We all live different disability stories, I know, but perhaps if you find the memoir worthwhile, you might want to recommend the book to others who are curious about what polio or disability in general.

Of course, the book is also available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Gary Presley
SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A Life beyond Polio
Fall 2008 University of Iowa Press