Non-Toxic Lifestyle Choices

Merry O Words 14 Comments

What do you think of when you hear the phrase voluntary simplicity? White walls and sparse mid-century modern decorations? If you walked down the dock past my minimalist home on the water, you’d see the opposite. You’d see me entertaining dockmates in a warm, inviting cabin, you’d smell my favorite carrot cake cooking in my tiny convection oven, and you’d hear the radio playing Prairie Home Companion on a Saturday night. Chances are, I’d invite you in.

So what does voluntary simplicity mean to me? The concept runs deeper than displaying a sparse aesthetic. Part of it is pinpointing the fine line between what I truly “need” versus what is holding me back from enjoying life. Another critical piece of my interpretation, and one I’m excited to share with anyone who will listen, is my goal to eliminate and reduce toxins from my environment.

Think of it: a simple gallon of vinegar costs pennies, is less toxic, and more effective than household cleaners you buy at a store. What a lovely convergence of frugality, purity, and utility!

My simplicity toolkit is brimming with similar ideas, but at the core of this lifestyle is the belief that the old, simple ways are the good ways. The natural, whole foods our grandparents ate and the wool fibers our forefathers wore will bring us greater health.

These are my two biggest-impact non-toxic lifestyle choices onboard the good ship Merry. My hope is that landlubbers and liveaboards alike will find value in my advice!

1) Bring a little land onto sea. I grow potted plants onboard in every nook and cranny I can find. Why? The EPA estimates that indoor air is 70% more polluted than the outside air of large cities. Check out this video. For those of us who liveaboard, small spaces can worsen the problem. We all know plants convert CO2 to Oxygen. However, certain amazing plants also do a hero’s job of absorbing toxins in the air.

Luckily, one of the top toxin-gulping species in the world also happens to be the easiest to grow in dark galleys and berths belonging to absentminded captains who forget to water. This little guy will happily absorb massive quantities of CO2 and toxins and ask little in return. Just remember to take a wet rag to the dust on his leaves every couple months. He needs them clear to keep doing his job.

2) Beware toxic berths! Chances are, you are sleeping on a slush of formaldehyde and flame retardant chemicals. In the U.S., 95% of our mattresses are required by law to be sprayed with this mix. A queen mattress typically contains over 1 pound of the stuff, and with every toss and turn over years of use, dust and gas is released. In studies, two groups of babies slept—one group on untreated mattresses, and one group on flame retardant chemical (typical) mattresses. Can you guess which group ended up with lower IQ’s?

So, how to legally get an untreated mattress? Buy wool. Wool is the ONLY type of mattress that doesn’t get a dousing, because the sheep hair is extremely naturally flame retardant.

Top this with hemp sheets. Hemp naturally requires no pesticides to grow (bugs don’t like it) and very little water compared to cotton. Also, hemp sheets were not sprayed with formaldehyde. Even organic cotton sheets usually are sprayed to make them “wrinkle free.” This is as absurd as ironing underwear!

As I continue to make progress toward greater simplicity, each choice is an opportunity. Rather than purchasing an expensive air filter machine, I use cheap, readily available, easy-to-grow plants, which require no filter changes, are multiple times more effective, and cost only a few drops of water a day. Rather than relying on synthetic fibers sprayed with IQ-sapping, cancer-causing flame retardant chemicals, I use good old fashioned wool, the only fiber which is naturally fire retardant and whose fibers have been keeping mankind warm for centuries. And hey—I need all the brain cells I can get!

This is Merry’s first post as a contributing writer for Sailing, Simplicity, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Click here to read a post she wrote as a guest blogger shortly after her adventure aboard SV Daphne. We continue to review guest posts, so email if you are interested.

Comments 14

  1. brad

    been reading your blog for a while now. My wife and I are desperate to escape and join the live aboard crowd. It only seems we cannot get a break in buying a boat/home. Any advice?

  2. Rob

    Well Teresa you are certainly off and running in the right direction, thanks for sharing Merry with us all (As the owner of a new superking “mould form mattress” on my mid cabin berth I know the smell of chemicals!) really great advice, whats the name of the plant she reccomends, for air purifying? did I miss it somewhere? It looks like some form of Ivy?great job by the way!

  3. Merry O

    Hi Rob! Philodendrons are the best plant in my opinion for a two reasons:

    They will take a beating and need barely any light (making them a liveaboard’s friend in dark cabins). They gobble up formaldehyde like its going out of style.

    In fact, my office building was closed for a week over Christmas, and my plants sat without water or windows in my dark closet-like room. When I returned, they were completely as I left them!

  4. thecakebuoy

    Thanks for the great post Merry, it’s great to read what others are doing to help clean up our world. I’m looking forward to more of your posts. Just a couple questions though, I sleep in the V-berth on cushions that were made 30 years ago, I bet I’m not breathing in the healthiest air, but I’m unsure whether it’s been treated with fire retardant. Do you know, offhand, if boat cushions were treated in the 70’s? I suppose that new boat cushions would be treated today, so your post is talking more about an aft cabin or quarter berth, correct?
    Regarding the vinegar, we use it to clean most things aboard, but I haven’t figured out what to do for laundry detergent. I’ve been skeptical of using vinegar because I don’t want to smell…sour, so I just use a biodegradable/unscented store bought detergent. Is there a better alternative?

    1. Merry O

      I’ll make sure to address the detergent in a coming post! Oh, also, you could get custom wool cushions made from the small company I mentioned!

  5. Merry O

    Oh, answering these reader questions is so much fun! I love to talk about this stuff!

    Older boat cushions: You are likely safe. The fire-retardant law came into effect later as the chemicals were still in the finishing stages of being developed in the 70’s.

    Also, it may not have applied to your v-berth at any rate (depending on how they are classified). For instance, futons and pillows typically do not meet the criteria, yet mattresses, crib cushions, and couch cushions do. My Carver’s original mattress would have likely been required to be sprayed.

    Plus, the majority of manufactures think its a good idea to go above and beyond and spray futons and even pillows nonetheless, so you really can’t usually tell!

    So you see from these examples, that this is a difficult to research problem for the average consumer. Even IKEA–which reportedly has a better flame retardant alternative chemical in their mattresses–still won’t give a totally straight answer about their treatments. Nonetheless, I trust their vague answer more than some other companies’ lack of answers.

    Many consumers avoid these headaches and 1) just buy wool, or 2) get a doctor’s prescription (the other legal way to order a bed without flame-retardants). I recommend wool anyway because it has additional benefits of being cool in the summer and warm in the winter and naturally dust mite-free. Part of my berth was from a small cottage industry company called Shepherd’s Dream.

    I know this seems like a lot of hoops to jump through, but its worth it when you consider:

    The average adult will absorb a daily dose of .802 mg of Arsenic, .081 mg Roach Killer, and .073 mg DBDPO/Deca from flame proof mattresses, every night. This is over 63 times more arsenic poison than the EPA says is safe.

    Finally, boat dwellers need to consider the mold issue. Under your cushions, there is probably mold, which will naturally cause bad air for your lungs. Invest in a layer of Dri-Mat or Hypervent. Best thing I found!

  6. Alan

    Merry, This is excellent. i have a 100% organic boat, in fact everything on my boat is also made in America. My biggest issue has been how to replace my cushions. I will follow your advise and make my own using wool with a closed cell foam bottom to add a bit of squishy. Alan 🙂

  7. Eric C

    Awesome article! My wife and I are considering a move onto a boat but leaving all the plants behind was something we were not looking forward to. I hadn’t actually thought about bring them with us but I don’t see why not. We’d just have to get creative!

    Bonus points for PHC on Saturday evenings…

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