By Shelly Miller
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author has spent the last 30 years as an environmental engineer. First, training to become a professor (PhD Berkeley 1996) and then teaching and doing research at the University of Colorado Boulder as well as working her way through the ranks (full professor Mechanical Engineering 2015). Dr Miller’s expertise is in urban air pollution—sources, health effects and how to reduce exposure. She is also one of the world’s experts on indoor air pollution and especially what goes on in your home. And guess what, she says, your home is not as safe as you would like it to be. What you don’t know about your indoor air quality really can hurt you. With the Adventists’ emphasis on health, it would really be smart to impart knowledge about environmental health to our future generations.
With only a short article to impart wisdom to my readers, where should I even begin? How about with the number one polluting activity we all do in our home? Especially since we value cooking healthy foods for our families, here are some important facts about cooking. Cooking generates very small particles that we air pollution engineers call ultra- fine and fine particles. Ultrafine particles are so small you can’t see them. Consider that the width of a human hair is 100 microns. A fine particle is less than 2.5 microns and an ultrafine particle is less than a tenth of a micron. Fine particle pollution is regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency because it has been shown in numerous studies around the world to cause serious lung and cardiovascular diseases and cause more people to die early.
We are learning more and more about ultrafine particle pollution, and what we do know currently is these very small particles easily translate to all organs in your body—brain, liver, kidneys, and even the plaque in your arteries. Back to cooking—when you cook, you are “burning” carbon in the form of food (just like in your car, you burn carbon in the form of gas). This combustion process generates pollution, and not only particles but also volatile organic compounds. The amount of pollution generated depends on the food you cook, the oils you use, and the temperature at which you are cooking. To protect you and your family’s’ health, this pollution should be directly exhausted outside of your home.
This is the number one rule of environmental engineering—the most effective way to control environmental contamination is to remove the pollution right at the source. Many kitchens have exhaust hoods installed over their stove. And many of these hoods do not even exhaust the pollution outside of your home, instead they spit it right back in your face. If you are lucky enough to have one that exhausts outside, chances are it’s loud and so you are usually annoyed when it is on and inclined not to use it. Recent attention to exhaust fans has led to the manufacturing of better hoods and an understanding of how to use them so that they minimize pollution in your home. One suggestion is to use the back burner and always turn on the hood even when you are using the oven. By the way, in addition to pollution generated by cooking, if you are also using a natural gas stove then you are generating an additional respiratory toxic chemical—nitrogen dioxide. This gas is known to increase asthma incidence, respiratory infections in children, and cause cardiovascular disease.
Another topic of concern is the use of toxic chemicals in our homes. Please visit SixClasses.org for more information and I will hit a few of the highlights here. Most people think that some state or federal agency must be regulating the chemicals we buy in the local stores and use in our homes and on our bodies. Unfortunately, this is not at all the case. Tens of thousands are used in our household and personal care products that have not been tested for toxicity.
Let’s talk plasticizers. Phthalates are used to make plastic products softer and malleable. They are in many toys, home flooring, food containers, etc. They are also used to enhance fragrances in your soaps, detergents, cleaners, shampoos, deodorants, etc. Encasing smells in phthalates makes them last longer in your environment. So, your clothes smell like lavender all day. Except that Phthalates are endocrine disruptors. They wreak havoc on your hormones, causing many diseases (cancer, infertility, obesity, asthma).
What can you do? Purchase products that are fragrance free (not easy to find; for example, in the Boulder Target store in the deodorant aisle, there are only 2-3 products that are fragrance free). Note that fragrance free is not the same as unscented; often additional chemicals are added to un- scented products to mask the odors of other ingredients. Minimize your use of flexible plastics, opting for silicone, glass or natural materials for flooring such as bamboo. Minimize your use of personal care products and use household cleaners with minimal ingredients that you recognize (like vinegar). Better yet, make your own. If you do enjoy fragrances and are not reactive to smells, then use of essential oils is the next best thing.
So . . . where do we go from here?
We educate ourselves on how to care for the planet, learn what are the top activities that are destroying the planet, and study how polluting impacts our health. Read books, talk about it with your friends and community, make purchases that reflect your environmental values, and demand cleaner better products for your home. Educators could teach environmental science and health modules in middle schools, high schools and even medical school (many chronic dis- eases start with household toxic chemical exposures). In the end, what we don’t know can be harmful.
As we read in Genesis 1:1, “First this: God created the Heavens and Earth.” The earth was created for us. We have been pretty rotten stewards of this beautiful planet over the centuries, with its amazing resources and brilliantly-de- signed ecosystems. We have polluted the water, the ground and the atmosphere with our consumerism and lack of fore- sight to live by the principle of “do no harm.” As in Revelation 11:18 (MSG), John writes “the time has come to … destroy the destroyers of the earth.” As Adventists, shouldn’t we be taking up the mantel of protecting our earth and be- come engaged? Not doing anything is equivalent to sup- porting anti-environmental activities, which makes us a part of the problem. Ask yourself every day, “Have I done no harm?” and more importantly “How have I shaped our planet for the future?” We should immediately step in and advocate for reducing carbon emissions to affect climate change, for reducing consumerism, for cleaner air and water for the globe, etc.
We need all hands (including our fellow church members) on deck to protect God’s creation and live according to God’s principles, which include caring for each other and our planet.
–Shelly Miller, PhD, is an environmental engineer and professor at University of Colorado Boulder. She is a member of Boulder Adventist Church. Email her at: [email protected]