Sofa Saga, Part 4: Some Success! Two Great Sources for Greener Sofas

I know from some questions I’ve gotten that folks were worried about my sofa sitch. So for all (two of you) who were wondering: are Laura and Maya sitting on the floor amidst all those toxic dust bunnies? Or am I stuck in mid-air, in a yoga chair pose, hyperventilating as my thighs complain louder than an oddly persistent toddler at (twenty minutes past her) bedtime?

Your fears can now be put to rest. We will soon have someplace actually and truly non-toxic on which to rest our weary dogs at close of day.

In fact, I’m happy to report that I found a few affordable options for furniture free of chemical flame retardants! And you’re the lucky reader who gets to hear all about my quest.

(If you’re new to this blog or topic, look here, then here and here for the exciting earlier stages of my formerly sad sofa saga. It will be worth your time, I promise. Even if just for the image of our “family doctor.”)

There may be other folks out there who do this in the big wide world as well. As it turns out, a possible trick is to find a custom furniture manufacturer who will work with you (or already has purged the chemicals), and then to decide the foam or filler that’s right for you. The trickiest part of the trick is that, if you don’t happen to be, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, you may also have to convince that individual to give you a decent price.

Or the next time you need a new piece of furniture, you could just contact one or both of the companies below who make greener custom items.

Without further ado, then, I present the options: Tah-da…

Option 1:  A Nice Man from North Carolina Does Right By Me

Any attentive readers of the earlier parts of the sofa saga may be cheered to learn that my initial assessment of one Mr. Kenneth Fonville as a truly good guy was not at all off-the-mark.

Mr. Fonville, owner of Eco-Select Furniture, was kind enough to scan and send me his furniture foam’s Certipur label, knowing fully that I would run it by flame retardant toxicity expert and environmental scientist (and fellow North Carolina resident) Heather Stapleton. Stapleton, as anticipated, promptly analyzed its fake-ish assurances of eco-safety with aplomb, revealing that the label, in truth, said nothing at all reassuring on the topic of flame retardants.

I cheekily shared her analysis with Mr. Fonville, who checked into the issue further with his foam supplier. He reported back that he was able upon request to purchase foam without flame retardants in it, and that his fabrics were similarly untreated.

The offerings from Eco-select Furniture are largely traditional designs, covered in leather, hemp or other materials, with many green features, such as locally harvested sustainable hardwoods in the frames. They do use some soy-based foam in the furniture, rather than latex, for durability reasons. (Note that his blend is 25-30% “soy-based” feedstock and the rest is petroleum-based, which may be significant information for those wanting an ultra-green sofa or chair.) Their prices are also generally aligned with regular, non-“eco” furniture.

Mr. Fonville started his company fairly recently, in 2010, and his background was in traditional furniture companies, having worked more than 30 years in the industry. He began the new venture because he had become disappointed in the poor practices in the industry and the reduced quality of many imports, and he knew he could do better. His most popular furniture designs are these:

I will likely be ordering a new leather club chair to replace the icky Ikea one we have downstairs, and will look here as well for other furniture needs as they arise.

Option 2: (Green) Sofa of the Stars

Robert Craymer, of RCGreen, was once, quite literally, a rock star. Or was at one time, anyway, according to this 4-minute video featuring his eccentric ways, as well as some of his modern furniture designs. He also offered me a good price (which I promised not to reveal) on a new sofa:

Robert’s turn toward all things green first came about in 2006 when he was asked to design a novel lounge for the premiere showing of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a tragi-comic documentary about how Detroit utterly screwed up its best opportunity to innovate on energy usage in cars. (As an advocate who watched the industry commit hari-kari over fuel economy standards all through the early aughts, this movie artfully broke what was left of my heart.)

At any rate, Robert took the themes of the film seriously, designing what was, for its time, a truly groundbreaking lounge, with furniture and items made sustainably and responsibly. Here are some of his other designs:

On foams and fillers, he was quite helpful in explaining the options. Basically, for the foam inner core, most furniture makers use: latex, soy blend, standard U.S.-made foam or foam made overseas (often in China). For cushions, options are latex, soy foam wrapped in cotton, cotton alone, or wool interior with a cotton bag on the outside.

For RCGreen designs, customers can choose the foams and fillers they like, but the materials do have disadvantages and advantages (also, he says he doesn’t use any foreign-made foams).

For example, a wool-wrapped cushion or seat can feel, as you might expect, lumpy and it will likely become harder over time. Latex, he said, is reported by some customers as having an odor (though Robert doesn’t smell it), and is more rubbery or bouncy, even though in his shop it’s wrapped in cotton. Soy-based foam, also wrapped in cotton, has been free of customer complaints. All of these are available without flame retardant chemicals.

I’m still weighing the options on fillings. There’s good evidence that soy foams may not be that much greener than traditional petrochemical foam, and many “soy-based” foams  actually have only a small percentage of soy in them, meaning that the manufacturing process that produced the rest of the foam is still a problem in that it makes nasty chemicals as a byproduct. And soy is mostly a genetically modified product, with terrible environmental costs in places like Brazil. I’ve asked both of these companies about the percentages of soy to traditional, petrochemical foam. (The EcoSelect answer is above, RCGreen’s soy foam is 22 percent soy.)

The “greenest” answer on fillings is therefore likely wool, though it settles and can become hard, or natural latex (rubber). I’m a bit allergic to some types of wool, so that is not great. On latex, the notion of a sofa made of rubber (even if wrapped in cotton) doesn’t thrill me — both for comfort and because both of the furniture makers I talked to raised issues (Mr. Fonville talked about its lack of durability; Robert about a reported smell and some level of customer dissatisfaction). Even with the price break, it’s still a real investment for us to get a new sofa, and I don’t want to have to do it again. So I’m a bit stuck on this one.

Robert gave me a substantial price break on the sofa before he learned I had a blog or would write about it in any way (I swear!). That’s because he indicated he’s accustomed to working with people who are dealing with serious chemical-related illnesses or extreme allergies, and he regularly offers them deals in the same way he did for me.

[Update:  Some commenters — including a few friends — have complained about serious customer service issues with RC Green (and some additional public reports are linked to below in the comments).  He does require payment in advance in cash, which is not a sound or defensible consumer practice.  In addition, I should have indicated that I have no way of substantiating whether our sofa is free of FRs.  Please also see the comments for more sources for furniture claimed to be free of FRs.]

The Up-Shot:

It was stunning how difficult and time-consuming it was to find decent, chemical-free options.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned: harmful chemical flame retardants are in most foam-based products, including mattresses and sofas. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t help to reduce fires, according to Stapleton and they may even increase the risks of a fire as people inhale dangerous chemicals when they burn. Despite this rank stupidity, they are very hard to avoid, which means that hundreds of millions of people are needlessly exposed, every day. The scale of this is actually hard to take sitting down.

More Sources for Sofas:

Just today, I also found this new post from another eco-blog with a few more companies that make chemical-free sofas — including from Eco-terric, Furnature, and Eklahome — most with hefty price points, and most latex-based. (I appreciated the input in the comments on that blog pointing out the eco-issues with soy-based polyurethane foams.) I’ve since found one more, Green Nest, with prices topping a whopping 5K for sofas.

There’s always the sources for greener furniture that I identified in Part 2 of the Sofa Saga series. For the real DIY-er, here are directions to somewhat affordably make one using an “organic” mattress. For reupholstering furniture with more eco-friendly fabrics, you could check out Harmony Art and Organic Leather.

If you have the dough, for really artsy “green” items (with prices to match), you can also check out a new environmentally focused artists’ market, Ecofirst Art (for lamps and similar decor, there is also has a lower-cost boutique that sells smaller items, EcovolveNow). I would be sure to inquire with all of these sources about how to ensure what you order is flame retardant-free.

I would also refer you to the comments, which include an informative dialogue on fillers and foams, fabrics, greenwashing, transparency and related topics.

if you know of any other sources for custom-made goods or truly green furniture, please do share them in the comments!

If you most understandably lack the budget for new furniture, here are 10 tips to reduce exposure:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your childrens’ hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to, as we did!);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products among children’s items whenever you can (most polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton). Just last year, California evidently revised its rule on juvenile furniture to clarify that strollers, nursing pillows and infant carriers are now exempt from the requirement for flame retardants, but older items, or those that have not been redesigned since this change in the law last March, may still have the chemicals (for example, a recent test from an environmental group found them in My Brest Friend nursing pillows);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or strollers with foam padding);
  7. Look for furniture from before 1970 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  8. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117” or “Complies with TB 117” or some such nonsense;
  9. Write to lawmakers in California telling them to ditch this stupid law;
  10. When you do need to replace your mattress, sofa or upholstered chair, consider going FR-free! I’ve done some of the research for you, anyhoo, all you have to do is make the call.

Take Half My Heart, It’s Yours

Any parent who is honest will tell you that you live with that ambivalence. You just have it! You look at the face of your beautiful, lovely child and you think two things at the exact same time: I love this kid so much that it’s changed my whole life. I love other people more because of how much I love her.… She’s completely given value to life that didn’t exist before, and I regret every decision that led to her birth.

Louis CK in Louis, Season 2, Episode 1 (via johndeguzman)

A true dilemma is a choice between two mutually compatible and equally desirable ends.

Professor Michael Brint, via my memory circa 1991

The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

Barry Schwarz’s TED talk (author of the Paradox of Choice)

In part spurred by Elisabeth Badinter’s simplistic brutality about the choices women make, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parental ambivalence, the place of choice in parent’s lives, and the challenge of achieving a rough balance between the demands of work and home.

Maya is 19 months and, right on track, is dealing with a bout of separation anxiety. She has begun to identify and need the people around her with more specificity and direction than before, and transitions – going to bed, leaving for work – must be handled with a tedious slowness and gentle series of stages to avoid upset. Time feels both stretched out, and highly limited, both marked with utter precision in days, weeks, months, and as though its strangely slipping by me, faster than I could possibly reach to catch it with both hands.

Maya’s insistence on attention, however long it persists, also poses the question to me daily in a newly acute way about why I choose to work, and to leave her in the care of relative strangers. I question both my absence during this highly compacted developmental time, in which each week brings new skills and discoveries, and the inescapable risks associated with having someone else care for her, however caring they may be. I miss her terribly during the day, and ponder what new phrase or hilariously goofy new dance move I may be missing, too.

Yet at the end of a long weekend, I relish the idea to going to work with an almost-giddy mix of relief and excitement. I enjoy the rigor of working, and the attempt to make things happen in the world. Even small things accomplish my own pleasant transition – wearing nicer clothes, having lunch in a restaurant. I join a world in which I can complete my thoughts, or even, sentences, and in which I am listened to, at least some of the time. What freedom and luxury it seems after three days at home, running around after a defiant toddler.

So I don’t actively regret my choice to work. But it still isn’t the life of fulfillment I envisioned, either, when I was sold the bill of goods that I could “have it all.” Exactly who peddled that promise is hard to say – some mythic emissary that conveyed the idealistic excesses of growing up in the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in badly tailored man-suits? Perhaps it was Free to Be, You and Me, when the princess Atalanta chooses to travel the world, not needing her fair-minded suitor? Or that Enjoli commercial I can still hum the tune to – you know, the one that goes, “I can bring home the bacon…”

The notion was, you can be with a partner or not, work or not, be sexy and economically powerful, or – well, about that one it was clear that working and economic independence was the more aspirational choice, at least in my own emotional history. (I never considered not working with any seriousness, until perhaps this very moment.) And the promise was that our ability, as liberated women-worker-warriors, to make these decisions for ourselves would set us free to lead a life of economic empowerment sans regrets.

Of course, it’s indisputably true that many of the financial and economic supports for families that would make these real choices have never been put into place, particularly in the U.S., as I point out here.  But it’s also clearly the case that women my age – based on detailed research among my embarrassingly few current friends – feel let down, and that it’s not entirely, or even mostly, about the financial penalties for working families.

A world of choices also, as Barry Schwarz points out forcefully, means a world beset by known opportunity costs. Sure, we make our decisions, but we remain painfully aware of their downsides. And the particular costs shift over time, as our child’s needs for attention and our focus also shift, making them hard to measure, and even, some days, practically immeasurable.

In the comments to this article on the Rosen-Romney baloney, for just one example, or one this week from Dahlia Lithwick and Jan Rodak, moms (and a few dads) defend their choices as the right ones for them and their families. And I certainly believe them, both the working moms and stay-at-home dads alike. Which is more than many of the uncharitable other commenters could say.

I wonder if all the finger-pointing at the other people, over there, who made or are making a different choice, would lessen if we acknowledged that, in our relatively new experiment in trying to maintain a double-income middle class, most of the available choices are actually so painful and difficult that at times, even those with certainty about making the right ones are nonetheless agonized by them.

Having a child you love more than anything is hard enough, as Louis CK makes clear. Balancing all of this judgment on top of that enormous undertaking should be enough to give anyone pause.

And lest I be misunderstood, I am not asking for a world with fewer hard choices – read: opportunities – for women, or for anyone else. We are better for throwing off the constraints, which is perhaps why women don’t complain about this more. It seems ungrateful, somehow, given all the sacrifices that were made to achieve the gains in women’s ability to work, to be taken seriously, and to construct our lives.

But we also have a long way to go for true equality. And it strikes me that we can’t get there if we pretend that all of this is easy, and that the choices we’re making are among a wide range of peachy options. For me at least – and anyone who wants to join me – I’d like to drop the pretense that my mere decision to make the choices I have means I have to like them, all of the time. The truth is, I make them and regret them, sometimes even at the same moment.

So: less stridency, more poignancy; less moral high ground, more candor on the playground? It just seems to me the Mommy Wars are too important to fight them with each other.

We’ve Been Slimed — and It’s Not Necessarily Pink

slimed 1.jpg

                                      

Cross-posted from the Environmental Working Group‘s blog, Enviro-blog.

Last month, the New York Times published a story about my efforts when I was pregnant to rid my home of toxic chemicals. The story featured a photo of my 18-month-old daughter and recounted how I threw out a large pile of cosmetics, cleaners and other products that my research, using the Environmental Working Group’s online Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, found to contain dangerous substances. While at the time I thought I was doing the right thing for my family, when I read readers’ comments, I felt as if I were on Nickelodeon, in one of those scenes when an unsuspecting person has an entire bucket of green slime dumped on her head.

Readers sneered at my decision to purge my home of toxics when I was pregnant, calling me a control freak with mental health issues. More than one actually suggested that I had obsessive compulsive disorder. There was a certain amount of denial in the comments — an attitude that if something hasn’t killed us by now, it’s probably fine.

Given this response, I’ve been fascinated to watch the public outcry following disclosures that sellers of ground beef have been adding so-called “pink slime” to ground meat to save money. This stuff, officially called “lean finely textured beef.” is made by gassing and repackaging “lean trimmings” from the slaughterhouse floor. After a strong show of public outrage, grocery stores and restaurants have been dropping the stuff like a rotten egg.

Meanwhile, the meat industry has gone on the defensive. Even food-safety heroes like Marion Nestle concede that “pink slime” – despite being a low-quality version of “food” that should really only be suitable for pets and is disgusting to contemplate – is, as the Obama administration has said, safe to eat.

But what if I told you that a far more dangerous type of “pink slime” was actually all over your house and is still all over mine? I’m exaggerating, of course (likely due to my OCD). But hear me out.

Petrochemicals, as we all know, are the basis for plastics. The polyurethane foam in furniture and baby products? Courtesy of the oil industry. As Theo Colborn, a pioneer on chemical health issues, writes in the introduction to “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” “[w]hen one considers that almost all of the common hormone-disrupting chemicals are derived from oil and natural gas, one can begin to understand why the public does not know the nature of these toxic chemicals, their source, and how and where they have entered our lives.”

Preservatives in cosmetics, flame retardants in furniture, even common ingredients in food are derived from – or are – petrochemicals. Just like pink slime, the by-products of oil production are given a home among the multisyllabic lists of chemicals in ordinary household products, both as a way to find a disposal location for them and to sell them for profit.

In my opinion, this is to be expected: companies will sell what they have any way they can. It is even, you might say, “natural” for corporations to try turn a penny off their garbage. If the impacts on human health weren’t so devastating, and if they told us what they were doing and gave us a choice, well, it might be fine. It would at least be better.

Obviously, though, that’s not what happens. Instead, the things we buy are riddled through with oil-knows-what. Attempts to ban harmful chemicals have to move forward one by one with repeated scientific trials, each regulatory judgment fought tooth-and-nail by the industry. And the chemical/oil industry too often prevails, as happened with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s recent absurd failure to ban bisphenol-A, a dangerous chemical in plastic that’s been linked to obesity, endocrine disorders, diabetes, behavioral problems and reproductive health impacts.

We used to think pollution was out there, like the burning Cuyahoga River. It’s profoundly uncomfortable, instead, to acknowledge that it has intruded where we need to feel safe: in our homes and even our bodies.

No one really knows the compounding effects of, for example, the chemicals that act like hormones in our plastics when combined with the traces of birth control pills in our drinking water. As just one example, I am concerned about my daughter’s health in light of the possibility that hormones in products could be factors in the early onset of puberty among American girls, a widespread phenomenon.

Those who criticized me on The New York Times website were right about one thing: knowing about all this stuff does sometimes feel like enough to drive you crazy. That’s why I think that there should be rules that prevent products from entering the stream of commerce until they are proven to be safe, to replace the current standard of, basically, “whatever.”

So, in the face of all the uncertainty about health impacts from toxics, maybe I am a control freak. That is, if being a control freak means that I try to control my family’s exposure to harmful chemicals – or even those that just could be harmful. I don’t want to hand over the responsibility to some oil exec who would like to use our homes and lives as a place to store his leftover gunk.

But the sad truth is that it’s practically impossible to control altogether our exposures to the many chemicals in our cars, in the air and dust and in furniture and household items. I know too much to think I can control it all. And even when I’m making judgment calls, it’s far more difficult than it should be to know whom (and what) to trust.

Like every family, we are doing the best we can, given our limited information, time and budget. I believe this is normally called “parenting.” After all, someone is making all the decisions about what we’re exposed to and what the ingredients in everything are. For my daughter’s sake, I only wish it were me.

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Toddler-Friendly Vegetable Chicken “Magic” Soup

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Like the wonderful children’s book, Stone Soup, this recipe — or rather, technique (such as it is) — makes do with whatever you may have on hand. I’ve probably made it at least once a month since Maya was six months old, because, like magic, veggies disappear!

It also works for babies, pureed in a blender, for a very healthy and fresh baby food.

The basic technique is incredibly simple — boil a whole chicken until done to make a simple broth, sauté vegetables and spices, chop up the chicken and combine. Cook a while, then add fresh lemon and herbs just before serving.

Sometimes when I’ve made it, it turns out better than others, based on the particular vegetables and flavor combinations. Maya doesn’t really seem to notice, either way. She likes the nourishing, mild broth and mix of vegetables softened in the soup.

But if you’re planning to serve it as a meal for everyone, certainly pay attention to the mixture of flavors, and add more salt, pepper and lemon at the table. My husband adds harissa as well, for heat.

It will make a good week of lunches. And it freezes well, so having a good-sized batch is useful. I use stainless steel ice cube trays, the old-fashioned kind.

In addition, you can save the bones and trimmings, as well as any vegetable parings, in a freezer bag for making stock. An excellent set of tips for that is here. The cost savings, in comparison to buying organic vegetable and chicken stock, are considerable.

My latest batch included a lot of fennel, as well as fennel tops at the end. I do not recommend this, as it ended up too fennel-rific. But a smaller amount (i.e., less than a whole large bulb), should be fine.

It’s delicious over brown rice or pasta. By day three, I also usually add cheese on top, to keep Maya’s interest. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

One whole young (organic, pasture-raised) chicken

(organic) Butter or oil

1 large (organic) Onion (white or yellow)

Garlic — 3-4 cloves

2 (organic) Lemons

Dried herbs: I like Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Oregano, and Savory, 1 Tbl or so of each

Salt and Pepper (minimal if serving to children)

Fresh Herbs: Cilantro, Parsley, Carrot Greens

Vegetables can include: (organic) Peas, Carrots, Broccoli, Spinach, Chard or Kale (de-spined and chopped), Fennel, Celery, Green Beans, Summer Squash, Zucchini, Tomatoes, Parsnips, even Jerusalem Artichoke

Starch and/or Legumes can include: (Eden Organic or another BPA-free brand, if using canned, drained and rinsed) White or Red beans or Chickpeas, (organic) Potatoes, Corn (including frozen)

Directions:

Using a large pot, cover the chicken in (filtered) water and bring to a boil on the stove over medium heat. Simmer for 45 minutes to one hour.

While that is cooking, rough-chop the vegetables as needed.  Saute onions and garlic in the butter or oil in a large pot (this can be done in a series if you only have one pot large enough). Add the dried herbs, salt and pepper, and vegetables and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have started to lose moisture. Then add the beans, potatoes or corn and stir over heat for 10-15 minutes. If using potatoes, cook until done. Let rest until the chicken is ready. (If adding spinach, wait to add that with the fresh herbs, close to the end, as directed below.)

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked and almost falling off the bone, lift it out of the liquid carefully onto a plate and let it cool for a few minutes. Take the meat off the bones, using your hands as needed, and rough chop (in smaller pieces if you plan to freeze it). It may be a bit stringy, so keep an eye on making it small enough for a toddler to grapple with. Scoop any chicken residues out of the broth.

Add the vegetable mixture, chicken and broth together and heat through. Add in generous amounts of fresh lemon juice, to taste, and fresh herbs (and any spinach). Stir until wilted, and serve, with lemon wedges if desired.

Adopted with modifications from “Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler,” by Norah O’Donnell and Chef Geoff Tracy.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

Just Those Silly Women, At It Again (Responding to Badinter)

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John S...

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John Smith (died 1743). National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal books page included a breathtakingly vicious attack on moms and families that practice more natural approaches to parenting, in the form of a book review for French writer Elisabeth Badinter’s new hatchet job on modern feminism called “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

Review author Molly Guinness nods inanely along with much of Badinter’s “argument” that, for example, “naturalism” in childbirth, breastfeeding and co-sleeping are problematic because they place too many demands on mothers and render fathers less relevant.

Notably, the book is not yet available in print in the U.S., and few facts are shared in support of this perspective. Yet Guinness deems it even more salient in the U.S., where, she alleges, without irony, that “a vast industry peddling organic baby foods and anxiety is sucking the joy out of motherhood.”

She also points out with patent admiration the “fact-y facts” that French women reportedly feel no compunction in packing their newborns off to daycare right after they’re born, and that this lack of attention to their children renders them sexier, and far more willing to recommence their wifely duties towards their, in turn, more manly, fulfilled husbands. Guinness admiringly calls this “grown-up.” Labeling co-sleeping and “militant” breastfeeding “aggressively antisexual,” she actually praises French doctors who ask new mothers the somewhat creepy question, “Is Monsieur happy?” (IMHO, the only appropriate answer: Well, I just delivered him a baby.)

(Pained side-note: if I read one more fact-deprived paean to the alleged superiority of French parenting skills, I swear that I will make protest art out of a rotten wheel of brie. And send the horrible image around on the Interwebs. I lived in France, and from my sample size of, well, me, I can say with real confidence: they’re not that great. And the men are shaped like cigarettes. And they have lots more financial support and paid leave than we do, including home visits from nurses when they are pregnant. Etc. Duh.)

In some small way, I guess it’s good news that conservatives have evidently dialed from “Freedom Fries” all the way back to just “French.” The title of the review – “Women’s War on Women – makes it all too clear why the Journal is keen to promote Badinter. It even helpfully connects the dots on the recent faux outrage from conservative circles over Hilary Rosen’s unhelpfully disparaging comment about Ann Romney’s lack of qualifications to set economic policy.

Most have moved on from this non-issue. But the Journal persists. If the “War on Women” can be recast as a girl-fight jello wrestling match, the jerky men’s club who rigged an mostly-male Congressional hearing on birth control gets off the hook. Conservatives would obviously like nothing better than for us to reimagine their latest round of attacks on women’s rights as another tragic, contested chapter in the Mommy Wars: just those silly women, at it again.

Amanda Marcotte’s insightful take-down of the right’s false sanctimony about the “hard job” of motherhood is well worth a read. As she also points out, the hypocrisy of conservatives’ reverence for stay-at-home-moms was exposed when Mitt Romney’s statements from recently as January surfaced about the need for low-income women, even those with young children at home, to work outside their home in order to get any access to basic financial supports for their family.

But Guinness is basically on board. She picks up on Badinter’s bizarre argument about contraception, which evidently, because it gives women a choice about having a child, creates an “infinite debt” and leads to “extreme mothering.” Neither of them consider that being able to choose to have a child actually means that women may want (and be able) to make space to value the process of parenting – that volition leads to the urge to be a better mother.

And there’s certainly no mention of the research on child development, summarized nicely in this book, that shows, pretty unequivocally, that healthy brain development in children ages birth to three depends upon their sense of security in the world, their social bonding with parents and caregivers, and the flow of good communication. The science backs up “attachment parenting” theories, but is in no small tension with the fact that, unless you’re the Romneys, most families need two incomes to survive. And those who do choose to stay at home pay a steep price in career advancement as well as income. Badinter thinks that decision is the problem; while I think that penalty is.

Moms who are aware of this, and have to go to work anyway, like me, probably do seek to compensate for their away time by bonding with their child in such crazy, unnatural ways as co-sleeping (like millions of families do around the world). How this harms anyone is beyond me. And rather than pitting me against my husband, he seems rather on board with the whole thing, because, you know, he’s science-y and all.

Here’s a big problem both Badinter and Guinness appear to miss: you know what really “sucks the joy” out of being a mother? Answer: An unwanted, unintended pregnancy. If contraception drives us to extreme mothering, but we’re supposed to remain always ready-to-go for the sake of our husbands, um, we’re all going to have to deal with this one, over and over again. That’s a lot of babies to kinda’ ignore.

Also on my joy-sucking list for motherhood generally: having to worry about hormone-like chemicals inside the lids of ready-to-use formula and baby food jars. Or, say, IQ- and fertility-lowering pollutants in my sofa, nursing pillow and car seat.

I would have to say that it did “suck the joy” out of motherhood, just a bit, for me to have to spend 20 hours or so over the past month researching where to get an affordable, environmentally healthy new sofa given that the chemical companies evidently have purchased a stranglehold on lawmakers in Sacramento, California, 2000 miles or so from my home. So there’s that.

Neither Badinter nor Guinness specifiy whether we’re supposed to just stop buying organic foods, or whether we should actually go ahead and affirmatively sprinkle, say, lawn pesticides, on our children’s Cheerios for added crunch. Of course, Badinter is sitting prettier on this one than we are. France actively bans many genetically modified organisms, and all of Europe has far better chemical standards than we do here. Under a law known as the REACH treaty, many chemicals must be proven to be safe before the chemical companies can put them in our bodies. (Funny story: European lawmakers were so utterly appalled by the hardball lobbying tactics used when REACH was being contemplated that they called us at Public Citizen to help them design some half-decent lobbying and ethics rules. We recognized the insidious tactics they described from, er, basically every regulatory skirmish in the U.S.) I wonder if parental outrage about potential health impacts was a factor in European governments’ choices to make any of these protective decisions…

And I can go on from here. Yes I can. For me, and I’m just speaking for me here, what really sucks the joy out of the so-important job of being a mother is the fact that we have no mandatory maternity leave in this country. That our child care tax credits are so misaligned with the actual costs of childcare it’s laughable. In fact, it’s hilarious.

Or that it took until last year for the federal government to admit breastfeeding equipment is a medical expense that we can pay for with pre-tax dollars, thereby saddling my family with thousands in higher out-of-pocket medical costs. Or, thanks to politicians like Romney, that low-income women don’t get any monetary credit at all for working to care for their children in their own home, even today.

To state the obvious: while we all now expect women to work outside the home, the actual feminist agenda of making society support the multiple roles women are supposed to play never got finished. Instead, the right pays lip service to family values while screwing women in policy and fact, and the left never seems to get around to taking our needs seriously on the big structural questions that impact women’s choices and lives.

Meanwhile, we go to work and come home, and co-sleep with our kids. And, yes, thanks, it does feel like a lot to ask of mothers to balance all these demands on their time. But asking us to care less about our children as a means to get it all done, or to stop worrying about all those pesky pesticides in our water and food, is not exactly a reliable way to restore whatever delusionally “joyful” experience of motherhood supposedly pre-dated the current moment.

Instead, we need a plan to actually support good parenting, one that really delivers for families, so that we can focus on our needs and be less stretched for time and money. Maybe, just for giggles, we should check out all the supports that they supposedly have in France.

Women engaged in the new domesticity, or good parenting, or whatever you want to call it, are not backwards looking. Instead, they’re just trying to make good on unfinished business: the core promise that feminism once made that women should be able to freely choose the values that will determine their lives.

Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA

Credit: Darren Higgins

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, On Earth, 4/18/2012.

When the New York Times ran a snarky story under a picture of my daughter, Maya, a few weeks ago describing my efforts to rid my home of toxic chemicals, you can bet the comments from readers were merciless. Readers accused me of trying to keep my child in a bubble and mocked me as yet another privileged, neurotic helicopter mom.

Truth be told, instead of a posh housewife, for years I was a cash-strapped public interest lawyer who roamed the halls of Congress with brokenhearted families after some federal agency had failed to protect them. I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover tragedy and the discovery of lead in children’s toys from China, among other disasters for public health. So when I had my own child, it seemed important to think through the risks to her health for myself.

Still, the pointed comments got me thinking: are moms, and parents generally, bad or good at predicting risks to children? I’ve decided that while parents might not be perfect, we’re a good sight better than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contrary to stereotype, moms (and dads) are actually expert risk assessors. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say that risk assessment is a major part of the job. Parents constantly measure both the benefits and risks to their child, of say, crossing the street, eating that suspect ball-park hot dog, going to summer camp, or even, as at my house, playing on our splinter-filled back deck (allowed, but shoes required).

On the other hand, we have the FDA. Eleven states, and at least eight countries, including Canada, China, and the European Union, have already banned Bisphenol-A — a dangerous chemical added to plastic food containers and can linings — in some or all products. Hoping to head off more comprehensive rules, the chemical industry in the U.S. even asked regulators last September for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Nonetheless, the FDA recently decided to keep exposing all of us to BPA, which shows up in the urine of 93 percent of Americans. This was a big step backward from the agency’s public position in 2010, which said that BPA was of “some concern” with regard to health impacts like early puberty and prostate cancer. That statement was based on a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.”

Four long years later (a period which included the birth of my daughter in 2010), the FDA’s disappointing decision to punt left in its wake a dizzying array of contradictory messages for the public on the safety of BPA. While FDA said that its recent decision was not a final determination and that it would continue to study the issue, the chemical industry’s flacks said the decision meant that BPA “is safe for use in food-contact materials.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, states that “[i]t is clear that the government… need[s] more research to better understand the potential human health effects of exposure to BPA, especially when it comes to the impact of BPA exposure on young children.” HHS also provides recommendations to parents about “minimizing BPA exposure,” including helpful information on BPA levels in various types of containers for infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding. This is in marked contrast to the cursory, lame non-guidance from the FDA, which states “FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods.”

Really? No changes? It’s shocking that in the face of health concerns that even the government has acknowledged, FDA won’t provide a shred of guidance for pregnant women and parents about how to minimize exposure for their baby. How about the obvious: families should avoid baby bottles with BPA in them, ready-to-use formulas and baby foods with BPA in the lining of lids, and canned foods with a BPA lining. Or that pregnant women, like the one working the cash register at my local café last week, should avoid handling receipts and money, which have been shown to be covered in unbound BPA?

In the face of such indifference to the risks, I’ll just point out the clear superiority of parents as deciders. In fact, parents generally make balanced — and protective — choices, weighing both benefits and risks. Kids can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble, sure, so parents do the best they can with the information that they have. But when they think about the downsides, they also make a very precise accounting, a moral and ethical accounting, you might say, that reflects the place in their heart occupied by their own child.

Parents everywhere take note: this kind of protective approach should also be the yardstick used by government when it assesses the risks to its citizens. When I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover disaster, accompanying the mother of a dead 18-year-old boy to her senator’s office to argue for more protective auto safety rules, what she expressed most poignantly, besides the devastating impact of her loss, was her profound, tragic heartbreak that she “didn’t know” about this risk — that she “didn’t know” that the government would allow things to be sold that were unsafe — that she assumed, in fact, that government would view the life and health of her child in the same loving, protective way she did.

If only it were so. When the FDA and White House play politics with our health and lives, when regulators admit a chemical in our food supply is unsafe yet refuse to even offer adequate guidelines for parents to protect their babies and children, and when a potential threat to our health is so impossible to avoid, we need a new, and far better, ethic for assessing risks and the safety of families.

We should enact laws that require products to be proven to be safe before our children and families can be exposed. And in the case of FDA, we shouldn’t tolerate these ridiculous waiting games. The agency should meet its legal obligation to protect the public from chemicals that can reach our food supply and have not been proven to be safe. That would be a government that only a mother could love.

A Few Stray Thoughts on the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting

People with children always smile at you with an odd mixture of actual apparent happiness and schadenfreude when they learn that you are expecting your own child. It’s a warning, really, along with the empty phrases about how your life will be upended.

Obviously, any prospective parent is likely anticipating “a major life change” when the baby arrives. But there are many moving parts that no one really tells you, and maybe no one can. Or maybe you’re better off not really knowing. Regardless, here’s my feeble attempt to fill in a few blanks.

First, it’s terrifying. Ok, that may be self-evident. But what was news to me at least was that the scariest part was not the responsibility per se, but my new vulnerability from loving another new person that incredibly much. The equation, mathematically speaking, was her vulnerability (as a brand-new naked presence in the world), to the power of my vulnerability (basically, a bottomless love). Put a number on that and tell me what it adds up to. Please.

Second, it’s exhausting. Past the power of words to describe, really. At 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 in the morning. It’s a long performance beyond the realm of any reasonable physical endurance. Sometimes, you doubt you can do it. You pray for relief, and think your limbs will, quite literally, fall off. Yet most days, the energy for being present comes from somewhere, into your hands, and you work with whatever shows up for you in that moment.

I always think of the time, sitting across from an acquaintance with two kids, when Maya was eight months old, and I asked a little piteously, with a perceptible tremble in my voice, whether the sleeping got any better, any time soon. She didn’t want to say at first. She just had pity in her eyes. When I pushed her, she sighed. “It does get better,” she said, “and then again, it really doesn’t.”

Third, you disappear, never to return. Having a baby at the age of 38, after a decade of a career, and drinks whenever I wanted with friends, and a life of sparkly self-absorption, was, it should be clear, a bit of an adjustment. The sheer ego displacement, in which space once explicitly reserved for “me” is now almost fully occupied by someone else, can feel as though the oxygen has left the room.

The air does slowly come back in, and physical and mental space gradually reappears. But the person left now in the room is different, less complete. There will always be my heart somewhere out there, walking around outside my body.

Fourth, for parenting to work at all, you have to wear it lightly. With intention, but riddled through with joy. Despite the intensity of the emotional tightrope you walk, your child must feel the bond of an attachment that is supportive, not clutching, that celebrates without fear, one that extends itself without concern for loss.

And this is the most selfless, and self-abnegating act of all, because to do it well means the credit will never be yours. To bear everything, to figure out how it must work, and never leave it on the too-slim shoulders of a child.

To be the authority you never really wanted in your life, and then to let it go, to claim the power and give it away, as the adventure asks. And to do it all with ease, with grace, as though there was a plan, a script, some place the two of you just might be going that, as it so happens, you’ve never really been before.

So thanks, dear Mom and Dad. I don’t need to tell you that I may have thought I knew some things. But this, I didn’t know.

My Troubles with Teflon

Jokes about abusive relationships are, by definition, Not Funny. They are also tasteless and a tad tawdry, much like my former relationship with my darling Teflon.

I now remember, with a little wince, how I spent years worrying over my Teflon, examining its placid, emotionless face for scratches and dings, using only the gentlest soaps and utensils, in the vain hope of somehow keeping it pristine and untroubled.

I babied it, frankly, fussing at those around me to treat it similarly with a ginger hand, somehow believing that if only the surface would remain unscathed, things would be all right.

Now I wonder, from the other side of things, why was I so scared? Why couldn’t I just leave it behind me? Was I perturbed by the thought of less perfectly formed eggs? Of spending precious time scrubbing that brownish cooked-egg scrum from the corners of some other, lesser, pan??

It was only when I learned about its sordid past, its ugly history of broken lives in a small town in West Virginia, that I knew that one of us had to change, and that one of us was me.

My problem was not really the Teflon itself, but the bad company it keeps – the PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid) used to make it stick evenly to a pan.

To be clear, PFOAs (or precursor chemicals called “fluorotelomers” that break down into PFOAs in the environment) are also used in Gore-tex, Stainmaster, and carpets. And popcorn microwave bag linings, and the inside of some fast food containers.

Think really slick stuff. PFOAs are one slippery character, biologically speaking, as well. They’ve been found in animals in the Arctic, and – charmingly – form some of the strongest chemical bonds chemists have ever seen.

The best part? They bio-accumulate in humans and animals, persisting, basically, well, scientists don’t really know how long, but likely approaching something like, uh, forever.

How bad are PFOAs?

On this question, as with so many others, the government is not of much help. The Environmental Protection Agency, in an early draft of a risk assessment, labeled it a “likely human carcinogen” in 2005.

The agency has since stalled on the question. The agency’s Web site now says both that “EPA is still in the process of evaluating this information and has not made any definitive conclusions regarding potential risks, including cancer, at this time,” and that the agency, in “January 2006…asked eight companies in the industry to commit to reducing PFOA from facility emissions and product content by 95 percent no later than 2010, and to work toward eliminating PFOA from emissions and product content no later than 2015.” My translation: it may cause cancer. Please take a decade to stop using it.

Clearer, and helpful as usual, is Wikipedia:

[PFOA] is a toxicant and carcinogen in animals. PFOA has been detected in the blood of more than 98% of the general US population in the low and sub-parts per billion range, and levels are higher in chemical plant employees and surrounding subpopulations. 

 The floodwall of Parkersburg, West Virginia, a...

For evidence of this, look to “Teflon Town” – Parkersburg, West Virginia, the only place in the U.S. where PFOA is manufactured. Just today, one of the largest research studies on chemicals ever attempted announced a conclusion, after looking at the problem for over four years, that PFOAs are causally linked to prostate and testicular cancer.

For some of its residents, who fought an Erin Brockovich-level struggle against the hegemony of DuPont, this is welcome knowledge, but really not news.

PFOA had been leaching into drinking water in nearby Little Hocking, Ohio. After it was dumped near the property and stream of farmers Jim and Della Tennant in the 1990s, here’s what Della told NPR happened to her cows:

“It had the most terrifying bawl, and every time it would open its mouth and bawl, blood would gush from its mouth…And whenever you think about feeding all those animals to your children, all the time they were growing up, it’s something that puts a lump in your throat you can’t take away.”

The Tennants settled their dumping claim with DuPont in 2001. But that left the drinking water issue.

As movingly described in Chapter 4 of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” Parkersburg citizens received a mysterious letter around the same time of the Tennants’ settlement, stating that PFOA levels in the water were safe – based on the considered judgment of PFOA-maker DuPont.

Oddly, they weren’t reassured. They subsequently waged an unpopular campaign to bring the issues involving one of the town’s largest employers into the light, bringing suit against DuPont, and winning a novel settlement.

The EPA also sued DuPont, for failing to disclose that workers at the plant had PFOA in their blood, proving that the company knew it starting at least as early as 1981. DuPont was fined a record $16.5 million in 2005.

That lawsuit also turned up disturbing evidence that DuPont knew of health risks from PFOA way back in 1961, when rats exposed to PFOA had enlarged livers even after relatively low dose-exposures.

Most revoltingly, in 1981, when DuPont conducted a study of female workers to see if birth defects were present among their children, it found that two workers out of eight had children possessing similar defects in the eye and facial area. Although these findings were like the birth defects found in their study of rats, the company merely transferred the workers, halted the study, and buried the results.

The citizen lawsuit also got results, including a $71 million health and education project, a water treatment facility, and a landmark agreement to let a $20 million Science Panel conduct a detailed study of the health of town residents, to evaluate the link between PFOA exposure and health harms.

If the panel does find a link, DuPont must pay up to $235 million to cover medical costs for those harmed. (Although this sounds like a lot, as Smith and Lourie point out, it’s really chump change when considered against the $3 billion in profits the company made in, for example, 2007.)

So, after years of study, and a record number of blood samples from town residents (totaling some 70,000), the second set of conclusions are in. The first set of findings found a “probable link” between PFOA exposure and dangerous high blood pressure among pregnant women. It also found no link between PFOA exposure and birth defects and adult-onset diabetes, and some types of cancers.

Today’s announcement from the Science Panel was as follows:

The only two cancers where the Panel found a reasonably consistent and strong relationship between past exposure and cancer were testicular cancer and kidney cancer. Both…are rare. In the Science Panel data there were 19 confirmed cases of testicular cancer and 113 confirmed cases of kidney cancer. After dividing the population into four categories…the kidney cancer rate in the upper categories of the population was 20%, 40%, and 60% higher for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quartile compared to those with the lowest exposure. For testicular cancer the corresponding numbers were 80%, 120%, and 170% higher for the upper quartiles compared to the lowest.

The panel will wrap up its work by June of this year.

So, what to make of all this? After all, at least eight manufacturers claim to be phasing out PFOAs (though they are replacing them, at least in some cases, with chemically-similar substances).

Depressingly, cooking pans may not be the biggest source of contamination for PFOAs, as long as you always cook on low heat and never leave the pan empty (which I know we did, as I remember scolding my husband over it at least once, because I evidently privileged the health of my abusive Teflon boyfriend over him).

The Teflon itself starts to off-gas at around 390°F, and at close to 500°F, you actually get a dangerous breakdown of the pan. While this sounds super-hot, a study in 2003 by the Environmental Working Group found that pans can actually get well over 700°F in 3 to 5 minutes. And there’s the issue of the non-stick coating under the burner area on the stove, or under the broiler. Fumes from over-heated pans can kill birds, and also have negative health effects for humans. So there’s that.

Basically, although avoiding PFOAs is evidently impossible even if you move to the Arctic, we do the following:

1)    We chucked our non-stick everything. Like Tribbles, non-stick coatings were slyly hiding everywhere – the rice cooker, sandwich press, muffin tins, as well as frying pans. I recognize that DuPont says that there is little exposure from this cookware (uh, ok), but I don’t want to have to worry about off-gassing, heating points, and the like, and the story about Parkersburg really ticks me off, more or less on principle.

We found a rice cooker, which we use all the time, with a stainless steel bowl on Amazon. We use enameled cast iron for every day, and regular cast iron when we have a big frying job. (Except for with tomatoes or acidic foods, as the iron leaches too much.) I don’t miss non-stick, really. Plenty of oil and a little extra scrubbin’ pretty much makes it work.

2)    For carpets, furniture, and the like, we don’t use or have applied any stainmaster treatments. (I actively regret, but have not bothered to replace, the small loveseat purchased in the mid-90s with the stain-resistant shellack.) When I buy carpets, I look for organic untreated wool in colors that show fewer stains. Cheap carpets, I assume, are full of PFOAs and other ick.

for microwave ovens, popped state.

3)    We avoid stain-resistant clothing and Gore-Tex. And microwave popcorn, which tastes like buttery Gore-Tex anyway.

4)    I turned back the allegedly “green and non-toxic” carpet cleaning guy, after he got to my house, because he couldn’t tell me what was in the murky blue liquid. Who knows? He certainly didn’t. I’ll just have to vacuum more.

5)    We use green cleaners. Which I’m sure helps with a number of chemical hazards.

6)   Because these kinds of chemicals are used, willy-nilly, to keep greasy fast food from sticking to containers, there’s yet another health-related reason not to eat, or let Maya eat, fast food.

Still, we know it’s all around us and in our blood along with most Americans. As Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie write (at 73), in comparison to, say, Love Canal and other local eco-tragedies:

The story of Parkersburg may be the first environmental-disaster story in which a [corporation in a] small town is also responsible for contaminating the entire world and almost every living thing in it.

Yikes. That’s one hell of a bad relationship.

A Salad with Soul: Roja’s Couscous Tossed Green Salad

Most salads, in my view, are insipid, unremarkable little creatures – hardly worthy of mention, must less a recipe. It’s harder to find an interesting salad than it is to find an honest politician.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when my dear friend Roja Najafi, on a family vakay with us, tricked us into eating her delicious couscous affair on not just one but several nights. In a row. Impressive, indeed.

After my plea for this recipe, on the theory that it might continue to work its magic for my family’s willingness to consume raw greenery, Roja was kind enough to share it, with pictures, instructions and even a soulful blessing, wonderfully enough.

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Roja’s Couscous Salad with Saffron & Beets

This is a very humble recipe, and by this I mean it tolerates change and welcomes creativity. I drastically change the ingredients based on the poverty or prosperity of my fridge. Couscous, saffron, beet, lime/lemon juice and fresh herbs are the constant actors of this play!

The Way I Do It: I rinse all vegetables, fruits, and grains, before cooking, chopping, and eating. For this salad, I chop the veggies finely. I usually use less salt and more black pepper compared to the normal taste.

Ingredients:

1 cup of dry couscous (prepare couscous according to the package directions. I add couscous to the boiling water with a dash of salt, 1tablespoon olive oil & ¼ tablespoon ground Saffron.)

2 average carrots, (grind or chop finely.)

2 average beets, (boil for 20min or until tender. Chop when it is not hot.)

1cup of lentils, (cooked, I switch between black beans and lentils.)

½ cup of chopped almond (you can go by any nuts of your choice or non at all.)

1 average cucumber (slice it as you wish, I chop it finely.)

½ cup of fresh mint (or any aromatic herbs you have available: cilantro, parsley, basil, work well with this salad.)

1 head of lettuce (chopped)

2-3 fresh lime or lemon, (juice it fresh!)

Vinegar (use it as much as you like and any kind you wish.)

Salt & Black Pepper (I go with more pepper and less salt.)

3-4 Tablespoon of Olive Oil

Fresh Fruits: If I have available fresh fruits at home I always add them to this salad. I have liked the result with fresh apples, peaches, grapefruits and nectarines.

Directions:

1- Prepare your couscous based on the basic recipe on the package.  While the water is boiling, or immediately after you add the couscous to the boiling water, add saffron!

2- Cook the beets. Let it cool down and chop after cooling.

3- Cook the lentils. Add a bit of salt if you wish. Drain the extra water.

4- Grind or chop the carrots, place them on the bottom of your serving dish and add vinegar. Let the carrots sit in the vinegar while you are chopping the rest of the veggies. If you’s like, add onions to this salad by mixing them with the carrots and soaking them in the vinegar. This basically cooks the carrots and onions in the acid.

5- Prepare the rest of your veggies and mix them up. Add them to the carrots. Add the beets and lentils. Add your fresh fruits now! Pour the lemon/lime juice on your fresh fruits.

6- Keep couscous for last. After adding the couscous, pour the olive oil on the top. Add salt and black pepper to your liking. Mix well!

7- Enjoy! Noush-e Jaan! (Sweet to Your Soul!) Bon Appétit!

Sofa Saga, Part 3: Interview with Flame Retardants Expert, Heather Stapleton

By almost any measure, Duke University Environmental Chemistry professor Heather Stapleton is, well, a bit of a Superhero.

Her Super-powers include: not taking the words “it’s proprietary” too seriously; using x-ray vision to pierce through the truth of greenwashing labels (an ability amply demonstrated below); and caring far more about the safety and health of your children than the chemical companies (ok, maybe that last one sets a very low bar).

Stapleton was among the first to notice that indoor air pollution – rather than pollution outdoors – might be the pathway by which stuff used in televisions and sofas started showing up in our environment. When studying a particular type of flame retardants, PBDEs, she decided to measure the levels in samples of indoor air and dust from inside homes. As the authors of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” explain (at 113):

 She was shocked at the results. Levels of flame retardants were much higher than she had expected….“When we presented this, it really opened people’s eyes. It made sense. It all fell into place. It was a different paradign about how we think about the sources of, and exposure to, these compounds.” It turns out that PBDEs leach out of the products they are put into: the squishy foam in a sofa, the padding in a mattress and the back of a TV set.

So imagine my delight when Stapleton agreed to an email interview for my series of posts noodling over the unsavory questions raised by my sofa’s apparent role in filling my home with toxic dust bunnies. (Yes, that’s the sofa’s fault, entirely.)

 My questions:

1)  Why did you start researching flame retardants in furniture?

I’ve been researching flame retardants since graduate school. As a graduate student, I was interested in how the chemicals were accumulating in wildlife and how they were metabolized, but then my interests moved more towards understanding human exposure and health effects. This naturally led me into analyzing consumer products to better understand which chemicals were being used as flame retardants in products and to collect information on the levels used in these products.

2)  What has your research found about the prevalence of flame retardants? What are they doing in baby strollers?

Some flame retardants are now considered ubiquitous. They are present everywhere, from the dust in our living rooms and bedrooms to the air in the North Pole. They are unfortunately applied to numerous baby products, including strollers, because these products contain polyurethane foam, and some agencies consider these products to be “juvenile furniture.” According to a California state law, juvenile furniture has to meet a flammability standard. And the only way to meet this standard in a product containing foam, is to add these types of chemical flame retardants.

[Note: Just last year, California evidently revised its rule on juvenile furniture to clarify that strollers, nursing pillows and infant carriers are now exempt from the requirement for flame retardants. While common sense prevailed, older items, and even newer items that still may comply with the law, would still have the chemicals in them.]

 3) What does the research show is the harm, in brief, of these chemicals? (If you’d like to separate PBDEs, Tris and Firemaster 550, that would be fine of course. Is there any new research on harms of Firemaster, in particular?)

This is a difficult question to ask. We know much more about PBDEs than we do FM 550 or TDCPP (the primary Tris…there are actually many different types of Tris…so use caution in using this term).

TDCPP is a suspected carcinogen and other “Tris” chemicals are known carcinogens (e.g., TCEP).

Some of our research has shown that TDCPP is just as potent a neurotoxicant as the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos had its indoor permit withdrawn by the EPA due to concerns about neurotoxicity.

And FireMaster 550 contains chemicals that may also be neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors…we’re trying to evaluate this now. We just don’t know much at all about FM 550, yet we know that people, are particularly children, are receiving chronic exposure to FM 550 in their homes through contact with indoor dust particles (the same pathway as PBDEs).

 4) What should consumers do to minimize exposure to these chemicals?

Support legislative efforts to prohibit use of these chemicals in products, particularly baby products. There is actually no proof at all that these chemicals reduce the fire hazards of furniture (NONE- zippo!). There is a lot of mis-information spread by the chemical industry on this point. Most people assume that these chemicals prevent products from catching on fire, but they do not.

They are suppose to slow down the rate at which the product burns, but some tests shows that this only slows down the rate by maybe 2-3 seconds. In addition, by having flame retardants in the foam, you generate more smoke, soot and carbon monoxide when they burn, which is a concern because many people die of smoke inhalation during a fire. So one might actually argue that the presence of these chemicals in foam containing furniture increases fire hazards!

But to reduce exposure, the only suggestion we can offer is to avoid buying products that contain foam (and are more likely to contain flame retardants), and wash your hands often.  Our recent studies demonstrate that people are more likely to have higher exposure and body burdens if they wash their hands less frequently.  Washing hands is always a good practice for all health concerns!

 5) What do you do in your home to minimize exposure?

It’s very hard to minimize exposure.  The furniture in my house is manufactured in Italy by a manufacturer who does not make furniture to meet the California flammability standard. While it’s great, it’s also much more expensive that most furniture solid in the US.  And for most of our baby products I was able to find flame retardant free products by searching for products that do not contain polyurethane foam.  Most products that contain polyester filling do not need flame retardant chemicals to meet the California standard.

6) Is it possible to avoid flame retardant chemicals in older furniture? Is there a date before which they may safer?

Flame retardants have been in use in different applications and products for several decades, at least as early as the 1970s, and maybe earlier.   No, there is no way to know if older furniture contains flame retardants, but it’s very likely that it will have flame retardants if the furniture contains polyurethane foam AND contains a label indicating that it meets the flammability requirements of CA TB 117.

7) One small furniture maker, Eco-Select Furniture, in NC, sent me their foam label. I would very interested in your view on what is likely to be the chemical used.

The label you sent is simply an advertisement for the Certipur program. This is a program developed by US polyurethane foam manufacturers to demonstrate environmental stewardship.  It means that the foam used in that product has been tested for several known toxins including VOCs, metals and a few flame retardants.

But the product can certainly still contain a flame retardant and have the Certipur label.

There are many in use on the market today that are not tested in the Certipur program and for which we have concerns about health effects (e.g., Firemaster 550, V6, triarylphosphates, etc.).  If the product has a Certipur Label AND a label indicating that it meets CA TB 117, it still has a flame retardant in it, then that Certipur label only means that it does not have PBDEs (which were phased out in 2005 anyway) or Chlorinated Tris.

8) What is the impediment to fixing the California law so that these chemicals are only in products as needed?

Yeah, that is the million dollar question. Unfortunately, I think any attempt to change the CA law is going to be hampered by the chemical companies lobbyists who spread misinformation and use scare tactics to impede the truth and prevent any legislation from passing.