Nothin’ But Blue Sky

IMG_6130What to do with a low-ceilinged, windowless basement room? Give it to the toddler, of course…

But then, it just screams for some cheer. When my friend Lisa showed me the charming mural she had painted on her son’s wall in honor of his adoption, it was inspiring. She told me how she made the cute and life-like clouds using nothing more than a sea sponge and some water-based tempera paint.

I could do that, I thought. So sometime in my feverish, flu-like state, after days of uselessly prowling the house over the holidays, I determined to accomplish some little thing, at least.

The most manageable (and thoughtless) project on my list was introducing a little whimsy to the “playroom.” It mainly functions as a toy storage area these days, given Maya’s inability to be in the basement by her lonesome. But I have hopes, my friends, that someday she will be capable of independent play, and so this is for that day.

IMG_6161First, because it’s me and this blog and all, I must point out what you know already: paint is notoriously toxic. This is a particular concern in a poorly ventilated basement. As the wonderful Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse (another Takoma Park green blogger!), writes:

Conventional paint contains many volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that “outgas” and escape into the air after they are applied. Indoors, these VOCs cause headaches, nausea, achey bones, and general discomfort. Outdoors, they contribute to smog and air pollution.

And they smell nasty, which can’t be good. The VOCs include chemicals like terpenes, formaldehyde, acrolein, phthalates, glycol, toluene, methylene chloride, styrene, trichloroethylene, xylenes, and benzene, among others. Any one of these is enough to make me gag, personally.

A terrific new guide to building a non-toxic nursery, out just today from our friends at Healthy Child, Healthy World, provides very helpful information about paint types suitable for a nursery or other rooms on p. 16 of their new, interactive ebook and less toxic options. They also have 7 helpful tips for healthier painting. Basically, the best way to go is real zero-VOC paints (i.e., ones that completely and verifiably lack toxics or solvents), or with natural, organic or milk-based paints.

Our local hardware store only stocks the zero-VOC kind, but they at least have a really good brand — Mythic, which I have used on several rooms in our house with excellent results. Mythic is a “real” zero-VOC paint, with no toxics like lead or other known toxins in it, and is also solvent free and goes on beautifully.

In fact, it’s so clean, it doesn’t need a warning label like most paints. (Lullaby Paints appears to be another great option, but I have not used them myself.) Even using Mythic, I set up a fan to speed the paint drying process, open a window when possible, and do not use the room for at least several days.

Before painting, you should also be aware that many, if not most, paints labeled “zero-VOC” can be problematic, because the colorants still contain VOCs and once they are added, then the paint is “zero-VOC” no longer. So I also always take the step of asking the hardware store folks if they actually mixed my paint with Mythic colorants.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission just sued Sherwin Williams over false claims on this issue, and won, sort of. The companies now at least have to say, somewhere, that the zero-VOC claim applies only to the base paint and that the VOC levels can be impacted by the dyes. From The Consumerist:

In truth and in fact, in numerous instances, Pure Performance paints do not contain zero VOCs after color is added,” alleged the FTC.

To settle these claims by the agency, both paint companies are prohibited from claiming their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter.

The companies can continue claiming “zero VOC” if they “clearly and prominently disclose” that the “zero VOC” statement applies only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise.

I am sad to say that I find this agreement a bit ridiculous from a public health standpoint. I wish I shared the FTC’s apparent deep faith in the willingness of consumers to read the fine print on the can about colorants — before the paint is mixed in the store.

I think companies will likely make these disclosures on that can, and that a vast majority of consumers will nonetheless still not realize that the zero-VOC paint they just paid more for has been significantly impacted by VOCs in the dyes. Seems to me that the real solution is to require companies that want to advertise “zero-VOC” for paints produce colorants that keep that promise. But hey, what do I know?

IMG_6159At any rate, back to the fun part. For the playroom, I first painted one wall and a strip of a wall in a bright, sunny yellow. One coat was enough to do it. Then, I covered the ceiling in a light blue paint left over from a sample I considered using for Maya’s upstairs room (Ocean Falls was the color). (Yes, her bedroom is blue. And lovely.)

I didn’t bother taping for the ceiling, as the indistinct edges add to the effect. Mythic is also forgiving; a wet sponge used soon after painting will clean up any messes.

Then, using the sea sponge and a pool of paint in the pan, I painted swirls in large circles across the ceiling with a slightly darker blue, called Peace River.

IMG_6142Last, I added white clouds around the lights and all over the ceiling in various sizes using the sponge dipped in Crayola white tempera paint. This can also be easily fixed with a wet sponge while the paint remains wet. I tried to leave a little extra paint in some places for a slight texture.

IMG_6140I was pleased with the result, which adds a dreamy quality to a small, boxy room. And Maya likes it too!

Have Yourself a Merry (and Non-Toxic!) Christmas

IMG_5821Just like the folks at Fox News say, at my house every year there is a War on Christmas. A War on Christmas hazards, that is.

I actually get all ooey gooey over Christmas. I love bedecking the mantel with snowmen (where are all the snow ladies, anyway?), reciting the Night before Christmas until even Maya is rolling her eyes, and I’ve already festooned our house iPod with overly cheerful holiday tunes.

But I’ll skip the excessive materialism, toxic chemicals, and baubles made by enslaved children, thank you very much. Or at least give it the old elfin try.

I’ve been making my list, and checking it twice. So here’s a few things to think about this holiday season as you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas:

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O Christmas Tree

If you can find a source for organic trees — or find the time to go get your own — this is worth doing. Ours comes conveniently from a lovely neighbor in Takoma Park, who runs a CSA farm and also cultivates sustainable, organic trees.

Why go organic? Keep in mind that trees are brought into your house in the middle of winter, when you are least likely to open the windows, and the needles tend to get everywhere. While no one appears to have measured pesticide exposure in the home from bringing in a Christmas tree, this is an utterly avoidable risk, and we do know that trees are sprayed liberally with nasty pesticides and fungicides. In places like Oregon, the pesticide atrazine is sprayed from the trees aerially on Christmas tree farms, and such indicriminate spraying harms both animals and water quality.

Need more convincing? Here’s two well done articles, one from the New York Times, and another recent piece that notes:

No independent, comprehensive studies are widely available on how much pesticide residue is released once a tree is set up in a warm home environment. However, atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are nonmonotonic, meaning even at extremely low exposure levels, damage can occur.

While you’re at it, be aware that conventional liquid tree food is full of toxins, and are in a bowl which can be lapped up by the dog or splashed in by a toddler. There’s no point in going organic halfway, particularly when it’s so easy to make tree food with sugar, lemons and water (or with store-bought lemonade if you like). I use half a lemon, fresh squeezed and a tablespoon of sugar in as much water as needed (the proportions aren’t picky).

Although natural is best, keep in mind that many holiday decorating plants are quite toxic if eaten. Both holly and mistletoe berries are very poisonous, and can even be fatal if consumed by children. Bittersweet, boxwood, and even pine can also cause problems if eaten. So hang those wreaths high!

Allergies can be an issue too. And if you live someplace like South Texas, as the allergist Dr. Claudia Miller wrote to me today, be very wary of the evergreens like the Texas Mountain Cedar, which have, as she wrote, “some of the highest pollen counts known to mankind.” They pollinate right in time for Christmas, and unsuspecting folks have been known to develop allergies overnight from bringing them indoors.

Even with all this, the natural options are preferable, because artificial trees and fake greenery are typically made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a terrible plastic that off-gasses, mixed with lead, a potent and notorious neuro-toxin. Again, the heath risks are not clear. As one study concluded:

Results from these experiments show that, while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.

Another article debunks the notion that fake trees are somehow “greener” (after all, PVC is not a biodegradable material), and describes a troubling federal study on exposures:

In a 2008 report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a multi-agency review panel on U.S. children’s exposure to lead noted, “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC also degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial Christmas trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”

Smith explained, “Recent studies have found that as plastic trees age, they can start to release a kind of lead dust into your home. That alone could have a real impact on how long we want to keep an artificial tree before replacing it – perhaps with a live tree.”

Why bring these risks into your home? There are so many other ways to decorate, as well as more natural options for greenery! I heartily recommend tchotchkes as one way to go.

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The Stars Are Brightly Shining

Sadly, Christmas lights are also a problem: most commercial lights (like most appliance cords, btw) are made of a mix of PVC and lead as well. Here’s what one lightmaker says:

The lead in holiday string lights is used as an additive to the Polyvinyl Chloride wire covering. The lead acts as a heat resistant insulator and is also used to help stabilize the coloring of the wire. All PVC contains some sort of metal stabilizer including lead, cadmium or tin. Christmas lights have contained lead since they have used PVC as an insulating coating and pose no danger with normal use. Lead containing PVC is used in many common household applications including the PVC piping used to deliver our drinking water, other electrical cords which are insulated with PVC, and even car keys.

You should wear gloves, ideally, when sorting them out from their inevitable spaghetti tangle, and/or wash your hands well after hanging them up. Do not let kids touch or play with them either, obviously. She does not cite a source, but toxics expert Debra Lynn Dadd does say “they are fine when hanging. They don’t outgas lead, you just don’t want to touch them.”

For better options, some LED lights — allegedly such as those sold by Ikea or this Environmental Lighting site — meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which requires them to be virtually lead-free. I did schlepp to Ikea last year to look at the LED options, which was a special kind of awful given the amount of off-gassing particle-board in any Ikea, but I did not like the LED lights at all. They were faint, tiny and gave off a cold white light without enough twinkle to be Christmas-y.

I also checked out the Environmental Lighting site, but you need to buy a controller and power source for the lights, which makes changing to LED a significant investment of around $100 or so.

When I think of the amount of PVC and lead involved in traditional lights, it makes me sad. At least some places have recycling programs for them (and some LED sellers offer discounts in exchange)! And perhaps the LED types will improve over time. If folks are aware of nicer LED options, please do let me know.

Candles are also a common holiday touch, and a nice one at that! Unfortunately, conventional candles are made of paraffin wax, and many wicks contain lead. From Healthy Child, Healthy World:

Though the US Consumer Product Safety Commission asked candle manufacturers to replace lead wicks with zinc, compliance is voluntary and imported candles are not checked; in addition, commercial-grade zinc and zinc alloys used in wicks contain lead.

Aside from the wick, the candle wax can also be a respiratory irritant. Wax can be made of petroleum paraffin, which emits toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde when burned (these are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins).

And the now-ubiquitous scented ones use chemical scents that typically contain pthalates, a chemical used in fragrances for many household items that has been linked to diabetes and heart disease, among other health problems. At our house, we do have some regular unscented candles to use as decorations, but we only burn the ones that are natural beeswax.

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Deck the Halls 

Those lovely ornaments on the tree are a source of additional concern. They’ve been known to contain lead paint or mercury (some are even called “mercury glass” ornaments!), so be sure that they do not get handled or mouthed by children.

And speaking of children, you may be interested to know that on December 5th, 14 children in India were freed from enslavement in a sweatshop where they were working to make Christmas ornaments for Western customers. Where you can, it’s always best to buy Fair Trade, to buy them from craftspeople, or make your own decorations. Ten Thousand Villages, Serrv, and Fair Indigo are great resources for these, which also make wonderful gifts!

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Joy to the World

I’ll be posting soon with a round of gift options on the greener side and some DIY ideas for presents. In the meantime, I’ll try to resurrect the real spirit of Christmas (and shake off the toxic bah-humbugs) by commending to you some of my favorite, more off-beat, holiday tunes.

First, what could possibly be a better deal than Sufjan Steven’s wonderful 4-disc Christmas music set for a cool $15? Simply called “Songs for Christmas,” these are ethereal takes on familiar songs, alongside his own eclectic synth-folk signature songwriting. (Just order the actual box-set, because it comes with some extras and a cute little book.) Along similar lines, I adore the un-done beauty of Low’s album, “Christmas,” and especially am grateful for “Just Like Christmas,” which is Low at it’s pop-highest.

Because nothing says the holidays like a nostalgic political anthem, I’ll also throw in a plea for you to give Steve Earle’s earnestly progressive “Christmastime in Washington” a listen, if only just to recall what the early aughts felt like ’round these parts. And then, last but not least, kick up your heels and stoke your indignation about why the GOP won’t bend to reason on tax rates for the wealthy by indulging in The Kinks’ completely awesome, rockin’ ode to Xmas equality: “Father Christmas.”

Have a safe and happy holiday!

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