Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles

My short backstage video for the Anderson appearance this week highlighted how small changes can make a big difference, and that got me thinking about the serious problem of information overload.

The truth is, once you start taking the issue of chemicals and environmental health seriously, it can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, the thing I hear most from people is that they “don’t want to know” about toxics, because they fear it will drive them batty to have to think this hard about choices that should be simple.

This is completely understandable as a sanity-saving response to terrible news. Obviously, I think that the hard work of making sure products are safe is first and foremost a job for the government, and should not rest on the shoulders of individual consumers who, let’s face it, do have lives to lead. (Or so I’ve heard. I obviously wouldn’t know much about that.)

Nonetheless, as the tagline for my blog says, until the government gets on the stick, it certainly seems like it’s up to us. So here’s three principles that I’ve found useful in framing what I care most – and least – about:

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

I’ll do a much more detailed post on a comprehensive and protective approach to pregnancy very soon, but for these purposes, be certain that if you are adopting a careful, even “paranoid” approach to reducing exposure to chemicals while pregnant – and other environmental hazards, including “natural” elements such as mercury and lead that have been put into the environment at much greater levels by humans – that is all to the good.

In utero exposure to pesticides, lead, mercury, solvents, endocrine disruptors and persistent organic pollutants have been linked to autism, cancer, low birth weight, lowered IQ, reproductive health problems, you name it. (I will walk through the evidence on these in that future post; in the meantime, no one makes this case more eloquently than Sandra Steingraber‘s frightening and beautiful book, Having Faith.)

Pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should be incredibly careful in whatever ways that they can be, and should not let anyone talk them out of whatever measures and steps that they can take. Be fierce, my friends. And careful. Or fiercely careful. Carefully fierce? You get my point.

The good news – if there is any in this incredibly annoying situation that puts all the burden on women and none on the chemical companies to stop exposing us – is that once you make these changes, you will be far better prepared for a baby to join your home.

The three months following birth has been called the “fourth trimester” by child specialist Harvey Karp because so much development remains to be done in very young infants. A similar principle should be applied to newborns and chemicals. The skin of new babies is much thinner, and they, like all young children, breathe at a much faster rate than adults, meaning that anything in the air is inhaled at twice the rate or more. They also crawl around in the floor, in the dust, put everything in their mouths, and spend a lot of time indoors, at home.

In addition, we are just learning in recent years about epigenetics, i.e., how chemicals and environmental factors can turn genetic cues on and off, affecting an individual’s health, and it stands to reason that children, who have so much developing left to do, are uniquely vulnerable to these changes.

Then there’s their small size: exposures in an 8-pound, or even, 30-pound person are just larger in relative impact than in an adult, and the dose of many of these chemicals matters (though some, like BPA and similar chemicals, have effects even at tiny doses). Troublingly, most risk assessments on chemicals are modeled on their impacts on an adult over a lifetime of exposure, and are not appropriately adjusted to assess risks for children, meaning that the metrics we use even for the very few chemicals we do regulate are not protective enough for children.

Last, there’s the practical factor that children will have more time to be exposed, meaning that any delay in building up their inevitable future body burden of chemicals has got to be a good thing.

2)    Place:  Look Most Closely at What Goes In or On Your Body or In Your Home

I think of these in three circles. First, and most obvious, think about your food: organic is best, and grass-fed organic is even better. If you can’t afford this for everything, which is understandable, then just change up foods on the list of the Dirty Dozen with the highest levels of pesticides (plus peanut butter).

Second, focus on your personal care products. Going way back to basics makes this much easier: pick up a decent deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, sunscreen, a few cosmetics that you’ll use daily, shampoo, conditioner and soap, check them against the Skin Deep database, and call it enough. (Some truly helpful tips on how to do this are here.) For babies and children, a list of items we use is here.

Toss the fancy face creams full of unpronounceable ingredients that won’t make you look younger anyway and make give you cancer. (This was a hard one for me, as I used to like to believe a miracle in a jar… for fifty bucks and whatever was left of my limited dignity.)

Last, think about your household cleaners. Laundry detergent and dishwasher soap are most important, because you wear and eat them, respectively. Then pick up an all-purpose green cleaner, checkin it on Good Guide, or make one of vinegar, baking soda and lemon. Buy a HEPA filter vacuum for the chemical flame retardants in the dust.

As a final check, think through what you bring into your home. Leave shoes at the door, or better yet, in the garage. Do not use dryer sheets, smelly plug-ins or scented candles: open your windows instead. If you can swing it, to avoid perchloroethylene (a known carcinogen) use a green dry cleaner (but make sure they are really greener, and hang up your clothes as soon as you get home to reduce the bill, which is typically quite a bit higher).

Most difficult of all: if someone in your home works in an industrial setting, or a mechanics’ shop or similar place, or does, say, woodburning or tinkers with electronics as a hobby, ask them, as nicely as you can, to shower, wash and change clothes elsewhere if at all possible. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s sound advice in terms of reducing exposure to potent chemicals within a home.

3)   Opportunity:  Trade Risks Only for Experiences, and Not for Things

One of the consistent, if somewhat unfair, points-of-view expressed in readers’ comments to that New York Times piece went something like, “geez, it would stink to be her daughter. I bet she never lets her out to play.”

Of course, Maya has a full life despite my concerns about toxics. And I understand that I will have less and less control over what’s in her life as she starts school, and obtains far more of a social life than I will ever have again, etc.

That is one additional reason why I do what I can now: because I’m still (mostly) the boss ‘round here, and I like it that way. While she remains an impertinent minion of my realm, and has no other real option despite her protestations, I see no reason not to limit her toxic exposures as I can. But that doesn’t generally mean limiting her play or activities.

At least most of the time. On occasion, there are compromises and trade-offs. On vacation, there were no pans in the house we were renting without a non-stick coating. Too bad, so sad, we ate anyway, of course. (We did keep the heat lowered; here’s why.) The trade-off was that we had a vacation, and just letting go was more important.

In general, if I have a principle here, it’s that at times there will be trade-offs, and those trade-offs should be worth it. Parents do this all the time, as I suggested in this post.

In fact, we’re better at it generally than the government. We look at up-sides and down-sides, and make a call. And one benefit of being uptight, or careful – pick your word – about chemicals more generally is that it creates a bit of margin for these types of judgment calls.

For another example, most sports are at least a little dangerous, but the sociability, physicality and achievement are worth it. Swimming in chlorinated pools may be a small cancer risk, but I can’t imagine a summer without life at the pool. I want that for Maya as well. And it’s good exercise and fun. (I am intrigued, however, by the notion of non-chlorine solutions for pools. Where we can avoid risks, obviously, we should.)

In sum: where the up-side brings substantial value to your life, the trade-offs may be worth it. I don’t feel that way about almost any consumer product, despite the best efforts of companies to brand themselves as essential to our happiness. It basically only applies to experiences, and even then only the ones in which I’m in a decent position – meaning, where I have enough information – to weigh the trade-offs for myself.

As environmentalist Mark Sagoff put it in The Economy of the Earth: “There is an ethical difference between falling and being pushed — even if the risks and benefits are the same.”

I understand that sometimes we fall down, and so be it. Sometimes the risk of falling is worth it, and sometimes accepting and taking that risk is even a part of living. I’ll be happy to choose those for myself, and for Maya whenever she’ll let me.

I just don’t appreciate it very much when the chemicals companies try to push me, just as they try to push all of us around. It therefore seems to me that the best way to send them a message on this point is to sidestep their attempts whenever I possibly can.

###

I hope that these three general principles are useful to you. If you’ve had your own environmental health conversations with people who don’t “want to hear about it,” tell me what you did in that situation… Did you give up? Persist? Politely tell them they are going to get cancer?

And if you have other ways that you think about risks, choices and environmental health trade-offs, I’d love to hear them.

Moroccan-Inspired Lemon Chicken Tagine

My husband and I both like meat that is juicy and falling off the bone. But I can never seem to plan ahead by enough hours to get a slow-cooker bubbling on.

I finally figured out that a Moroccan tagine was a great solution to us: it’s hat-like shape steams chicken or lamb into juicy, falling-apart goodness in fairly short order (under an hour or so), making dinner possible in a whole new way.

I made up this recipe, but the technique is a classic way to cook meat in a tagine. Basically, you saute the base (onions, garlic, vegetables) and spices, add and brown the meat, and then pour in stock or other liquid and cover. It’s truly easy to cook this way, and the signature Moroccan mixture of sweeter and more savory spices also adds depth and interest to otherwise ordinary ingredients.

There are new enamel tagines, like ours from Emile Henry, that may be placed directly on the stove, so long as you bring the heat up slowly and don’t put it way up on high. (Older models, being ceramic, needed a heat shield for use on the stove.) Though it is kinda’ cool, the tagine is a fairly pricey investment for occasional meals. Much the same effect could likely be achieved in a heavy stock-pot or enameled Dutch oven, if that’s what you have on hand.

Ingredients:

2 Tbls oil for sauteeing

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 (organic) yellow onion, chopped

3 cups or so (organic) chicken stock

3 large red-skinned (organic) potatoes, diced

2 1/2 Tbl mixed spices — I used a terrific Moroccan spice mix, Ras el Hanout, which includes, amazingly,: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace. (Whatever you have ready of those spices, in rough balance, would work well.)

1 fresh (organic) lemon, halved, zested and the zest sliced into small pieces, then juiced

Salt and pepper to taste

4 (organic, and pasture-raised if you can find it) chicken thighs (legs would work well too, if preferred)

Fresh (organic) cilantro

Fresh or frozen peas or other vegetables, such as carrots (optional)

Couscous, prepared according to instructions (optional)

Directions:

Over low heat, heat oil and stir in the spices, then the onions and garlic.

Add the lemon zest, potatoes and any vegetables you are using.

When things have sweated a bit and the onions are translucent, brown the chicken on all sides.

Add stock and cover, keeping the level below the edge of the tagine by 1/2 inch or so, to avoid boiling over.

Cook over medium heat until at a boil, then lower heat to achieve a low boil for 40-45 minutes.

Add fresh squeezed lemon juice and cilantro and enjoy! Serve over couscous if desired.

Seeing Red: My Fruitless Search for a Chemical-Free Jar of Tomato Sauce

Tomato slices

All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Baby’s got sauce, she’s got sauce, she’s got sauce. Your baby ain’t sweet like mine.

― G. Love and Special Sauce

About a month back, a commenter to the blog inquired about what we do for tomato sauce.  The answer then was: we use glass jars, not cans, and buy organic.

But that got me thinking. I knew that some baby food jars have or had Bisphenol-A (BPA) in the plastic lining under the lid, which is disturbing, to say the least. BPA has gained a real notoriety, of course, for acting like a hormone, or estrogen, in the body.

Yet substitutes for BPA in food packaging are also suspect, for at least two reasons: 1) Some of the substitutes are chemically similar and may even be more potent than BPA; and 2) because most types of plastic act like an estrogen, as a 2011 peer-reviewed study from Environmental Health Perspectives made clear in its startling conclusion:

Most plastic products release chemicals having EA [estrogenic activity].

They went on to explain that to properly test for EA, you have to use a wide range of solvents to mimic how liquids impact the materials:

Our data show that both more polar and less polar solvents should be used to extract chemicals from plastics because ….because plastic containers may hold either type of liquid or a liquid that is a mixture of more polar and less polar solvents (e.g., milk). When both…solvents are used, most newly purchased and unstressed plastic products release chemicals having reliably detectable EA, independent of the type of resin used in their manufacture, type of product, processing method, retail source, and whether the product had contents before testing.

Our data show that most monomers and additives that are used to make many commercially available plastic items exhibit EA. Even when a “barefoot” polymer (no additives) such as [polyethylene] PE or polyvinyl chloride does not exhibit EA, commercial resins and products from these polymers often release chemicals (almost certainly additives) having EA. [Emphasis added.]

Many factors, like exposure to heat and sunlight, impact the amount of estrogenic chemicals that leach into the food:

We found that exposure to one or more common-use stresses often increases the leaching of chemicals having EA. In fact, our data suggest that almost all commercially available plastic items would leach detectable amounts of chemicals having EA once such items are exposed to boiling water, sunlight (UV), and/or microwaving.

This is why, for example, when the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Food and Drug Administration over BPA in food packaging, they also asked FDA to evaluate any industry substitutes for safety. (As you likely know, this spring the FDA kicked the can down the road on that one, so to speak, deciding inexplicably to wait until we’re all totally hormonal before it will ban BPA from food packaging.)

I’ve also read that packaging tomatoes is evidently a challenge given their acidity, so that even companies that go BPA-free on some things haven’t solved the tomato challenge. For example, here’s a quoted letter from Eden brand, which actually does have BPA-free can linings, on their jar lid linings:

Currently, we are told, there is no known viable alternative to BPA based epoxy coatings that provides the same level of corrosion resistance and is as safe. We continually push our cap suppliers to develop BPA free constructed caps that will deliver required corrosion resistance, shelf life, and safety.

After this all occurred to me, I started putting circles of wax paper under the lids of the sauce jars when I opened them, despite the fact that this is pretty much after-the-fact. Most lids already have some gloppy red stuff on them by the time you open them up, so really, whatever’s on that lid is basically also in the sauce. Still:

My Pyrrhic Gesture

I cut around the lid and screw it on, but really? To actually address the issue, right off the bat, I had three main questions –

  1. Are the lids on glass jars BPA-free or not?
  2. If not BPA, what are companies using? Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)? Fluorotelomers (PFOAs)?
  3. And what’s in Tetra paks, anyway (i.e., those square containers for some tomatoes, soup and the organic chicken stock we use)?

I also wanted to know, given its slippery properties and known use in fast food packaging, whether fluorotelemers (precursors to a biologically super-persistent chemical known as PFOAs; explained in this post about my abusive Teflon relationship) were being applied to keep it all slick-like.

On that last one, no one would say. No one would even reply to the question, which I found odd. (Someone with actual pull should look into this a little, IMHO.)

And the answers to the other questions, insofar as I was able to noodle them out, were unsettling, to say the least.

I wrote letters — at least twice — to every brand of organic jarred tomato sauce at my hyper-crunchy local market:

In addition, I wrote to Pomi, which is not organic but sold in Tetra-paks, and to Trader Joe’s (the specific questions I asked are at the bottom of the post).

Right away, it appeared that I was onto something, well, dicey. Typically when I ask a question, I get a response right away, but this time, the answers were few and far between. For a few companies, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement, which is just weird.

For example, I got crickets, despite multiple prompts, from: Trader Joe’s, Middle Earth Organics, and Pomi, and an auto-reply but no real answer from Walnut Acres. The rest of the responses, such as they are, are below.

1) Are the lids on glass jars BPA-free or not?

The short answer is: they are NOT.  The lining contains BPA, though some companies did explain that the BPA is under several layers of other types of plastic.

For example, the owner of Organicville, who nicely wrote me back personally, ferreted out this eventual answer from her supplier:

Caps for pasta sauce:

We make every effort to source packaging materials that do not contain potentially harmful chemicals. However, sometimes it can be difficult to do given what is available in the marketplace. The inside of our pasta sauce caps have two coats of sealer between the food and the metal of the cap. The first coating does have BPA present. The second protective sealant does not, which isolates the first coating from contact with the food product in the jar.

In addition, BPA migration is reduced by the following three points. 1. An additional protective vinyl base overcoat facing the food, which isolates the epoxy BPA containing coating. The coating containing BPA can never be in contact with the food. 2. The cap’s inner surface is separated from the food by an area of air/vacuum. 3. The surface area exposed to the food is substantially less for a twist cap than for other canned tomatoes for example.

Eden brand, which is one of the only brands that bothers to have non-BPA can linings, didn’t write me back at all, but has basically the same thing on its Web site:

Is the amber glass tomato jar lid BPA free?
A search for a lid for our glass jars again confirmed that ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect food package.’ Regardless, we found the best there is.
The inside of the twist caps has two coats of sealer between the food and the metal of the cap. The first applied coating has BPA present. The second protective sealant does not, isolating the first coating from contact with the jar’s contents.
Potential for migration of BPA is reduced by the following:

  1. An additional protective vinyl base overcoat facing the food, isolating the epoxy BPA containing coating. The coating containing BPA can never be in contact with the food.
  2. The cap’s inner surface is separated from the food by an area of air/vacuum.
  3. The surface area exposed to the food is substantially less for a twist cap than for canned goods. [Emphasis added.]

Sounds like these two have the same supplier, which made me wonder how many companies make jars that size, anyway.

Amy’s brand, which is supposed to be so family-friendly, was happy to brag about their new BPA-free can linings, but utterly ignored my questions about jar linings:

I’m so sorry so much time has passed before responding. Your query was passed along to us at Fortune Public Relations. I’ve attached the press release about the Amy’s non-BPA liners. The glass jars are not made with BPA. Unfortunately, I don’t have any specifics in regard to your other questions. 
Thanks so much for your interest in Amy’s and your concerns about BPA liners. We’re thrilled that Amy’s has moved all of its canned products to non-BPA liners. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.

So, the glass jars lack BPA, which should be obvious, but nothing about the lids for the jars.

Note that Amy’s also ducked the question about what is being used as a substitute in the cans, which is also missing from their Website announcement:

We are pleased to announce that as of March 1, 2012, Amy’s has completely transitioned to cans using no BPA in the formulation of its liner. Even though BPA is omnipresent in the environment from a multitude of sources, testing levels on our canned products with the new liner are showing reduced BPA levels of less than 1 part per billion.

I wrote back to say that I was surprised that Amy’s would not tell me what was being used as a substitute in the cans. No response. A BPA-free can is likely good news. But I was as unimpressed by their approach to customer service as I am by their flavorless frozen hockey pucks “burritos.”

Muir Glen (owned by General Mills) also wouldn’t answer the questions, really. It actually took numerous deliberately annoying posts by me and my helpful pals to the company’s Facebook page, which is their only consumer contact point, on a sub-page they sent to digital Siberia, to get any answer at all. Here’s the saucy parts of that back-and-forth:

  • MG: Hi Laura – We recently completed our transition to a can liner made without BPA. The new liner is made of vinyl and does not contain phthalates. It is an approved liner and has been safely used in food products for years.
  • Me: Thanks so much for your answer. If it is vinyl, does it contain PVC or flourinated chemicals? Also, approved by whom please?
  • MG: To answer your questions, there are no harmful chemicals in the liner. The liner has been thoroughly tested and used as a food can lining for more than 20 years.
  • Me: Sorry, but that vague answer is not really responsive to my specific question. It’s not like the options for non-BPA lined cans are a secret — some companies use oleoresins, a more natural option, and other use layers of plastic. It’s strange to me that you wouldn’t be more forthcoming. Don’t you think that, as a consumer of your products, I deserve to know the details of the food I buy?
  • Others also helpfully chimed in: What is the name of the new chemical or chemicals you are now using in place of BPA?/ Interestingly, BPA had been thoroughly tested and has been used as a food can lining for decades as well. It is an interesting conundrum, wondering if the solution is better or worse than the problem. / Muir-Glen, can you be more specific and answer Laura’s question about the liner containing PVC and flourinated chemicals?
  • Me: Just learned Muir Glen is owned by General Mills. is that why they won’t answer my questions???
  • MG: Laura, The lining in our BPA-free cans has been safely used in food products for more than 20 years, and fully complies with U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements. It’s a non-epoxy can that does not contain phthalates or any unsafe or unproven components. For competitive reasons we don’t disclose our exact packaging formulations. We recognize your detailed questions above, and apologize that we can’t answer every one of them, but this is as much information as we can provide.
  • Me: Thanks, at last, for some response. I do appreciate that. However, you also appear to recognize the inadequacy of this information from a consumer perspective. Your mere assurance that something is not “unsafe” or that it meets legal requirements (which I would assume it does!) is not enough information for me to evaluate the validity of your claims on safety, given that federal law STILL allows BPA (and other endocrine disrupting chemicals) in food packaging, and I don’t believe there’s a rule on PFOAs or PVC at all. [Note: I was wrong on PVCs, as below.] Furthermore, I really don’t see how answering my questions on what chemicals are NOT in the lining and what TYPE of lining is used could possibly be a competitiveness issue, given that I haven’t asked for any detail on chemical formulations and presumably, your competitors could merely buy one of your cans and analyze the contents of the lining. Lastly, your answer only addressed can linings, and I was actually MORE interested in glass jar lid linings, as I’ve avoided cans for years due to these concerns.

A got a whole lot o’ nothin’ after that. (I gather from these slides by Pomi that Muir Glen/General Mills is actually one of the only companies to have cracked the problem of a BPA-free lining for canned tomatoes, which may explain why they were so dodgy.)

Field Day did provide some specific answers, peppered with both good and bad news. This is a fairly thorough reply, but notably, no information on the substitutes, if any, in packaging listed here as BPA-free:

Regarding BPA in Field Day cans: 
The cans do contain trace amounts of BPA.  All containers supplied for our products have an internal enamel system on the body and container’s ends.  The internal enamel serves a dual purpose where it protects the product from the container as well as the container from the product.  All enamel systems are safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for product contact. 
As much as we would like to turn the switch off for BPA we must also be assured that we are offering a safer alternative. We are working hard to source out BPA Free packaging in every category. There are great replacements in some categories and we do use BPA Free packing on the Field Day items listed:
  • Organic Applesauce-BPA Free cups
  • Eco Friendly Baby Wipes-BPA Free tubs and packages
  • Organic Balsamic Vinegar-BPA Free caps
  • Organic Fruit Cups-BPA Free cups
  • Organic Maple Syrups-BPA Free jugs
  • Organic Easy Spread Peanut Butters-BPA Free jars
  • Italian Sparkling Mineral Water-BPA Free bottle
However, there is no single alternative replacement for BPA in all can linings. Each food product formulation has its own set of demands. For example, acidic foods present particular challenges that differ from other types of foods. Once a BPA replacement is identified, its performance must be tested over the shelf life of the particular food product for its safety and regulatory approval before it can be used.
Given the growing evidence and consumer concern about BPA’s impact on human health and the environment, Field Day is working closely with its current product suppliers to adopt BPA-free packaging where ever possible while maintaining Field Day’s high nutrition and quality standards. Our suppliers are working hard to source alternatives that are proven safe, effective, and are regulated appropriately. In fact, our olives and beans are now being tested in BPA Free can alternatives, and if results are favorable we may have a substitute in 2012 or 2013! Again, due to olives having a long shelf life the tests for alternative packaging must run as long to support that.
Field Day will identity BPA-free packaging on its product labels and customer website either when they become available or when they are switched over to BPA Free packaging. Field Day will continue to foster the natural product industry’s discussion of BPA concerns and alternative packaging options.[Emphasis added.]
 
Latimore Valley Farms not only didn’t answer, but pretended I was asking about whether the sauce was actually prepared in the jars (duh), and reassured me that no sauce touches the lid (see the above pics for how true that is).

Hi Laura,  We do a marinara sauce, tomato soup, barbeque sauce that contain tomatoes.  All products are in glass jars not metal.  We cook the product to a high temp in steam kettles and then put it in the jars and leave about one quarter of an inch down so the food is not in contact with the lid.  We do not cook the product in the jar.

My response: Hi, Thanks so much for this response, but it really doesn’t address the questions I asked. In terms of the jars you use, is there BPA or other endocrine disruptors — or PVC or flourotelemers, in the lining under the lid? Are these chemicals are in the jar is the question. All best, Laura

Radio silence.

The rotten tomato for all of us:

I would assume that jar lids for everything – drinks, honey, peanut butter, tomato sauce, you name it – has BPA in it, and if you’re lucky it’s down (or up!) a layer or two. (And of course most cans do as well, including soda, juice and beer cans.)

Given that not a single company that levels with the public said that they were BPA-free with regard to jarred tomatoes, and that consumer awareness hasn’t really caught on with regard to BPA concerns in jar lid linings (as opposed to cans), I think companies are hoping that this word doesn’t get out.

(As some confirmation, this article about the European Union rule banning BPA in baby bottles (effective last year) essentially says that what the plastics folks are really worried about is “an escalation of action into other packaging areas, such as epoxy-based coatings for metal packaging.” Perhaps that’s why in the U.S., the chemical and plastics industries last fall actually asked regulators to ban BPA in baby bottles here as well, in an attempt to head off their PR problem.)

Back to tomatoes: I suppose it’s possible that some jar lids for less acidic foods than tomatoes don’t have BPA, but no one said so, even the companies with lots of products in addition to tomato sauce. To do this, companies would have to source BPA-free jars and non-BPA free jars for different foods, which would likely raise expenses.

I would bet, based on these answers, that most companies have not even bothered to try to obtain BPA-free lids for jars in the absence of any regulation or public information to the contrary.

2) If not BPA, what are companies using?

Since companies ARE still using BPA in jar lids, you’d think this one would be simple. But in asking these questions, I stumbled upon another problem: the layers of plastic that enclose BPA in the lid are likely to be made of vinyl, a known carcinogen. Here’s more on that from the refreshingly helpful, candid owner of Organicville:

Yes, part of the pasta cap is PVC-based, no phthalates are present though.

Yup, “PVC-based.” And the other suppliers I quoted above also ALL mention vinyl when we do get any detail about what’s in the lid. Actually, this article helpfully lays out the four current possibilities for BPA substitutes:

There are currently four generally recognized alternatives including vinyl, acrylic, polyester and oleoresins.

Gee, three of those sound like holdovers from a super-fly 1970s wardrobe of unbreathable fabrics. No wonder companies don’t want to say. Some polyester in your soup, anyone?

Oleoresin is the only one that doesn’t seem utterly revolting to have near food and appears to be relatively safe on my initial review. It must work decently well, because Eden says, as to cans, that’s their BPA substitute:

Since April of 1999, EDEN beans have featured a custom made can lined with an oleoresinous c-enamel that does not contain the endocrine disrupter BPA. Oleoresin is a mixture of oil and resin extracted from plants such as pine or balsam fir.

As vinyl is the other liner that was mentioned for jar lids by the companies, that’s what I looked into next. I was shocked to learn that vinyl chloride is actually authorized for use in food packaging by the oh-so-on-it FDA:

The FDA is responsible for regulating vinyl chloride as an indirect food additive. With regard to components of coatings, paper, and paperboard, the FDA states that when vinyl chloride is copolymerized with certain other substances, it is a safe food-contact surface.

In contrast, here’s what the government’s own toxicology report says about vinyl chloride:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), ranks vinyl chloride as a Class A carcinogen;
  • The American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists calls it a “confirmed human carcinogen;”
  • And “[v]inyl chloride is a known human carcinogen by the inhalation route of exposure, based on human epidemiological data, and by analogy the oral route because of positive animal bioassay data as well as pharmacokinetic data allowing dose extrapolation across routes. Vinyl chloride is also considered highly likely to be carcinogenic by the dermal route because it is well absorbed and acts systemically (EPA 1996).” [Emphasis added.]

My translation: Vinyl causes cancer if you eat it.

And this 2010 Report for the President’s Cancer Panel called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk” states that vinyl chloride has a “strong” causal link to liver cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.

Vinyl chloride has also been banned for use in aerosol pharmaceuticals:

Vinyl chloride: All aerosol drug products containing vinyl chloride. The inhalation of vinyl chloride is associated with acute toxicity manifested by dizziness, headache, disorientation, and unconsciousness.

So, in addition to BPA, we all may be eating from food packaged in vinyl or another plastic right above the sauce – some of which, unlike Organicville’s, could also have harmful pthalates (softeners, like DEHP) in it as well.

And vinyl (the PVC form, as here) is specifically flagged in the research way back up at the top of this post as generating estrogenic activity, so we may be covering up BPA with other estrogenic plastics.

PVC, or vinyl, is the same stuff we have been told by environmental groups to avoid in our shower curtains and liners, for example, and has that awful acrid smell when you open the package on those kinds of products. Mmm, that goes well with garlic.

The other rotten tomato for all of us:

Vinyl. In our food.

Most ironically, if companies are trading out BPA for a layer of vinyl, we may be worse off than we were before.

3) OMG. What about Tetra-paks? Will you take those from me too?

The good news is that it appears to be true that Tetra-paks are BPA-free.

The bad news on Tetra-paks is that, at least for tomatoes, I didn’t see an organic option.  And that, sorry to say, the packaging has aluminum, several layers in, and the inner layer is made of polyethylene plastic, according to this helpful presentation from Pomi’s Web site.

Dealing with the layers in turn: 1) Aluminum is certainly a suspect metal, particularly with higher levels of exposure, such as for workers, and in children. But it’s evidently not in contact with the food. 2) I asked Pomi about whether the polyethylene was treated with anything, and got no answer at all.

Polyethylene (PE or PET) is identified by a “1” and is typically considered one of the safer plastics: it’s what most water bottles are made of, for example.

Unfortunately, I did find several health concerns that have been identified – one recent review of many other studies finding endocrine disrupting effects from leaching in PET bottles, for example. The study found that the amount of leaching depended on whether the bottles were subjected to heat, for example, as well as their age.

It stands to reason that, if tomatoes are really that good at breaking down chemicals, there may be far more plastic-related chemicals in the sauce for those packages than there are for water, for example.

Side investigation: Are milk-boxes safe?

I also got curious about the smaller Tetra-paks that we very occasionally give Maya containing Horizon organic milk. (As a side note, it used to completely frost me that they market sugary milk, in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors, as convenience food to children, who don’t need added sugar in anything. Most Starbucks don’t even stock the plain milk, which is so incredibly annoying when you’re out and about with a child you really don’t need to be any more hyper. But it’s actually far worse than that, as you’ll see.)

The Horizon rep, whom I spoke with on the phone, confirmed information similar to the above. Their Tetra-pak contains:

  • 70% paper;
  • 6% aluminum;
  • 24% polyethylene (the innermost layer; no additives).

She clarified that the aluminum does not contact the milk. Of course, the milk is basically encased in polyethylene, which, as noted in the quotes way up at the top, can leach estrogenic chemicals even without additives.

That got me thinking about regular milk cartons. After being prompted by a comment, I called Horizon back and learned that even their regular big milk cartons have a layer of polyethylene plastic on the inside, in contact with the milk. I guess it makes sense that it’s not going to work if it’s all cardboard, but I know I hadn’t focused on this issue at all until now.

So, even though its darn inconvenient and we have to pay a bottle deposit, we’ve now switched milks, once again, this time to the glass containers with organic, pasture-raised milk, which is only one brand sold by my local hyper-crunchy coop. It is delicious, and unlike most whole milk, which still has been centrifuged and has had fat removed, the cream and milk solids are still floating around in it. So that’s an upside, at least.

###

Conclusion:  In the Sauce, Indeed

As we all know too well, we’re swimming in plastic and so is our food.

Following this little adventure into food packaging, here’s what I know and don’t know:

  • Eden brand uses BPA-free linings in cans (oleoresin); not tomato cans; not jar lids (It’s labeled on the cans I’ve seen, which is great);
  • Muir Glen (General Mills) uses BPA-free linings in some cans, including tomatoes; not jar lids (not sure if it’s labeled or what the BPA substitute is);
  • Amy’s now uses BPA-free linings in cans; not jar lids (no information on the BPA substitute or labeling);
  • Field Day has some items in BPA-free packaging, as above (no infomation on substitutes; not sure what’s labeled);
  • Basically all jar lids still have BPA in them, though it may be under a layer of vinyl, raising separate concerns about both cancer and estrogenic activity;
  • Tetrapaks are another form of a plastic bottle, basically, and while they may be safer, they raise the same issues as any other plastic bottle, except for acidic foods like tomatoes there may be more leaching.

In sum, on the tomato sauce question, what I take from this is that it would be really hard to know without a specific comparison by a bio-chemist whether the small amount of BPA and exposed vinyl in jar lids from glass jars are more or less safe than non-organic tomatoes from a polyethylene-lined, aluminum-based Tetra-pak. And all of these linings are suspected of being estrogenic.

Basically, in the face of no good options at all, I am going to try to make my own fresh tomato sauce or pesto whenever I can. And to see if I can find some Weck jars without any plastic-y surface under the lid and maybe even try my hand at canning fresh ones.

Or in a pinch, I’ll buy the jarred stuff from Organicville, just because she was a human being and straight with me.

In the meantime, we should all talk up this issue of the need for JAR LIDS – and not just cans – that are BPA-free. The Pomi slides, and this industry analysis, both make clear that the major trade-offs for the food packaging and food companies for substitutes for BPA are two:

  1. Cost of the packaging (increased by between 3 cents and 13 cents per can);
  2. Shelf-life (lowered to 18 months).

These are really unbelievably petty concerns in the face of the hormonal onslaught their plastic containers are exposing us all to.

Beverage containers, cans and jars should all be free of BPA-type plastics AND vinyl, and the industry should be required to switch to oleoresins or find other safe, non-plastic options.

If this reduces shelf life, that really seems a small price to pay. We all have too much junk in our cupboards anyway.

And for companies like some of the baby-food ones, who have made a switch to BPA-free jars, we should make them tell us what they are using instead. If it’s acrylic or polyester, wouldn’t you like to know? I wouldn’t dress a baby in that, much less make her eat it…

Though why consumers have to, once again, do the job that should really be done by the FDA is beyond me. Only the government has the regulatory power to make companies do the right thing, and a decisive government rule would be far more fair — both to the marketplace, so that companies all face the same costs, and to consumers, so that we don’t need to become super-sleuths just to buy a stupid jar of tomatoes.

Remember what lead pipes did to the Romans? In point of fact, given our global economy, this is actually a species-level concern. Our food should be sold in safe containers. Really. If we can put people on the moon, I think we should be able to figure this one out.

###

My persnickety questions to companies:

Greetings,

I am a blogger at www.Laurasrules.org – who writes on environmental health matters and I am doing a post on tomato sauce. I have a few questions for you – the answers will be evaluated for transparency for consumers and completeness.

1)     Do cans sold by your company containing tomatoes, including sauces and chopped tomatoes, contain BPA in the lining?

2)     If not, what kind of lining material is used?

3)     Is such lining free of similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals? For example, is Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B, or Bisphenol-F used? Other endocrine disruptors and/or bisphenols?

4)     Is such lining free of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC)?

5)     Is such lining free of fluorotelemers, which are precursors to PFOAs and are used in food packaging?

6)     Do glass jars sold by your company containing tomatoes, including sauces and chopped tomatoes, contain BPA in the lid lining?

7)     If so, is it in contact with food or is there an intervening layer? If there is an intervening layer, what evidence is available about whether it leaches into the food?

8)     If not, what kind of lining material is used?

9)     Generally, is such lining free of other similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals? For example, is Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B, or Bisphenol-F used? Other endocrine disruptors and/or bisphenols?

10)  Is such lining free of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC)?

11)  Is such lining free of fluorotelemers, which are precursors to PFOAs and are used in food packaging?

Thank you for your time. I hope to be able to make recommendations to consumers based on this information.

Stroller Brigade for the Safe Chemicals Act

Today before work, I stopped by the Capitol to check out the National Stroller Brigade in support of the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847), a bill to reform chemical safety and protect families introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-NJ), with the strong support of Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) and others.

Sen.’s Lautenberg and Durbin were there, of course, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-NY), as well as children, parents and activists from all around the country, including Michigan, Maine, and New York. It was a heartening show of support, kicked off by words of encouragement from Andy Igrejas, of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition that is leading the push for the legislation.

Sen. Lautenberg pointed out that the current chemical reform law is badly broken, given that of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, only 200 have even been investigated. Sen. Durbin recalled his days in the U.S. House of Representatives, decades ago, when he teamed up with Sen. Lautenberg (he’s been in the Senate for a long time!) to pass a new law that took on the tobacco industry to get a federal limit on cigarette smoking on airplanes (remember that??), saying that this singular action to emphasize the health hazards of smoking became a tipping point in the national discourse on cigarettes. If they could do it then up against Big Tobacco, he said, we can do this now on chemicals.

Sen. Schumer quoted his mother, who evidently is a wise woman: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” she told him. He went on to speak sympathetically about families grappling with childhood illnesses, like asthma and other conditions, linked back to toxic chemicals, and to describe the effort for the bill as a way to ensure that no more families and children needlessly suffer these health impacts.

A mom from Michigan with three young sons, Polly Schlaff, who lost both her husband at age 33 and other family members to non-genetic forms of cancer, also spoke very movingly, saying that, as a mom, she can’t “un-know” what she knows to be the truth about chemicals and health. And although she now knows better, she said, she can’t do better without government action to make the world safer for families and children.

And last, Hannah Pingree, former Speaker of the House in Maine, wrapped up the program, talking about her own body burden test, which showed that, despite the fact that she lives on a rural island in Maine, there are hundreds of chemicals in her body, many known to be health-threatening.

Virtually everyone talked about the Chicago Tribune series last week, the despicable tactics of the chemical companies and their link to similar malfeasance by the tobacco lobby. The solution to the problem, of course, is a far stronger federal law that requires companies to test chemicals to determine their safety and health impacts before letting them into products and our bodies.

What You Should Know About the Safe Chemicals Act

From a fact sheet on the bill from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • The Safe Chemicals Act improves chemical safety. For the first time, the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of their chemicals, in order to enter or remain on the market. If no information is provided, the chemical would be prohibited from use in products and workplaces. Where there is data that shows potential concern, chemicals must be proven safe before entering commerce, just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws.
  • Immediate action on the worst chemicals. EPA must immediately reduce exposure to the “worst of the worst” chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic compounds that build up and persist in our bodies, breast milk and the environment.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act protects our health using the best science. Many toxic chemicals especially threaten the health of pregnant women, developing fetuses, babies, young children and teens. Other uniquely vulnerable groups include the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, workers, and low-income communities—predominantly people of color—located near chemical hot spots. When determining a chemical’s safety, EPA would be required to ensure protection of vulnerable sub-populations, such as children, pregnant women and hot-spot communities, from all sources of exposure to that chemical.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act informs the market, consumers and the public. As a consumer you have the right to know the safety of chemicals you encounter everyday. The Safe Chemicals Act requires that basic health and safety information on chemicals be made public.

Sounds pretty great to me. Now, we just have to get Congress to pass it.

Are your Members of Congress supporting the Act?

Here are the Senate cosponsors:

Sen Begich, Mark [AK]
Sen Blumenthal, Richard [CT]
Sen Boxer, Barbara [CA]
Sen Durbin, Richard [IL]
Sen Feinstein, Dianne [CA]
Sen Franken, Al [MN]
Sen Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [NY]
Sen Kerry, John F. [MA]
Sen Klobuchar, Amy [MN]
Sen Leahy, Patrick J. [VT]
Sen Menendez, Robert [NJ]
Sen Merkley, Jeff [OR]
Sen Murray, Patty [WA]
Sen Sanders, Bernard [VT]
Sen Schumer, Charles E. [NY]
Sen Tester, Jon [MT]
Sen Whitehouse, Sheldon [RI]

If your lawmakers are already on the bill, great! Thank them for their support, as they are the ones that have to push this forward.

One thing I notice about this list? No Republicans. Yet consumer safety and the health of families should be a bipartisan concern. Here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today, and ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act.

My postscript: Sen. Lautenberg and Sen. Durbin have been working together a long time, and it’s a pleasure to watch such collegiality and warmth. I’ve also worked with them (or really, their staff) for years, and I can honestly say that they are both incredibly smart and caring, as well as right on the issues. Politicians get such a bad rap for being craven, and it’s mostly well deserved. At a time in which finger pointing and polarization is more the norm, the clear mutual regard and affection between these two Senators shows that it doesn’t have to be that way, and is certainly something that people outside Washington should see about the very best among our lawmakers:

Mulberry, Mulberry, Mulberry

Despite my occasional urge to dump cancer-causing upholstery, I’m not angry all — or even most — of the time.

As one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass, writes:

There are moments when the body is as numinous

as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

— Meditation at Lagunitas

For myself, I’ve been meditating on the mulberries. Every summer, just as the honeysuckle thickens the air, the mulberries pop out of the trees. And mostly onto the ground, if my own neighborhood is any indication.

They like to have their feet wet, so look out for them near streams. You often can tell mulberry trees, with their many spindly arms, by the black splotches coloring the pavement like a monochromatic Jackson Pollack.

Mulberries have a wonderful sweet-tart flavor and are brainlessly easy to pick. In Pakistan, where a friend lived once, young boys would scale and shake the trees so that the fruit would shower down on sheets, which makes a lot of sense. When ripe, if you bend a branch to pick the berries, you’re likely to get bopped by falling fruit. Watch out, they stain! And they paint fingers — and the edges of Maya’s mouth — a bright pink.

In many parts of the world, they are a much-anticipated delicacy, around for only a brief whisper of time as spring moves on to summer. They are an ingredient fundamental to Chinese medicine, among other uses.

Mulberries are beginning to be studied in the West for their health-promoting properties. They are known in India, according to my mother-in-law, as a good food for diabetics, because they increase blood circulation. (But be aware that they are contra-indicated for those with kidney or liver problems.) Still, we seemed to be the only ones harvesting them (right into our mouths) at our local park.

And they’re delicious. Look around and see if you can find a tree, as the chances are good that they are overloaded right this minute with gorgeous, delicious fruit. They’re a little taste of the good stuff…

Mulberries are lovely with plain yogurt and ribbons of fresh mint. I’ve never done any baking with them, because they rarely make it home in any real amount. (If you do get some to refrigerate, one tip is to wait to wash them until right before eating — they are so tender that any water hastens spoilage.)

If anyone has recipes they’ve tried and like, please do post a link!

Curb Alert: Free (Toxic) Sofa

Maya had finally gone down for her nap this afternoon, and I thought it was the perfect time to finally read all of the many articles that the Chicago Tribune published last week on the harms of chemical flame retardants.

I’ve been looking into this issue in a cheeky 4-part “Sofa Saga,” so I’d already skimmed a few of the pieces, but had not really had time to digest the whole series. I was reminded of the power of the investigation by Nicholas Kristof’s excellent column today as well.

So I was reading along, and feeling pretty good about things, actually, given that I hadn’t gotten any of the facts wrong in the blog posts, when I came to this paragraph:

In 2006, researchers at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cautioned that adding chlorinated tris to furniture would expose children to nearly twice the daily dose deemed acceptable by the federal agency. The cancer risk for children during the first two years of life would be seven times higher than what most physicians, scientists and regulators consider acceptable, according to the safety commission’s report.

Seven times the risk of cancer. Seven. My heart basically stopped for 20 seconds. My stomach rose up and took over my throat.

The sofa I have from Ikea has chlorinated tris in it, according to research by Heather Stapleton. I sat on that couch almost every day of my pregnancy, and my daughter Maya has played on it basically every day of her 20 months of existence. Sometimes, she licks it.

She was “reading” to her stuffed bear just today, sitting there, and here she is at 8 months:

When not sitting on that sofa, I was self-righteously running around town tracking down sources for expensive grassfed, organic beef to get rid of trace amounts of pesticides. Or spending a small fortune on wooden toys.

While sitting on that sofa, I chatted with the New York Times reporter who wrote an article calling me paranoid about toxic chemicals.

While sitting on that sofa filled with literally pounds of carcinogens, I’ve spent hours researching healthier products for my family, including a sofa without flame retardants. They make fools of all of us.

Some lame rationalizations flitted through my mind, while my heart grew heavy and sad. I open the windows sometimes, I thought. We vacuum. I began to feel physically sick.

Fury does not really describe it. I tried to finish the article. But I was sitting on that sofa.

A new, better sofa is eventually on the way, but it’s likely several weeks away at least, and maybe a month.

I thought about sitting on the floor. And then I thought, fine. The floor it is.

I was so angry that I was able single-handedly to put it out on the curb.

Here’s the note I posted to the neighborhood list serv (they already think I’m nuts):

Curb Alert: Free black “leather” large Ikea sofa, decent condition

Here’s my now-typical awkward caveat:

I dumped it because it’s full of a particularly harmful form of flame retardants, called chlorinated tris, that was banned from children’s PJs in the late 1970s as a mutagen — and is also now known to be a potent carcinogen.

I was already following this issue on my blog, but the Chicago Tribune series last week, which I am just reading now, made me actually get up and put it on the curb. I’m furious, actually.

It looks like rain, so if you want it, better come and get it.

Laura

Here’s the thing, Citizens for Fire Safety, you liars, I’m looking at you. And I’m a mom.

If my daughter ever gets sick in any way that can be tied back to her nearly two years of crawling all over this toxic piece of junk, I will personally show up everywhere you try to deceive state legislatures to finish the job of exposing you that was started by the Tribune.

And hey, chemical manufacturers, like the flame retardant chemical makers — Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura (“Chemtura”? Really?) — I’m telling you now, you have a problem that a little chemical switcherooni is not about to fix.

I’m done letting you be the only ones who know what’s in my house, and in our air, and in my daughter’s blood. What’s in our bodies can’t be your proprietary little stew of hazards. You want to keep it proprietary? Keep it out of my house.

I’m really over this experimentation on all of us. I’m so over learning two years down the road that, despite my best efforts, you’ve been poisoning my daughter, lying to lawmakers, and laughing all the way to the bank.

You’ve messed with the wrong mom. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. You’d better hope that lawmakers in California get to you first.

At Long Last: My Greener, Healthier Baby and Toddler Supply Guide

Many of my friends have asked for the “list” of baby items that we bought based on my research. I’ve finally scraped it together, as a reward for their kindness in pretending to pay any attention at all to my enviro-babble.

There are some healthier baby things now being sold – and there are gazillions of on-line retailers happy to bring these items to you. Below is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is the things I liked among what we personally have used.

In buying things for our family, I managed to tease out, mostly through trial and error, some overall principles for environmental health in children’s stuff. Some thoughts on what to look for, and what to avoid, are also below.

Before I get to the good stuff, as nerdy as I am, I feel compelled to put some caveats before you:

  1. There are a ton of Web sites for product reviews, including “green” products, with widely varying levels of green-washing and blogger integrity. In contrast, the product list below is stuff I bought and used when Maya was a baby or use now. The links here don’t trigger any commissions or the like – I’m just not that organized. If that ever changes, I will note it here. In the meantime, click away, knowing that I am only rewarded by the pleasure of knowing what I pulled together was of use to you.
  2. Products can change over time – particularly things with ingredients, like wipes and lotions. What I bought and liked may not be what’s being sold today. So for those kinds of things, I would encourage you to double-check for any negative product reviews on the Web sites selling the stuff, as well as with the consumer guides linked to below. (If you see something alarming about any of the items below, please do comment and let me know!)
  3. Generally speaking, I’m not making an environmental sustainability claim for these items, though, as noted, some of them are made by companies with a greener outlook, and ones I’m happier to support. (And I do think it’s important to specify whether we are talking about environmental health or sustainability.) I haven’t investigated what went into their manufacture, or the sources for wood, for example. I’ll also note that being this picky about the stuff we use often means a lot of packaging and shipping, which is not really that great for the planet.
  4. I tend to order stuff from Amazon, due to the free shipping: I’m cheap like that. But I don’t feel good about it, especially given how terrible it is a place to work (I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that this recent Mother Jones article describing a hellish nether-region of robotic inhumanity is about one of their warehouses, though the article doesn’t clearly say so). If you want to be better than me, and it’s not that hard to do, order directly from the companies that make this stuff where you can, or from a “greenie” retailer that doesn’t treat its workers like bots.
  5. Normal concerns about product safety – stuff like choking hazard levels and recalls – are also an ongoing issue. Obviously, if I hear of problems with something, I’ll change the post. But the idea of “endorsing” something still makes me nervous. So of course apply your own judgment and monitor your child’s use of whatever it is carefully.

Lastly, some explanation is needed regarding the consumer guides. There are others out there, but I use three:

  1. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: They closely examine the safety and health impacts of ingredients in personal care products, including subscreen, lotions, etc. Their scores run 0-10, with higher being worse for you. I try to ensure that everything in our home is a 0 or 1, but this is not easy. The scores are very cautious – for example, even essential oils like lavender are given scores. If allergens are not a concern, you may want to check to see the basis for the score, as some things are upgraded for merely being irritants. If you have chemical sensitivities, obviously, this information is a goldmine.
  2. Good Guide provides an overall score and several detailed subscores for a much more comprehensive set of data points on a wide range of consumer products. Their scoring system includes scores for environmental health, but also corporate sustainability practices and labor conditions. Confusingly, their scores run the opposite way as EWG’s, with 10 as the best score, and 1 the worst. As I care most about environmental health, I tend to look at that particular score first, and then be pleased, as a bonus, if the company overall is doing well. Their overall score may be quite different from the environmental health indicator in many cases. Unfortunately, Good Guide used to, but no longer, rates toys. (We owned several of these very popular toys they found to be toxic, including the Rainforest Jumperoo, which was upsetting. I’ve used the Wayback machine at times to dredge up their old ratings.)
  3. HealthyStuff.org tests toys, clothing and other items for environmental health concerns using an XRF gun (like the one used in your home for lead, if you had it tested, which shows what is in a product several layers down). They test mainly for four dangerous substances, including lead and chlorine, and assign a high, medium or low rating. They maintain a searchable database which may or may not have the toys in your home in it, but even flipping through the listings shows how many times these substances are found in highly common toys.

Now that my throat-clearing is over, here’s some of the fun stuff.

The Quick Version: General Things to Look For

These are good:

  1. Simple, wooden toys (made from solid wood, and not particleboard, plywood, fiberboard or other pressed “wood” products);
  2. Organic textiles (particularly ones that go in the mouth, like loveys, and for bedding and clothing for brand-new babies, whose skin is very thin);
  3. Products that qualify for Oeko-Tex, a fairly protective European textile standard;
  4. Books and musical instruments, including photo albums of family and baby pictures that tell your child’s life story — identity development is a major issue for babies and toddlers. Our “Life with Maya” board book is a huge hit (for a clumsy but functional place to order a board book version of a photo album, see here);
  5. Stuffed animals and dolls that can be thrown in the wash (“surface clean only” usually means plastic pellets inside);
  6. Stainless steel dishes and containers, and glass bottles and containers, for food storage and serving;
  7. Fragrance-free (many fragrances contain untested substances, and include harmful pthalates);
  8. Ingredient lists for products like toiletries that are written in comprehensible English with terms all explained on the packaging;
  9. Buying less stuff, and nicer toys, for the reasons I suggest here — after all, you have to look at them and pick them up a million times a day;
  10. Finding used stuff that fits the above guidelines from yard sales, book sales and thrift stores (a few tips for greener thrift store shopping are here).

These are good to avoid:

  1. Polyurethane foam (to minimize flame retardants);
  2. Electronic gizmos, because they often contain heavy metals (though we have some, certainly, and just try to keep them to a minimum);
  3. Soft, molded plastics (as in bath toys, bibs, teethers and teethable items on toys), because they are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and older ones likely contain pthalates (see more on why to avoid PVC in toys here);
  4. Plastic plates, utensils and cups (including those cute melamine designs), as they go in the dishwasher, and heat makes plastic degrade and get into the food;
  5. In toiletries like lotions and such: parabens (like methylparaben or butylparaben), sulfates (like sodium lauryl sulfate), PEG (which is usually followed by a number), and either a) long, incomprehensible lists of gunk in products; or b) products that fail to list all of the ingredients on the bottle and refer you to some stupid Web site you’ll never get around to checking (like Method does). Talcum powder is also out, because natural talc can contain asbestos, and is an inhalation risk;
  6. Unneeded big hunks of plastic indoors (we do have some of those enormous, ugly plastic vehicles out in the back yard, purchased well used);
  7. Traditional pack-and-plays are a bundle o’ suspect plastics and foams and a pain to pack up; we used a Baby Bjorn travel crib, which is certified compliant with Oeko Tex. It was expensive, but it still works well for traveling;
  8. Stroller covers – they are awful. Most are made of PVC. Babies and children would be far better getting a little wet and breathing outdoor air. Also made of PVC are those cool decorative wall stickers for nurseries, which likely off-gas above the baby for quite some time;
  9. Foam play mats, which, by one manufacturer’s (SkipHop) own admission to me, all contain formamide, a carcinogen created in the foam-making process that was the basis for a ban of the mats in France and Belgium last year. For Maya’s rough-and-tumble period, I used a couple of jute yoga mats (there is a plastic backing on these, but regular yoga mats are all PVC, which is awful when you think about it. Hot yoga, anyone?);
  10. Crocs are made of the same material as foam play mats (called EVA), and the company will not say whether formamide is in them, so I wouldn’t put them on children, certainly;
  11. Art supplies, which can be problematic, particularly paints, markers and white-board pens, and face paint at fairs and used at Halloween is typically loaded with lead and other harmful heavy metals (if you really need some for a costume, try these instead);
  12. I do not use infant or children’s Tylenol. It’s subject to all-too frequent recalls due to manufacturing problems, and the children’s form contains butylparaben. In addition, a meta-review of 20 studies on the issue strongly links aceteminophan to asthma in children. (Yet my own pediatrician still passes out dosage information!)
  13. Heating food in plastic (and I would include the steamer-blender type baby food machines, as being labeled BPA-free doesn’t mean an item is free of plastics or other chemicals that act like hormones). On baby food, actually, you can’t win: some commercial baby food in jars has BPA under the lid, yet most mini-choppers and food processor bowls are polycarbonate, and can contain BPA or similar chemicals. We use either a glass blender or a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything (works like a VitaMix, but for less than half the price);
  14. Cheap children’s furniture, including play kitchens, bookshelves, tables, etc., is often made of pressed wood products that contain formaldehyde, which is linked to leukemia. Solid wood, when you can find and afford it, is far better as it won’t off-gas (ask for a natural oils or beeswax finish in lieu of varnish);
  15. Noxious odors: keep in mind that your sense of smell is a decent indicator of when there are solvents and other harmful chemicals around. If it stinks or is making you woozy, get rid of it.

I’ll also just note that I’m (perhaps unjustifiedly) suspicious of silicone teethers, dishes, food storage, baking items, etc. While the silicone may be inert, I’m not convinced that anyone’s looked closely enough at the plastic additives that give the silicone its color and shape. (If you know more about this, please let me know.)

One overall tip is to look for “Waldorf” items. Whether or not you’re on board with the educational approach, these items are all natural and are often handcrafted and beautiful.

It’s no accident that many of the companies I prefer are European. Under both an agreement on chemicals called the REACH treaty and various country-level rules, they impose more protective environmental standards on textiles and chemicals, among other things.

If you have too much stuff, as we do, you can create novelty (which is a trigger for the brain) by cycling toys. I use cute animal fabric bins (though these are not organic) to take things in and out of circulation, which helps to declutter, keep the sets together, and to maintain Maya’s interest in what we have.

Below, I emphasize the stuff that you can buy for a baby, but that also works for a younger toddler or beyond, so that it’s a better investment.

Companies I like for toys, gear, toiletries and stuffed animals:

Toys and stuffed animals, etc.

Gear

  • iPlay (raincoats that are PVC-free, for example; they still are fairly plastic-y, so there may be better ones)
  • Baby Bjorn (items are Oeko Tex certified)
  • Naturepedic (crib mattress and changing pad)
  • Lunchbots (stainless steel snack containers; plain is best as some complain of chipped enamel on the colored ones)
  • 3 Sprouts Organic (storage bins and hooded towels are organic; other storage may not be)

Toiletries and Cleaners

Favorite Retailers

Here’s the Exact Stuff I Used and Liked:

Nursery

Decorating

  • Mythic Paint (Zero VOC-emissions paint) (goes on smoothly; we painted right before a vacation and still let it air out for more than a week; I still wouldn’t get near it if I was preggo)

 

Infant Toys Only

Infant to Toddler Toys and Stuffed Animals

Toddler Toys Only

Big items

Gear

Newborn Baby Clothes, Swaddlers and Wipes

Toddler Clothing Items

Food-related or Kitchen Gear

Toiletries

Greenish Stuff I Didn’t Love

Pending Attractions

  • I’ll do a future post on formula and its various issues, including the packaging and presence of Bisphenol-A (BPA) and the use of a toxin, hexane, to get DHA/AHA out of seaweed to add it to formula and enhanced milk, a basically unregulated process.
  • I’ll also do a post as well on child safety in cars, including some thoughts on car seats. We use a Britax Advocate 70 CS Convertible Car Seat for its long rear-facing ability and side-impact protection, but it’s not perfect by any means, as I explain in this post. If you want a car seat without any flame retardants in it, Orbit’s is the only one currently on the market, though Britax has committed to a phase-out this year. [Update: see comments on this other post.] To minimize exposures, I used baby slings for shopping, etc., when Maya was little, rather than a removable car seat-type stroller. It did mean I had to wake her up sometimes, which was a drag.

Do you have green products you use and like? Please do tell in the comments, so that everyone can benefit from your experience.

And if you’re looking for something, please let me know, as this is not an exhaustive list…

Sources for more Information on products’ environmental health and safety:

Other sources may be found in the blog links to Eco-Stores Online, in the side-bar. Hope this is useful to you!

Two Simple, Delicious Breakfasts

1) Passion Fruit Yogurt

If you are ever lucky enough to come across puckered, indented, ripe passion fruit in the store, by all means pick it up. It makes a scrumptious and easy breakfast with a mildly sweet yogurt (I used Pequea Valley Farm lemon yogurt, which is unbelievably good) and slivered almonds. It’s just sour-sweet enough, and very refreshing.

2) Perfectly Soft-Boiled Eggs

Marion Nestle‘s tome, What to Eat, sufficiently convinced me that runny eggs, although once perhaps far safer, are no longer to be trusted given modern farming methods. I do source eggs with care — picking organic and pasteured eggs whenever I can. Still, for some these will be past perfection.

I boiled these for 8 minutes. They were delicious on buttered toast.

Are We Done Mommy-Bashing Yet?

The now-notorious Time Magazine cover image of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son was accompanied by the obnoxious question “Are You Mom Enough?” I immediately recognized the tactic as identical to the New York Times’ similar pseudo-rhetorical question atop an article on my efforts on toxics, called “Is it Safe to Play Yet?”

Of course, these kinds of questions are not really questions. Instead, they are snark where journalism should be.

Obviously, I take the toxics question more seriously than the Times’ Home section. We should also try to figure out the issues, and challenges, posed by “attachment parenting” – not as a catty lifestyle question or a sneer at “natural” moms – but as a serious inquiry: what kind of parental attention do children really need to thrive? And what actually works for women and families, given these needs?

There has been a predictable media and commentariat kerfuffle about the Time cover, including some terrific responses, like the one from Lisa Belkin, that pointedly refuse to sit in judgment of other moms. And some have raised the issue of this young child’s privacy and exploitation by the magazine in pursuit of sales.

In addition to the annoying headline, the photo itself is a cheap shot, substituting the intimacy of breastfeeding for a defiantly sexy image with an unmistakable Oedipal subtext. In the wake of the much-hyped release of Elisabeth Badinter’s attack on attachment parenting, The Conflict, it does appear that there may be a staged effort to transmute the “War on Women” meme that is so devastating to (mostly male) conservatives into a messy girl-fight. (“No fighting In the Mommy War Room!”)

We shouldn’t let them get away with it, and largely, we’re not. But there’s more to the discussion than simply not taking the bait. When I actually read the article associated with the sensationalized cover, I almost yawned.

The underlying story is, essentially, an arch take-down of Dr. Sears, accompanied by a tiny side-box in the print version that pronounces a few of what it calls the key tenants of attachment parenting either “true” or “untrue” – based on “the science.” For good measure, Time also threw in a short oped from a comically self-caricatured father smugly touting the benefits of being a “detachment” (read: self-indulgent) dad.

While the profile notes Dr. Sear’s extensive empire of endorsements, it disappointingly fails to take him to task for endorsing total crap, like these freeze-dried sugar pellets posing as “baby-friendly health-food” yogurt blobs. Far more importantly, while it mentions in passing his aversion to formula, strollers and cribs, it doesn’t take such subjects seriously enough to explain what, exactly, parents might usefully think about with regard to these topics. (On a single subject, the on-line, but not print, magazine does look at the “cry-it-out” issue with more seriousness, which I appreciated.)

If Time was actually practicing an act of journalism, it might have explored the research on brain development and maternal physiology that leads to infant-mother bonding and growth, or the structural tensions between the expectation that women work after having children and the alleged consensus that the benefits of breastfeeding are clear.

Instead, the editors chose to feature a mother who is actually a fashion model as an example of the sheer, unmitigated glamour of breastfeeding, and to offer up lame anecdotes like the fact that Dr. Sears and his wife “subsidized” the staying-at-home of his children’s families (hey, those yogurt blobs pay well, I’m sure).

Those of us without endorsement machines for parents have to deal with the real options for families, and it’s not a pretty picture. Structural supports for women’s choices and the choices of families – on everything from breastfeeding to maternity leave to flexible working arrangements to childcare and preschool – are largely missing, meaning that for most families, rearranging their lives around children requires extraordinary effort, exhaustion, financial and career sacrifice and general making-do.

The article did describe Dr. Sears’ evident frustration with the perception that his advice is for women to stay home (though much in his own attachment parenting literature either subtly or not-so-subtly does suggest that, as the piece points out). Generally speaking, one would think this kind of discussion would benefit from some consideration of what women actually want to do with their lives.

For some, certainly, working in the home is the most fulfilling way to raise their family, and to fully embrace its inherent comedy. In contrast, for others like me, being at home, alone, every day, with a toddler, would lead almost certainly to madness, resentment and despair, in that order, and in fairly short order.

In either circumstance, as I’ve suggested previously, it would be idiotic to think that moms, like other humans, don’t suffer ambivalence, regret and grass-is-greener syndrome.

And while it is true that not all parents are equally gifted at the exacting performance that is parenting, anyone engaged at this level with the niceties of how best to do the job is really Not Part of the Problem. So this sort of discussion of whys and wherefores should be a judgment-free zone, a convo among friends over a coffee-flavored beverage, like in those soft-focus Taster’s Choice ads.

As a Natural-Parenting inclined mom with a generally gimlet, skeptical eye, I’ve had occasion to closely examine many of the tenets of attachment and “natural” parenting.

So I will gamely, even perhaps foolishly, propose that I will do Time magazine’s job over the next little while, by examining, each in turn, a set of propositions related to attachment and natural parenting, including the following sizzling-hot subjects:

  1. Toddlers – Are there brains in there?
  2. Mother’s intuitionBasic biology or bunk?
  3. Natural childbirth – Is it for everyone (but me)?
  4. Breastfeeding – Are boobies really better than that magic powder?
  5. Co-sleeping – Do babies always have to kick your face in the night?
  6. Baby wearing – Are strollers Satan spawn?

Ok, the question part is most unserious. But I will try to tackle some of these subjects – not from a place of asking ridiculous non-questions about parenting adequacy or the evil nature of some choices – but as a chance to reflect upon my own efforts seeking to understand and grapple with these topics.

And I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments about your own experiences, questions and conclusions concerning what was right for your family.

If you have topics to add, please drop me a line – maybe you’d even want to write a piece or two for the series. (Please! How about: Cloth diapers: Are they really full of poop? Annie, I’m lookin’ at you.)

Happy (late) Mother’s Day, I suppose…

I celebrated Mother’s Day by not getting on-line at all, so I’m late out of the gate on this. My pal Jessica Gonzales-Rojas has a candidly hilarious and moving piece on breastfeeding challenges, and pumping on the go, out today, which calls for the structural changes we need to more fully support working mothers and families.

Nothing brings out the false pieties about gratitude towards mothers than this particular holiday.

Me, I’d like to keep it real. Next year, for Mother’s Day, in lieu of the gorgeous tulips some friends kindly brought over (which I did truly love), I’d like for moms (and dads) everywhere to be able to take at least 12 weeks of mandatory, full-pay parental leave, for low-income moms (or dads) to get work credits for staying at home with young children, and for businesses and public areas all over the country to have comfortable, clean and safe places for moms to nurse and to pump and store breastmilk.

I really don’t think that’s too much to ask. What if, instead of calling and sending cards to each other, we called Congress? Or their mothers. After all, Moms know best.