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Did you know that the artificial VOC's emitted from consumer products like laundry fragrance (VCP's for short) have surpassed tailpipe emissions in polluting cities? Yep, it's true. Studies of the sources of VOC air pollution in cities across the US and Europe have found toxic chemicals from household products in higher concentration than the pollution from cars. (For the original NOAA study in 2018 that launched this area of research, see this press release. Several studies measuring the household product VOC levels in various cities since then have found percentages of VOCs from household products as high as 78% in densely populated areas such as Manhattan, as shown in the map above.)

These products also contribute to poor indoor air quality and environmental illness. A 2016 study revealed that 35% of the US population reports adverse health effects like migraine headaches from exposure to fragranced products.

If the health effects weren't sufficient reason to move to fragrance-free laundry products, the manufacture of petrochemical fragrance chemicals releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

It goes without saying that the first step is to avoid dry cleaning, but even home laundry products tend to be bad for both indoor and outdoor air quality. The trend recently has been to ever more highly fragranced detergents and softeners. Many of the so-called "green" laundry products, like Mrs. Meyer's, actually contain artificial fragrance, so to be sure your laundry detergent is actually safe, look for "fragrance free."

Once you stop wearing and sleeping in and around fabric that has been washed in artificially fragranced laundry products, you may find, as we did, that reactions like headaches go away. We also discovered that the fragrance had been making us "nose-blind," and that when we switched to unscented products, we could smell natural scents like trees and flowers more acutely. Even our food tastes better!

Here is a list of the laundry products we use. We do not receive any kickbacks from the companies that manufacture these.

Laundry detergent: Biokleen free and clear laundry powder (comes in a cardboard box)

Laundry soap for delicates: Dr. Bronner's unscented castille soap

Laundry booster: Borax (comes in a cardboard box)

Bleach: Biokleen oxygen bleach

Fabric softener: wool dryer balls

Ota is particularly sensitive to petrochemical fragrance molecules, since she sustained liver damage in an accidental overexposure to paint solvent over a decade ago. She cannot even be around people who use fragranced laundry products without getting a headache, and when we lived in Los Angeles, she had to stay indoors on Sundays with an air purifier running, because of the plumes of laundry fragrance emitted from her neighbors' dryer vents. When our college-age kid comes home for the holidays, we provide her all new clothing for her visit, because it is too difficult to remove the residue that her clothing has picked up just from being washed in the dorm laundry.

We are grateful when our friends and family make the switch to unscented laundry products. But there is still the problem of how to get the residual out of the clothes and linens that have been washed in artificially fragranced detergent, or, worse yet, dried with artificially scented dryer sheets.

To remove artificial fragrance from fabric, wash in the warmest possible water for the fabric, using Biokleen laundry detergent and a scoop of Biokleen oxygen bleach. Hang to dry in the sun (the UV will help break down the fragrance molecules). Repeat several times if necessary. Note that it is easier to remove fragrance from natural fiber clothing. Nylon and polyester clothing may never release the fragrance, as the fragrance chemicals are designed to be "sticky," and are chemically compatible with man-made fibers.

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Updated: Nov 25, 2021

We have been moving away from paper as much as possible, including the following:

We've put all bills on electronic only delivery, and pay our bills online. This is an example of using modern technology to reduce waste.

We would like to reduce the amount of junk mail solicitations and catalogs we receive. In the meantime, we shred them and use the shredded paper for worm bedding (mostly unopened and unread!) We also shred the packing paper and cardboard boxes from deliveries and compost it. Large cardboard boxes have been handy as weed barriers at the bottom of our new garden beds.

We use cloth cleaning towels and rags as much as possible, to reduce our use of paper towels. We also use cloth napkins instead of paper ones at the table. When the kids were little, each person had a different napkin ring, and the used napkins went in a basket so they didn't have to be washed every day. They got washed once a week, or whenever they were dirty. Cloth napkins are nicer as well as more environmentally friendly. These are both examples of going back to the traditional ways of doing things to reduce waste.

We bought a bidet toilet seat to reduce our use of toilet paper. This is an example of using an approach common in other cultures to reduce waste.

We use washable cloth face masks instead of disposable ones. The ones we have are highly rated. They are two-ply and fit tightly enough that we are breathing through them, rather than around them, so we don't feel that our health is at all compromised by this choice.

I bought some organic cotton handkerchiefs (from a woman-owned company in the US, not from Amazon). I plan to carry hankies in my pocket. I'm glad they won't shred in the wash when I forget to pull them out. And I'll be happy to reduce my use of paper tissues. This is another example of going back to the traditional ways of doing things to reduce waste. My dad always used cloth handkerchiefs, and they work fine.

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Updated: Jan 13

We've been in the habit of bringing reusable canvas tote bags to the grocery store for decades. It is just the way shopping for food is done in many other countries, and we picked up the habit while visiting Europe. Once you get used to it, it is not difficult to grab the bags along with the grocery list as you leave the house (or store them in the car so you have them for a spontaneous stop).

On the other hand, we have often found ourselves with half a plateful of food after a restaurant meal regretting having to ask for a leftover container to take the extra food home for tomorrow's lunch. Our regret deepens when the waiter brings a plastic or polystyrene container instead of a waxed cardboard one.

Finally, we remembered to bring our leftover containers with us when we went to one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. We wondered how the server would react when we fished our own containers out from under the table at the end of them meal. She laughed, and said that, growing up in Mexico, her grandmother always took little dishes with them to a restaurant to take leftovers home in.

I appreciated the fact that we had remembered our little reusable glass dishes all the more the next day, when I was able to pop mine straight into the microwave, eat my lunch, rinse the dish, and add it to the dishwasher. No scraping the food from the non-microwaveable foam container into a microwave-safe dish, no washing the food from the greasy plastic container so it could potentially be recycled, no taking it out to the curb for pickup, and no guilt, knowing that those containers were likely to end up in the landfill. Actually, though it takes a tiny bit of planning ahead and changing habits, bringing our own containers is MORE satisfying and convenient overall!

This incident reminded me that there is much we North Americans can learn from our neighbors, and from previous generations. The wasteful habits we have gravitated towards in the last 50 years or so are relatively new and can be unlearned. In some cases, new technology can help us use fewer resources and pollute less, like changing from gasoline cars to electric ones, incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, and coal-fired power plants to renewable energy. In other areas, we simply need to go back to time-tested ways of living to reduce our fossil fuel use and climate impact.

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