The alphabet soup of fear and consumer turn-off

Speaking Sustainably

The alphabet soup of fear and consumer turn-off

I remember buying a house in New Jersey. I know: It sounds like the start of a joke, and in many ways it was.

At any rate, that was the first time I heard about radon. The area was known for it, said a house inspector. Natural radioactivity, seeping up through the earth. A leading cause of lung cancer.

I was in a panic for a week or two. Same thing when I realized the basement pipes were wrapped in asbestos. I had nightmares about lung disease. Fortunately, there’s always the next Fear of the Month to take our mind off the current one.

Food threat headlines are frequent diversions and are, perhaps, the biggest contributors to growing cynicism. Butter and eggs used to be bad for us. Now they’re good for us. Chocolate and coffee had been put in the bad-for-you doghouse. Now they’re super foods on the order of blueberries and almonds.

Now headlines are focused on the unknown dangers of genetically altered organisms, or GMOs. Depending on what you read, GMOs are either the solution to pesticide overuse and worldwide hunger, or they’re destroying our gastrointestinal tracts and they’ll turn us into the soulless pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Remember EMFs? Magazines and newspapers ran lots of stories about possible links between electromagnetic fields around high-voltage transmission lines and higher rates of leukemia and brain cancer. Now we’ve moved on to worrying about unseen radio waves from smart meters.

GMOs. EMFs. And now we’re ladling out another serving of the alphabet soup of fear: VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. In our Eco Pulse 2013 survey, we asked consumers how they felt about indoor air quality and found out that almost half are concerned.

Yet off-gassing from products brought into homes isn’t on the radar yet. Most people think they just need to change their filters and open windows to improve ventilation.

Another VOC disconnect can be seen in the purchase patterns for cleaning supplies. Although most Americans say they are concerned about the chemicals found in many household cleaning products, the vast majority are not actively seeking healthier alternatives.

The ironies of the VOC situation are twofold:

1. This scare is valid. For a long list of products that may contain VOCs and other toxic substances, visit the American Lung Association’s Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals Web page.

That page includes a chilling reminder about mixing different types of cleaning products (those containing bleach and others with ammonia). “The gases created from this combination can lead to chronic breathing problems and even death,” advises the ALA. “Read all labels and follow instructions when using cleaning products. It could save your life.”

2. Despite all the scary warnings, the VOC problem can be addressed by taking some practical steps.

Directly after the scary warning above, for example, the ALA offers these handy tips: “As a safer cleaning alternative, warm water and soap often will do the trick, especially at home. Baking soda is good for scrubbing. A mix of vinegar and water can clean glass. When using cleaning or household products, keep the area well ventilated. Open windows and doors. Never use cleaning products in a small, enclosed space.”

In previous Shelton Insights stories, we’ve suggested that consumers:

  • avoid buying furniture, carpet, mattresses, etc., that emit chemicals;
  • use low-odor (low-VOC) paints;
  • buy natural flooring with environmentally friendly finishes; and
  • use building products with no formaldehyde content.

We believe that the Fear of the Month Club has made consumers disengage. They’ve gotten whiplash from the “It’s gonna kill you! No, it’s good for you!” ride. They don’t know what to believe and they just don’t want to think about the health risks posed by (seemingly) every choice they make.

The long-term effects of the Fear of the Month Club has been to condition consumers to a pattern of hearing about dangers in their world, panicking and finally tuning out because they feel helpless.

When we communicate about environmental problems and health risks, it’s important to avoid fear-mongering. Mention the solutions and provide practical steps that can be taken to avoid cynicism, reduce anxiety and spark action.

Image by Stephen Coburn via Shutterstock

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