When we were kids, we used to marvel that we could “see” our breath. “Cool,” we’d say as a car whizzed by and the moisture from our exhalation crystalized around particles in the air. What we once thought was cool science was actually evidence of pollution from the vehicle exhaust.
We don’t see our breath as often these days, thanks to Senators Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) and Pete McCloskey (R-CA). In 1970, air in the U.S. was hazy and frequently smelled. The smog, a massive oil spill on the California coast, and dirty waterways throughout the nation troubled the senators, so they teamed up with Dennis Hayes to start what is now one of the largest international days of observance, Earth Day -— April 22.
Since the first Earth Day, we’ve removed lead from gas, eradicated DDT and made some strides in air and water quality, but problems persist. One is that food and other allergies are on the rise. The BBC reported in 2020 that food allergies have doubled since 1960 when about three percent of the population had anaphylactic responses to three foods: milk, seafood and nuts. By 2018 about 7% of people had food allergies, triggered by a wider array of foods. The CDC reports that 1 in 13 Americans have asthma, a number that has been increasing since the 1980s. The causes of these increases are unclear, and theories abound. Some say humans are becoming “too hygienic” by cleaning with harsh chemicals that coddle our immune systems. Others theorize that c-sections, which increased in recent decades, deprive infants of a protective initial exposure to a mother’s microbiome. Some researchers propose humans need more vitamin D, which we produce naturally with just 20 minutes of sunlight daily. Interestingly, kids raised with pets or on farms seem to have lower rates of allergies and asthma.
The BBC reported that researchers have looked at our modern “microbiota,” the microorganisms of our habitats which are changing and interfering with human endocrine and reproductive systems. They theorize that our microbiota are changed with the chemically-treated timber and plasterboard in our homes, the synthetics in the fabric in our furniture, and chemicals in our food.
Naturalizing our lifestyles — getting sun, playing in the dirt, and cutting back on our use of synthetics — is worth revisiting. Humans now rely on 6,000-plus items created with petrochemicals, those byproducts of the fossil fuel industry, according to Rankin Energy. Some of these can be replaced with safer versions made without petrochemicals, for instance, toothpaste, deodorant, detergents, clothing, lipstick (and cosmetics), shampoo and anything packaged in plastic.
Here’s how dental care can go natural. The poloxamer 407 that makes the paste possible is no longer necessary now that we can buy toothpaste tablets. Tablets allow us to avoid the needless waste of toothpaste tubes. There are reusable floss holders and at least eight brands of natural or biodegradable flosses to use. Plastic toothbrushes can be replaced with bamboo toothbrushes which can be disinfected by throwing into the dishwasher regularly. Bamboo is an excellent material for many goods. It grows quickly, renews every four years without having to be replanted because it has complex root systems that send up new shoots. It’s naturally microbial, requires no chemicals to grow, uses less water, and add 35% more oxygen to the air.
Detergents also contain a number of petrochemicals. Many of our grandparents’ go-to cleansers are far better for our bodies. Cleaning soda, borax, naptha or castile soap and vinegar are safer, cheaper and as effective as any brand name cleanser. Vinegar and water are recommended for cleaning wood floors. Soda, vinegar and water (and Murphy’s Oil Soap) are great for ovens. Laundry detergent can be made with soda, borax, castile or fels naptha, tea tree oil, and a food processor. It costs pennies on the dollar compared to name brands. It takes less than 10 minutes to make several months worth. Good recipes can be found on wellnessmama.com and diynatural.com. If you have stained or smelly workout clothes, soak them in the mix overnight with an extra scoop of oxyclean, which is eco-friendly. Hang in the sun for natural, color safe bleaching.
Petrochemicals have taken over our shoe wax, lipstick and other cosmetics, deodorant, soap, perfumes, nail polish, shaving cream, aspirin, rubbing alcohol, panty hose, chewing gum, and other personal products. We can avoid paraffin wax, used in lipstick, by switching to alternatives created by eco-educated small businesses. The propellants in aerosols and plastics are byproducts of petroleum. Can we live without or find alternatives for these? Polyester and most synthetic fabrics are made out of petrochemicals and show up in our blue jeans, athleisure and fast fashion. Look for fabrics made from flax linen, organic cotton, lyocell bamboo (not bamboo viscose rayon), and modal birch.
As we celebrate the 51st Earth Day, the League of Women Voters hopes to inspire us to seek safer alternatives that reduce harm to our health and our environment.