Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Dangers of Going Too Green

I was reading a book today on greening your lifestyle and especially on eliminating toxic chemicals from your life. One part involved paint. Some of the author's advice was sound: watch out for formaldehyde and paints which "out gas" toxic chemicals over time. However, one of her alternatives was earth-based pigments, especially clay-based ones with the mineral cinnabar for a lovely red color.

Those of you with any chemical or historical background should be cringing right now. For those not in the know, cinnabar, also known as mercury(II) sulfide, is ranked by Sax's "Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials" as poison and with the highest hazard rating they give. We know how toxic mercury can be from fish, but one can also absorb it through the respiratory tract and through unbroken skin, and in industrial concentrations mercury can cause depression, allergies, tremors, insomnia, and loss of memory, and diseases of the mouth and gums. So your "natural" paint, as it flakes throughout time, will be most likely putting mercury into your dust, which is then inhaled by you and yours. Not exactly the non-toxic green alternative.
This leads me to the law I see in a lot of hard-core "go green and environmental" advice groups:
All industrial things are bad. All natural things are good.
(At this point, my sarcastic mother points out, "Syphilis is natural".)
Yes, many chemicals, elements, and compounds can be toxic, but many inventions of modern society (e.g. vaccines) are extremely good for us. Synthetic processes are what allow us to design and create 100% recyclable products.

For a great book on this subject, check out "Cradle to Cradle", a book which shows how industrial thinking and chemistry can actually create greener alternatives. The book itself is made of a specific kind of plastic with a special ink. The ink can be removed with a solvent, re-concentrated, and reused without waste. The plastic "paper" can be remelted into perfect paper. It doesn't degrade, and best of all, if you drop it in a pool, your book won't melt. It is the epitome of sustainability.  

Instead of rejecting all aspects of industrial society, do your research on the effects of various chemicals. Keep in mind that some of what is labeled "safe" can be influenced by politics, so watchdog groups like the GoodGuide and manuals of industrial safety like Sax's are often a good bet. But also keep in mind that greener does not always safer. Do your research, and be informed. That's the only true way to live a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

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