The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 7, 2008

Dear Santa Sabina,

The following is a letter that I am sending off tonight to the Santa Sabina Retreat Center, where I spent this past weekend, and about 12 previous weekends since 2000, sitting in silence. I share this letter here only to demonstrate that we can have a voice, write our letters and make our calls, and do it all in a spirit of sharing and love rather than confrontation or hostility. I love Santa Sabina. I truly do. Here’s the letter:

Dear Santa Sabina Center:

As a participant in Jon Bernie’s meditation retreat this past weekend, I write this letter in a spirit of gratitude for the beautiful space that you provide for rest and silence. This note is meant to thank you and also to offer some suggestions.

I’ve been attending Jon Bernie’s retreats at Santa Sabina ever since the very first one in 2000. Every time I come back, I feel like I’m returning to a loving home. From the care taken for the lovely gardens to the wholesome meals to the little bits of poetry and flowers placed in unexpected places, Santa Sabina helps retreatants feel safe and nurtured during our stay.

Given this attention to detail, then, it is a bit ironic to find certain personal care products, such as antibacterial soaps (Soft Soap antibacterial liquid hand soap) and synthetic air fresheners (Oust Air Sanitizer and Glade Neutralizer) offered for guests’ use. And since Santa Sabina is all about caring for the health of the planet and the creatures that dwell here, I assume that these products are offered without knowledge of the harm that they are currently causing to our environment.

First, Oust Air Sanitizer contains an additional active ingredient called Triethylene Glycol, which can be a strong allergen and hazard for asthma sufferers. In fact, the label on the can states: “Asthma and allergy sufferers: Consult your physician before using this product in your home.” It contains a further warning: “Before spraying, remove birds. After using, ventilate normally prior to returning birds to treated areas.” I discovered cans of this Oust Air Sanitizer on the backs of several toilets for retreatants to spray after using the facilities. And whereas I don’t personally suffer from allergies or asthma, I would be very careful what I sprayed into the air that all of us share.

In addition to that particular chemical in the Oust spray, there are other chemicals in synthetic air fresheners (like Glade) which are hazardous to humans and wildlife. I’ve enclosed a couple of pieces of information with this letter. The first is a press release on a study of air fresheners by the Natural Resources Defense Council. One of the issues with air fresheners is that companies who make them are not required to list all of their ingredients on the label of the can. What NRDC found in their study is that most commercial air fresheners contain chemicals called phthalates, which are reproductive toxins.

Phthalates are generally found in any product that simply lists “fragrance” as an ingredient on the label. Air fresheners and soaps that do not contain phthalates will be more specific about their ingredients. For example, the air freshener I use at home is Ecco Mist by Ecco Bella which contains only essential oils, emulsifier and water and comes in a recyclable aluminum can. Another option is Citrus Magic (Ingredients: 100% Pure & Natural, specially formulated citrus fragrance oils from oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines and grapefruits.)

I’ve also enclosed the Environmental Working Group’s report, “Down The Drain,” which discusses the problems caused by washing chemicals such as phthalates and Triclosan, the active ingredient in antibacterial soaps, down the drain and into the San Francisco Bay. Triclosan is a thyroid disruptor and is also thought to contribute to the problem of resistant bacteria. There are many natural soaps that do not contain Triclosan or synthetic fragrances or colors.

I would be happy to help you find environmentally-preferable soaps and air fresheners. And if cost is an issue, perhaps spending a bit more for natural soap and giving up the air freshener entirely might be an option. The bathrooms have windows that can be opened for air freshening. Might the sprays be unnecessary?

Thanks so much for your time. I love Santa Sabina and only wish for it to be as gentle on the earth as is possible. Please let me know what I can do to help.


Beth Terry

This is what I meant yesterday by “perfectly imperfect.” But one of our practice instructions is to move towards that which is difficult. I think it was good for me to sit with the seeming irony of this natural, beautiful place and the moderately hazardous chemicals in its midst. My mind kept crying out, “I don’t understand! I don’t understand!” Sitting with confusion instead of fighting it can open us into compassion. For ourselves and the rest of this crazy world.

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Yvonne aka sleepwalker
10 years ago

I used to keep canaries and almost lost them to one of those plug in air fresheners. I didn’t know why they started wheezing but it was that horrible thing. Sadly they died years later when my dad used fly spray in the room. Better just to have a place smell of nothing, being clean, that spray all those nasties around.

13 years ago

GREAT letter! If only I had read this before my experience behind the guy with the travel coffee mug a few days ago. I blogged about it on “getting greener” at Although I’m not sure a letter (no matter how sweet) would have made a difference in this particular case. Will definitely give it a try next time. Does no good to be nasty if we truly want to effect change! Thanks for sharing.

13 years ago

Clif, the Houston recycling rate doesn’t surprise me. From what I remember (it’s be a few years since I lived there), there is no city recycling program. The individuals in each neighborhood must choose to pay for the recycling programs. To say the least, it doesn’t happen frequently. I was blown away when my mom moved to a new area where advertisements said you would move “into the trees”. Even with that sort of slogan, there was no recycling program and there still is no recycling program 8 years later. Many of the little stations set up in the parking lots for recycling cans are also long gone.

terrible person
13 years ago

And National Geographic has just come out with its “Greendex”, its ranking of environmental awareness in various countries. I’m not surprised that the U.S. scored so low … but China scored so high? I’ve got to check the methodology …

13 years ago

Jenn: Why not give the bleach to someone who will use it, if it it going to go down the drain anyway?

On the letter – it’s perfect in the situation – using the philosophy of the place to present it with a contradiction.

But, confrontation is sometimes required, though not in this case. When writing to any company it makes no sense to use confrontation because there is an incentive for the company to comply with requests from their source of income – customers.

In politics, however, making nice can lead to being walked over by those who are determined to have their way.

I have never used a lawyer to bring a lawsuit and hope I never do, but I fully support the actions of such groups as the NRDC who go to court with everything they’ve got in order to stop activities damaging to the earth.

You have to pick the technique you use to match the challenge that faces you. In the case of this retreat center, the letter is perfect.

NEWS NOTE OF THE DAY – from the NY Times – San Francisco has a 70% recycling rate, Houston has a 3% recycling rate.

Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd
13 years ago

Jenn — household bleach is actually fairly non-toxic as far as chemicals go. It loses potency as it ages, so if this has been sitting in the cupboard for some time, it is probably pretty inert anyway. It’s safe to just pour it down the drain, a little at a time, with a lot of water.

13 years ago

Very nicely written.

I agree with Scott – I’m shocked about the “remove birds” warning. Why would anyone even use such a product?

I have a question about disposing of stuff – I have half a bottle of bleach under my sink (left by a previous tenant). What the heck do I do with it? I don’t want to chuck it down the drain or onto the ground. If I freecycle it, that’s just the same thing, isn’t it?

13 years ago


That is a great letter. As one who who is still trying to find some gray in a black and white world, and puts his foot in his mouth quite often, I plan to come back and use your letter as a guide for letters I might write regarding similar circumstances. Forceful but very kind and so well written. I hope they respond and change the products or request your help.

Wow…remove the birds though? Has no one heard of the canary in the the mine shaft scenario. I can’t believe that stuff would even be legal.

Great post…thanks!

13 years ago

I agree with Allie, Beth. My exact thought after reading your post today, was Wow, Beth’s really getting inspirational, no irony intended.

13 years ago

That’s a great letter! Beth, you are such an inspiration. I love how you work to change things that need changing.

Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd
13 years ago

I wrote a similar letter last year. I had spent the weekend at a holiday camp in the North and, at the end of the weekend, noticed skips overflowing with empty beer cans. I wrote the camp a letter encouraging them to provide recycling facilities and gave them contact details for the local council’s recycling department.

I never got a response, but I am going there again this June, so we will see if they have done anything!