1. Which produce is it important to buy organic?
"People can decrease the amount of pesticides they ingest by 90 percent by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the 12 least contaminated instead," says Lori Bongiorno, author of Green, Greener, Greenest. The dirty dozen, according to the Environmental Working Group: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes. (For the complete list, go to FoodNews.org.) "I also buy organic dairy and meats," Bongiorno says, "because that's the only way to guarantee avoiding antibiotics and hormones." In packaged foods, such as cereals and macaroni and cheese, the health benefits of organic versus nonorganic aren't nearly as dramatic.
2. Should I be buying organic makeup and body products?
You should be buying nontoxic products. "The problem with 'organic' is that there are so many different labeling systems, it's hard to know what you're buying," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group. Check your toiletries at CosmeticsDatabase.com, the Environmental Working Group's list of more than 25,000 products rated by toxicity and ingredient safety. When possible, purchase those rated 0 to 2 on their 10-point scale.
3. Do "green" household cleaners really work?
Yep—because it turns out that our households don't need to be sterilized. "No surface is going to stay sanitized for very long, anyway," says Bongiorno. "Remember, too, that disinfectants can be poisonous—they're regulated as pesticides—and that there are many affordable and worthwhile green options."
4. Paper or plastic?
Canvas. "The paper versus plastic question is a wash," says New York University professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health Marion Nestle, PhD, author of What to Eat. "Plastic pollutes the environment, and paper either cuts down trees or costs a lot of energy to recycle."
Arianne Cohen is a Manhattan-based writer. Her exploration of the world of tall people, The Tall Book (Bloomsbury), will be published in January 2009.
Additional reporting by Brooke Kosofsky Glassberg and Kate Sandoval.