The Dark Side of Green
You can't always assume a product is good for you just because it's good for the planet.

September 10, 2012

You can’t always assume a product is good for you just because it’s good for the planet.

Terms like “all-natural” and “green” say little about how products might affect your body. Earth-friendly practices sometimes come with hidden health risks, and even re-using and recycling can pose hazards.

The culprit: reusable shopping bags

In 2010 a US supermarket chain stopped selling two styles of reusable shopping bags after lab tests detected high levels of lead. Then the Tampa Tribune found the toxic heavy metal on reusable bags from two area grocery chains (mostly in the paint used to decorate them), prompting the chains to offer refunds. The danger is that the lead could potentially end up in a bag’s contents and be ingested.

The solution: use plain cotton or polyester bags. And wash them after shopping so you reduce bacteria, such as E. coli, that might have accumulated. A whopping 97% of bag owners said they had never washed or bleached their bags.

The culprit: recycled packaging

Mineral oil from printing inks and recycled paperboard used on some cereal and rice boxes can leach into the food, according to Swiss research. Animal studies suggest that this oil can increase inflammation and promote tumours, but nobody knows how much is dangerous for humans. So minimise your exposure.

The solution: choose unpackaged foods when you can. Buying in bulk (for a lower package-to-food ratio) can also help, as can storing the food at home in glass containers.

The culprit: scented products

When University of Washington scientists compared 14 conventional scented household and personal products (dish washing liquid and deodorant, for example) with 11 “green” versions, they found that both types released the same number of dangerous chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). All the green products released at least two VOCs classified by the EPA as hazardous or toxic, and four emitted at least one known carcinogen.

The solution: fragrance chemicals aren’t often listed on labels, so researcher Dr Anne Steinemann, suggests buying unscented. Many “natural” or “organic” fragranced products are just as dangerous as artificial ones.


The government has guidelines, not laws, for green marketing. Fortunately, the third-party label Green Seal provides sustainability standards for 230 types of products – ensuring that household cleaners, for example, are minimally toxic.