The Smell of Things

I recently purchased a Gaiam yoga mat from Target.  When I unrolled it at my prenatal yoga class, I was surprised to find it smelling like chemicals, particularly because Gaiam touts itself to be eco-friendly.  While being pregnant makes me especially sensitive to weird smells, I am someone who has always been sensitive to smell in general, particularly those of a chemical nature.  (Alas, my sense of smell does not come in handy in the kitchen.)  My classmates in graduate school used to refer to me as the canary in the lab; I always held acids as far away from me as possible even when others weren’t bothered by the smell of them.  I also was the first one to know when a hood wasn’t working properly.

Earlier last week, we had our kitchen updated, which resulted in a house that smelled like various adhesive products.  The chemicals that are used to adhere tile to the floor and granite countertops to the cabinets prompted a week long battle with nausea and difficulty sleeping. 

Due to the heat, the laborers were not able to open all windows to allow proper ventilation.  Even if all the windows had been opened (which I suggested they do) the air was stagnant due to the heat and humidity.  The ceiling fan was circulating on high, but the fumes were not going anywhere.

I shudder to think about the men who work with these products every day, men who generally do not have health insurance either.  And then there are their wives, many who are maids and inhale chemicals from cleaning products all day.  There is a Latino health crisis in this country just waiting to happen.

Once the contractor finished the kitchen update, my husband and I had to wash all the dishes to clean off the dust that had accumulated.  We cut and placed sheets of contact paper onto all the empty shelves, inhaling another round of glue-based fumes.  Luckily for us, we have a small kitchen and limited exposure to these products. 

I can’t help thinking, however, that the price may be — in the long run — too high to pay.  Sure, we updated our kitchen so we can sell our house in a year.  And potential buyers will undoubtedly fall in love with our new set up.  But what about the damage we are doing along the way?

This is the argument in which I always get trapped.  The idealist vs. realist attempt to duke it out: 

Side 1: No one will buy your house unless you update your kitchen, but you don’t have the money to make more environmentally conscious purchases.

Side 2: You are selfish for wanting to sell your house at a decent price while the people helping you are not able to afford health insurance or a house of their own.

And bad things happen to good people.  Usually unwitting people.  Innocent people.  It’s the luck of the draw.  I think the mistake is that we believe we are entitled to more.  When we are born, though, we are born into a cruel world, given gifts and curses regardless of socioeconomic class.

Meanwhile, a new law signed by President Obama will limit the amount of formaldehyde used in the manufacturing of wood.  The EPA is working on writing the rules for the new law, including how products will need to be labeled to show that they comply with the new formaldehyde regulation.  Potentially, it will be difficult to distinguish a low-formaldehyde product from a “green” product in which no formaldehyde was added.  [See the USA Today article for more information on this issue.]

Even so, the measure is comforting to me.  While the world may be a cruel place, people don’t have to be cruel when armed with knowledge.  That’s why we are human beings and not just animals.  Together, slowly but surely, we can make a difference, one that focuses on more than just the bottom line.

2 Responses to “The Smell of Things”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Great points, and all so true- it is a dilemma. I used formaldehyde in my research projects & exposure to that stuff makes you more sensitive to it over time. I could smell the fumes on someone else who had handled it in the lab even though they hadn’t spilled any. crazy. so many people get sick every year from new products that are laced with formaldehyde, it makes you wonder is it all worth it?

  2. RMomma Says:

    I think the underlying issue is — ultimately — greed on our part. We are driven by our egos and our desire to appear better off than we are. Unless we are willing to make sacrifices, to forego toys made in China or the cheaper product, we are playing with our health. Companies also have to make the choice, which is why I was surprised that the yoga mat made by Gaiam smelled off. Clearly, some kind of petrochemical was used.

    The effect on our health may not be immediate, which is why we can ignore it, but over time what will we have sacrificed? The counter argument, of course, is that our bodies are going to deteoriate with time anyhow and we can’t prevent that. So I go back and forth on the issue and usually end up somewhere in the middle – hoping and working for greater awareness while also accepting that the world is an imperfect place.

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