Friday, October 25, 2013

Yellow Butterflies

There are many things on my mind that I could choose to write about this week. In the last month and a half our church split, I leaned some more things about my health, some of which are potentially quite serious, and we had a fire in the garage which filled the house with smoke and displaced me (yet again) from my home. My husband took off for a mission trip overseas and I hung out alone in a campground for five days. I’m now back to hanging out in my campervan in the driveway, while I air out the house and pray it will be habitable quickly. There are so many thoughts and feelings swirling about that it’s hard to know how to corral them into a coherent blog post. Instead of corralling them, I think I’ll ignore most of them and write about yellow butterflies.

The story of the yellow butterflies began in August two years ago. A basement flood and resulting mold growth had left me unable to be inside the house for any significant length of time. I was camped out on the back deck on my birthday, feeling somewhat sorry for myself, when a yellow butterfly landed on the rail beside me. It was just a butterfly, sitting on a deck rail, but because butterflies traditionally represent hope and new beginnings, its presence comforted me. I don’t generally keep a journal or prayer diary, but I do occasionally jot things down, and on that day I wrote the following: “While I was on the deck I first saw a butterfly that stayed a long time (sign of freedom and change?). Then I saw a praying mantis walking very slowly. Maybe change will come through prayer, but take a while?” 

A few months later, my sister’s life was hit with some significant and painful challenges. As we talked about them, she mentioned that God had spoken a message of hope and peace to her through the appearance of a yellow butterfly. I was fascinated that we had both had the same experience.

From that time on, we both began to notice yellow butterflies. They helped sustain my sister during her crisis. Once, we were talking on the phone (we live 700 miles apart) and she saw one in her yard. As soon as she mentioned it, one appeared in my yard, too. I’ve been to her house once since the first butterfly appearance, for just a few hours, but as we were sitting outside talking, a yellow butterfly flew past.

My friend Linda posts lovely pictures on Facebook and adds scripture verses to them. In July, she posted a picture of a yellow butterfly sitting among a patch of black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers. She used Ephesians 3:20, which is one of my favorite verses (“Now glory be to God, who by his mighty power at work in us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of – infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes.”)  I told Linda how much I loved the picture and I told my husband and father-in-law, who was visiting, a little about it and about why it was special to me.

The day after my friend posted the picture, my husband, father-in-law and I went out for a walk. (They walk and I roll in my wheelchair, but I’m not sure what to call that.) We rounded a corner and I was treated to a beautiful sight. A yellow butterfly, identical to the one in the picture, was sitting on identical flowers. We didn’t manage to snap a picture, but my husband and father-in-law both agreed that it was a perfect re-creation of the photo. It seemed that God was reinforcing the message.

I’m writing about yellow butterflies this week, because they keep appearing. Every day in the campground I was greeted by them and sometimes they flew very close to me. I’ve had more yellow butterfly visits since I’ve been home. I realize that they’re a part of nature and that it isn’t as if I’m seeing orange elephants. Whether I’ve seen more yellow butterflies than I should normally expect to see, I don’t really know, but I know they bring me peace.

I’m sure we’ve all heard illustrations of how caterpillars enter into a vulnerable, dark place before they emerge with wings and freedom. I don’t have anything especially insightful to add. I guess I just want to remind myself, and anyone who happens to read this, that things do change, that sometimes increased challenges are a preparation for greater victory, and that no matter how long we’ve crawled along the ground, a day may come when we can fly.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Last week, I wrote about “pinkwashing,” which is rampant in the month of October. The more common form of color deception, however, is greenwashing, which occurs all year long. Greenwashing is the practice of making misleading claims about a product’s environmental benefits.

A major problem with the term “green” as it is commonly used is that “the environment” is often narrowly defined. The focus tends to be on a handful of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the indoor environments in which people spend most of their time are often overlooked.

Even those products that take a wider view of the environment and claim to be non-toxic often aren’t. An article on “green” cleaning products notes that one of the most widely-used products in the category contains up to four percent of a chemical known as  2-butoxyethanol. The substance is a petrochemical solvent linked to a wide range of problems including cancer, osteoarthritis, reproductive problems, and birth defects. The article reported on a study that analyzed 25 cleaning products, half of which claimed to be green, organic, or natural. The products emitted a total of 133 different chemicals, about one fourth of which are classified as toxic or hazardous. Every product emitted at least one chemical known to be toxic.

A publication entitled "The Sins of Greenwashing" lists the following problems with “green” claims:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-off – Focusing on one set of attributes while ignoring other important factors

  • Sin of No Proof – Making unsubstantiated claims that aren’t verified by reliable third parties

  • Sin of Vagueness – Making claims that are broad or poorly defined

  • Sin of Irrelevance – Making claims that are true, but irrelevant, such as claiming to be free of chemicals that have already been banned

  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils – Making claims that are true, but distract from larger risks

  • Sin of Fibbing – Making claims that are simply false

  • Sin of Worshiping False Labels – Implying falsely, through words or images, that a product has been endorsed by a third party.

Although greenwashing is rampant, some labels and terms mean more than others do. As I wrote in a previous postConsumer Reports maintains a website with a label search function which can be helpful. Labeling can be misleading and inconsistent, but that doesn’t mean that all products are created equal. Some are definitely less problematic than others.

As in other areas of chemical toxicity, it’s important to work for change while simultaneously doing what we can now to protect ourselves and those around us. Truly “green” cleaning, for example, is really not hard to achieve. As I noted in a previous post on cleaning, water is the universal solvent. Vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda and castile soap can also clean many, many things. The internet is full of recipes, hints, and suggestions. There are a lot of things that are hard to control. It makes sense to control what we can.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Problem with Pink

It’s October, and that means a lot of things will be colored pink this month in support of breast cancer prevention and treatment. Breast cancer is a personal issue for my family. I lost my mother to the disease when I was a young teen and as I write this, my sister is fighting it. I grew up cancer's shadow, and I obviously support awareness and research. I get quite frustrated and angry at some aspects of the “turn everything pink” movement, though, especially the ridiculous practice of slapping a pink label on a product that contains ingredients actually known to cause cancer. This has come to be known as “pinkwashing.” 

Pinkwashing is an extremely common practice. The writer of the Mommy Greenest  website notes that the problem seems to be getting larger with every passing year. Some of the myriad of examples include the following:

  • Perfumes, which contain hormone disruptors and other possible carcinogens (In 2011, the Susan G. Komen Foundation commissioned a perfume which contained toluene, which is banned by the International Fragrance Association)

  • Bottled water and canned soup, both of which can leach BPA

  • Nail polish, which contains numerous known carcinogens, including formaldehyde and pthalates

  • Lipstick containing hormone disruptors and lead

It’s hard to justify selling a product with known carcinogens in the name of breast cancer prevention or treatment. It makes even less sense when you realize what a small amount of the purchase price often goes to the cause. (In some cases the amount is zero.) The Think Before You Pink campaign advises asking yourself some questions before buying a pink-labeled product. These include whether any money from the purchase goes to breast cancer programs, who will receive the donation and what will be done with it, whether or not a company caps the amount they donate, and whether the product itself raises the cancer risk.

We're surrounded by products that are known to contribute to cancer in general and breast cancer in particular. The Mommy Greenest article advises avoiding perfumes and other products with synthetic fragrances, canned foods, vinyl, many plastics, and personal care products which contain common preservatives known as parabens. An article in The Independent reported on a study finding that the products linked most strongly to breast cancer were air fresheners and mold and mildew removers. Association was also found with insect repellants.

For more information on environmental contributors to breast cancer, see the Breast Cancer Fund website. It isn’t wrong to continue to support research into treatment, but why not also act on what we already know? Knowledge isn't helpful unless we use it. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Gut Feeling about Pollution

I think most of us living in the U.S. today have some sort of idea that pollution is harming us. However, I think we tend to have a limited view of the possible health effects. We may think of pollutants causing cancer and respiratory distress, but fail to realize the systemic results of exposures and to consider environmental causes for a wide variety of health challenges.

A recent article from Environmental Health News makes the point. The author quotes a scientist from the University of Alberta  who states, “We tend to think about air pollution in terms of lung health, but the GI tract is also being bathed in it continuously. Fine pollution particles are cleared from the respiratory tract by mucous that makes its way to the gut.”

Studies are beginning to link air pollutants to inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease) and other gastrointestinal problems. The article notes the following:

  • A study found that children and young adults with higher exposure to a component of traffic exhaust (nitrogen dioxide) were more than twice as likely to develop Crohn’s disease.

  • Another study found that high air pollution was associated with a 40 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations for bowel disease. The pollution included carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic chemicals and fine particulates.

  • Fine particulates may make the gut more permeable, alter its normal bacteria, and trigger inflammation. Particulates primarily come from combustion, such as from car exhaust and heating fuel.

  • High levels of ozone have been linked to an increased risk of a burst appendix. Every weekly increase of 16 parts per billion of ozone increases the risk of a burst appendix by 11 to 22 percent.

Intestinal effects of various kinds can be caused by a wide variety of toxins. The Environmental Protection Agency lists several possibilities. They note that formaldehyde has been linked to inflammation and toxicity of the intestinal tract. Formaldehyde can be found in pressed wood products, carpet, foam insulation, cosmetics, cleaning products, and many other places. Chemicals known to cause abdominal pain include arsenic (found in water, soil and some wood preservatives) and nitrates and nitrites, which are common components of gasoline, shoe polish, spray paints, rat poison, food preservatives, and fertilizer.

It’s easy to think that what we breathe will affect our lungs and what we eat will affect our gastrointestinal tract, but it’s not quite that simple. However a toxin enters the body, it has the potential to affect the whole system. There’s no getting around it. For optimum health, we need to avoid toxins in every way we possibly can.