Living With Risk: Vipers or Bleach?


Last year I spent a month living with a family in the middle of the Belizean jungle. My wife and I had volunteered there in a work/stay program to learn more about homesteading and permaculture. We began talking to the family a few months before our trip, and they were immediately excited to have our help. One of the first conversations we had was about not bringing toxic chemical products with us, for example, perfume. While staying with them we would have access to an outdoor shower, and they suggested we bring Dr. Bronner’s soap with us. That sounded like a perfect excuse for me to stop wearing deodorant, so I was all for it. They also informed us that one of the main reasons they chose to live in the jungle was to protect their two children from all the toxic substances in modern society. It excited me to see what that might look like.

The family was Jordan and Will, a couple similar in age to me and my wife, a little 4 year old rascal, and a toddler, who would repeatedly yell, “LIZARD!!!” every evening when the geckos would come out.

Our month in Belize was amazing. Every morning Jordan would make breakfast and Will would press fresh coconut milk, which I added to my coffee. Then we would do manual labor with him for a few hours around the homestead while learning about permaculture. In the afternoons we would play with the kids or read to them to give Jordan a break. Then she would put together dinner for the six of us. Spending a month in the jungle with very little use of electronics created a wonderfully peaceful environment, but that didn’t come without repeated encounters with the critters: Sand fly bites all over my calves, ants swarming our room, scorpions in the floorboards, and tarantulas hiding in our clothes.

The wildlife in the jungle was everywhere, and every day I would be confronted with people’s varied risk tolerance. Jordan and Will moved to the jungle in order to escape an environment where their children are exposed to dangerous chemicals on a regular basis. In turn they immersed themselves in an environment where their children are exposed to venomous wildlife on a regular basis.

The jungle in Belize has eight different species of deadly snakes. My wife and I were lucky enough not to come across any while there, but it’s something that Jordan and Will had to deal with occasionally. And while the tarantulas and scorpions aren’t deadly, Will’s mother nearly had to have her leg amputated after developing a type of flesh-eating bacteria from a sand fly bite. (She had been living with them a few years before and moved to a nearby town after that.) So what makes these risks acceptable and others not? What’s more dangerous, a hog-nosed viper or a bottle of Clorox Bleach?

Obviously there’s no way to zero out risk in life, but we all do our best to reduce many types of risk. It’s fascinating to me what risks people choose to accept in their lives and what they avoid. I have an extremely high tolerance to most types of risk. I’m a middle-aged man with no kids to look after. I’m a world traveler with a thirst for adventure. And yet, here I am writing this while in Ho Chi Minh City with anxiety about going outside. Why? Because the traffic here terrifies me. Watch some videos of intersections in Vietnam and you’ll get the picture.

I don’t think I could ever feel safe driving a motorbike here, but it’s not just here. The older I get the less tolerance I have for the dangers of traffic. Maybe it’s because I was hit by a bus when I was 10 years old or maybe it’s because of the people I know who have died in traffic accidents. Either way, I choose not to tolerate this risk unless I have to. At the same time, I know of people who have drowned, I know that drowning is a top cause of accidental death, and water doesn’t scare me. It’s a risk I am willing to accept. I love swimming and don’t enjoy driving, so that admittedly shapes my tolerances in part. But these types of risks are pretty clear. You can look up statistics on traffic mortality rates and see direct correlations. There are factors that we understand and can control. You want to reduce the risk of traffic accidents? Drive less. You want to reduce the risk of drowning? Don’t get a pool. It’s all relatively straightforward. You can avoid some risks and at the same time knowingly accept others.

When it comes to exposure to chemicals and other ubiquitous environmental risks, the risks are much less clear. We know lead is bad, but do we know where all the lead is that we are exposed to? We can replace toxic products with others, but does the new product have something toxic that we are unaware of? Is this organic zucchini I bought at the grocery store really organic? Is the anxiety I have about chemicals leading to consistently elevated cortisol levels, which itself might be deadlier than all these chemicals I’m worrying about?

So here are the real questions I have: If you want to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, what else can you do except move to the jungle and expose yourself to an entirely new set of risks? How am I supposed to measure known risk against unknown risk? And is avoidance of certain types of risk only going to create more risk in other areas of life?

Chemicals are literally everywhere. I mean that “literally” literally. Every substance you come in contact with is a chemical (i.e. O2, H2O, etc.). Synthetic chemicals, being the main issue, aren’t all toxic, but we have far less information on synthetic chemicals than we do on naturally occurring chemicals.

Not only do we have very little information about synthetic chemicals, but we also have massive organizations profiting off actively suppressing information about these chemicals. Studies repeatedly have shown that PFAS have numerous negative effects on human health, and yet the legal battle to deal with them has no end in sight. Yes, we know lead is bad, but are we doing enough? Phrases such as “lead-free” and “no lead” actually don’t legally mean what they should but instead mean low amounts of lead. When it comes to our food, we have pesticides and herbicides and GMOs and processed foods and the list goes on. And these are all just things that we know about.

There was a time when people didn’t know lead was bad for you. Then after that they invented this amazing thing called “asbestos” and decided that it needed to go everywhere. Today the number of chemicals we need to avoid is overwhelming, on top of the fact that the average person might be inhaling a credit card’s weight in microplastics every week. Who knows what the next thing will be? Who knows if we haven’t already had years of exposure to something that’s gonna kill us?

It recently came to light that toxic chemicals had been illegal dumped at a naval base near where I grew up and then got into the tap water. So even without the debates of what governments knowingly put in tap water, it turns out that half my life I may have been drinking water contaminated by chemicals that no one ever considered safe. So that’s it. I’m done. No more tap water for me. No more of that.


(Oh right, and bottled water too because of microplastics.) So I guess I’m capturing rain water to drink? Or is all the rain water contaminated too from air pollution? My only option seems to be ground water. That means we have to move to the countryside and dig a well. But is the groundwater even really safe in the US? I mean, you have fracking contamination and chemical spills from train derailments just to name a few out of dozens of risks. So probably not. BELIZEAN JUNGLE HERE I COME!

You see, if your only concern or even your main concern is about avoiding chemicals, it seems like moving to the jungle might be your only option. That’s a perfectly valid conclusion to come to. The jungle isn’t even really as dangerous as you might think it would be, and I have nothing but respect for Jordan and Will’s decision to start from nothing in the middle of a rain forest for the sake of their children. (Jordan just gave birth to a third little one, and they all are doing great!)

But at the same time, I also see the merits in not worrying about it at all, like my college roommate said to me in 2009 about BPAs in Nalgene bottles: “Why worry? Everything gives you cancer.” On top of that, there’s no way we would be able to have this abundance of food around the globe without the very technological advances that cause such pollution. And not everyone has the ability to buy organic, let alone move to the jungle.

I have lived parts of my life on both ends of this spectrum I’m describing, and—what will surprise no one—I now find myself somewhere in the middle.

I do think I feel less safe drinking tap water and will filter it as much as I can from now on. At the same time, I don’t think I will worry about filtering the water I boil eggs in. I’m going to invest more of my income in not only organic but also locally grown food. At the same time, I’m not going to give up the occasional Wawa hoagie. I’m going to start a small vegetable garden and hopefully help transform my mother’s gardening business into a permaculture-inspired, alternative gardening business (although she is already well on the way herself). At the same time, I’m not going to give up my business importing brewing equipment from China. A lot of these ideas could be seen as contradictory, and I’m not saying they aren’t contradictions. These are the tradeoffs I’ve settled on in my search for a balanced life. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

Along with all my resolutions to find a middle path comes the final risk that I have to accept—the risk that I’m wrong.

I can see it going both ways: Someday it’s possible that lab-grown food is the only food that’s acceptable to sustain human civilization, that technological advances will ultimately save the planet. Or it may go the other way: It’s possible that we all get exposed to some chemical that makes everyone infertile, and the only humans that live on are the uncontacted tribes in the Amazon rainforest and the Sentinel islands. Will either of these scenarios come to fruition? I hope not, but as in all things, I cannot say I am certain.

I do not know where the future will take us. I’m not going to try and escape the risks in modern society, but I’m also not going to ignore them. I’m going to be right here, in the thick of it, and that’s where I want to be.

I want to work on reducing the total amount of toxic chemicals that I’m exposed to; I want to learn as much as I can about such risks and share that information; I want to work with my community for sustainable food production; I want to strive for a society that values harmony with nature; I also have to keep in mind that I could be wrong. I’m going to acknowledge that very real risk, and, then, I’m not going to worry too much about it.

Image Credit: Henri Rousseau, “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” (1908) via Picryl



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