Toxic office & school supplies

Why does everything in our culture turn into an extreme version of itself? A case in point is the current obsession with sterilizing and disinfecting every surface we touch. Marketers use fear, one of our most powerful emotions, to sell products — do you have bad breath/underarm stains/dry hair/not enough energy? Does your house smell? Are your windows spotty? Are your dishes spotty? Do you spend too much time pulling weeds?

The list of things we’re told we should be worried about is practically endless — no wonder everyone’s neurotic. But it’s the fear of contamination that’s really got everyone overreacting. The ads are sometimes hilarious — when’s the last time you smeared a chicken breast across your kitchen counter — and often make me shake my head.

Here’s the thing: how is anyone going to build up an immunity to microbes if they live in a sterile environment? I watched an interesting and enlightening television show quite a few years ago that focused on the polio epidemics which swept across from 1920 to the mid 1950s. Polio is a terrifying disease, but the interesting thing is that it wasn’t the poor unwashed people who contracted it — it was the wealthy families who wouldn’t let their children play in the dirt and were obsessed with cleanliness. The virus that causes polio has been around for centuries, and when kids played in the dirt they developed a natural resistance by constant exposure to small amounts. As soon as the middle and upper classes began to keep their children and their homes ultraclean, the natural immunity was lost. Read this article on the PBS website for more information.

When I was a kid in the 60s, children were back to romping around in the great outdoors for most of the day. We weren’t supposed to be in the house until supper time. We made mud pies out of real mud, and sometime ate a bit just because everything needed to be tasted at least once.

Now mothers are exhorted to sterilize every surface in the home, offices keep pump bottles of antibacterial wash on every desk, and now — god help us — even school and office supplies are being treated with antimicrobial compounds. I read this article from Rodale the other day about school supplies being coated in triclosan, an antibacterial compound that doesn’t just kill microbes, it enters the skin on contact. Governments are still looking into the long-term effects of being exposed to products like triclosan, but personally I feel that the fewer chemicals I absorb into my body the better. (And by the way, if you’re still a smoker, you should take a long, hard look at all the garbage you’re taking in every time you light one up.)

After reading the Rodale article, I didn’t have time to run out to the nearest office and school supply place to check the shelves, but a routine search through a catalogue for a new stapler brought me up short: the entire Swingline line of staplers, for example, appears to be treated with an “antimicrobial” agent.

This is a frightening trend. If the last craze for sterilizing everything we came into contact with resulted in a horrifying polio epidemic for over three decades, what will happen this time?

Not taking anything for granted

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Erica & Mike boarding a tuk-tuk for a wild ride through the streets of Puno, Peru to get to our boat ride on Lake Titicaca – photo property of E. Jurus

Last week my hubby ended up in the hospital for several days with a heart flutter (hence my week’s hiatus). One of the chambers of his heart was beating too fast and too shallowly, so not enough oxygen was making it to his organs properly. He’d been having the odd issue with some minor shortness of breath, but one day I got one of the calls you never want to get: he was on his way to the hospital. The ECG confirmed what his high pulse rate (128 bpm) already indicated. He was put on some specific medications to regulate his heart rhythm, but they didn’t work, so the treatment was then to give his heart a mild shock to restore its natural rhythm.

That Friday I also found out that the 14-year-old son of a good friend of mine had gone missing for several days. Many people helped spread the alert through Facebook, but my friend was frantic.

Both of these stories had a happy ending — the electric shock on my hubby’s heart worked, so he’s back home and feeling much better, although his medications have been changed and there are some lifestyle changes required, and later in the day that the missing-child alert went out the police found the boy via a phone tip — but they could both easily have turned out much differently.

We all have things in our lives that we tend to take for granted over time, so I’d like this post to serve two purposes:

1) as a friendly reminder to make sure you appreciate the things in your life that you value, especially your health, and

2) to go after some of the things you really want to do instead of frittering away your life on daily clutter.

A lot of people toy with dream-version bucket lists, but not every one makes a point of accomplishing the things they dream about, and with proper planning you’d be surprised what you can manage. We have a relative, for example, whose big dream was to return to England and spend a year there, living in a cottage and roaming through the country, but he never did make it back. In the meantime, in 4-10 day increments, my hubby Mike & I have been to different parts of England about half a dozen times. (Yes, it’s one of our favourite places to visit).

A good bucket list will accomplish goals that really mean something to you, including measures to maintain or improve your health — after all, what’s the point in planning ahead if you’re not healthy enough to enjoy it. Mike and I have watched so many people put off doing anything fun until their retirement, then not surviving long enough to actually enjoy their retirement plans. Here are two things you can do right now:

For the love of flying

Flying over the Amazon river basin
Flying over the Amazon river basin – photo by E Jurus

I collect airports. Not as in so-rich-I-can-buy-them, but as in so many strange adventures in them. My first-ever jet flight was to California to visit friends, who arranged for us to take a side trip to Las Vegas, so buy the time we returned home I was a veteran of 6 different plane trips. It didn’t take me long to discover that I love flying. I’ve always been intrigued by airplanes – the magic of how these huge machines can get in the air, and the speed of takeoff. When I was 16 I cadged a ride on a small prop plane – a 4-seater twin-engine Cessna. A Hamilton company had brought several of their small  planes to a local air show for display, and I was there working in a Kiwanis food booth. I found a kindred spirit in one of my co-workers, and because our booth was the farthest out and had little business, we had some time to check out the planes. The organizers closed our booth for the Sunday of the air show, but we still had our passes to get in, so we both returned on Sunday and chatted up some of the pilots for the aircraft company, who offered to let us fly with them to Hamilton and back as they returned all the small planes to their home base. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done to that point. We even got to help pull the planes from the grass to the airstrip – we felt very cool! That adventure stayed with me for many years, and was perhaps my real introduction to making my bucket list dreams come true (although the ‘bucket list’ concept wouldn’t make an appearance for another 34 years. After our trip to California, the next flying adventure that my hubby and I shared was on our honeymoon, and that really was an adventure. We flew the now-defunct Eastern Airlines from Buffalo to Puerto Rico, where we had a connecting flight on another now-defunct airline, Prinair. Prinair was a small island-hopper service that at the time was the main access to the Caribbean islands. The flight to Puerto Rico was fine, but as we waited in line to board the final leg from there to St. Thomas, we could hear a businessman behind us talking about how many times Prinair had crashed in the ocean. When we boarded the plane, a small 18-seater with just 2 rows, we both noticed that the door to the cockpit was shaped a fair bit like a casket. After everyone was aboard, our pilot seemed to be channeling Mario Andretti – he taxied to the main runway, we’re guessing looked both ways quickly, gunned the engines, turned onto the runway and lifted off without any preamble. By now we’d started to laugh hysterically. I became quiet, though, when partway into the flight I looked out at the wing on my side and noticed that not only were all the bolts in the housing rattling around but some were missing entirely. My newly-pronounced hubby noticed my lack of conversation and finally coaxed out what was bothering me. He tried to reassure me, but we were both intensely relieved when we started our approach to St. Thomas. Great view out the window of the magnificent blue-green waters surrounding the island, but because St. Thomas is essentially just a mountain in the Caribbean, like a slightly melted giant chocolate chip, the plane then had to land quickly and jam on the brakes before we drove into the mountainside. I came very close to kissing the ground when we disembarked. Since then we’ve had all kinds of interesting departures and landings around the world. We probably had the most concentrated amount of fun when we visited Southeast Asia in 1994. Our first stop was Hong Kong when the original airport was still in use. The landings at Kai Tak were also onto short runways, so jumbo jets had to skate in just over the roof tops  – we could wave to people hanging out their laundry – before touching down and jamming on the brakes. Leaving from there to Bangkok was equally entertaining: we walked out of the hangar to board a shuttle bus, which then proceeded to drive around for 45 minutes looking for our plane amongst a bunch of airplanes parked together like cars. The driver would pull up to an aircraft, look at the number on it, shake his head and move on. We started laughing hysterically for that one too. On our approach to Singapore, in the ‘welcome’ announcements by the flight attendant, she finished off by telling us that in Singapore the penalty for smuggling drugs is Death. Alrighty then! We didn’t see anyone make a mad dash to the washroom before landing though. Our landing in Jogjakarta was the most fun of all. There was a single runway that we rolled up and down along like a low-level rollercoaster. The arrivals building was essentially a large shed with a rectangular hole in the wall, through which the baggage handlers tossed luggage onto about a 6-ft long belt that spit the suitcases off onto the floor where we were all standing around waiting. Thank goodness all our souvenirs were well wrapped!

A real African adventure: taking a small bush plane to a fly-in camp in the Okavango Delta - photo by E Jurus
A real African adventure: taking a small bush plane to a fly-in camp in the Okavango Delta – photo by E Jurus

Africa has long been a challenge – flights funnel into just a handful of main hubs. For our first safari, to Botswana in 2007, we spent about 2 days getting there, with an 11-hour layover in London, England before a 10-hour flight to Johannesburg and then a 2-hour flight to Maun in Botswana. From there it turned into a real African adventure as we boarded small bush-planes to reach our first 2 safari camps in the Okavango Delta, which could only be reached by air. The bush planes chug along at about 1,000 feet, sometimes feeling like they aren’t moving at all, but you can watch the African landscape unfold below you as you go, sometimes catching glimpses of elephants or giraffes for your first introduction to the wonderful wildlife you’ll soon be getting much closer to. When Mike and I planned that safari, we originally wanted to visit Botswana and Tanzania, but it was next to impossible to travel between the 2 countries without a great deal of complicated maneuvering as well as lots of extra time and/or money. Now, however, a low-cost carrier based in Tanzania, fastjet, is introducing ‘international’ flights to several other countries in Africa. This is momentous news in the world of safari planning because people will finally be able to get from southern Africa to eastern Africa relatively easily. Visitors will be able to fly between Dar es Salaam and either Johannesburg in South Africa or Lusaka in Zambia for fares are expected to start at only around $100US, opening  up lots of new options for safari enthusiasts. Guess that means Mike and I will just have to go back to Africa once again to check them out!