All Frothy Over Flame-Retardants in Foam

I’ve been cornered.

Insert loud howling sound here. Allen Ginsberg, bless his brilliant soul, didn’t even BEGIN to know what a teed off work-from-home mom sounds like when she can’t get a simple answer to her damn question.

When the hideous, albeit allegedly flame retardant-free, foam, arrived for my new “adult-living” fireplace edges, I was struck by its clear resemblance to the foam we already have on the glass corners of the dining table. Further investigation revealed that I had been — gasp! shocker! — wrong in my frantic 2 a.m. googling of ebay for alternatives, and that it was in fact likely to be polyurethane, not, as I had thought, polyethylene. Those polys will get you every time. “P. U.,” thought I.

So it’s stayed in the bag, while I’ve been busily emailing back and forth with a mysterious supplier in Hong Kong (whose handle is “howtorich” [off Americans like me]). I’ll note, first, that while the supplier is in Hong Kong, the package actually arrived with a postal address from the hub of monstrous, environmentally-destructive manufacturing in China, Shenzhen, the first “Special Economic Zone.” I’ll just let the emails speak for themselves:

Dear howtorich2003,

What kind of material is this made of please? I.e., what kind of foam or plastic? Polyurethane or polyethylene? Etc.

Laura

Dear Laura,

It is Polyurethane Foam. Regards – howtorich2003

Here, I cleverly tried to trick them into the “wrong” answer — a technique learned from my hubby, whose extreme allergy to seafood means that we have to ask restaurants whether they serve it. Suggesting that we actually want seafood tends to lead to more honest answers, but here it just confused things:

Dear howtorich2003,
Does it contain flame retardants? (It’s for a hearth.)
– Laura

Dear Laura,
If you need to us our edge protector near fire or high temperature item, we DO NOT suggested you purchase it. Since it is a soft Polyurethane Foam cushion, if it meet high temperature, maybe it will deform or melt. Hope you can understand. – howtorich2003

Dear howtorich2003,
Thanks for your answer. We do not use the fireplace — but I am worried about chemicals. Does the foam have chemical flame retardants in it — like PBDEs, TDCPP (chlorinated tris) or Firemaster 500? Thanks! – Laura

Dear Laura,
Our edge cushion is safe for using. It will not have bad chemical that affect health. But please don’t allow baby to eat the cushion, since even though it is safe for using. But it cannot be eat. Hope you can understand. If you have further queries, please contact us again. We will try our best to solve it. Regards – howtorich2003

Dear howtorich2003,

Thanks for your reply, but you did not answer my question. Does the polyurethane foam you use include flame retardant chemicals? Thanks, Laura

Dear Laura, I will contact my factory for the detailed of the chemical used in the edge protector. Can you give us some time for checking? We look forward to your reply. Regards – howtorich2003

Dear howtorich2003,

Yes, please check. Thank you. — Laura

Dear Laura, OK. Please wait a while. Regards – howtorich2003

Ok, so friends, you tell me. Cry or laugh? I keep cycling between the two, but I’ll take your votes.

The better ones sold by Rhoost, which were mentioned in the comments from a wonderful reader, are on back-order. If anyone knows of another source, please let me know! Maybe I’ll just duct tape some padding on the corners and along the edge, if I can rig it so that little fingers can’t just pry it off.

In the meantime, the foam lives inside its plastic bag, and my living room stays better suited for a 2-year-old.

I’ll just share the two clear insights I gleaned from this whole process by shamelessly name-dropping celebrities:

Lesson numero uno: Do NOT murmur “aha” and “gotcha” to yourself in a manner eerily similar to John Hodgman at 2 a.m. while purchasing household items on Ebay from a buyer in Hong Kong named “howtorich;”

And number two: DO celebrate when Jessica Alba, movie super-heroine and real-life Toxic Avenger who fights for chemical reform, retweets your post about hurtling an owl pillow through a Target, and your blog traffic hits near-respectable levels. In my view, this one RT means that Jessica and I are Internet besties, and I’m sure she concurs.

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Update:  I ordered the corners from Rhoost for the table and hearth. They are a thick plastic and would work just fine if the corner had an underbelly — sadly, both my particular table, which is an artisan affair, and the hearth, do not have a lip, so the tension mechanism can’t be used. I tried using double-sided tape on just the top part of the protector, but they get knocked off all the time, and the tape does not adhere well to the plastic. It appears I’ll have to send them back.

Update #2: My genius engineer hubs figured out that if we took the strappy things off the Rhoost corners, they would fit under the large glass topper for our dining room table, thereby protecting errant children from the sharp edges. See how that works?

IMG_5862

So we’re all better on the table, though still without a good solution for the hearth corners. If you have other ideas, I’m all ears!

Generator Madness

Do not go gently into that good night…

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

Pride goeth before a fall.

– Proverbs 16:18 (basically)

It’s often very hard to know the precise moment when a manageable situation turns into a complete boondoggle — when the McGyver movie you thought you were starring in turns into a comic caper flick starring Seth Rogan, minus the comedy and (sadly) Seth Rogan.

Such has been the past four days “prepping” for the storm-o-pocalypse, Sandy. After reading the scary weather reports Thursday night just before bed, I tossed and turned and whirled in my sleep like a tropical disturbance. Woke up Friday morning with the conviction that for once in my life, I was going to be prepared for the worst, not hoping for the best.

Here are a few things you should know about our sitch:

1) We always lose power. We live in leafy, green Takoma Park, where the power lines are strung up among the branches. Both trees and the lovely treehuggers who protect them are numerous. Since moving here, we have lost power 6 times in under 2 years, mostly for a few days at least.

2) We have a freezer full of line-caught salmon from a buying club (yum) and organic fruits and veggies. When we lose everything, it’s real money.

3) Due to this exorbitant pricetag for freezer hiccups, the last time we lost power, over the summer, we attempted an escape to my folks’ house in Virginia with a packed cooler. This was a disaster — flooded roads, downed power lines and trees, and then, when we were halfway there, the discovery that they, too, had lost power. We had to turn around and find our way back to our dark house, which took hours. Despite our raid on the one grocery store still with ice, everything eventually melted.

4) We are not Mechanically Inclined. At all. It took us months to figure out where, for just one example, the water main was in our house. Our toolbox consists of a few screwdrivers and a hammer, and a lot of nifty options for hanging pictures.

5) When I was a kid, I read all kinds of book like Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, and actually memorized techniques for surviving a shipwreck on a desert island. So I have that store of useful knowledge in reserve, in case we need to make a barn from the roots of a baobab tree, or something.

OK, so you can see the acute tensions here between the possible and the likely. Thursday night I spent researching our options, which seemed to be, basically, a portable generator. None of the Internet shipping possibilities would get any one of them to our house before Tuesday morning, however, when Sandy would be over our heads, and so on-line options were useless.

Friday morning after a restless night I hightailed it to Home Depot at 7 a.m., and found two generators left among all the contractors poring over their checklists. Storm prep paranoia had clearly not yet infected area consumers. Oddly enough, I was early! I snagged D batteries, a couple lantern style flashlights, and a 5,700 watt generator and some associated thick cords for an additional $60 bucks.

Based on charts up on the Amazon Web site about typical appliance wattages, I knew this would be enough for the fridge (2,200 watts to start, 600 to maintain), furnace blower (1,200), and Internet router, as well as a few lights. How hard can this be, I thought? Why doesn’t everyone just get a generator?

I’ll say this: Home Depot at 7 a.m. is an even more masculine environment than it’s normally testosterone-laden shelving would support. I was the only one in a dress for miles, or so it felt. The same Amazon resource on generators, I dimly recalled in my self-consciousness, had also said something about needing a “transfer plate,” or “transfer switch” or something. I duly questioned a fella in the electronics section about this. He gave me a blank stare, and pointed me to something that was clearly not It.

It was at that moment that I realized that I really needed an electrician to come and set this all up at our house, and that the cost of the generator (which wasn’t cheap at $700) was just the beginning of our capital incursions. Upon hearing my cross-examination of the Home Depot fella, at just that moment, an electrician piped up to say that no, a transfer switch was not needed with a portable generator. I knew that wasn’t the case based on what Amazon said, but I nonetheless immediately made nice with him, and eventually inveigled him into promising to come install things at my house and even drop off the massive generator, which would have never fit into my Altima.

Home Depot was out of the gas cans we would need for fuel, so I called around and found 2 at another local hardware, Ace. They would hold them in my name for a few hours.

So far, so good. I got Maya to preschool, co-oped with her, and went to get the 6-gallon gas cans. They had been put back out on the shelf but were still sitting there, so I picked them up as well as two 5-gallon blue kerosene containers. All together, these would hold only 22 gallons of gas, and the box for the generator indicated it would use 6 gallons every 11 hours, running at half the load. So we would still need to refuel even with all those canisters, even after just a few days without power. I envisioned non-functioning pumps and gas lines. This will be fun, I thought.

The electrician eventually showed up Saturday to do the job, and after several more trips to the store for the right equipment, he installed a power line to the main switchboard and disconnects both inside and out. It did require a hole in the foundation to the outside and a small chuck of drywall out of our ceiling, as well as another $750 dineros. Ouch.

Then, we got the wheels on the generator dolly, muscled it outside and down around the underside of our ramshackle back porch, where it would stay (we hoped) basically dry under a couple of heavy tarps. We also tidied up the yard and cleared what we could of the gutters.

Next, I went for gasoline, which turned out, for a non-toxics person, to be a form of torture. I had to stand above the gas tank, watching for spills, and whiffing the fumes. The gas came to $70. Then, like a moron, I evidently FUBAR‘d the kerosene tanks’ closures, and a small amount spilled in my car (the trunk was full of toddler gear, and I stupidly thought I could make it the few blocks home without incident).

The cloth upholstery stank like an Exxon. And I likely ruined one of Maya’s little jackets. Grr. Perhaps this is the moment when Seth Rogan enters the scene?

At any rate, on Sunday afternoon we sat down to actually read the full owner’s manual on our big new hulking machine. Words like “carbon monoxide poisoning” and “electrocution” really jumped out at us. As it turned out, we needed a ground wire for the machine itself, not just for the electrical wiring as the electrician had installed. I consulted my dad, and headed out for the store again.

When I got to Ace Hardware, we dropped another $90. They sold me a long copper rod (it was originally 8 feet, but I couldn’t even reach the top to pound it in, so they cut it off to 5 feet — and we hope that is good enough), a thick, wide hammer, some feet of number 8 wire, and a clamp to make a positive connection with the wire and the rod.

Seeing how overwhelmed I was as I balanced the bags of stuff while Maya pulled trinkets off every low-hanging shelf, the nice store manager at Ace actually said to me, “You know, you should really read the generator manual. I don’t want to read about you guys in the papers.” I reassured him that we had, and that it all looked very complicated to us. He did not look particularly reassured.

I also picked up a battery powered carbon monoxide monitor and batteries, to put inside in the downstairs window closest to the generator. And some rubber gloves, to try to break any connection when turning it on (I also will wear rubber shoes). We’re better safe than sorry on this kind of thing, and it’s almost guaranteed to still be wet whenever we’ll need to flip the switch.

Last, I took a trip by the car store, to pick up some completely toxic upholstery cleaner. I gave it a good spray with the chemical foam, and the chokingly intense gas smell abated a bit, but of course my car now just smells like the awful cleaner instead. Needless to say, every eco-principle I have bit the dust with this one. I tossed Maya’s jacket in the washer by itself with the strongest detergent we have, but it may be a goner.

When I got home late Sunday, it had started to drizzle. I picked a spot near the generator and started to pound in the rod. We’ll just say that my upper body strength is not very well developed. (My hubs offered to do this, but I was determined to follow through on my bright idea from a few days back.) I scraped my hand a little on one blow, still not sure how, and this was the end result of another near-miss, one day later:

In the end, the stupid rod went into the ground, except for a few inches, and we attached the clamp to the rod.

Now, we’ll just have to figure out where the ground wire goes on the frame, attach the electrical cord, flip the main circuit breaker off and the switch on at two locations, follow the reasonably elaborate starting instructions, and pull the cord.

And hope we don’t get electrocuted or die of carbon monoxide poisoning. And that our bank account will someday recover from my Friday morning panic, though we may need to also someday build a specific shed for the generator out in our tiny yard, to keep it even further from the house. So that’s another “cha-ching!” Yay.

At this point, a melting freezer doesn’t look too awful. Of course, IF it works AND we don’t die, it will be nice to be able to run the furnace blower and keep our food around a bit.

I’ll write after the storm, with luck, and let you know that we made it. I have faith, even if my finger hurts a bit, and even if I currently feel more fool than crafty survivor as Sandy comes roaring in.

Update:

Irony of ironies, we never lost power. This time. At least we’re set for the next incident.

Also, my finger is no longer painful. So there’s that. We’ll stick the gas in our car, and will add a storage and ventilated area for the gas and generator when we renovate the porch, which needs doing anyway.

We really didn’t get hit hard here by the storm. But I’ll note that the few area casualties from Sandy included three reports of carbon monoxide poisioning from generators, though all ultimately recovered. If you’re going to invest in a generator, please also drop the $25 bucks on a carbon monoxide monitor for your house! Seems to me that they should be sold together, always.

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Generator Tips

When my dad went to the hardware store on Sunday, he saw many families with large generators in their carts. Despite the buying spree, I’d be willing to warrant that many of these stay in the box, or get returned. Setting up a generator is more complicated than I knew at least, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who thought of it, wrongly, as an easy fix.

Please take advantage of our lessons learned if you are considering buying a generator.

Here’s what you’ll really need to do the job right:

1) A truck, or better, someone with a truck and dolly, to get it home: The larger machines (4,000 watts+) are very heavy and big. You’ll need several strong people to lift/move it and a large enough vehicle for transport, or to pay the store to do it.

2) The right electrical cords and connections: Be sure to check the length, plug type, wattage AND amperage on the cords. Home Depot sold us the wrong stuff twice.

3) Electrical know-how and a transfer switch: For smaller generators, if you know what you are doing, you can switch off the main power, and run extension cords from the particular appliances you’ll need to a multi-plug cord designed for that purpose. Of course, you’ll need all those extension cords, and this arrangement won’t power the furnace blower or anything that can’t be connected by cord (i.e., lights). Use extreme caution in wet conditions if hooking up extension cords — puddles, obviously, can conduct electricity. So hook up everything before you power up.

For larger generators, the whole point is to run more stuff. (For a link to typical appliances and their wattage needs, see this Amazon resource.) So you will likely need an electrician, as we did, to install a transfer switch and run a cable from the main power box through the house and outside. The clear advantage of doing it this way also that this avoids multiple extension cords, which have to get outside somehow. Keeping a window open with a larger generator may draw deadly carbon monoxide back into the house.

Either way, unlike what everyone initially told me, you DO need a transfer switch. This critical piece of equipment insures that the main power line into the house is off if the generator is on — otherwise, if you were running the generator and the power for the main house was active, you could send electricity along the line out from your house, just as some hardworking soul from the electric company is out there in hellish conditions trying to fix the power, and you could injure or kill that person.

All the same, Home Depot did not stock this essential item, and even the electrical supply stores had scant supplies, especially for generators the size of the one we purchased. You can get the transfer switches on Amazon, but you’d obviously have to have the time available to order ahead, which is reason #50 that generators are more work than you might think.

4) A place to put it: This is the trickiest part. First, it MUST be run outside. Carbon monoxide fumes can kill you in minutes. Also be sure that windows are closed if there is a risk of introducing fumes. Here’s the CDC’s guidelines, including specific instructions for generators.

Second, the instructions indicate that it must be a meter or more from the house, and yet also under a shelter from the weather. In addition, they ask for 3 feet of clearance on all sides, including above. Given that the machine itself is a good 3 feet long by 2 feet wide by 3 feet high, that means a shed that is approximately 6 feet high, 8 feet wide and 9 feet long.

How many homes have an enormous, basically empty shed a meter (approx. five feet) or so outside their house? I would guess very few.

Even in our yard, it was a close call. Our spot barely works, given that much of our yard is drainage that becomes a virtual stream with this much rain. Our porch happens to provide decent clearance on all but the top, and we can get the generator a meter away from the house and still have it under the porch. We added tarps on top of the generator itself (which must be removed when we run it) and also plastic sheeting above on the porch, to try to keep the water off and keep puddles from forming nearby. So factor in tarps, covers and any other weather protection needs to your shopping list.

We also looked at the insta-shed plastic options, which run about $200, and even so, none had the right clearances, ventilation or space. If you ran it with the doors open on these smaller sheds, the water would get right in. So it wouldn’t be easy to come up with a decent place for the machine, if you don’t have one available already.

5) Ground rod, clamp, wire and determination: While few people actually bother with this, the instruction booklet is very clear that the generator itself — particularly models on wheels with rubber tires — must be grounded. This is so that when you touch the machine, you don’t create that ground and draw the electrical current. You’ll need a long copper grounding rod (about $26), a copper clamp designed to make a connection, and several feet of thick wire (our model called for number 8). Pound in the rod (at least our soil was soft and clay-like — you may want to consider the work involved here); strip a few inches of rubber off both ends of the wire; attach one end with the clamp to the rod and the other to the machine where indicated in the instructions. Note that moving the machine will require enough wire to allow that movement and keep the ground connection intact.

6) Gas containers: You’ll want to have several gas containers on hand full of gas, and a safe place to put them, as well as a place to refuel for extended outages. Our 5,700 watt generator runs for 11 hours on 6 gallons at half-load, for a measure of how many containers and how much gas you’d need.

7) Safety equipment: You’ll want thick-soled shoes (rubber is best) to wear when turning it on and a battery powered carbon monoxide monitor with batteries. Put the monitor inside the house near where gas could enter the house from the machine, and do check to make sure the monitor and batteries are working.

Hope that this list is helpful to you! Please let me know if you have tips in addition to these.

The Healing Power of Fresh OJ (& the Industrial Chemistry in Store-Bought Juice)

Sometimes it’s the simplest things. Early last week, Maya had a runny nose and a case of the sniffles. So we bought some fresh (organic) oranges, washed and juiced ’em on our cheap-o hand-levered metal thing-gummy, which works pretty well.

You need about 5 or 6 oranges and 5 spare minutes to fill a coffee mug with fresh, delicious juice. But it’s so worth it. Maya’s sniffles vanished within a day.

In fact, the juice was so tasty that it reminded me of a story I saw a year or so back about what, exactly, is in commercial orange juice.

Funny thing. Turns out that oranges aren’t actually hanging on the trees all year long, waiting to be juiced and put into a container lined with a thin layer of plastic known to leach from acidic liquids (yeah, there’s that too — sorry…).

Because oranges are not in season year-round, the OJ companies store their juice in tanks. To keep it from spoiling in the tanks, they also take all the oxygen out of it. This has the unpleasant side effect of removing all the flavor and making it taste basically like sugar water. So before they sell it, they add back in a “flavor packet” of orange-derived stuff and chemicals to make it taste “Florida-fresh.” Here’s more:

In fact, “not from concentrate,” a.k.a pasteurized orange juice, is not more expensive than “from concentrate” because it is closer to fresh squeezed. Rather, it is because storing full strength pasteurized orange juice is more costly and elaborate than storing the space saving concentrate from which “from concentrate” is made. The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year.

That’s why different brands of OJ taste different — they use a distinct signature “flavor packet” to distinguish themselves (as well as different mixes of orange varietals, as this explains):

For example, have you noticed that the OJ from MinuteMaid has a signature candy-orange flavor? In the US, manufacturers of these chemical packs emphasize high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor this because it’s a flavor they associate with fresh, juicy oranges.

Yes, well, we’re all fools, really, if we think that the stuff in a box tastes anything like what comes fresh out of a juicer. It’s amazing what a little whiff of an orange-like odor can do to deceive the senses.

The FDA, predictably, says all of this is cool, because the flavor packs use essences derived from oranges. But one obvious question seems to be: what happens to the Vitamin C and other nutritional content from this process?

The flavor of oranges contains a ton of very healthy elements, as well as vitamins. Marion Nestle, food guru, in her tome What to Eat (pp. 276-277), notes that “Vitamin C is the most fragile of the nutrients and the one likely to show losses.”

She doesn’t really talk about this processing issue, but she does compare the nutrients in “fresh orange juice” with “orange juice from concentrate” (which has been pasteurized, dehydrated and frozen), and there is a loss of Vitamin C, as you might expect. While a fresh orange has 51 milligrams of Vitamin C, fresh orange juice (1/3 cup) has 50 milligrams, and orange juice from concentrate (also 1/3 cup) has only 39 milligrams, or a loss of 20 percent of nutritional value. And that’s not even looking, really, at the question of what other health benefits are lost and not recaptured by “flavor packs.”

Of course, just eating a piece of fruit is the best way to go, because that retains the fiber (and avoids the industrial food labs). When we juice, Maya inevitably asks to munch on slices of oranges. So that’s another, no-duh benefit of slow(er) food, prepared by us, from real ingredients. She makes the connection between the fruit and juice, and pushes the lever herself sometimes (ok, this happened, like, once, but still, it’s a good precedent).

I know a lot of kids drink juice all the time, and sure, it’s better than soda. But that’s not saying much — so this is yet another area where, at our house, we’ve decided to channel Nancy Reagan and just say no.

Unless faced with an illness and it’s fresh from us, we generally avoid juice, as I don’t want Maya thinking beverages need to be sweet. She drinks water and milk only, and seems to like it just fine. There’s a ton of sugar in juice, and not enough fiber to make it balance out. (We do make juice, kefir or yogurt into popsicles on occasion, on the theory that it’s less sugary and junky than actual ice cream. And it makes a nice sciency activity. And its fun and tasty. Etc.)

Remembering this little bit of information about de-oxygenation is enough to put me off juice more or less permanently. While I haven’t seen it covered, I wonder if a similar process is used for apple and grape juice, etc. If you know about this, or care to research it, please enlighten all of us. And then there’s always the arsenic in apple juice to worry about…

It’s really enough to make you fruity. Sniff.

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Learn More:

Here’s the ABC News coverage of this issue, and here’s a book about OJ and its processing: Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice, by Alissa Hamilton.

Read more about natural healing remedies this week on Healthy Child, Healthy World, which is doing a blog round-up just in time for flu season!

More Misadventures with Flame Retardants: So.Much.Fun.

Misadventure Number 1:

Sometimes, it appears, moms get stuck between an owl pillow and a hard place. Or at least that’s what happened to me on an ill-fated trip to Target last week.

During a (rare and dreaded) shopping adventure in which I was ISO a dress-up mirror for her bedroom, Maya developed a fondness for an admittedly adorable owl pillow perkily perched at the edge of a shelf in the children’s crapola aisle.

It was kinda’ cute, fairly cheap, and not branded by Disney or any other marketing juggernaut, so I was actually contemplating letting her keep the thing when I noticed its tag. On the one hand, it said “100% polyester” and I recalled that Heather Stapleton had said that polyester is rarely treated with chemical flame retardants. On further examination, however, I noticed that its tag also read “This product complies with TB117,” indicating that it meets the California flame retardant standard that requires harmful chemicals to be put into things like my old couch. Cue record scratch here.

Despite all my research on the evils of flame retardants, I had no earthly idea whether this confusion of labels meant that it complied with the California law because its icky polyester already complies without any need for chemicals, or whether this particular pillow had also been doused in IQ-lowering carcinogens. I was pondering the possibilities when I looked over to see that Maya was enthusiastically putting the pillow in her mouth, which is nasty for a whole host of parenting-fail-type reasons.

When my attempts to wrestle the pillow out of her hands were met with embarrassingly loud wails of protest, I conceded that I should at least try to figure out an answer on the whole toxics dealie. First, I asked a sales associate, who gave me a look like I was fresh from an asylum for helicopter moms and suggested I call the main Target consumer help number.

I did just that, and their associate (allegedly named “Bob,” who was obviously an underpaid hourly employee at a call center not here in the U.S.) in turn referred me, after the several explanations I was able to deliver over Maya’s screaming, to Circo, the manufacturer of said owl pillow, even though there is no number for Circo anywhere, given that it’s just a Target brand.

Since I was Not About to Call Anyone Else About This Stupid Pillow anyway, at this point, I dunno how, the pillow got thrown into the air into the middle of the children’s clothing department, where it would do no one any harm. I told Maya that the owl was nocturnal, and had flown to its nest for “night-night.” After a few concluding sobs, that seemed to end the question and the ensuing crisis, with both of us a just little less wise for the wear.

Misadventure Number 2:

I was always one of those snobs who could not believe that kids and their stuff could fully occupy my friends’ living rooms, leaving no trace of adult life. Like all of my pre-actual-parenting judgments, however, this one bit the dust as soon as I was the one with a child. It’s just so much more convenient to have them in earshot and right off the kitchen, so that you might hear if they are choking on something with a few seconds to spare.

Nonetheless, now that M is less likely to sample the flavors of choking-sized objects, and there is the impending arrival of my new, less-chemical couch, I hatched a tentative plan to Take Back my living room. This involves, by aesthetic necessity, selling the insta-Romper Room primary-color plastic fence around the raised marble edges of the fireplace, and replacing it with some kind of cushion to protect foreheads and the like from its sharp corners.

(Although the fence is plastic, I bought the thing in Maya’s early crawling days, when a rounded-edge, musical contraption looked like a decent option. She didn’t chew on it (much), and the tunes do allow us to experience her awesome dance moves. It’s since dawned on me that there are other gates made of metal or wood to do this job (like this one, which I have not tried). Now that I’m further down my own personal anti-plastics highway, I might have used those instead.)

I recalled the One Step Ahead catalog had some hearth options for child-proofing, including strips for $30 and a large mat for $130. Not cheap, and then I saw the following:

Made of flame resistant, FDA-approved non-toxic dense foam with self-adhesive hook ‘n loop.

As we know, putting “non-toxic” and “flame resistant” in the same sentence is a form of ultimately meaningless — albeit tragically entertaining — noise, much like a Vice Presidential debate.

But actually, it’s not as funny. This picture of a large hearth pad made of flame retardant polyurethane foam with a child playing in front of it literally makes me want to choke. Well-intentioned parents who want to protect their child from both fire and physical injury will buy this hundred-smackerooni-plus pad, thinking that they are doing the best for their family, and will instead be bringing in yet another source of very exposed toxic chemicals into their home. Yeesh.

And I would guess, though this is just a guess, that the corner cushions on our glass-topped dining room table are also made of flame-retardant doused polyurethane (i.e., “PU”) foam, which is just great to have around at mealtimes, I’m sure.

In the living room, I was not about to give up the modest toxicity of our hard plastic fence to replace it with a new source of flame retardants to infect our household dust, so for a minute my reclaiming-adult-living project threatened to go off the rails entirely. Then I found this utterly sketchy product on Ebay of all places — corner cushions made of PE (polyethylene) straight from Hong Kong, for about $9 per package: THICK 2m Table Edge/Corne​r Cushion Softener Guard Protector Bumper Baby Safety.

No mention of flame retardants, though they do claim to be “non-toxic and environmentally friendly.” I’m not sure how that works, exactly. Not being born yesterday, I know this foam is not eco-friendly at all, but as it is a “needed” safety item, I held my nose and ordered it. I’m still awaiting its arrival, and will update the post when it gets here in all its ugly glory.

###

The up-shot? All in all, it’s stunning to see how complete the infiltration of these chemical flame retardants is into our lives and the spaces occupied by our children. It’s truly upsetting to think of all the families who are likely not following this arcane battle over toxic flame retardants (i.e., much of sane America) and are bringing this stuff into their homes completely unaware of its risks for them and their children.

And, as with the pillow, the lack of real information on even the simplest product — a pillow, for pete’s sake — is both troubling and problematic. What’s in any of the stuff we buy, anyway, and how was it made? We don’t really begin to know, even if we think we know a few of the questions we should ask.

Rachel Carson’s Unfinished Work: Passing the Safe Chemicals Act

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

— John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

Several Sundays ago, the fates conspired to give me a gift. A friend proposed we go for an easy hike close to home, and she found the perfect place northwest of Silver Spring, the Rachel Carson Conservation Park, a small, beautiful park marked with easy walking trails and decorated this time of year by gorgeous milkweed pods.

The minute after I got in the car to drive out there, Maya fell asleep, mercifully allowing me to turn the radio on. At just that moment, WAMU was re-broadcasting a re-run of The Diane Rehm Show’s interview with William Souder, an author of a new biography about none other than Rachel Carson entitled On a Farther Shore. The interview was great, filling in a fascinating picture of Rachel Carson as a loner who lived with her mother and had a years-long romantic attachment to a female friend. She lived near Silver Spring, Maryland, when she wasn’t at Woods Hole or a seaside cottage in Maine.

Tragically, and even ironically, despite her status as a biologist, she was deceived by a sexist, paternalistic doctor about the seriousness of her own cancer, and the delay in treatment likely cost years of her life. Even as she faced death, she was savvy enough to keep the news of her illness to herself, fearing that it would cast a shadow of self-interest over the publication of Silent Spring.

It would be hard, today, to underestimate the cultural and political importance of Silent Spring. As Souder noted, it is widely credited with giving birth to the modern environmental movement as an oppositional movement of complaint about the excesses of chemicals, corporations and the lack of protective standards for health. It was the hinge on which the environmental movement turned from a Roosevelt-era conservation and stewardship mindset into a full-blown critique.

The title of the book is a brilliant reference to Keats’ poem, and to our capture by a seductive maiden tinged with death. The book made such an impact on public consciousness, and was so deeply frightening to the chemical industry, in particular, that it also occasioned the first major effort in counter-environmentalism, inspiring companies like Monsanto to organize a comprehensive public relations campaign to discredit both author and book.

In Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe how the National Agricultural Chemical Association (now called the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA)), created a multi-layered buffer of pseudo-science front groups and PR offensives to offset the anticipated negative publicity in 1962 from publication of Silent Spring. As the recent Chicago Tribune series on the chemical industry’s use of front groups to scare lawmakers into requirements for flame retardants shows, these kinds of tactics remain stunningly common today.

So we’ve had 50 years of “malarky” on chemicals, really. Fifty years of obfuscation, delay, and ineffectual state and federal efforts to balance the benefits of certain chemicals with the threat to public health that some of them pose. Fifty years of “buyer beware” policies that expose people to chemicals first — sometimes in massive doses, such as in factories — and ask questions about their impact on our health later.

Fifty years of chemical Wac-a-mole, in which we celebrate a product becoming “BPA-Free!” (like in tomato cans) only to find out they are now using vinyl instead, thereby replacing an endocrine disrupter with a known carcinogen. Yay.

Fifty years from today, my hope is that we will look back and think of the twentieth century as the Wild West for chemicals — the painful growing pains we endured before development of a sensible system of safeguards signaled our maturity. When my daughter Maya is my age, I hope that the essentially unregulated use of chemicals throughout our agriculture and households will seem as distant a threat to her as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire seems to us today — an unthinkably wasteful expenditure of human lives in pursuit of easy profits.

And fifty years after the publication of Silent Spring, I can’t help but think that Rachel Carson would be appalled by this state of things. Her scientific faith in rational methods would, it would seem, want us to have arrived upon a more elegant and reasonable solution. As many of her defenders have noted, even as to DDT, Carson’s criticism was balanced with an acknowledgment of its benefits for pest reduction (and malaria prevention). She urged that indiscriminate spraying was not the best use of the chemical, and should be replaced with more targeted and effective use. (Even Wikipedia has a nice write-up on this point.)

In striking such a balance, the most compelling proposals are in a law already pending today, the Safe Chemicals Act. That bill, which passed out of committee over the summer in the Senate, would create important new protections for health, while still allowing many safer chemicals to be sold. It’s similar to a law that is already on the books in Europe, in that it would require chemicals to be shown to be safe before we are all used as guinea pigs by the chemical companies.

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.

And here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today to ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act. Even if it may not pass the Senate this term, your support will be duly registered for the next session of Congress.

As we strolled around the small, sparse sanctuary named after Carson, with scratchy mouths from munching on wild persimmons tempered by the sweetness of some late-season blackberries, I couldn’t help thinking about her solitary life and intense privacy, her untimely death, her hard work and courage. As her parting act, Carson gave us all a fundamental critique of carelessness, of our lack of intention in how we do things and who we do them to.

Fifty years out, the least we can do to honor her life and legacy is to enact commonsense standards that protect wildlife and our lives from chemical excess. All politics and spin aside, it seems so simple, really, to do the two things she would ask of us: to care for one another, and to think before we act.

Playdough Showdown: Fake vs. Natural but Unimpressive

Mr. Belligerently Artificial vs. Mr. Give-Me-Four-More

Sigh. Sometimes the right candidate doesn’t make such a strong showing. On occasion, the better politician is all downwards-looking, weak and vague, and even seems slightly embarrassed about his own record.

Sometimes such a candidate disappointingly lets every single opportunity for a zinger go by, and spends almost an entire debate talking about the flaws in his opponents’ phantasmagorical policy proposals rather than focusing on stonewalling he’s faced from his opponents’ partisans, or on, say, math.

And sometimes the artificial — even the utterly invented and commercially suspect — triumphs, in a brilliant show of plumage, like a peacock made only of lights and sound.

Such was the depressing outcome of my playdough showdown yesterday, pitting food dyes against natural colors for home-made playdough in a twisted mom’s homage to both the Presidential match-up and the playdough-like consistency of our national political debates.

When tasked several weeks ago by Maya’s preschool to make up a batch of brilliantly colored blue playdough for a color study, my research showed that blue in natural coloring is typically achieved by boiling red cabbage. Furthermore, it seems, sometimes this particular playdough retains a strong cabbage-y odor, or, in Thrifty Mama’s words, “really stinks” and is “tacky” in texture.

I will note that there is no odor on the blue dough from my wonderful Eco-Dough, which I gather also uses red cabbage, but they likely have fancy ways of extracting dyes that I do not.

Having no desire to stanky up the preschool, I violated my principles and ordered the most assertively blue food-dye I could find, which worked like a charm. If you’re gonna’ go fake, go big. It was blue, all right, and not at all smelly.

Since the kids are unlikely to eat the dough, I really didn’t feel that it posed much of a risk. (There is a lot of evidence generally that food dyes are terrible to actually consume, though they are fed to kids like, well, candy.)

Still, when a follow-up was given to me to tackle orange playdough, I couldn’t help but wonder about the natural alternatives to the small bottle of “peach” dye that came as part of the set. So I set up a head-to-head — an oh-so-titillating contest (I don’t get out much) between the dye and the power of paprika, which was recommended on several blogs for producing orange.

It looked good at first, with the bright orange paprika promising to school the buttoned-up bottle.

I used this basic recipe both times, which works really well. There are no-cook options, but the preschool teacher mentioned that the cooked ones have much more staying power.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, but suspect any oil would do)
  • natural or (gasp) artificial food coloring

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large pot (bigger the better) and stir over medium heat until it starts to clump around the spoon.

Add dye or coloring and stir a little more. You can — and even perhaps should by all rights — take it off the stove for a minute to let your assistant take a turn.

After a minute or two, remove from heat and scrape onto a cutting board. When cool enough, knead firmly until the color and consistency are uniform. Shoo kids away until you are done playing.

###As you can see, the paprika on the left, which was the good stuff from Bulgaria courtesy of my folks, produced a very disappointing light orange-ish hue, like pumpkin flavored pasta. On the other hand, the food dye, corrected with a squirt of the yellow that came in the same box, morphed into a convincing, if not bright, orange.

Ah well. We can’t win them all. And my little contest was, well, slightly less important than that other one.

It’s possible that I should have considered a third party for the platform — perhaps carrot juice works better? I suppose if you are using this at home, slightly orange-y might be fine next to other colors dyed with more assertive beets, berries and the like. (There are great ideas on this from one of my favorite crafty green bloggers here.)

In the end, I mushed it all together and bagged it up as orange enough. Punching the dough into a pliable mass was satisfying in between muttering at the television.

Still, it’s frustrating when the one you know to be best for the country stumbles a bit, and lets the insubstantial, chemical-laden candidate win the day.

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Purple Pancakes! Or Johnny Cakes, If You Prefer

We’re kinda, sorta’ gluten minimalists around my house these days. It just seems like wheat (or the kind of wheat we all mostly eat) is getting a much-deserved hard look, and the picture isn’t pretty.

Cutting out wheat (mainly) also happens to rid us of some, though not all, of the empty, low-value calories in our diet, so that works nicely. In addition to ordering some Einkorn wheat flour (which is a varietal of wheat most folks ate before the new, easier to grow and less healthy, kind became the norm), I’ve been experimenting with alternatives.

I won’t burden you with the details of our experiment gone awry in attempting tempura with chickpea batter, which just has to work, but didn’t despite the implied promise of our favorite late-night Japanese cooking show…

More successful were these wonderfully vibrant sprouted blue corn pancakes, loosely resembling southern Johnny Cakes, and based on this simple pancake recipe. They fluffed up for a breakfast worthy of royalty, in shades almost too purple to eat. We doused them in maple syrup, and then nibbled the leftovers as snacks all day long.

One more thing: most pancakes, at least for me, leave me feeling both overstuffed and under-nourished by the fluff factor. In contrast, these were really filling and provided lots of good energy for the morning.

If your kids are older, these definitely beg for funny Grover or Cookie Monster faces on top, using bananas, blueberries, strawberries or grapes. Blueberries are great inside as well, for maximum purple effect.

For grown-ups, they’d also be nice blini-sized, with creme fraiche, greek yogurt or goat cheese smeared on them (though you’d want to thin the batter out a bit).

I also tried making polenta with this unique sprouted flour, using my stand-by recipe. It took longer to set up, but was delicious that way as well (next time I’d skip the rosemary, as it crowded the flavors a bit). It was worth all the stirring just to have this bubbling, belching purple cauldron on the stove.

This flour also makes awesome speckled purple playdough, per this recipe. I substituted the purple flour for 1/4 of the flour called for in the recipe, and it was still very Tyrian:

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose blue corn flour (I used Flour of Life Raw Sprouted Purple Corn Flour)
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar (optional: you could reduce, eliminate or sub in a natural alternative)
  • 1 1/4 cups (organic, grassfed) milk
  • 1 (organic, pasture-raised) egg
  • 3 tablespoons (organic, grassfed) butter, melted

Directions:

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and add the eggs, melted butter and milk.

This is the fun part, as you watch it turn purple. Really purple. Adjust the consistency with more flour as needed.

Like Julia Child, we’re not afraid of butter ’round here. Melt it up and ladle them in. (These were, notably, too large, but also like Julia, we just went with it.)

Just like regular old brown pancakes, these do bubble. But they brown quickly as well, so check the edges and flip when those have firmed up a bit instead of waiting for bubbles throughout the middle.

Douse in maple syrup (optional: decorate with silly faces), and serve!