Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day to everyone and especially to dear Mother Earth!

Forty years ago, on the first Earth Day, I was a freshman in college. Though I was pretty much unaware of what was going on across the nation that day, I was painfully aware of the environmental problems in my own backyard. I had dealt with some minor allergies as a child, but that first year away from home had put my health into a tailspin, as I grappled with reactions to cleaning products, air pollution and my roommate's shampoo. By April of 1970, my dorm mates had dubbed me "Puff the Magic Hive" for my chronic hives and facial swelling, and just breathing had become a daily challenge. My roommates were concerned and sympathetic, to a point. The university officials were not. Had I dropped out of school and gone home (as my doctor and parents urged me to do), I would have lost a semester's tuition and rent. (There was no clause in my housing contract allowing me to leave because of health problems.)

Those who know me know that I can be pretty stubborn, and at eighteen, education was the most important thing in my life. After all, how was I ever going to write the Great America Novel if I couldn't even make it through my freshman year in college? I did, however, drop a couple of classes (keeping only my favorites, of course) and stayed with a friend off-campus during cleaning week (the annual spring cleaning in the dorms--very, very toxic). But I have to say that by the end of April and that first Earth Day, I was actually starting to feel a little better. Spring in Utah can be beautiful, and warmer temperatures meant open windows in the dorms and in classrooms (pretty common in those pre-air-conditioned days). I took to doing most of my daytime studying on the lawn outside the dorm or sitting on a bench in the student quad, and I had long since found a quiet corner on the top floor of the library for evening study sessions.

So, even though I didn't know about that first Earth Day at the time, I had learned a lot in the previous months about chemicals and pollutants and how they affect the human immune system. I may not have been part of any environmental sit-ins or "teach-ins" (as they were called at the time), but that was the beginning of my own environmental consciousness. Sown in a time of personal peril, those seeds of eco-activism have grown to maturity for me and for the world in a way that gives me hope for the next generation. I can't bring major corporations to their knees (though I do try) or have much influence on corrupt foreign governments, but I can change the environment in which I, and the people I care for, live. And, I can teach others and help change attitudes, one person at a time. That's why I celebrate today, because Earth and the people who live here are worth it. I hope you all have reason to celebrate too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Healthy Transportation on a Budget

In my continuing series for Earth Week on staying healthy on a budget, I have just a few ideas about transportation. It seems obvious that a major part of reducing chemicals in the air we breath involves reducing the exhaust we produce from our vehicles. Luckily, most of what we can do individually to reduce vehicle pollution also saves us money. There are many news articles and blogs this week talking about this, so I'm just going to throw out a few ideas that work for me.

1) Use public transportation whenever possible. Alas, the only public transit system where I live is by appointment only and extremely limited even then, so I generally only use public transportation when I'm visiting someone else's home town.

2) Ride a bicycle or walk. This is great exercise and we do have good bike paths here. It's just a little far between destinations and there's that problem with sub-zero weather in January, but don't let me stop you if this is what floats your boat.

3) Drive an energy-efficient car. I drive a 2002 Toyota Camry (which we bought used) that still gets between 30-35 miles to a gallon of gas with 180,000 miles on the engine.

4) Carpool to work, school and church activities. I work at home and MCS keeps me from going to most activities, so this isn't an issue for me, but I remember the days with teenagers who always had to be ferried from one place to another.

5) Plan your errands and shopping to use the least amount of gas. Try to consolidate your outings into a couple of trips a week instead of every day. Sometimes I have to go to the post office to send an urgent order to a customer, so I'll try to add another errand onto it. Also, if I'm going downtown (it's called the Gulch here) or to a large shopping center with several different stores, I park my car in one place and walk. Besides saving fuel and money, I figure that's my exercise for the day.

6) Don't make left turns. This is an idea I borrowed from UPS (the big brown trucks). They have a company policy of planning their deliveries so that they go in a big circle, only making right turns. They have found that they save millions of dollars a year by doing this. When you make a left turn you have to wait for oncoming traffic and inevitably sit and idle your engine (thus wasting precious fuel). I find that in our town there are times when I just have to make a left turn, but I try to avoid them as much as possible and it does make a difference.

7)Vacation close to home or in your own backyard. Find out what there is to see and do in your home state, city or neighborhood. One of our favorite activities is an afternoon at the state historical museum or Saturday morning at the farmer's market (where you can get those cheap local organic vegetables I talked about a couple of days ago).

Saving fuel (and thus keeping the air cleaner) is really a mindset more than anything. We don't have to deprive ourselves of fun activities; we just have to think and plan a little. And just think of what you can do with the money you save.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Heathy Housecleaning on a Budget

This is the second instalment of my earth week series on staying healthy on a budget. Like with organic foods, I forever hear the argument from people that chemically safe cleaning products are just too expensive. All I have to say to that is hogwash.

First of all, if you really want to do this right, get into your broom closet and under your kitchen and bathroom sinks and take out all those cleaning products you use. I'm guessing, if you're like I used to be, you have quite a number of items, which may include: spray glass cleaner, countertop spray, anti-bacterial wipes, toilet bowl cleaner, furniture polish, powdered cleanser, liquid cleanser, tile cleaner, shower scrub, carpet spot cleaner, oven cleaner, lime remover, chlorine mold spray, etc., etc. There are so many products on the market (and they have such cute advertisements--oh, those funny scrubbing bubbles!). Well, I'm about to make your life a lot simpler, not to mention less expensive, if you just follow some simple suggestions.

1) Go for multi-function and cut out all the unnecessary items. For the perfect (and cheap) all-purpose spray cleaner, mix vinegar with water (1 part vinegar to 2 parts water for most applications; 1 to 1 for tougher jobs) in a good spray bottle (available for $4.95 at Target). Label the bottle and use on windows, mirrors, countertops, and any other smooth waterproof surface, including your stove top.

2)For tub and tile surfaces and your toilet bowl that may need a little bit of abrasion, mix a little baking soda with water and scrub with a sponge. Or, try the following recipe:

2 cups baking soda
1/2 cup castile soap (Dr. Bronners works well)
4 teaspoons vegetable glycerin (works as a preservative)
5 or more drops essential oil (optional), like tea tree,, rosemary or lavender
Mix together and store in sealed glass jar for up to two years. Add more of the liquid soap or a little water to get the consistency of most store bought softscrubs.

Or, if you don't want to mix your own, Ecover makes a good softscrub cleanser and Bon Ami is an effective (and not very expensive) natural dry cleanser.

3) Buy a couple of microfiber dust cloths (available at K-Mart, WalMart, Target, etc.) and dust weekly. Wood furniture does not need regular waxing and most furniture sprays only make the wood attract more dust. If your fine wood is drying out and needs a little help, try using plain beeswax or beeswax mixed with a little olive oil rubbed in with a soft cloth.

4) To battle mold and germs, replace all those anti-bacterial products with one of the following sprays (mixed in good spray bottles and well-labeled):

A. 2 ounces tea tree oil mixed with 32 ounces water
Use on hard surfaces in kitchen and bathroom or around windows.

B. 50 drops GSE (grapefruit seed extract) mixed with 32 ounces water
This can be sprayed directly into the air (but not at people, please) as an air cleaner.

Yes, tea tree oil and GSE are expensive, but you don't need very much and these spray bottle mixtures will last you up to a year, because you don't need to use them very often if you're using the other products I suggested on a regular basis. Which leads me to the last suggestion:

5) Clean regularly and teach other household members to clean up after themselves. The beauty of using safe cleaning products is that they are safe for everyone to use. Even a four-year-old can clean a window with vinegar spray, and by seven he can be scrubbing the bathtub. Keep a pile of rags (a good way to use up old t-shirts and pajamas) under every sink to be used for spills and muddy footprints. Just plain water works fine in many cases.

Though Proctor and Gamble and the Johnsons would like us to believe that we NEED all their cleaning products, the truth is that we don't. Life can be so much simpler and healthier without them and every bit as clean.

[Note: if you have a particularly tough cleaning problem that I haven't addressed above, please feel free to email me and I'll help you find a safe solution.]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eating Organic Foods on a Budget

Happy Earth Week to everyone! As this is the week (and Thursday, the day) we celebrate our beautiful earth, I'm going to use this blog to propose some things we can do to make the earth a healthier place for everyone.
One of the arguments I get from people all the time is that all the things we can do to protect the earth and ourselves--eating organic foods, using safe cleaning products, using less fossil fuels, etc.--are too expensive. Who can afford to live this way? Well, I'm going to give you all some ideas that I hope will motivate you to at least try some of these things. Because, as I have learned from my own and others' experiences, it really is cheaper in the long run to go earth-friendly.

To start off with, let's talk about eating organic foods, which protect the earth and our health by not using poisonous chemicals in the growing process. I will admit that if you walk into your local Safeway store you will find that a pound of organic bananas costs more than a pound of the inorganic ones (about 30 to 40 cents more sometimes), but there are some things you can do to save money and still eat healthy. Here are some suggestions I found on

1) Buy food items in their raw, unprocessed form and cook from scratch. Processed organic foods (like crackers and bread) are really expensive, but buying the ingredients (organic, of course) and making your own from scratch is often cheaper than buying the same item in processed inorganic form. And, believe me, once you've made the same recipe a half dozen times, you'll be able to do it so quickly, you'll hardly notice the difference in the convenience. I always make a full batch of muffins, biscuits, etc. and freeze them individually for eating on the run (not a good way to eat, but inevitable sometimes).

2) Buy in bulk. Every health food store and many chain stores (like Safeway) have organic food in bulk bins. And don't forget Costco and other discount stores, which sell organic rice, beans and even raisins in bulk packages at prices equivalent to the non-organic.

3) Buy in season. Apples are harvested in the fall, oranges in the winter months and summer squash by mid-July, so it makes sense that these items are going to be at their least expensive when they are at their most plentiful. They are even more inexpensive at the end of the growing season. I bought organic oranges last week for 79 cents a pound and in December I was buying organic apples for even less than that.

4) Buy locally. Some of the cheapest organic produce I buy is at our local farmer's market every Saturday from May through October, and most health food stores sell local produce and meats as well. Local is almost always cheaper when it comes to organic.

5) Befriend an organic gardener or farmer. Come to my house in August and you can have all the zucchini you want.

6) Choose the foods that it is advisable to only ever eat organically, which include the following:
beef, chicken and pork
dairy products
strawberries, raspberries & cherries
apples & pears
spinach & salad greens
peaches, nectarines & apricots
peppers, green & red

7) Grow your own. If you have the time and space, this can be the best way for you to have organic vegetables. If you plant a large garden, this can require a significant outlay of cash at the beginning of the season for seeds, organic fertilizer and gardening equipment, but the payoff at harvest time can be phenomenal. You will also have to have some way to preserve the food if you want to save some for the winter months, but a good freezer or several dozen quart jars and a pressure canner will provide food storage for many years.

8) Remember that Rome was not built in a day. Most of us come to healthy eating one step at a time. The important thing is to make that step. Maybe this year you start with shopping at your farmer's market or growing some herbs in pots on the back porch. Every healthy food you eat is one less unhealthy food you eat, maybe more, because, at least for me, healthy food tastes better and makes me feel better, so I'm not as inclined to overeat. Plus, I have less desire for the really expensive snack foods, like chips and ice cream (well, maybe ice cream sometimes).

Happy organic eating!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Random Thoughts

The US Census Bureau has had a major computer glitch, so I haven't had much census work to do this week. Some interesting things have come through my email that I thought I would share.

There's a great checklist for a safe and healthy home over at the Environmental Working Group (one of my favorite websites).

May is MCS Awareness Month and MCS America has some great information you can pass on to family and friends, including some one-page handouts, which I intend to mail to all of my family members.

The buzz on the internet is that Congress is poised to reform the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), an antiquated law passed in 1976 which does little to control the use of toxic chemicals in products we use every day. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE contact your senators and representatives and tell them how important it is to you personally that they reform this law.

This week's "well duh" headline: "Exposure to air-polluted environment impacts children's health..." Actually the ensuing article (a news release from the University of Southern California dated April 6, 2010) was very interesting, especially this statement: "In a study that looked at statistics on children's health in Southern California communities, researchers found that those who attend schools near high-traffic areas are 45 percent more likely to develop asthma..." No surprise there, but it's nice to have scientific backing. The study was reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

And finally, I hope everyone reading this is enjoying spring, because here in Montana it is definitely still winter--cold and snowing today.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Working for the Census

I've been working for the Census Bureau for the past couple of weeks. I worked on the 1990 and 2000 Census taking, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into and didn't expect to have any major problems with the work. My biggest concern was with the three full days of training. Something about sitting in an enclosed space with twenty-some-odd other people for eight hours a day was enough to make me question the wisdom of it all. As it turned out, it really wasn't too bad.

Census workers (enumerators) are divided up into crews with a crew leader who helps with the training and to whom we have to report every day or two. When the crew leader called me a couple of weeks ago to remind me of the training days, I told him about my MCS. I suggested that I would sit at the back of the room near a door and I would need to not be too close to other people. He said he had three people in the last training session who were also sensitive so he would do what he could to make the environment safe for me.

When I got to the first day of training, the room was pretty packed with twenty-four of us and no windows. However, the room did have an outside door, which the crew leader was willing to have slightly ajar for most of the session. I initially sat at the back, but there was a man nearby with some aftershave on that was causing a problem so I moved closer to the door. The crew leader had everyone introduce themselves, so when it was my turn I briefly explained the problem of my chemical sensitivity and what they could all do to help. The crew leader expressed his support and told me to move anywhere in the room that would feel safe for me or tell him what else could be done to accommodate my needs.

During the breaks that first day I had several people ask me about chemical sensitivity. Almost everyone knew someone else with MCS, and everyone who spoke to me was sympathetic and supportive. On the second day, I could detect no fragrance on anyone. So all in all, it turned out to be a good experience and I think I was able to educate some people. What was most surprising to me was that no one questioned the validity of my illness or complained about coming fragrance free. The Census crew leader and office staff who came asked me several times if I was alright and if there was anything else they could do to help. I have since learned that the U.S. Census Bureau has a fragrance-free policy in place for their permanent offices, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. That kind of good surprise I'll take any day.