Precaution is Not Toxic | Seventh Generation
Skip to Content
  • Pin It

Precaution is Not Toxic

Tags: , , , ,
Author: the Inkslinger

Chrystie in our marketing department just forwarded an interesting article from the January 22nd issue of New York Magazine entitled Indulge Your Paranoia in which writer Susan Burton discusses her parental struggle to banish toxins from her Brooklyn family’s life. Coming from someone without a background in this stuff, it’s an enlightening take on the subject not so much for the information it provides but for what it tells us about what’s going on in other people’s minds as they think on the issue of playing chemical roulette in daily life.

Her main point is that in today’s chemically intensive world it’s hard to keep track of all the potential toxins around us and even harder to take preventative action on on each and every one. That’s pretty true. But I don’t agree with the throw-up-your-hands-and-surrender attitude that seems to creep in at the edges of the piece. And there are several places in the article where Burton lets myth and misinformation stand.

Bisphenol-A, for example, may not yet have been studied by the National Institutes of Health, but the jury is hardly out. In fact, the vast preponderance of the evidence that exists very strongly suggests that it mimics estrogen to dangerous effect in the body, and the case against it is “still being argued” mostly only by industry spokespeople. Elsewhere she comments on a mother’s worries about a (most likely totally safe) recycled fleece blanket even as she blithely watches her own child dubiously jamming (very probably toxic) “low-VOC” carpet samples into her mouth.

But here’s the thing that really got me:

I recently bought a guide called Naturally Clean, written by Jeffrey Hollender and Geoff Davis, the founder of Seventh Generation. If you are going to use conventional cleaners in your child’s bedroom, Hollender advises, it would be better not to “clean at all!” (“A mind-set that rigid is toxic,” says Sarah Rivkin, a Park Slope acupuncturist and mom.)

As the guy who co-wrote that advice, let me just say this about it: It simply reflects what Jeffrey and I believe is true and is wisdom that we recommend people follow. It’s a free world. It’s up to you. But that’s our take on the subject. It doesn’t represent a rigid mindset so much as it represents the lesser (or more precautionary) of two evils.

We know what’s in conventional cleaners. And a lot of it scares the bejesus out of us. I’d much rather have my own daughter sleep (and breathe and play) in a less-than-shiny room than have her sleep (and breathe and play) in a sparkling clean room filled with air and bedroom surfaces contaminated by neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, organ toxicants, developmental poisons, and all the other deeply spooky hazards that get left invisibly behind by all too many conventional cleaning products. If that’s a “rigid mindset,” well, you know… whatever it takes. I’d much rather be a little hardcore than be the guy who has to go visit his kid in the cancer ward. That’s a small price to pay.

But is mine a “toxic” mindset? No way. It’s a precautionary one. And please let us not get into believing that precaution equals extremism. That’s a dangerous road to go down, and it ends at a cliff we’ll all drive off of together if we start thinking that way. Oh, how companies and industries would love for the general public to make that kind of warped connection.

I’m very disappointed that Burton lets this comment stand without any precautionary counterpoint that might illustrate why we made the statement or how much the interviewed acupuncturist misses the point. Generally, being too extreme is unhealthy. But there are certain places in life where that kind of attitude can serve you and the ones you love very well. Consumer chemicals are very much one of those places. A little less new age urban attitude gone unchecked and a little more data and informed perspective in the article would have helped make that critical point and served readers better.


saydit picture
I'm the above-demonized mom/acupuncturist. Not to sound like a politician, but my words were twisted and taken out of context. My comment referred to a recent renovation of our apartment during which I drove myself crazy trying to weigh environmental/health concerns against financial ones. I use Seventh Generation products and agree with Hollender's comment! Can this finally be put to rest? This piece of bad journalism has be dogging me for two years!
the Inkslinger picture
the Inkslinger
Sorry about this. The original post is a reprint from an earlier incarnation of this blog, and your previous comment did not port over. Here is my original reply: Thanks for posting this, Sarah, and correcting not only the original New York magazine piece, but also my post above. So sorry you were subjected to such a grotesque and unnecessary twisting of your words. I'm glad to know that your true perspective is not at all what it appeared in the article to be. As a writer myself, I'm more than a little angered by this. I can tell you that a good writer, or even a competent one, would not have had to resort to such a wrong-headed manipulation of your quote to make his or her point. They'd have found a better and more honest way. Good writer or not, certainly someone with any sense of ethics would have handled things far differently. This is the mark of someone who has no business being a journalist in any capacity. Ms. Burton ought to be thoroughly ashamed not to mention quite embarassed for putting such amateurish hackery on public display. And New York magazine should take its fee back as a just and fair penalty for this kind of inexcusable dishonesty.