‘Better living through chemistry’

From 1935 to 1982, the DuPont Corporation used the advertising slogan, “Better living through chemistry,” to promote their products. By the late 1960s, a character in the film “The Graduate” delivered a one-word line about the future that remains famous to this day: “Plastics!” Both plastics and chemicals have become so ubiquitous that now most of us hardly notice them.

Without thinking much about it, most of us come into contact every day with dozens of materials that contain toxic chemical substances, many of which, with a little trouble, could easily be avoided. Here are a few suggestions.

The cash register thermal paper receipt one gets at the supermarket and elsewhere contains bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disrupting chemical. BPA is also found in many other places, including the lining of aluminum food and beverage containers. Unless you need them for some reason, leave your receipts behind at the cash register. 

Dry cleaning uses several chemicals, including perchloroethylene (PERC), napthalene, formaldehyde, and benzene, which are dangerous to one’s health. Many garments can be washed using unscented soap or detergent. Both your clothes and your insides will be cleaner if you avoid dry cleaning.

Chlorine is found in many paper products, coffee filters, tampons, city water supplies and swimming pools (usually, salt water pools are chlorine free). Chlorine was the original poison gas used in World War I. While an effective disinfectant, chlorine is harmful to humans in various ways. The better household water filters can remove chlorine.

An abundance of houseplants can be effective at removing toxins such as formaldehyde and benzene from the air. But have many plants: a single houseplant can’t de-pollute an entire house.

Until Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), almost nothing had been done to regulate pesticide. DDT and other powerful endocrine disrupters remained the most used insecticide in the U.S. until the 1980s. Now, Monsanto’s Roundup (now owned by Bayer) herbicide is the country’s most popular pesticide although more and more studies have come out disputing Monsanto’s claims of safety. One obvious problem with Roundup and other pesticide sprays: unless there is no wind at the time of application, the airborne spray will travel considerably and possibly kill favored plants nearby.

Synthetic pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) should be used very sparingly, if at all. Use, instead, natural pesticides, which are much less hazardous. Neem oil, pyrethrum (from a variety of chrysanthemum), and various ground up vegetables (chili pepper, garlic, tobacco, onion and tomato leaf) mixed with vegetable oil and water make useful insecticides. Vinegar is an effective herbicide, alone or in a mixture. Before using even these natural pesticides, find out about their particular characteristics and follow recommended precautions. While they are much safer than heavy duty industrial pesticides, they still have some risk. Some herbicides may be toxic to the soil the weeds are growing in.

Many household products use fragrance to give those products a more appealing smell. Often they contain hormone disrupting phthalates and other synthetic ingredients. Fragrance is used in most cleaning, laundry, and personal care products, fabric softeners, and perfumes. The chemicals in these products go directly into the bloodstream when applied to our skin and are also absorbed into our skin from our clothing. Avoid synthetic fragrance and buy fragrance free products or use products with natural fragrances like essential oils. Reliable household cleaners include vinegar, baking soda and borax, mixed with water.

Avoid air fresheners and scented candles (which contain phthalates and benzene). Instead, use beeswax candles and odor absorbers made with zeolite; a small spray bottle filled with a mixture of baking soda and water also works well.

Water and soda bottles are typically made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Newer studies have thrown doubt on the complete safety of these containers, particularly if exposed to unusual heat or reuse. Bisphenol A (BPA) is also used in some reusable bottled drinks and as a liner for the inside of soda cans. A safer alternative would be glass or stainless steel reusable containers.   

Don’t microwave in plastic (except for TV dinners, which somehow work out OK). Most plastics can leach chemicals into your food or drink, particularly when heated. Choose paper, glass or ceramic containers. 

Probably the most successful invention of the 20th century, plastic is everywhere. It’s in the Amazon jungle, Antarctica, and the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s cheap and versatile and the modern world has become utterly dependent on it. Even if it weren’t made of petroleum, which we need to drastically cut back on for the health of the planet, plastic is an unnatural material that takes nearly forever to decompose. And even when it does, it’s still microscopic pieces of plastic, not meant to become incorporated with plants and animals. It’s perhaps too much to quit cold turkey using plastic, but one might cut way back.


Lakeville architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon writes frequently about environmental matters.