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There's a saying amongst environmentally friendly campers; If it would kill a fish, don't put it on your dish.

When I was a child of just four years old, my family migrated the furthest inland they ever had lived, a whopping 35 miles from the beach. As the subject of a forced relocation from a coastal, to an inland environment, I was fortunately exposed to the wonders of nature on a daily basis, in that special inland-county desert highland kind of way.

By living on a property with some acreage, I learned some skills about where stuff comes from. Thar there's a free tree in every Avocado, Sunflower seeds come from some big-ass daisies, Oranges come from trees and Grapes come from vines, Eggs come from Chickens and Soda comes from a mineral mixed with water.

Like me, my father is also a tinker, descending from what appears to be a long line of tinkerers. If you didn't know, a tinkerer is someone who likes to take things apart and reassemble them. Or finds a new use for something that most have written off as worthless. Many of society's greatest inventions where the result of a tinkerer's efforts, but I'd be hard pressed to name one, except perhaps the post-it note. Not to be confused with a scavenger, or a speed freak (although many tinker's are), the tinker rarely makes his living from selling the things he makes.

But if you're going to make things to sell, first you must deconstruct them, reverse engineer them, reduce them to their base parts and learn what makes them tick. My dad was a master mechanic, and our upper lot regularly hosted cars from the spectrum of American auto-mobiling. I myself rebuilt bicycles, but all that grease and noxious chemicals just turned me off, so instead, I applied myself to discovering the providence of the things in my immediate environment.

You would not believe some of the chemicals which you consume, inhale or absorb through the skin on a daily basis, if you live in any concentrated urban environments in the northern hemisphere. For brevity, I will focus on just one today: Borax (Hydrated Sodium Borate, a.k.a. Comit, a.k.a. Ajax, and a host of other names).

It is a complex borate mineral (a chalky crystal), created from the dried up chemicals found in arid regions (where you will usually also find wacky cults like the Mormons and the Nevada Gaming Commission), formed by the evaporation of saline lakes. The first Borax specimens came from several of the dry lake deposits in Tibet. They were shipped by ancient caravans in large quantities to be sold. Much greater deposits were later found in the western U.S., from which most of the world's industrial borax now comes.

Borax has numerous industrial uses. It is dissolved in water to form an alkaline antiseptic solution that is used as a disinfectant, detergent, and water softener, and unless you're a welder or a mineralogist that's about all you'd ever see of it. Unless you were looking, that is.

Reported in the "Online Journal of Veterinary Research", Volume 4, in a document entitled, "Short communication: Effect of borax on serum lipid profile in dogs" by A Basoglu (DVM, PhD), M Sevinc (DVM), H Guzelbektas (DVM), T Civelek (DVM) from a paper presented in Amsterdam, were the results of a study proving borax's toxicity, and proven ability to cause mental retardation in small daily doses.

The purpose of the study, to find "The effects of non-toxic oral doses of borax (4 grams), given with food daily for 30 days, in which the effects on lipid serum profile in 10 dogs was determined."

The report continued: "Borax, a white crystalline compound consisting of a hydrated sodium borate Na2B4O7?10H2O, occurs as a mineral or is prepared from other minerals. It is widely used in industrial, agricultural, cosmetic, and numerous smaller applications. The principal use of borax is in the manufacture of various types of glass products. Borax is also found in an array of consumer goods including fireproofing for fabrics and wood, insecticides, herbicides and a soil sterilizers(!), and in many cosmetics and personal care products as well."

They found that "Borax is toxic to all species tested at doses above 0.5 g/kg/day, but it is not carcinogenic or mutagenic. The major toxicities are reproductive and developmental. Borax is toxic to animals at levels above one half gram, per kilogram, per day, (0.5 g/kg/day)."

Now that's just a tiny amount, half a gram, much less than a teaspoon, and this is the stuff you use to wash the dishes which you eat off of everyday, and to wash your clothing, which comes into contact with your moist skin everyday. Yet on the website of that Brotherhood front, the Rio Tinto Corporation, which owns the majority share of the world's borax mines, is the claim that borax is perfectly safe.

Doing more research, I learned that as plants draw borates from the soil, the boron is distributed throughout the stems, leaves, roots and other structures, much in the way the tobacco plant uses Iridium 23, the radioactive isotope found in cigarettes. When people eat foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, they routinely absorb small amounts of boron.

Studies indicate that people in a wide variety of cultures consume about one to three milligrams of boron per day through a combination of foods and drinking water in their local diets. Although it has not yet been proven that humans need boron to live, there is almost universal agreement in the scientific community, including the World Health Organisation, that boron is nutritionally important to maintain optimal human health.

Most of us probably ingest a healthy amount of boron each day as a result of our normal fruit and vegetable intake. If not, many beverages, including coffee, wine and beer, do the job as well. But don't be fooled; this is boron in trace elements.

Our bodies are very familiar with boron in our environment and they efficiently manage our daily dietary intake by using what is required and excreting the rest. In fact, regardless of the source of boron exposure, once it is ingested or inhaled our bodies handle it just as they do any other nutrient. Canned pet food manufacturers add lots of borax to cheap dog food, which is why you've probably wondered when you've seen the white dried-up dog turds on the sidewalks during summer. That's borax.

It's easy to expect from an industrial culture that has been shoving these and other harmful chemicals down our throats since they first started selling them in mass back at the turn of the century, that it's all good for us, just like in those "My doctor smokes Chesterfields!" ads from the 30s and 40s. And in that vein, it gets even weirder, with this bit of copy that sounds like it was taken straight from some cheesy 1970's Better Living Through Chemistry commercial.

Take a look at this press release from the Rio Tinto web page:

"Boron at home"

Apart from the boron in your environment and diet, the element B is a key ingredient in an extensive array of household products. Borates in roofing materials, wallboard, and both fibreglass and cellulose insulation protect us from the elements. As a treatment for the wood, plastic, bricks, pipes and wires used to construct your home, borates protect from mould, rot, fungi and insects, and in some applications, act as a flame retardant.

Inside the home, you can find borates in the ceramic tiles on the floors and walls and the porcelain enamel covering sinks, refrigerators, pots and pans. The pantry is loaded with borates in food, but you can also find them in your everyday heat-resistant cookware and the lead-free crystal you bring out for guests.

Move to the bathroom and boron abounds. Soaps, cold creams, face lotions, makeup, shaving cream, contact lens solutions, hair straighteners, eye drops, and foot soaks, as well as denture cleaners and adhesives, are all made with boron compounds.

Getting dressed each day requires borates, too. Cotton fabrics wouldn't exist without boron to ensure fibre yield in the field, and nylon processing depends on borates too. Keeping those clothes clean is an array of detergents, laundry boosters and bleaches made with borates. Coffee pot cleaners and carpet cleaners are also borate-based. Even these products' packaging have borates in the adhesive that holds them together.

When the house is clean, meals are cooked, and the laundry finished, you can still find borates at work. They're used to make all fibreglass sporting equipment - from surfboards, and golf clubs to snowmobiles and jet skis. The liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in digital watches, laptop computers, VCRs and cyber pets also contain borates.

Having a barbecue? Don't forget the borates. They're in the charcoal in the grill, the film in your camera, and even the swimming pool as a water treatment. Borates can even help get rid of uninvited barbecue guests as pest control products effective against termites, beetles, ants, cockroaches, silverfish and earwigs. In bright light, borates in your light-sensitive sunglasses protect your eyes; at night, they sparkle in fireworks."

Well, gee, if it's in everything, how could it harm us if we eat it? Well how about carbon? Many of the things above also depend on carbon. Want to coat that all over your dishes and then drink it? I sure don't! That's why I clean my dishes with the secret ingredient I learned from Mr. Neebauer, my old Scout Master, who used to say, "Detergent?! All you need to clean dishes is some good, old-fashioned elbow grease."

But given its level of saturation in the typical western household (and the rivers, and the streams and the bays, where it has been implicated in the shrinkage of wild male animal's genitals), there's little you can do but be sure to rinse well, or seek out environmentally friendly dishwashing formulas. I personally don't consider it harmful for use in the laundry as long as you use the long rinse cycle, but I do feel guilty for killing fish).

Because while I draw the line on mouldy threads, I'm never going to consume a known toxic substance on a near daily basis, one proven to cause successive generations of dogs to retardate, no matter how many happy, germ-free TV commercials they throw at me.

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