Evaluating And Addressing Harmful Impacts On Health And Nature With A Holistic, Sustainable Approach

CS Sherin
November 8, 2018, updated 3-28-2019

A grassroots, holistic approach to sustainable living is personal and inclusive, with a common, over-arching goal for long-term health and balance for all life.

As we cultivate a sustainable, green lifestyle on the personal level, the solutions and ongoing management is pretty much unique to specific circumstances — geographical, regional, physical, and financial. There is also a more fluid movement of change and adaptation to changing needs and possibilities.

Our approach and solutions probably vary greatly, and necessarily so. Yet, we face and commit to the same main issues and goals together, like: climate change, single use-plastic pollution, persistent and accumulating toxins, habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, workers’ rights, fair wages, child and animal welfare, civil rights, and corporate farming. Our common goals and values center on the need for sustainable, healthy ecosystems, biodiversity, and communities; as well as healthy and accessible air, water, soil, and food.

With this in mind, let’s look at a recent environmental news report that sheds light on five very different things used by humans that can have a seriously negative impact on health, nature, and the future.

We will look at the topics in this article in order to highlight some important facts that may be overlooked in every day sustainable living. We’ll also look at how we may respond to the issues brought up, and what to take into consideration as we do so.

On November 2nd, the BBC (Science & Environment) reported on:

Five products you didn’t know were harming the environment“.

In this article, we will explore the five products featured in the November 2018 BBC article, and brainstorm possible solutions below. This is an exercise in looking at issues with a holistic lens that has a main goal of long-term sustainability.

Birth Control Pills


Image by @simonevdk on Unsplash

The serious impact of birth control pills on fish was discovered in a 2016 Swedish study. The study found that a synthetic hormone within the pill found its way into fish via wastewater, and altered their genes.

This resulted in the fish losing the ability to capture food consistently and effectively. The fish also lost motivation to procreate. Even at low levels, the synthetic hormone from the birth control pills are harmful to fish. This unintended negative impact could result in the extinction of the specific fish affected, along with cascading results within the ecosystem. This is one example of how some synthetic chemicals persist, accumulate, and impact generational health of living beings, with cascading effects on whole ecosystems.

We already have known that pharmaceutical drugs have been showing up in the water supply via wastewater, that synthetic hormones used to create plastics are harmful to water and health in general, and that many similar toxins bioaccumulate.

Pharmaceuticals showing up in wastewater is due to the fact that we ingest them and then it passes into wastewater from our toilets. Yet, birth control and other medications, like antidepressants can be important and helpful for people. There is no easy, immediate solution. Many of the changes we need to make are systemic and major. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It just means that we have to work on a bigger scale to get changes implemented.

We need to recognize the problems related to our decision to make water our main disposal method for our urine and feces. If we were to stop utilizing water for waste, and begin establishing composting systems for human waste, that could also bring about additional, free solutions for clean energy. We could then work further on preserving and bringing real restoration to the freshwater sources we have — protecting it from contamination and waste.

Through composting and utilizing human waste as clean energy, there may also be the possibility of neutralizing the effects of pharmaceuticals in the process. This idea takes one problem, and addresses it by solving two problems — removing human urine and feces from waterways altogether.

Resources for this topic include:  How Human Feces Can Be Worth $9.5 BillionPowered By Pee and Turning Feces to Fuel in Kenya. Also, composting toilets are a thing: Composting Toilets Offer Solution to Water, Sanitation Problems.  In addition, on October 24th of this year, University of Cape Town made a breakthrough by successfully growing human urine based bio-bricks in a zero-waste process.

What can we do to address this, at a personal, grassroots level?

We can push for new systems for waste and recycling. We can invest in a composting toilet, if affordable and feasible. We can educate and raise awareness about this and related issues, as well as the possible positive solutions that are within our reach. We can’t go wrong — all movements protecting water are essential and worthwhile.



Image by Sandid on Pixabay

The demand for avocados takes a toll on resources. According to Water Footprint Network’s calculations, a single avocado requires an excessive amount of water to grow (60 gallons per avocado). In Chile, this demand for water led to farmers illegally diverting water sources — depleting it, and then contributing to drought and harsh water shortages for locals.

Of Chile’s exported avocados, Europe takes in about 60% of it, and the US takes in about 16%. California is the source of most avocados in the US.

In fact, here in the US, California produces more than 1/3 of our vegetables, and 2/3 of our fruits and nuts. That means that 80% of all water used in California is for produce.

The average American consumes more than 300 gallons of California water” weekly, by eating produce.

With California experiencing droughts and wild fires, farming is anything but predictable there.

What can we do to address this, at a personal, grassroots level?

As always, being aware and sharing information with others about this kind of serious and changing dynamics related to water and demand for certain foods is important.

If we live in a climate where we can grow our own produce, being self-sufficient in that way, and learning about permaculture and organic methods to renew soil and conserve space and water is ideal. Encouraging and supporting food forests and community gardens on both business and residential property is another important action to consider. The Yard Posts is a website in California that gives advice and well-measured guides to growing produce, especially avocados, at home.

For those of us who cannot grow our own avocados, like with everything else, we need to practice ongoing mindfulness regarding what we purchase, where it comes from, and how. We need to remember how demand for a certain item can put a strain on and even destroy communities, habitats, and resources. While we want to support other communities by purchasing organic and Fair Trade, we also need to look at what goes into creating something that we enjoy eating. Is it worth it? Is the ethical choice affordable? What amount and frequency of consumption is reasonable? Are there better regional and local options or alternatives?



Pineapple Fields in Panama, 2014, by Bernal Saborio; Flickr

There has been a upsurge of demand for pineapples in the UK, exceeding the demand for avocados. Costa Rica is one of the largest world suppliers of pineapples. The article cites the Costa Rican Conservationist Federation, which reported that entire forests were decimated for a monoculture of pineapple crops. In the Spring of 2017, demonstrators in San Jose, Costa Rica gathered to protest the expansion of Del Monte near protected land. The concern about ongoing violations related to pineapple production includes: contaminated soil and water from excessive pesticide use, abusive labor conditions, and infringement on Indigenous peoples’ land. There is much to protect in Costa Rica–the Osa Peninsula alone contains 2.5% of all biodiversity on the planet!

It was recently revealed that the USDA allowed Costa Rica producers to sell pineapples grown with pesticides, which are banned by US organic standards, as organic…. $6 million worth. If we cannot trust the standards of organic certification regulated by the government, then there is no protection against fraud, which greatly degrades organic in our country.

 What can we do to address this, at a personal, grassroots level?

The shortest, simplest answer is to buy Fair Trade organic pineapples (not just organic), if we can’t grow them where we live — or not buy them at all. A company in Germany, Kipepeo, exports Fair Trade organic pineapples from 250 small farmers in Uganda. This kind of partnership is humane, environmental, and beneficial for all parties. Fair Trade organic pineapples are not usually found in conventional grocery stores. As always, we seek to support small organic farms with a fair wage and ecologically sustainable practices in place. This is in addition to organic/permaculture gardens at home and in the community at large. For those who cannot afford Fair Trade and organic, the choice becomes to have or have not. Because our issues are systemic, fair wages for all is necessary in order to make ethical choices accessible for everyone.



“Palm Oil Fields in Indonesia”, 2008, by Achmad Rabin Taim; Wikimedia Commons

Palm oil is destructive and unsustainable.

Unfortunately, it is found in countless common products as well as in countless products made especially for plant-based or vegan diets. Palm oil is found in all sorts of foods and food products, as well as hygiene products like shampoo, lipstick, detergents, soaps, and toothpaste.

The WWF 2018 “Living Planet Report” includes information about the massive amounts of carbon dioxide polluting and contributing to climate change, as well as the ongoing destruction of habitats and species — all due to palm oil plantations.

What can we do to address this, at a personal, grassroots level?

Much of what makes a difference is our awareness and our willingness to gently and patiently educate, and share information with others. Yet, we do this best once we have gone through the process and educate ourselves — which is an ongoing process. Issues with sustainable and unsustainable palm oil are muddy, disturbing, and complex at best.

Embracing the habit of making homemade DIY recipes to replace products that are not safe, ethical, or humane remains an affordable, easy, and helpful solution that is possible and accessible for most people. It is quite possible to make and/or use soaps and detergents without palm oil.

We need to always be reading the ingredient labels for everything that has a label. We need to avoid and divest from all palm oil that is not certified as sustainable and organic.

As always, sometimes financial restrictions prohibit us from making the ethical choices we deeply desire to make. It is better to keep aiming for better choices and doing the best we can each day, rather than giving up and giving in to apathy. While so many things are frustrating, if we begin to change our assumptions and habits, we may become inspired, which can lead to new ideas and better approaches to problems.

Air Fresheners

TobanB._"'Natural' scents_OntarioCA_2009_cc_Flickr

‘Natural’ scents by Toban B., Ontario, Canada, on Flickr

Indoor air pollution dangers are often due to toxic chemicals used in the home regularly. This includes synthetic air fresheners which contain chemicals like limonene. Limonene isn’t dangerous by itself, but released into the air, limonene has been found to react to ozone, and then produces carcinogenic, asthma-inducing formaldehyde.

Some of the harmful chemicals that contribute to indoor air pollution are: synthetic perfumes/fragrances, scented candles and petroleum-based wax candles, fabric softener, cleaning products, and all sorts of air fresheners (spray, plug-in, diffusers, and car air fresheners). There is an accumulative effect from toxins, combined in a home and used regularly, that can take a toll on health and environment.

Many synthetic fragrances can negatively affect our health. There is a complete section in Recipe For A Green Life with citations for concerning chemicals commonly found in fabric softeners. For example, here are some commonly used ingredients in fabric softeners, known to have narcotic-like qualities:  benzyl acetate, ethyl acetate, and pentane.

What can we do to address this, at a personal, grassroots level?

There are many ways we can freshen our air and fabrics more naturally, without compromising health and polluting our own indoor air. We can open a window. We can wash and clean with chemical free soaps and detergents that contain real (not synthetic) fragrance from essential oils, citrus, and plants. We can choose candles without synthetic fragrances and that are not made of petroleum. We can use incense and diffusers that are completely natural and chemical free.

Essential oils are extremely concentrated and utilize huge amounts of an herb, plant, or fruit in order to be created. Considering the extreme concentration of an essential oil, we must commit to conservation in our use and demand for it too. In addition, it is important to research which essential oils are going to be incompatible with individual  health needs.

Even natural, chemical free ingredients can be bad for certain health conditions. As we turn to DIY recipes to avoid toxins and Green our habits and lifestyle, it is of the utmost importance that we take the responsibility to research possible contraindications, even with familiar and natural ingredients. Doing this ensures that we all experience fewer setbacks and roadblocks to a thriving and ongoing practice of holistic sustainable living.

Did you have any thoughts or helpful suggestions relating to any of the issues or solutions in this article?

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