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The idea of living clean sure sounds appealing, but when it comes to making clean-living choices, a surprising number of us seem to have a tough time of it.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we’ve all been hopelessly confused by media and advertising messages that equate “clean” with chemically sterilized, plastic wrapped, and artificially fragranced to smell like something between an alpine meadow and a strawberry lollipop.

Things with scrubbing bubbles, stain-resistant coatings, nonstick surfaces and antibacterial formulas speak directly to our Puritan desire to eliminate filth. The irony, of course, is that all of these things tend to depend on an array of nasty chemicals — compounds that aren’t nearly as easy to wash away as what my farmer mother refers to as “good, clean dirt.” Some don’t wash away at all.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control have confirmed that the blood and bodily tissues of virtually every man, woman and child in the United States contain traces of chemical compounds from things like Teflon and Scotchgard, which may persist in the environment hundreds or even thousands of years after they’ve been released.

I mean, none of us ever gave formal permission for one or more of these compounds to take up residence within us, right? Yet there they are, hanging out in all of our cells like they have a right to be there.

And some of them have probably been with us for a very long time. A study of the umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born in U.S. hospitals between August and September of 2004 turned up a total of 287 chemicals, including consumer-product ingredients and pesticides, as well as heavy metals and other wastes produced by the burning of coal, gasoline and garbage.

So that’s a little creepy.

But even more astonishing is the number of things we grownups continue to willingly introduce into our own systems on a daily basis — things like endocrine-disrupting parabens and phthalates (found in many personal-care products and fragrances), as well as food ingredients with questionable residues, contaminants and side effects. (We’ve got some great advice on avoiding and clearing out much of this gunk in “Day-to-Day Detox.”)

It would be comforting to trust that nothing that makes it onto our grocery or drugstore shelves could possibly be dangerous to us. But as products ranging from pharmaceuticals and pesticides to toothpastes and trans fats get recalled, banned or otherwise called into question years or even decades after they’ve made their debut, we’re learning the hard way that this just isn’t true.

So what’s a smart consumer to do? Well, for one thing, we could adopt (and encourage our leaders to adopt) the “precautionary principle,” which accepts as safe only those products and processes that have been reliably proven safe — as opposed to giving the benefit of the doubt to all those things that have simply not yet been proven prohibitively dangerous.

Perhaps we could also start by taking a cue from our rodent friends. They seem to have ignored the propaganda that “there’s no difference” between organic and conventional products and listened to their ratty little instincts instead. In a 2007 controlled study conducted by Swiss and Austrian scientists, rats presented with a choice between organic and conventional produce consistently preferred the organic.

Another study led by a team of European scientists, where two groups of rats were fed either a conventional or an organic diet, showed a similar divergence: The organic-eating rats thrived, coming out not just much healthier, but slimmer, too.

Obviously, living clean relies on more than just making smart choices about what we put in our mouths and on our skin. It relies on a clean environment — and a clear conscience. And until we become more willing to explore the true costs and consequences of all our everyday choices, that last item will be a tough one for us to secure.

In this issue, we offer a variety of interpretations of what living clean might mean — from eschewing unhealthy habits and unpleasant behaviors to seeking out the most vitality- and integrity-enhancing choices available. We’d love to hear what clean living means to you. Log on to the “Talk to Us” feature and tell us what you think.

Oh, and while you’re at our Web site, check out our new digital edition — a nice low-impact option we’re making available free for a limited time.

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