By Abigail Lewis
The author of Nontoxic, Natural and Earthwise, (and in 2011 Toxic Free: How to Protect Your Health and Home from the Chemicals that Are Making You Sick), Debra Lynn Dadd is one of the foremost authorities on creating a healthy environment. What shines through her work is “a love of the earth and not wanting to hurt it anymore than I’d want to hurt anything else that I love. Considering the earth as being part of oneself, you don’t want to hurt it anymore than you’d want to take a knife and chop off your hand.”
This interview was done 20 years ago, and yet, how much progress have we made? We’re still dependent on fossil fuels, and the environment is more toxic than ever.
WLT: You do an amazing amount of research. What got you started dedicating your life to this project?
DLD: In 1980 I became ill from the toxic substances in my home environment. Most of us have this idea that if we’re at home, surrounded by products that the government allows to be sold in stores, we should be safe. And we aren’t. When I had my big physical breakdown, it was after I had moved to a new condominium and had been doing a lot of remodeling. So things like vinyl shelf paper are in every cabinet, linoleum on the floors and paint and all these things. I moved from a suburban area to a city area. There was also a lot of stress going on in my life at the time, and the combination of all of these things led me to essentially become what looked like being allergic to everything. But it was actually a breakdown of my immune system. I was doing things like binge eating and being depressed and having headaches and extraordinary fatigue. People can have virtually any kind of symptom as a result of this kind of poisoning. My doctor says, “Well, it’s just things you have at home. Toxic chemicals.” I said, “What toxic chemicals?” See we have in the back of our minds that even though there are these warning labels on products, they can’t be that bad, or they wouldn’t be on the shelf. And that’s just not true.
And so in order to regain my health, I needed to play this game called “Find the Toxic Chemicals.” At that time nobody had, in a layperson’s way, talked about toxic substances in the home. Now, 11 years later, we’re just starting to get information on things like how toxic wall-to-wall carpets are.
Part of the problem is that we’re using a lot of manmade substances that we don’t have any history of use. And so people have to use products—they have to get sick—and then we can start investigating. It’s like a giant experiment. We’re acting as guinea pigs. So far, we’ve found out they cause birth defects, they’re carcinogenic, these things have a variety of toxic effects.
You refer to our bodies as “human toxic waste dumps.”
We are. Our bodies accumulate toxic chemicals. That was the entire focus of my work for the first seven years. In 1987 I went through some things that led me to really experience our connections with the natural world. I suddenly realized that it’s not just what I do in my home, but I have to be aware of the effects the whole environment is having upon me, and what effects I’m having upon it. There’s really no separation at all between us and the environment. It’s absolutely one thing. An example one could use is that like the cells in our body are to us, we are to the earth. It’s all a big, giant living organism, and we’re just like these little cogs in this living organism. So when I got to that realization, it was a very emotional point for me, because I just couldn’t go on simply protecting myself, I had to do something to make the whole environment a better place to live. Because if you only look at yourself—if you only look at human health effect—you’re still causing environmental harm. I had been the epitome of nontoxic living for myself. But I wasn’t conserving energy, I wasn’t recycling, I wasn’t considering the environmental pollution of the planet, only the end results—the toxicity of the products. I was only looking at the part that I thought affected me. But when you start getting that you really are living as an integral part of this whole, you have to look at the whole thing and say, “In order for me to have air to breathe, I have to contribute to clean air. In order for me to have water to drink, I have to contribute to clean water. In order for me to have food, I have to be sure that there’s topsoil in the earth to grow the food. In order to have a temperature at which we can live; I have to make sure there’s forest.”
It became very personal to me. It wasn’t just “out there” anymore. And when I got to that, I couldn’t live in a way that contributed to environmental destruction any more than I could drink a glass of poison. It became very much simply a survival issue, and making sure that we could survive in a way that was fulfilling and rewarding.
How does polyester affect us? It’s in bed linens, clothes…
Polyester is a very interesting thing to look at because there aren’t a lot of toxic symptoms associated with it. Most people thing of polyester as being a fiber, and really it is treated plastic, it’s 100 percent a crude oil product. It’s a nonrenewable resource. It produces toxic waste in its manufacture. It doesn’t biodegrade back into the environment, and if it weren’t for polyester we might not have gone to war.
Isn’t it amazing? We really went to war over nonrenewable fossil fuels.
Our society runs on oil. There isn’t a product that we use in our lives that doesn’t have oil in or around it, or it has something related to oil. Most of us don’t realize that we’ve got 30 to 50 years worth of oil left anyway, no matter how many wars we fight over oil rights. It’s going to run out, and then what are we going to do?
What are they going to wear in the Midwest?
Good question. One of the things I see—like with a personal illness or any other crisis, is that people tend to wait until we get down in the dumps and everything is just as awful as it can possibly be. I, for one, don’t want to wait until we get to that point environmentally. It’s always easier to make a choice than to be forced into something by circumstances. And ultimately we will be forced into it. So why not change now?
How does a natural product differ from one that is nontoxic?
There is no standard for the word natural. There hasn’t been a standard for recycle and biodegradable and all those things, and organically grown. But there are starting to be governmental regulations for these words. One of the things I did in my book was that because these words that we use, such as natural, are so ambiguous, I decided what I thought they meant.
If you just looked at human health issues, it’s a pretty black and white question. If you look up in a toxicology book and find some symptoms. So you can say there’s some evidence that something’s harmful to health, or some suspicion that something’s harmful to health, or it’s not. People have been using lemon juice for centuries, and we know that lemon juice isn’t harmful to health. We already have evidence that toxic waste is harmful to health. But when you start looking at whether something is good for the environment or not, there are many, many things you need to look at. You need to look at how the original material was taken from the earth—like was it strip mined or clearcut or organically grown—where does the original natural resource come from? Was it taken in a way that allows it to renew itself, or did it destroy the environment? Is it a natural or a manmade substance? How was it manufactured, and does the manufacturing create solutions? Is it safe when you’re using it? What happens to the product after you’ve used it? Does it go back into the ecosystem? When you start asking all of these questions, you start finding something like, let’s say a product made of wood, which is natural. It’s renewable. It’s biodegradable. At this point in time, it’s also probably clear-cut. So you say, “Is this an environmentally safe product or not?”
Then you have to add in the question of the 15 different ingredients that went into the finished product. Then you ask yourself, “Well, does this come from a socially responsible company? And where’s the money going? Are people dying in third world countries because this product is made?” To come up with a single product that meets all these criteria is virtually impossible. I think that people want to have perfect product to choose from and when they can’t find it, they say, “I might as well do nothing.” Or they feel guilty when they’re not doing something perfect. I think it’s important to address that. The way we end up having perfect products is by setting up standards and by consumers buying the best currently available. Because manufacturers respond to the market and will give us what we want. Right now I see consumers being in a very powerful place. Because we’ve been saying, “We want socially responsible products. We want environmentally safe products. We want cruelty-free products.” There are so many of those kinds of product on the market now. The problem now is that it’s so popular that it’s being used as a marketing ploy, whether the product is these things or not. And that demonstrates how popular it is.
One issue that’s really puzzling to me is “biodegradable” plastic garbage bags and disposable diapers that aren’t really biodegradable.
Part of the difference between the way I’m looking at it and the way a lot of other people look at it is that people are looking at things on a product-by-product basis, and I’m looking much more at an overall attitude and philosophy, and then having the lifestyle out of that. So given that as a foundation, it starts making the answers to the questions clearer. Let me give you an example. If we’re looking at a garbage bag, and we want to have something that’s the most harmonious with the earth, than we could look and say, “The ideal garbage bag would be made out to a renewable resource. Therefore we knock plastic out of the picture. So that would be paper. And that it would be made out of recycled paper. And it would go back into the ecosystem when we’re done with it.
We can say, “Yes, that’s a very nice definition. However, paper manufacturers are among the most polluting industries there are. They use a lot of energy and water. The paper doesn’t biodegrade in a landfill because of the way the landfill is put together—it’s not that the paper won’t biodegrade.”
So here we have all these minuses against paper. And so then the plastic starts looking a little better, because the plastic manufacturers say, “Oh, but we can recycle this plastic, etc.” But the problem with plastic is that in the whole scheme of things, plastic just doesn’t work. It’s made from a nonrenewable resource which we’re going to soon run out of, and there’s no way that we can suddenly make crude oil a renewable resource. You can recycle plastic, but you can’t have a 100 percent recycled plastic product and maintain the same quality. If you have a plastic beverage container, it gets recycled into polyester stuffing for a jacket and that gets recycled into a park bench. It never goes back to the earth. You can only play around with it, and you gave to keep adding new plastics, and you have to keep creating toxic wastes. It doesn’t follow that natural model.
So overall, the way I decide now is that I say, “If we could improve some of these other conditions, could we make it at some point into a viable, harmonious product?” With a paper bag, yes, we could do that. We could say, “We’re going to make all paper bags out of recycled paper, so we’re not cutting down trees, so eventually there would be fewer trees, because you have to have virgin paper added. You could cut down trees in a sustainable way, so that you’re not depleting a forest. You can combine that with some recycled paper fibers, and redo the landfill system so that the paper goes back into the ecosystem. Then it becomes this harmonious product.
It’s the same thing with something like cotton. When people say, “There are so many pesticides sprayed on cotton, and that’s bad for the environment, so I’m going to wear polyester.” I hear that one all the time. They say that cotton wears out faster, and so if you’re looking for a durable product, polyester is more environmentally safe. It produces less toxic waste than the pesticides that you put in the environment. We can then put it into the same mode, and we can see that in the full scheme of things in the ecosystem, polyester is not a viable substance. Whereas one could grow cotton organically, and one could put it back into the soil and the enzymes would break it down.
So without having this underlying foundation of how does nature work, and flowing with the way nature works, people come up with all kinds of crazy things that they think are environmentally safe. There’s a real popular cleaner that says that it’s environmentally safe and socially responsible and it’s a diluted down toxic chemical. You just can’t justify that. People are being misled.
One product in particular is presently being touted as “environmentally friendly.” When you put a name on it like Simple Green, it gives you that natural connotation, but it’s a toxic chemical. Even though it’s not toxic for humans to use because it’s diluted down so far, it’s still a toxic chemical, made from nonrenewable resources, so how is that environmentally safe?
And it isn’t how to make a better product. It’s rethinking our whole life, because the number one thing about green consuming is not to consume. It’s to buy less and simplify our lifestyles. That doesn’t mean deprive ourselves. It means to have what we need and not more. And to not be wasting or consuming for consuming’s sake. Because it is a law of nature that in order for anything to survive, it has to take something out to the environment in order to fulfill its needs. But generally what happens in nature is that the plants and animals also give back to the soil and the environment. And so there’s this constant give-and-take and give-and-take, and we just take, take, take, take, take.
Have you investigated the concept of planned obsolescence?
I’ll pull out a great quote from my book. This is in the mid 1950s from the New York Journal of Retailers. A marketing consultant says, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-growing rate.” That’s what our marketplace has been about since the mid-’50s. So I as an individual have to say, “Wait a minute, I don’t have to be consuming things.” My mother’s favorite phrase was, “There’s always more at the store.” She didn’t care about having things lost the way my grandmother does. I see myself being much more like my grandmother than like my mother. I don’t even have paper napkins or paper towels anymore.
Water’s a big topic here in Southern California, and I had always thought that just in terms of water supply, if we have plenty of rain, we have enough water. I can use it more or less indiscriminately. Yet it seems water tables are dropping everywhere.
As I understand it, there’s less and less fresh water on earth. One of the things that happens is that in order to get water down under the earth, in the water tables, there has to be vegetation holding the soil in place so that the water seeps down underneath. And the fewer forests we have, the more the water just runs off. So the fresh water that would have gone down under the soil is now running off into the ocean and becoming salt water. If we even look at something like a street or a parking lot, in times past, that was just soil that was absorbing water. It’s not anymore—it’s a street that doesn’t absorb anything. So the more and more we build up and have fewer natural areas, the more it disrupts the whole flow of the water cycle. So even during times when it is raining, it’s important to be judicious about how we use water. Right now we in California are in a drought, so we have to be super, super careful of how we use water until we get more supplies. But even when we have more supplies, it’s important not to waste those resources, because if we hadn’t been using it so indiscriminately, there would be more water now, and we wouldn’t have to ration it so much.
Have you heard about this man with the plastic trees? His idea is to get them into the ground to hold the water and start attracting more rain, and as more rain comes, gradually replace the plastic trees with real trees again.
I’m not anti-technology, but to use plastic trees to create rain seems out of the natural order to me.
Of course we’re so far out of the natural order that maybe we have to use the unnatural order to get back to the natural order.
What I see in my own life is—and I’m not perfect by any means—my life is moving closer and closer to the natural way of things. I think that it’s possible for us to have a 20th century-lifestyle that is different from earth-oriented cultures of the past, but has similar elements and similar respect. When I read about things like Native Americans feeling that they are cocreators and making sure that the rain falls and the sun shines and the plants grow, they’re not just leaving it to chance.
They’re out there actually creating it through their rituals, and creating rain and those sorts of things. That’s a very interactive process. Now we just kind of assume that we have no connection with nature. I feel that it’s possible for us to communicate with the natural world much as it’s possible for us to communicate with each other. I believe that people who know how to do it could say “Rain!” and it would rain. I don’t know how to say “rain” and have it rain. But I think that’s a capability we’ve lost that we once had.
I know there are a lot of people who say, “Work in a garden? No, I’d get my fingernails dirty!” I’d love to go out in the garden and get all that dirt all over my hands.
Yet there’s a place for everybody. Some like to work in gardens, and other people like to make that connection in some other way.
I think that what’s important is for people to have that underlying attitude of cooperation with the earth, and to have some concept of what that means, which is nebulous at the moment. But from that people will express in their own lives, in their own way, whatever it is that means. I have that feeling, and I express it through my writing and my work as a consumer advocate. I went to a concert and the whole concert was about the singer inspiring that feeling through his music. Different people, as they come to that in their lives, say, “This is who I am in the world, and this is the work that I do. How can I incorporate that feeling?” People end up finding their own way.
One of the things that I see in the so-called New Age movement is that sometimes I think it focuses too much on just what goes on within people, and not enough on the practicalities of how their having that awareness translates into living their lives better.
We have to be balanced between being spiritual people and physical world people. There needs to be some kind of agreement between those two things.
See a review of Debra Lynn Dadd’s latest book in Whole Life Times, October/November 2011.