The front of Thursday's New York Times Home section is dominated by a photo illustration by Josef Astor of someone in a white hazmat suit, accompanying Penelope Green's long article on detoxifying her home: "Domestic Detox: Cleaning to Extremes." Here's the text box for flavor: "Your lovely scented candles are polluting the air and the shower's spewing pathogens. Now what?"
I kept looking for the wink, the sign that Green was being facetious, or at least half-facetious. It never came. The hook: She invited "building biology" consultant Matthew Waletzke into her home to skillfully play on her sheltered liberal urbanite fears.
When Matthew Waletzke appeared at the door of my East Village apartment to evaluate my home for what he calls "toxic exposure" -- the alternative world's catch-all phrase for potential health hazards like mold, indoor air pollution, household chemicals and electromagnetic radiation (beware your Wi-Fi!) -- I half-expected to see a guy in an "Andromeda Strain"-era hazmat suit.
I had called Mr. Waletzke not because I'd gone all radioactive, like Julianne Moore's character in "Safe," the 1995 movie directed by Todd Haynes about a woman who becomes allergic to her life, but because his specialty seems like an idea whose time has come.
Pollution, we're learning, is personal. Each year brings reports of a new domestic horror, from the medical waste in the municipal water to the carcinogenic bacteria sprouting in your shower head. Your child's sippy cup is leaching the endocrine disrupter BPA into his milk (let's not even think about what's in his nonflammable pajamas), and there are phthalates in your shampoo (also your sex toys). And if your (bleached, pesticide-soaked cotton) bedding doesn't kill you, your clock radio just might, say those who classify electromagnetic frequencies as carcinogens.
This particularly paranoid passage makes it sound like the Times is joining with the right-wing John Birch Society (which in the 1950s railed against the campaign to fluoridate local water supplies in the name of stronger teeth):
Municipal water supplies like New York's are typically treated with chlorine and fluoride, which are possible carcinogens and show trace amounts of arsenic and other metals. Mr. Waletzke couldn't instantly test my water for these ingredients -- that has to be done in a lab and takes two to four weeks, he said, but he offered to do a dissolved-solids test. "Basically, that's particulates in the water, like rust or dirt." Mine wasn't terribly high, he said, at 52 parts per million.
After being shown the potential harm to our precious bodily fluids posed by fluoridated water, Green is advised to protect herself from harmful rays:
We impose a hierarchy on our anxieties -- otherwise our heads would explode. Prioritizing keeps us sane. Mr. Waletzke's prescriptions, contained in the eight-page report he e-mailed me a few days after his visit, ranged from the simple and relatively inexpensive -- replacing bleach with vinegar, for example -- to pricier and more complex solutions, like water filters and electromagnetic radiation shielding devices.