A Facebook for Federal Bureaucrats, or What Real Government Transparency Might Look Like

LikeWatching Aneesh Chopra rather lamely defend the Obama Administration’s record on its use of information technology on The Daily Show this week, I was struck by the same problem that Stewart was struggling with — the very slow pace of change, and the unmistakeable disappointment that has set in concerning the early promises that were made by the incoming Obama folks way back when about sunshine in government.

More recently, the debacle of the Obamacare rollout became Exhibit A of government’s incompetence at a time when faith in government to take action about Things That Matter was the issue being debated. Of course, those serious hiccups have now been more or less resolved, and millions have used the Web and other means to enroll in the much-demonized health care coverage.

Although not without its flaws, this is a major advance, both for the country and for covered families and individuals. Perhaps one day soon (though presumably not before we all re-live it via the next election cycle), these significant positives will block out our collective trauma over that massive technical fail.

Yet the overall picture — including Stewart’s example of rampant mismanagement of the databases on veterans at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs — is dismal. While some groups at the state and federal level like the Sunlight Foundation continue to make progress on interactive tools for impacting proposed legislation in Congress or a statehouse, the federal agencies today remain largely impenetrable fortresses, accessible to lobbyists and others who know the ropes, but inexplicably mysterious for most Americans.

The federal departments, commissions and agencies preside over the details of all the rules that most affect the lives of millions of Americans, deciding everything from auto and consumer safety standards to environmental and business rules. While they do have to conduct a public process (called notice-and-comment rulemaking) on the most significant decisions, much of their internal workings remain shielded from any real public disclosure. Only the true Washington cognoscenti — and the allies they inform — are aware of the timing of rules and the process for commenting.

The text of these proposed rules, and I’ve suffered through more than 70 of them over the years, are written in dense bureacrat-ese, typically with lamentable passive voice and ample application of jargon. Although they all live on-line at regulations.gov, understanding the issues and what’s at stake in particular decisions is a form of inside baseball that is so complex that it almost always gives organized corporate stakeholders an outsized role in decisions.

Even if the public at large would benefit from a decision, they are simply unlikely to know about or be able to join the debate in a manner that evens the playing field. Underpowered non-profits like the ones I’ve worked for struggle along, staging battles on principle and always aware of their limited resources and the political realities.

Of course, the public’s larger interest could be represented by the Congress, which doles out assignments to the agencies. And sometimes a very strongly written law does result in a rule that is not too watered down by the inevitable industry response. But many of the best laws were enacted by a prior version of Congress, often several decades ago or longer, and some are showing their age.

Yet advocates are, for the most part, too frightened by the politics and dysfunction of the current Congress to suggest that they be re-written. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance limitations, the money of corporate donors speaks even more loudly on the Hill today than it does within the agencies.

Of course, for better or worse, the agencies also answer to an elected official — the President. They could be much more vigorous defenders of the public interest if allowed to be. Although they must heed the language handed to them by Congress, within those terms, they have tremendous power and discretion over their enforcement activities and priorities. But whenever they do wield power in ways that business interests find unreasonable (often with rules that merely require business to internalize the costs of their actions), the conventional script allows them to be accused of unaccountability, facelessness and all the rest.

It occurs to me, then, that the real goal of government’s use of information technology should be to give the government a face. Or Facebook. Or Facebook-like tool, without ads or annoying apps.

The real information gap in Washington is not about databases that should be shared by federal agencies, though that should certainly be addressed forthwith. The problem is that the map of influence and power — identifying the decision makers, their powers, and the ways to engage them — is utterly obscure except to an elite few.

Today, agencies often hide their internal processes behind an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that covers agency “deliberation.” This is a legal privilege that can be — though need not be — invoked if a federal agency wants the freedom to think about an issue inside the government before coming to a decision. The notion has some merit, as we do want agencies to think.

But it would be no impediment to require the federal agencies that conduct public business to publish information on a Web site about which employees within an agency are tasked with which decisions, and to put all of their meetings and meeting notes with outside parties also on-line as a routine matter. The expertise of government employees, their backgrounds and work history could be included in this “map” of who is thinking about what. Not everyone would need to be listed, of course, just those with decision-making power. And perhaps there’s other information that would belong on these pages as well.

Simply put, it should be far simpler for ordinary citizens to understand the arcane workings of an agency on an issue of concern to them, and to contact the right official if they have relevant information. When I worked on automotive safety, one of the best sources of information were retired engineers, a few of whom had worked for automakers and knew how their decisions happened. They sometimes had extraordinary amounts of information about industry’s bad habits, but no one to tell. A truly transparent government structure might similarly elicit troves of surprising and useful information from sources that remain unidentified today.

Unlike combining millions of government records, this system could be built fresh across the agencies as new hires are made. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that most of our government’s civil servants are nobly trying to do the right thing. It would be of great assistance to our tired political debate about the “role of government” if the agencies looked less like blobs and more like real people doing their jobs — you know, the ones that Congress (and therefore, we the people) gave them.

With the unleashing of the money rules for elected officials thanks to SCOTUS, it’s also our next best line of defense. But the agencies today are under siege, and have been for decades. Figuring out how to engage the public far more directly in their important decisions would better equip them to stand up for their legal principles, and defend the actual public interests at stake. Who knows? It might even lead to some stronger health, safety and environmental rules, thereby showing government at its best.

The agencies have breathed life into accomplishments ranging from the Clean Water Act to the rules that took lead out of gasoline. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes (see No Child Left Behind), but we should be able to talk to them when they are screwing it up more directly. We need them to succeed and be understood, and not to be so easily demonized. As long direct conversations with agency officials are generally reserved for issue experts and corporate lobbyists, the democracy part of our project remains an up-hill fight both inside and outside their walls.

So innovate on that, please. Information transparency is nice — all well and good. Figuring out a workable, clear system to create influence transparency, however — now that’s a ticket for institutional transformation.

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A Walk in the Woods and a Poem

IMG_1211When I walk with my daughter Maya in the woods, I’m often torn between two competing impulses. The urge to discover together and to explain — to point out the wonders of a worm or seed or changing leaf — does battle with the need for silence, for soaking it all in.

Letting Maya lead the way is a solution of sorts — she darts about, looking and poking, asking questions or not. Unlike the Waldorf teacher I spoke with this week, I don’t think facts about nature are a burden to the mind, and try to answer her — or look up new information — as I can. She is a budding naturalist, at any rate, always wondering what different animals eat, where seeds live in the dirt, and which sprouts in the lawn are the onion grass she knows she can munch on.

Amidst the lessons, though, there is still the mysterious mystery, as she put it the other day. There is a quiet place where information is not the point. And ensuring that children get into the woods in an unmediated way — and have a direct confrontation with Life (and our relevance or irrelevance to its systems) — is essential.

Years back, I wrote a poetic response to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, Wild Geese, that hits upon these themes, and I thought of it again recently as the spring weather has brought us more time playing outdoors.

The argument from design

begins with meticulous veins in this mulberry leaf
and ends with God.  But I say it’s a long way from
lichen to leaf to omniscience, and in that journey one must account

for sea creatures that reproduce without sex, whatever sense that makes,
and for mass extinctions, the great blow-ups and die-offs,
and where does silliness come from in this telling?

It’s so serious to look at an oak and find the how
and why we’re here that I can’t bear to live in such a place,
under a heavy hand signing itself by virtue of its own complexity

mistaking a system which lives and dies with reasons
for living and dying — origins, organs knit together,
entangled like only tautologies are. Too easy lessons stolen

from the absent quiet of the woods, or unwitting peace
of geese and wind above a pond. I fail
to see how it explains the central flaw of us, our

pained self-consciousness.
A garden without us is no feat at all, yet there’s
no hint of plans for us inside

that vague, enormous mind. Instead, the delicate
web, reliant on knowing all reasons.
And why make something so delightful just to hand it,

thoughtlessly, to children,
with our violence, our near-total lack of knowing,
our terrible need to know.

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The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“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.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

###

I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

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A Bodacious Valentine’s Day

Be still my heart
 (Photo credit: EraPhernalia Vintage)

Yesterday, in honor of V-day, I had the pleasure of attending a ground-breaking panel on boobies. Because this is 2013, when the subject of breasts arises, so to speak, the topic of breast cancer isn’t far behind.

The purpose of the gathering was to announce publication of an important new report that — really for the first time — sets out an agenda for prevention of breast cancer and points to the significance of environmental factors like chemicals, instead of focusing almost exclusively on treatment. The 200+ page report was the result of two years of work by a group of academics, advocates and government scientists called the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee. (Oddly, the link to the report is not working on the government Website. The New York Times coverage is here. Update: Link fixed!)

In 2012, more than 200,000 women and 2,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,00 women will die from it. A large majority of breast cancer cases — some 85 percent — occur in women with no family history of breast cancer. We know that some environmentally widespread chemicals — including PFOAs, dioxin, the pesticide Atrazine, DDT, flame retardants, and hormone disruptors like Bisphenol-A (BPA) — are linked to breast cancer.

We also know — most recently from shocking and sad reporting by the Center for Public Interest (CPI) of a published, peer reviewed study of plastics auto suppliers and other workers in Ontario that there is very strong evidence linking acute exposures to plastics and chemicals to cancer rates: women working in the auto supplier and canning jobs had cancer rates of 5 times the control group.

Here’s CPI’s summary of the report’s list of chemical exposures related to breasts:

At least 216 chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting substances like bisphenol A, have been associated with mammary gland tumors in animals. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are used to make plastics and pesticides and found in products such as furniture, metal food cans and cosmetics.

Ergo, it would nothing short of dunderheaded to talk about preventing cancer without looking at environmental factors in the mix, alongside genetic, diet and other risk factors. We badly need the kind of paradigm shift the report tees up, as well as the focused attention on environmental risks from regulators and researchers that it recommends.

The arrow on this mammogram points to a small ...

The arrow on this mammogram points to a small cancerous lesion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In honor of the holiday, let’s get back to knockers for a sec. On the panel, author and reporter Florence Williams returned our attention to the physical facts by pointing out a number of novel features that uniquely describe the twin wonders on a woman’s chest.

She pointed out that breasts are among the fattiest organs in the body and that many chemicals are drawn (like men) to these fatty tissues, that breasts are filled with hormone receptors, and that they change over the course of women’s lives as biologically needed. Williams called them, rightly, a “sentinel organ,” noting that what happens to our breasts is an early signal for our overall environment and health. (I picked up a copy of Williams’ book, “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History,” and am excited to read it because she tests the level of flame retardants in her own breast milk, among other unpleasant but informative discoveries.)

Jeanne Rizzo, head of the Breast Cancer Fund, spoke next and highlighted the fact that we know that there are critical stages — called windows of susceptibility — that impact life-time risk for breast cancer, beginning in utero, and that due to the emerging science of epi-genetics, it’s now clear that genes and the environment interact throughout our lives in a complex dance of possibilities. Her wonderful op-ed is also well worth a read. (It’s for this reason that I do think a focus on reducing environmental risks for pregnant women and young children is important, and that consumers need help in this area.)

Linda Birnbaum, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Toxicology Program (NTP) was also powerful. I was particularly struck by her description of an ongoing “sister study” pairing women who are diagnosed with breast cancer with their sisters who have not been.

As she pointed out, we may have been over-emphasizing genetic factors when we see diseases linked in families, because although it’s true that they share genes, siblings also tend to share environmental influences. This study will attempt to distinguish genetic factors from the other shared conditions, including chemical exposure levels, thus helpfully sorting out what we can fix, given sufficient political will, from what we really can’t.

This got me thinking about obesity as another confounding factor in the research. We all know — and it was reiterated by panelists — that obesity is major risk factor for breast cancer, heart disease, and basically every other major health problem. Yet we also know that mice exposed to a teensy amount of BPA get much fatter than other mice. As Nicholas Kristof noted:

Among chemicals identified as obesogens are materials in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and jet fuel.

They’re everywhere, in other words. Yet the national report on obesity a big government panel issued last year barely mentioned the issue, instead focusing its major recommendations entirely on nutrition and exercise. Ditto with the President’s “Let’s Move” action plan.

Now, I’m not disputing that healthy foods and regular activity likely play an important role in obesity. But, as Jeanne Rizzo said the founder of the Breast Fund Center asked about breast cancer, I would still ask why we are so much fatter now than we used to be, and why Americans, who have far more chemicals in their diet and environment, are so much heavier than Europeans, when we eat basically the same types of foods.

The staggering rate of increase in obesity should be another indicator. A recent report found that adult obesity rates could exceed 60 percent in 13 states by 2030, and that:

If states’ obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, the number of new cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension, and arthritis could increase 10 times between 2010 and 2020—and double again by 2030.

Then there’s the stunning increase in childhood incidence of Type 2 diabetes. From a September 2012 article in the Times:

Before the 1990s, this form of diabetes was hardly ever seen in children….There were about 3,600 new cases a year from 2002 to 2005, the latest years for which data is available.

What has changed from before the 1990s until now? As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I can tell you: our diets were no paragon of health. We ate junk food, nutrient-poor school lunches, and canned green beans, white rice and pork chops for dinner. We binged on Halloween candy while playing Atari for hours. But this disease was for the full decade of my adolescent decadence still virtually unknown in kids. In fact, we know a lot more about healthy eating and healthier foods are much more widely available today, yet we’re still in deep trouble.

Researchers are basically at a loss to explain the obesity increase, as in this comically uninformative paper where they more or less throw in the towel. Could it be, instead, that the ubiquitous chemicals, drugs and fillers in food and industrial agriculture, along with the plastics that package virtually all of our foods, are at least in part to blame? That cheap calories from a degraded and ever-more industrialized food supply — eaten by people across the socioeconomic spectrum — come at a very high cost? What are those fat mice trying to tell us?

As in the breast cancer sister study, when we treat obesity as an inert risk factor — “don’t get fat, you!” — we are missing an opportunity to shift the paradigm to environmental health factors and instead substituting a far less helpful blame-the-victim mentality.

We should not fail to acknowledge obesogens may be a confounding factor in the data — that the same people who are obese are more likely to get breast cancer because the cause of both conditions could be related to the same chemical exposures (or chemical-epigenetic interactions that reflect a sensitivity to environmental influences). If it turns out this is right, and chemicals are a major factor in all of these kinds of health conditions, then the solutions are also shared, and the public health costs of inaction virtually incalculable.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I care deeply about preventing breast cancer, having seen its terrible toll on close family friends. And I am so excited for the publication of this major report that talks clearly and for the first time about the impact of chemicals on cancer rates, though I wish there was a least a small section on consumer can-dos, to counteract the doom and gloom.

But we also must be uncompromising as we outline the possible damage from toxins, and push this powerful new paradigm to its logical conclusions. To meaningfully address a host of public health threats, we will need one day soon to take the full measure of what our ongoing, uncontrolled experimentation with biology-altering chemicals has actually accomplished, in both our bodies and our brave, sentinel breasts.

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

What Does “Green” Really Mean to You? Getting Environmental Health versus Sustainability Sorted Out

A still from the "Sad Kermit" video

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy being “green.” In fact, much of the time it’s not even clear what it means.

What we typically label “green-washing,” or the marketing of eco-high points without mention of the ecological costs, is a real problem. One aspect of this problem is that it’s often difficult to tell, when you are choosing a product, whether it’s “green” because it’s safer or healthier to consume, or because less junk was produced or used in getting it to you in the first place.

For a concrete example of this, I constantly see items marketed as “green” – say, the furniture from West Elm made with some percentage of soy foam – that nonetheless is full of toxic chemicals, such as the flame retardants I’ve been blogging about somewhat obsessively. It’s also not helpful that words like “natural,” “non-toxic,” or even “organic” outside the context of food, have very little meaning.

And then there’s the debate in the comments of that recent post on the Sofa Saga, in which an eco-textiles expert takes issue, rightly in many ways, with the green claims being made about some of the furniture. Her concern is for sustainability and to reduce overall pollution of the environment from textiles, as far as I can tell. Yet I began my sofa quest from the simpler place of merely trying to get toxics out of my house (a task which turned out not to be at all simple, sadly).

So there’s a definitional problem that flows both ways. But this is not an unimportant distinction. If we want consumers to care about the impact of their choices on either their own health or the environment, we could start by clarifying our terms.

While sometimes the benefits might be related, the motivations in these two areas are not the same, from a practical or psychological perspective. My desire to protect my child from toxics, at least for me, comes from a place where I’m basically kinda’ offended that some company wants to poison her. I just want to get that possibility to zero, and I’ll do a lot to make that happen.  (Including ordering healthier products shipped in individual boxes to my house, carbon miles, packaging and all. No one talks about these trade-offs!)

On the other hand, while I do feel deeply committed to whatever I can do to improve the health of the planet, on that scale, I’m also part of systems that do a lot of harm all the time, including everything from the electricity production that lights my house using coal-fired power plants, to, more directly, when I put gas in my car. Motivating real and significant change on these behaviors is far harder, in many cases anyway, and is more about my sense of wanting to do right by the earth than the highly personal health concerns that affect my direct actions in the first category.

Of course, the planet does provide a handy feedback loop, in that the stuff we use ends up in the environment eventually. But I would submit that this kind of secondary effect is merely a nice outcome – the icing on my organic cake – for choosing healthier products. It is a weak force when compared to the incentive provided by health or safety issues that far more directly impact what’s in my family’s life.

In either case, eco-products mostly come at a premium, and “greener” items tend to be green in a number of ways, all of which raise the price. If I’m paying more for better health for my family, I’d like to know that. Similarly, if I’m paying more as an investment in a cleaner environment for all of us, including my family, I’d like to know that too. Having a transparent range of options and a sense of their impact would make a big difference.

Because these triggers for change are so different, and imply very different behaviors and tolerance of costs, in my view, the consistent confusion in messages we receive on what “green” means –  i.e.,, whether it should be judged on grounds of environmental health or environmental sustainability, or a mix of both – actually demotivates change by potentially willing consumers, and obfuscates choices on price and other trade-offs.

It also creates a space where consumers are told they are helping to solve a problem by going “green” in shopping for an item with some improvement in features, without the full set of possible choices on either health or environmental grounds – choices the company has made – being clear.

Questions like – How green (or non-toxic) is it? In what ways? And how green (or non-toxic) could it be? – are rarely answered with any honesty. (For some recent evidence on this, see organic tomato company Muir Glen’s weasel-y response on Facebook, banished from their front page, when I asked about the new BPA-free materials in their can linings.)

When we later learn what was missing from the full picture, it can create cynicism, and the sense that, whatever we’re told, it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. With so many choices to make in a day, and so little time to make them, most folks just make a call and move on. What else could they do, really?

The result is that the motivators on health are lumped in with vaguer concerns, and toxics continue being distributed, even through “eco” products. Savvy consumers have to become even savvier label-scanners, and the few hyper-researched worrywarts like me who do weed out stuff on health grounds, as we can, must peer through a thick haze of greenish claims to figure out what’s likely to be toxic or not, and better for the planet or not.

At a minimum, this is deeply annoying. But at worst, we’re blowing a chance to bring matters home that could be much more of a driver for consumer decisions. We could start to address this by putting companies – especially ones making claims to do better – through a much more exacting set of questions about what’s in stuff and why.

So, please join me in my persnickety questions and letters, and let me know what you find out. And what you can’t seem to get a straight answer about, even when you ask a highly specific question. I’ll post it all – the pursuit, the brush-offs and obfuscations, and the thrill of the chase. Or at least the exchange of impertinent questions and dodges.

If we could start holding companies far more accountable for their bogus “green” claims, and sorting out the ones who are willing to be accountable from those that clearly don’t want to be on health matters, that would be a decent start on addressing a few aspects of this problem. “Green” claims, at a minimum, should not shield companies from closer inquiries on the safety of their contents. (And if you’d prefer to work the reverse angle — figuring out sustainability issues for companies making health claims, that would be interesting too.)

Even if nothing else, please help me get real answers from Muir Glen, before they get away with covering over the information we deserve on BPA substitutes with a gloppy dollop of organic tomato sauce.

Tomato Twins

Tomato Twins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)