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Plastic: a toxic love story - book review

This is a post that I wrote in 2012, but I want to republish because I think its an important post about the dangers of synthetic chemicals.  I never really understood the difference between synthetic chemicals and those present in nature until I read this book.

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I just read a book that I couldn't put down, its called Plastic: a toxic love story.  Its about how plastic has became so pervasive in our lives and so dangerous to our health and that of our planet.  I've read about this kind of thing before, particularly in "Slow Death by Rubber Ducky", but this new book really explained a few things that hadn't clicked before.




First, plastic is a new thing.  I was born in the eighties, so I've grown up with plastic, but only a couple of generations before me, plastic was totally new and people were trying to find new uses for it.  While it is true that there are no new elements on earth, there are new combinations of elements and therefore new chemicals, such as plastics, and in fact any petrochemical derived from crude oil, that were not found on earth until humans began producing them using high pressures and temperatures, metallic catalysts and clever conversions.  These are chemicals that our body has not evolved to recognise.

Many of these new chemicals look a bit like hormones, so our bodies mistake them for hormones, which disrupts normal processes, these are called endocrine dirupters.  This brings me to the second point, conventional poisons theory was "the dose is the poison", this means that any substance is poisonous in high amounts and not poisonous at low levels.  For example small amounts of cyanide in apple pips are not toxic, but larger doses can be deadly.  Conventional poisons theory does not apply to endocrine disruptors and other new chemicals that our body doesn't recognise.  These chemicals can be dangerous even in tiny amounts as they change our biochemical processes (and those of other plants and animals).

Unfortunately for us, all chemicals are still regulated as if it was the dose that mattered, as if there was a safe level of exposure.  For many chemicals, the effects on the human body are not really understood anyway, they are just too new, and its just too hard to figure it out what damage an individual chemical can do when we're exposed to so many others.  Think of Thalidomide, in the 50s and 60s doctors didn't even realise that chemicals could be transferred from mother to baby!  Now that seems obvious, but it just shows how much we don't really know about how the body works.  A good rule when you don't know how something works is "don't mess with it", but I think its too late for that.

For now, we need to take some more responsibility for which of these chemicals we are exposed to, as we clearly can't rely on the regulators to tell us which chemicals are safe.  Don't assume that just because you can buy something, it won't harm you.  For a start, there are too many industrial influences keeping certain substances in use, and then there's just that lack of knowledge of what does cause harm.  Regulators are struggling to enforce out-dated regulations, with pressure from industry to leave things as lenient as possible, and it seems that public safety is the least concern.  Its up to you to learn more about what substances you should avoid.  Its not easy to avoid plastic and petrochemicals, they are now a part of our modern lives, but if you are conscious of the need to avoid them as much as possible, there are some things you can do.

Brace yourself, this won't be easy!  It just occurred to me that I'm typing this on a plastic keyboard, surrounded by plastic pens and other plastic stationary, sitting on a plastic computer chair and sitting at a desk made of MDF, which is just wood shavings and plastic resin.  There's no way I'm going to rid plastic, or other chemicals, completely from my life, but I can do more to avoid it accumulating in my body:
  • Stop storing food in plastic and especially stop heating food in plastic, you're just asking for chemicals to leach into your food.  Stop eating and drinking with/from plastic plates, cutlery and cups.  Stop using plastic utensils.  Stop using cling wrap/film.  Stop buying food that's wrapped in plastic (this one is nearly impossible, try buying cheese that's not in plastic!).  I don't know what to use to brew beer, our fermenters are plastic and we still vacuum pack our meat in plastic bags.  I've been trying to use glass jars more often for storage instead of plastic (10c a jar at the op shop). (see more on Attainable Sustainable).
  • Read the labels on all food and cosmetics, anything with numbers or crazy long chemical names should be avoided.  Even those sneaky natural flavours may not be so natural.  Most food colouring and flavouring have petrochemicals origins.
  • New purchases should be as plastic-free as possible, but if its electronic, you may as well give up before you start, at least you can try to buy brand that uses cardboard packing instead of plastic.  With furniture try to buy metal or real wood (not MDF).
  • Try to use natural fibres for clothing and furnishings, cotton, wool and linen are good choices.  Anything synthetic like polyester, nylon, lycra etc is just plastic.  Avoid things that are "UV treated", "water resistant" or "stain resistant", that just means more chemicals have been used.
  • When decorating, choose carefully, paint and lacquers are available with low VOC (volatile organic content), but as this link explains, that isn't always the best paint for the job.  The best advice is to minimise the areas in your house that need painting by considering other materials (difficult unless you're building from scratch).
OK enough of my list, I'm running out of ideas.  What changes have you made in your life to reduce exposure to chemicals? and plastics?




Comments

  1. Uhm, grow my own food? :) Go veggie. Hrm, get rid of all the stuff under the sink.... My viewpoint is, if you have to put on special protective clothing to use it (Such as Bathroom cleaners) along with a respirator then don't buy it!!!

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  2. I didn't realize how bad it was for us, I knew it was bad for the planet. WOW, makes you think. Another interesting note is, margarine is only 1 molecule away from being plastic. Thats scary as well.

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  3. Great post!

    We have tried to do this after I read 'Slow Death by Rubber Duck'. I have changed all my cooking pans from non-stick to stainless steel, as well as all my cooking utensils, have changed all all bathroom and cleaning products to healthier options (ingredient labels are scary!). Plus we try to grow most of our veggies and fruit and preserve what we can as well. I have stopped popcorn 'bags' in the microwave and air pop instead (have you read what is in those things!). But I still struggle with putting things in the freezer - we still use a lot of plastic bags there unfortunately. Any other ideas what we can use?

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  4. good point, we also got rid of all teflon, only cooking with stainless steel pots and utensils now.

    The freezer is still a challenge. Another post on Attainable Sustainable http://www.attainable-sustainable.net/plastic-free-freezer-storage/ has some suggestions, particularly wrapping meat in paper, but I don't know how long the meat will last. We get an entire beast cut up and I don't know how long it will last in paper (normally it takes a year to eat it all). The freezer is probably the most difficult area to get rid of plastic.

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  5. Makes you want to go live in a cabin in the woods, cut off from modern society, doesn't it!!

    We have done a few things, like cutting chemicals from our cleaning gear/ toiletries/ food and replacing plastic in the kitchen (cooking/ freezing/ reheating/ mixing bowls/ storage/ covers etc.) as well as not cooking on non-stick surfaces. BUT it is SO hard and so infiltrated in our everyday lives... argh!

    I borrowed Slow Death by Rubber Duck, despite trying to avoid it as I knew but didn't want to know (if you know what I mean!) but asked the library to buy Deanna Duke's The Toxic Avenger, so am not scaring myself silly with that! This book you reviewed sounds good, and what a great review too!

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  6. I agree this is a very sticky topic for most of us. I haven't read the attainable sustainable link yet, but wanted to add to your list- chemicals in shampoo and conditioners, lotions, and make-up!
    Parabens are supposed to be really bad for us yet most of those products have it in there. I don't know what it is, but like one of your other commenters said, it's one of those things I just don't want to know too much about because it means I'd have to change something. And replacing shampoo with vinegar doesn't sound all that pleasant... besides which I have terrible hair to go without conditioner. I can't imagine the price of a pure soap and lotion the way we use that- and alternatives like olive oil or bear fat which have been used for centuries just sounds gross. Soooooo, great topic, things we should know, but then again, as scary as it gets, I don't feel I can live without so much of it. Even my most favorite perfume ever (a musk oil) has hormone disrupters in it - an alternative might be some kind of essential oil, perhaps sandlewood or cedar... but really what I'm saying is that things are hard enough already and sometimes I feel so deprived using "substandard" organic things that just don't match up to the chemical-laden equivalent! (However, not everything is worse).
    I think with the end of 'cheap oil' we are all going to HAVE to change over, so it's good to get a handle on it early while it's still cheap by comparison to later when the choices are not there.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic - it really makes you think!

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  7. I'll look out for this book too. I love books that are informative and "un-put-downable".

    As you know, I try not to use the microwave, so that cuts down on cooking in plastic. Although I do still store most things in plastic in the fridge, pantry and freezer.


    Oh gosh. I just thought about all my tupperware. I hope it's not leaching into my food.

    I have a teflon coated wok, but lately I've been using my stainless steel frying pan instead because I'm nervous about cooking in teflon. Heaps of our oven trays are teflon coated. It will take a while to upgrade to something healthier.

    I found the book "Living Green" (which I've reviewed on Craving Fresh) really good for talking about this kind of thing too. Although your points about the quantity not mattering are new and worrying.

    Anyway, thanks for reviewing this book.

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  8. dixiebelle, I hope you'll review the Toxic Avenger, I don't know if I should read another book on this topic, unless it has some suggestions, its starting to freak me out a bit.

    I agree with Illoura, its hard work, but at least if we start to adjust now, it will easier when cheap oil runs out.

    Thanks Emma, I'll check out your review. I can't face getting rid of all our tupperware! I'm not taking it THAT seriously!

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