How to spot bad chemicals in your home

A new study out of Japan indicates that flame retardant chemicals make mice fat. (Those chemicals probably haven't done humans any slimming favors, either.)

The crux of the matter isn't even that flame retardant chemicals mess with a mammal's hormonal system -- the Chicago Tribune blew the roof off of that story and I'm not going to recap it any better here.

The crux of the matter is: what's on the market now that in 20 years we'll find out makes you unhealthy? [Update added February 6, 2014: Just days after publishing this post, Subway announced it will remove the chemical azodicarbonamide from its food production; the suspicious chemical already banned in the UK, EU and Australia has been linked to ill-health, specifically to asthma. This is just another example of how yesterday we exposed ourselves to a chemical that today we believe to cause serious health issues.]

A Connecticut Yankee  


My mother -- a firm Republican and conservative Yankee -- was progressive in her way. She would never let us kids near anything that was, in her words, "full of chemicals." "Full of chemicals" was the worst thing anything could be.

Seemingly pure things, like maple syrup for pancakes, was "full of chemicals," unless bought from the Sweet family up the road. Teflon frying pans? "Full of chemicals." That new car smell? A disaster, "full of chemicals." The new carpet or new furniture smell? Skull and crossbones; "full of chemicals."

Turns out she was right.

Her measuring device? Common sense. Teflon "isn't right, it should be sticky and it's not -- then it gives off fumes that kills small birds when it gets real hot, that can't be right." Maple syrup should not have ingredients you've never seen or heard of, "there's no reason for it." And new furniture? "A couch is made of cotton and wood; nothing made of cotton and wood should smell like the a chemical cacophony."

Makes sense.

In our house we didn't have new furniture, we had antiques. Our lunchboxes were full of things our friends' boxes didn't have -- things like crudites, and peanut butter without sugar in it with homemade jelly on homemade bread. We never had those popular Snack Pack puddings seen on TV. (Years later I tried one, to me seemed like candy-flavored melted-plastic-textured goo; in other words delicious, but "not right" somehow; never had another.)

None of my mother's four children are overweight, despite varying degrees of un/healthy eating (and drinking...) as adults. Maybe it's just good genes, or coincidence, or something else. But it's worth noting that our childhood was as chemical-free as one could be and our metabolisms are fine.

Because today's wonder chemical may be tomorrow's endocrine distruptor. And that "fresh scent" might not be so fresh when the safety testing is more thorough. Nature has been testing chemicals for millions of years; might be wise to stick with the approved ones.

There's something to a conservative Yankee's common sense: if something doesn't smell right, if something about it doesn't seem right, it won't hurt to avoid it.