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Clean, Green ... and Kid-Friendly

Environmental Health Advocate Deirdre Imus wants everyone to know: There’s a safer way to clean — one that wipes out germs without harming our health . . . or that of our children

Photograph by Kit Noble

 Environmental Health Advocate Deirdre Imus wants everyone to know: There’s a safer way to clean — one that wipes out germs without harming our health . . . or that of our children

Environmental polluters beware! An iron-clad determination lies behind Deirdre Imus’s good looks. At age forty-three, this energetic lady is focused like a laser beam on issues she considers critical. Armed with “green” solutions to some very sobering problems, she is targeting “threats to the welfare of our children.” So what if something has never been done before? Her favorite question is, “Why not?”

Activist, author, mother of a preteen son and wife of radio personality Don Imus, she heads up the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology, part of Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. She and her husband cofounded and codirect the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids with Cancer.

Just back from a spring session at the ranch, she admits to being psychologically “on overload,” her mind filled with images of the children to whom they had just said goodbye. “It’s extraordinary the change that can happen in only ten days,” she says. “Kids who arrived totally depressed leave smiling, standing taller, filled with a true sense of accomplishment.”

When it comes to protecting children, Deirdre is unstoppable. “Today’s kids have become innocent victims,” she says. “Our nation’s most precious legacy is seriously endangered by the cumulative effect of toxins in their day-to-day environment. Their health is being destroyed by a long list of carcinogens and neurotoxins that have infiltrated the very air they breathe.”

At the Westport Women’s Club this past April, she was eager to talk about Green This! Volume 1: Greening Your Cleaning. The first of a projected four-volume series of how-to books, it’s “a guide to help people transition to living an environmentally responsible life.” Growing Up Green! Volume 2: Baby and Child Care, the second in the series, is also available in bookstores and is a New York Times best-seller. Deirdre emphasized that she’s “not talking revolution here.” Rather, she suggests the key to success is “evolution” with informed consumers using their purchasing power to force big corporations to do it right.

“It’s been our experience,” she says, “that, on the individual level, one good change motivates another. Ironically, we need to reject our mothers’ definition of ‘clean’ which, unwittingly, was based on using products filled with toxic ingredients. As consumers, we have to stop buying those products.” Both books present some very startling facts and offer step-by-step solutions as well as nontoxic cleaning options for the home. Among those options are the Imus GTC institutional and retail products (profits support both the Imus Ranch and the Environmental Center).

“Did you know,” Deirdre asked the group of Westport women, “that a nationwide study of randomly selected umbilical cord blood samples obtained from the American Red Cross by the Environmental Working Group revealed 287 industrial chemicals which passed through the mother’s placenta into the womb?” Not only are newborn babies starting life with a toxic overload, one out of eight is being born prematurely, a 31 percent increase between 1981 and 2003. Premature babies can face significant developmental issues.

There’s no such thing as a “genetic epidemic,” she points out, adding that scientists agree genes change over the millennia, not in twenty years. “Your genes may also mutate because of toxic exposure. Your genes are the gun, but it’s the environment that pulls the trigger,” she says, describing today’s combination of poor nutrition, environmental toxins and an accelerated vaccine schedule as “the perfect storm,” a triple threat with which children’s immature immune systems simply cannot cope. The chemical cocktail currently sabotaging our environment also includes mutagens that cause permanent genetic cell changes and endocrine disruptors which can mimic, block or interfere with natural hormone function.

Growing Awareness
“I was a carefree kid,” Deirdre says. “I had the kind of childhood every youngster should have.” As a second grader, she discovered a passion for running, which led to a high school and college track career, even hoping to get a shot at trying out for the U.S. Olympic team. Being a serious competitive athlete triggered a very scientific interest in nutrition that eventually led her to become a vegetarian. “I became aware that meat slowed me down,” she says. “The way I ate affected my performance.”

When Deirdre met Don Imus in 1992, he already was in his fourth year of doing radiothons to raise money for pediatric cancer research. “I got involved immediately,” she says, “and by the time I became pregnant with our son six years later, I’d begun to think that there had to be more we could do.”

Beyond money, Deirdre and Don wanted to give their time on an effective one-on-one basis. They envisioned a program that would help restore a sick child’s self-esteem, a common casualty of chronic illness. So, in 1998, on 4,000 acres in New Mexico, they built the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer. Everything on the ranch meets the highest “green” specifications; biodynamic farming on the property provides 100 percent organic vegetables to produce a delicious vegetarian menu that tempts even the ranch’s most grizzled cowhands.

On this working cattle ranch, with their doctors’ permission, sick children get the chance to feel normal again as they fulfill the responsibilities expected of ranch hands. As real cowboys and cowgirls, they learn some serious rodeo skills along the way. “That’s part of the challenge and it’s extraordinary how they all rise to it,” says Deirdre, describing what she calls a “whole new paradigm for treating special-needs children that can actually transcend illness.”

In the role of surrogate parents, she and Don devote their attention to each group of kids, living together as one big family in a central hacienda. “Each session, we bond with the kids in our care,” she says. “I carry so many memories in my heart of each one.”

Greening the Care
Seeing the children leave the ranch to return to contaminated environments felt wrong, she explains. “I began to think about whether the hospitals where these kids spend so much time were inadvertently promoting sickness instead of health,” she says. A close look at the toxic ingredients found in the standard institutional cleaners made it clear that, sadly, the answer was “yes.”

Deirdre points out that behavioral and biological factors make children exceptionally sensitive to chemical exposures. “Like sponges, they absorb everything, good and bad, in the environment around them,” she says. “They are smaller than adults and actively growing so they have accelerated metabolisms. Because they breathe faster, they take in more air and more chemicals relative to their weight than adults.” Shorter than adults, children are nearer the floor and are more directly exposed to chemicals, such as chlorine, which are heavier than air and lie closer to the ground.

Deirdre’s research led to another epiphany: Although longevity rates have improved for some cancers, the overall rate of cancer diagnosis has increased by one percent across-the-board. Some cancers, like brain tumors, have increased in the general population by 35 percent over the years. Deirdre is convinced that we are approaching the issue backwards. “We are focused on the disease,” she says, “instead of eliminating what’s causing it.”

In 2000, armed with a bulging notebook filled with facts, figures and opinions gleaned from interviews with a wide variety of scientists, Deirdre approached John Ferguson, president and CEO of Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC), to propose that the hospital “go nontoxic.” Five minutes into their conversation, he was convinced. “Let’s do it,” he said, giving the first Greening the Cleaning program a jump-start by offering the hospital’s complete cooperation. “Mr. Ferguson is a great role model for what CEOs need to be,” says Deirdre.

It was an initiative that, in 2001, launched the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology, headquartered at HUMC, a hospital which has since taken a series of pioneering steps to become a leader in the ongoing movement to “green” the country as well as the nation’s fourth largest center for the treatment of pediatric cancer. The next step is a green cancer institute — an ambitious goal now under way.

Working with a company in Canada, Deirdre supervised the development of a line of “green” cleaning products, guaranteed to be as effective as the leading toxic brands. “Our products clearly list every ingredient and we use ones that are all-natural, renewable and biodegradable as much as possible,” she says. “We use the least toxicity (or nontoxic) as possible.”

Making the product line affordable was also essential. “Actually, because we reduced the total number of cleaning products at Hackensack from twenty-two to eleven, we saved them both money — about a 15 percent cost saving yearly — and storage space.” The best news of all? When hospital staff and patients began breathing truly clean air, morale soared.

In the past seven years, Greening the Cleaning has been implemented in hundreds of healthcare facilities, businesses and school systems. “Thinking green these days is a necessity, not a matter of trying to be trendy,” says Sean O’Toole, supervisor of buildings and grounds for the Wilton School System. “In 2006, we were looking for green products and a local resident made us aware of Deirdre Imus’s product line. We did rigorous testing, comparing it with two other organic options. We now use it exclusively in our five schools.”

These days, a paid staff of just six — each one is worth at least twenty, according to their boss, who works for free — is managing to change bureaucratic and individual perceptions. “Now, organizations are calling us to arrange meetings,” Deirdre says. “Our center’s professionals go to each site to set up the equipment properly and to train housekeepers in proper usage of our products. By now, we’re very efficient at getting the program up and running.”

Former New York State Governor George Pataki and New Jersey’s Governor Richard Codey supported legislation that bans the use of toxic substances in state facilities. Governor Jodi Rell also issued a similar Executive Order in Connecticut. “I envision state governments enforcing similar bans from sea to shining sea,” says Deirdre. “Why not?”

Bringing It Home
Why not, indeed? Back at the Westport Women’s Club, the audience is a little shocked. Deirdre quotes the eminent ecologist Sandra Steingraber, PhD, who points out that “premature female sexual development has become a fact of life in recent years.” It is believed that “this is a result of the increasing prevalence of chemicals in personal-care products,” such as skin creams, shampoos containing hormones, nail polish, mascara, moisturizers and foundations and in food.

These chemicals “disrupt endocrine function,” causing breast growth, pubic hair development and other symptoms of puberty in girls as young as six or seven years old. “This is being described as the ‘new normal,’ given its frequency in recent years,” Deirdre says, “which is a truly scary thing to contemplate.

“You know, I was born in 1964,” she tells the group. “When I went to school, if there was one classmate with an allergy severe enough to require an inhaler, that was really unusual. How many of you have personal experience with a child afflicted with any of the illnesses I’ve mentioned?” Hands go up all over the room.

It all seems rather daunting. But Deirdre, while mincing no words, communicates optimism. “If you think you are too small to have an impact,” she says, quoting an African proverb, “try sleeping in a room with a mosquito,” she says, smiling. “Each one of us can make a difference.”