The aisles of the local grocery store are full of them -- brightly colored chemical cleaners marketed as an easy way to make your bathroom, body, or laundry clean and fresh.
Behind the faux flowery scents are polysyllabic chemicals introduced to America in the 1950s as miracles of science. But 50 years later, the hype has worn thin, and Memphians are beginning to realize some of these chemicals are having adverse effects on our bodies and the environment.
On May 11th, the Shelby County Environmental Improvement Commission (SCEIC) is having its biannual disposal of household chemicals. It's an opportunity for residents of Shelby County to safely rid themselves of cleaners, pesticides, paint, and other toxic household products.
"You can't just throw this stuff down the drain," says Bubba Winkler, who directs the program for the SCEIC. "We have some of the best groundwater in the country and shouldn't ruin it by disposing of these products improperly. We've got to take care of the problem at hand."
Simply throwing these products into the dumpster means they go to a landfill, where they can eventually seep into the groundwater. Improper disposal of household chemicals is also illegal, Winkler says. The SCEIC collects an astounding 70 to 80 tons at its disposal events, partly because Memphis is the only major city in Tennessee without a dedicated dropoff site for household chemicals. Once collected, Winkler says they are shipped out of state to be incinerated.
Up to 100 pounds of chemical products per household can be dropped off at the Shelby Showplace Arena at 105 South Germantown Road this Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Accidental poisonings are another reason to reconsider the use of chemical products in the household. According to figures provided by the Southern Poison Center, the only government agency to keep records on home poisonings, almost 2,500 Mid-Southerners were poisoned in 2001 by household chemicals, including cleaners, pesticides, personal-care items, and cosmetics. While two-thirds of these cases didn't require hospitalization, Dr. Peter Chyka, executive director of the Southern Poison Center, says parents should secure all chemicals to keep them out of the reach of children.
"If a child comes crying to you with a bad taste in his mouth or tell-tale signs like cleaner on his shirt, the best thing to do is give us a call," Chyka says. "Kids get into these products because they look like other things. For example, the amber liquids look like apple juice, and mothballs look like candy."
While 68 percent of home poisonings are from medications, almost 14 percent are caused by household chemicals. Chyka says the most dangerous are tile and mildew removers, insecticides, and cleaners that remove mineral deposits. Part of the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences at Memphis, the Southern Poison Center can be reached locally at 528-6028 or nationally at 1-800-222-1222.
For more information about composting, recycling, and the dangers of household chemicals, consumers can get information from the SCEIC by calling 387-5707 or going to their Web site, www.co.shelby.tn.us/county_gov/boards_commissions/sceic. Tips for alternatives to household chemicals include using red-pepper powder to control ants and garden pests and simmering herbs and water on the stove to replace chemical air-fresheners.
Chemicals are found throughout our environment, but only 600 of the 75,000 on the market today are regulated, according to statistics from the United States Public Issues Research Group. Last year's Centers for Disease Control study found chemicals in the bodies of most of the 5,000 Americans studied and mercury and pesticides in all of them.
Awareness of the damage caused by chemicals has led to the marketing of more eco-friendly products. Health-food stores like Wild Oats and the Midtown Food Co-op carry cleaners, laundry detergents, soaps, and personal-care products made with natural ingredients. Most commercial soaps contain aluminum, says Midtown Food Co-op manager Tammy Jo O'Neal, which has been linked to Parkinson's disease.
O'Neal says chemicals in most store-bought cleaners are harmful to animals and the microorganisms living in the rivers that help filter our water. She explains why she has given up chemical cleaners and personal-care products and started using more natural items.
"When you use [a chemical cleaner], it's absorbed into your skin, and you breathe it," O'Neal says. "Not only are you killing animals and the ecosystem, you are killing yourself."
A box of household chemicals sits in my kitchen awaiting disposal, including "rain clean" and "fresh wildflower" scented bleach, lemon cleaners, and detergents with an ingredients list straight from a chemistry laboratory. They smell good, and government regulators say these products are safe when used properly. But when weighing potential for harm against more natural options, the decision isn't hard to make.