Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Which Household Cleaners Contain Secret Toxic Ingredients?

| Mon May 17, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The label on my shower spray cleaner claims it's supposed to smell like ylang ylang. To me it smells like, well, chemicals. I was curious to see whether any real ylang ylang actually made its way into my cleaner, so I looked up the ingredients online. No ylang ylang (or any other plant for that matter) in sight. Near the end of a long list of ingredients were the words "fragrance oil." Mysterious. Is my shower spray hiding something?

The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice thinks it might be. Turns out that despite a New York state law that requires manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose the ingredients in their products, very few manufacturers are willing to cough up the full list. Earthjustice contacted dozens of companies and asked them to comply with the law, but four major manufacturers refused. (Full list of companies and products below.) Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups responded by suing them (PDF). Jamie Silberberger is the director of programs and policy at Women's Voices for the Earth, another group in the coalition. "We know that there are chemicals in cleaning products that are linked to reproductive harm, asthma, and a whole host of other problems," says Silberberger. "But if consumers don’t know what’s in these products, they can’t make an informed decision about what to buy. We have the right to know what we’re being exposed to."

What we do know: Many common ingredients pose risks both to humans and the environment. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are used as "surfactants" to make cleaning solutions spread over a surface smoothly, are an endocrine disruptor and are banned in Europe. Ethanolamine, also a surfactant, can cause asthma attacks. Most troubling: Even chemicals that are relatively innocuous on their own can combine to create toxic substances. Ammonia and chlorine, for example, can form a toxic gas called chloramine, which can cause a whole host of respiratory symptoms. When all those chemicals end up in waterways, it's bad news for wildlife.

A few companies (including those being sued) have set up a voluntary ingredient disclosure agreement, but Silberberger says it is incomplete: manufacturers are allowed to simply use the words "dyes," "preservatives," and "fragrances" instead of actually listing the ingredients in the additives. Scary, considering fragrances often contain phthalates, among other potentially toxic chemicals. Another problem: Companies are only required to list "intentional ingredients," meaning substances created by combining two ingredients or added during the manufacturing process aren't listed. What's more, the website is controlled by the industry, meaning companies make their own rules. Points out Earthjustice's Kathleen Sutcliffe, "If they're listing their products on the website, then why are they still refusing to file them with New York state?"

There is some good news: S.C. Johnson has announced that it will list its product ingredients on a website. The California-based eco-cleaner manufacturer Simple Green reported its ingredients to Earthjustice (PDF). Or you could make your own. Earthjustice has a few recipes, and (contain yourselves) even instructions on how to host your own green cleaning party this week.

Are there mystery ingredients in your favorite cleaner? Here's a list of manufacturers being sued for noncompliance with New York state law, along with the cleaning products in question:

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Bill McKibben's Nonfiction Picks

| Fri May 14, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are author and Mother Jones contributor Bill McKibben's answers:

MJ: Which science-fiction book do you think is most interesting in the way it grapples with the future of our planet?
BM: The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, which is really a very long book about how to make communities work (or not).

MJ: Which book (past or present) has given you the most hope? 
BM: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.

MJ: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?
BM: Anything by Wendell Berry, the finest writer and thinker in the English language (and maybe some other languages, but being a typical American I wouldn't know about that).

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?
BM: Walden, maybe—it's as rich and unbottomed as Scripture.

Jennifer Egan's Nonfiction Picks

| Thu May 13, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan's answers:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Jennifer Egan: The nonfiction book I recommend to anyone who will listen is The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin. This book, published in 1961, is spectacularly prescient on the implications of image culture. Boorstin sees it all: the ever greater hunger for "reality" that arises from the increasing mediation of experience, and the corresponding feats of mediation (eg. reality TV) that attempt to satisfy that hunger while actually sharpening it. In a book that was published even before the televising of the Vietnam War, much less blogging, Boorstin's ability to forsee all of it, conceptually, is staggering.

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?

JE: Same one. What's so good is that every time I return to The Image, media saturation of everyday life has intensified and metamorphosed into bizarre new shapes. And every time, Boorstin gives me a framework through which to consider and understand it. Last time I read The Image, YouTube and Twitter hadn't happened yet, so I think it may be time for another look.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

JE: We had lots of reference books at home that my parents had ordered through LIFE magazine. They urged me to read them when I had questions. One of these books, about Louis Leakey and his discoveries in Olduvai Gorge, in Kenya, made a huge impression on me. I read it again and again, and was swept up in what I imagined as the romance of archeology. For a long time—until I got to college—I was convinced I would be an archeologist, mostly because of the impact of that book. Of course, what I'd hoped to get out of archeology—the chance to dig into people's lives and reconstruct them imaginatively—is what I do now as a fiction writer and a journalist.

Really, JetBlue?

| Mon May 10, 2010 4:50 PM EDT

My roommate just gchatted me asking if I wanted to go with her to Austin tomorrow night and come back Wednesday morning. Um, excuse me? But wait, she told me, it gets better: The grand total cost for this jaunt: $20 round trip on JetBlue. My answer? Of course I want to go! I've always wanted to visit Austin, and the price is unbelievably right.

Well, I can't go because of a bunch of other commitments, but believe me, I am tempted. I wondered if I could take a rain check, so I decided to do some googling on this amazing deal. I found out that the promotion, part of JetBlue's anniversary sale, applies to certain flights this Tuesday and Wednesday only. Just for kicks, I looked up the emissions of a round trip flight from Oakland to Austin (2,987 miles) on TerraPass' emissions calculator. The damage: 1,108 pounds of CO2. For the same carbon price, you could eat 175 cheeseburgers. Or go see 73 really dazzling stadium rock shows. Or...you get my drift.

Far be it from me to complain about cheap airfares—I fly a lot, and I've grumbled about paying more for last minute flights than I want to. But I've also been deterred by high fares, and considering the high carbon cost of flying, that's probably a good thing. JetBlue professes to care about the environment. So why are they making it so easy (and tempting) to fly halfway across the country for dinner and a few drinks?

Frank Rich's Nonfiction Picks

| Mon May 10, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books, and over the next few weeks I'll be posting their answers right here on the Riff. Let's start with New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Frank Rich: Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire's History of the Sixties, edited by Harold Hayes. Here in one brick of an anthology are some of the best pieces by the writers who brought American journalism and essay-writing into the modern age with great prose, narrative drive, hard-edged attitude as well as tireless reporting. Includes not only the enduring stars (Talese, Wolfe, Mailer, Baldwin, Lukas, Wills, Vidal, Wicker, Herr) but also some gems by the lesser known but equally gifted Jack Richardson and John Sack, among others. Collectively, the pieces also capture a much misunderstood, much sentimentalized decade as it unfolded. (Only conspicuous omissions—they weren't contributors to Esquire—Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson).

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What's so good about it?

FR: Act One by Moss Hart. My favorite American memoir—about the early years and apprenticeship of the Broadway playwright and director. It's at once a suspenseful Horatio Alger story, a vivid evocation of 1920's New York (from the poorest immigrant tenements uptown to the glittery heights of golden-age Times Square) and a timeless account of how a young man with few resources but a passion for art employs every ounce of his being to escape a childhood blighted by poverty and bitter family dynamics.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when you were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

FR: Act One (see above), and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Both recommended by my mother, an avid reader and schoolteacher. To wait ravenously for the mailman to deliver Capote's then-shocking "nonfiction novel" week by week as it was serialized in The New Yorker was a seminal reading experience—a glimmer, I imagine, of what it must have been like to devour Dickens in installments in another age.

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