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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Are You a Modern Canary?

Canary blue

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is cross-posted from Dr. Claudia Miller’s excellent blog, here, where she writes about her fascinating work on intolerance to chemicals and their impact on health. Thanks so much to Dr. Miller and her team!

When I recently filled out a helpful questionnaire on chemical intolerance, the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory (QEESI), or “Queasy” as I like to call it among friends, a screw-shaped light bulb went off. (Compact fluorescent, of course.)

According to the results of this scientifically validated tool for measuring sensitivities to toxins in our environment, I am on the “high” end for both exposures and symptoms, meaning that I don’t tolerate smells like gasoline and off-gassing furniture well.

The survey powerfully showed why I obsess about such things, while other people may shrug them off. Seeing how I scored was important to me because it identified some common sources for the headaches and other discomfort I often experience following exposure to an unpleasant chemical-laden odor.

Most of the things listed on the QEESI, which is a quick inventory, as the name implies, including bleach-based cleaning supplies or a “new car” smell, can make me feel a bit off, even in small doses. I still remember being newly pregnant in a Washington, D.C., wintertime and driving with the windows way down, the cold wind in my face, because freezing was far preferable to the vinyl smell emanating from my brand-new Nissan, especially given my bionic nose from the pregnancy!

But that sensitivity hasn’t gone away since I had my daughter, either. And I’m not the only one who’s bothered by the fragrances crowding our environment. A recent article in a UK newspaper notes that: “One leading expert suggests nearly a third of people suffer adverse health effects from being exposed to scents.”

The article explains:

“Allergies are on the increase, and the amount of perfumed products is also on the rise,” says Dr. Susannah Baron, consultant dermatologist at Kent & Canterbury hospital, and BMI Chaucer Hospital. “Fragrance allergy can show up as contact dermatitis in the site a perfumed product is applied, or as a flare-up of existing eczema. It can be a real problem.” …

Often it may not be immediately obvious that you’ve developed a fragrance allergy, says Dr. Baron. “You don’t react immediately; the body notes that it does not like the chemical and develops ‘memory cells,’ which cause inflammation when the body is next exposed to this chemical. Gradually, as you are exposed more and more, the body ramps up its reaction, until it becomes more noticeable to you.”

As the designer of the QEESI tool, Dr. Claudia Miller, an immunologist and allergist, explains based on her many years of research, that biological response is to the chemicals being used to produce the fragrances. Her pioneering work shows that exposures to chemicals of all kinds – not just the smelly ones – can and do trigger a loss of tolerance in some people, causing ill health.

And the simplest things can lead to new exposures, such as our recent utterly ridiculous adventures with installing a generator for our home. We often lose power, and so the prospect of Hurricane Sandy barreling down on us caused a run to the store and triggered a panicky purchase of a generator to help see us through.

Turned out we didn’t need to use it, and instead bought ourselves a world of trouble. In fact, what I didn’t know about it can be counted on all my fingers and toes in the dark, including the substantial extra costs of having an electrician hook it up properly, and the excruciating task of filling tanks up with gasoline, poised over the wafting fumes to ensure that I didn’t overfill the tanks and spill it all over my shoes.

To complete the misadventure, a small amount of gasoline did get inside my car, rendering it nastily smelly once more. To get the odor out, I tried everything – wiping it down with baby oil, auto cleaners, and baking soda. Repeatedly.

Then I finally took it to a detail shop, and paid them a small fortune to use completely toxic cleaning supplies on the floor and seats. The smell has diminished, but it’s not gone, and it’s mingling with all the cleaners for a soupier feel. I still drive with the windows open and leave them all cracked while parked, at least when there’s no rain coming.

Contrary to what most folks think when they imagine what we are doing to “the environment,” indoor air is far more polluted than that outdoors. Given the number of people whose symptoms have been identified by the QEESI, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that something is very wrong when the places we build – to live in, no less – are not particularly safe or comfortable for at least some living things.

So if you are like me, and these kinds of odors bother you as you go about your day-to-day, you may want to take the QEESI (which is free) and see how and why they may be impacting you. And to learn what may be “masking” their effects, so that you don’t know where the headaches are coming from.

Even more pointedly, suppose you go on vacation and get a break from these exposures and feel suddenly better, which happened to a friend of mine, then you may want to start clearing your house of odoriferous chemicals and plastics to see if it makes a difference. It certainly did for her.

On the other hand, if you’re one of the lucky ones who feels just fine in this man-made world of olfactory offenders, well, then, you can snicker at us anti-chemical folk if you’d like to. But you may also want to think about whether those of us with the higher QEESI scores – and the concomitant fascination with “greening” our homes – are actually canaries in a mineshaft.

Tweet, tweet, I say, a bit sadly.

And because I’m a modern bird: Retweet? Are you a canary too?

Good Parenting for the Chemical Industry

This is cross-posted from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families blog here. Much thanks to the wonderful folks there for publishing it!

Here’s a basic truth every Mom knows: it’s far easier to avoid making a mess than to clean it up after the fact. And here’s another fundamental rule we all tell our kids: do not lie.

Sadly, in the case of chemical flame retardants, both of these rules for responsible behavior have gone by the wayside. As the powerful Chicago Tribune series, Playing with Fire, showed last spring, the chemical industry created “Citizens for Fire Safety,” a front group which lied to lawmakers in California about the need for chemical flame retardants in furniture. Yet research shows that there is no proven safety benefit from using flame retardants.

As it turned out from the painstaking investigation by Tribune reporters, the group’s main “safety” representative, Dr. David Heimbach, actually invented details about children who had burned to death in tragic circumstances, twisting the terrible, heart-breaking stories to serve the lobbying goals of the three chemical company backers for the astroturf group. This went beyond the typical obfuscation in industry lobbying – it was fraud on the legislature.

Here’s something interesting: unlike the federal government, the state of California does not have strong laws to penalize people who lie to government officials. In contrast, if you lie to a federal official, you can go to jail or pay a hefty fine. When I scoured documents submitted to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission when it was considering its rule on flame retardants, I found nary a story about burned babies. My own conclusion: they chose to lie when they thought they could get away with it.

So that’s the whopper. What about the mess? A new study out just yesterday shows that a stunning 85 percent of sofas contain harmful flame retardant chemicals, and that of couches sold over the past seven years, nearly all – 94 percent – have them. Researchers surveyed the foam in 102 sofas from all over the country through aptly named “couch biopsies,” analyzing the chemicals. The industry’s veil of silence and repeated refusal to share with researchers what’s in their sofas makes this painstaking approach necessary.

The study also found that pounds of chemicals are used, as much as 11 percent of the overall foam. This confirms what we all thought, but is still outrageous when you consider that my family, and perhaps yours, spends a small fortune on organic foods to eliminate parts-per-million of pesticide residues.

Chemicals being used as flame retardants are linked to health harms, including lowered fertility and IQ and cancer-causing impacts. We also know that these substances break down over time, becoming part of household dust. Once they are in the dust, we all breathe them in. Toddlers and young children, who spend a ton of time on the floor and who put everything, including their hands, into their mouths, have three times more of these dangerous chemicals in their blood than do adults. A recent study also found a correlation between a pregnant woman’s level of one chemical and negative health outcomes in the child at age 7, linking it to decreased IQ, fine motor coordination, and an ability to focus attention.

The real up-shot of this study is that we now have a huge mess on our hands. There are the human costs: most American homes are now polluted with pounds of harmful chemicals, and we will have to measure, as we did with lead pollution, the value of our children’s lost IQ points, likely for several generations. And then there are the ecological costs, which are also staggering.

Furniture sales (though not just sofas and upholstered chairs) totaled about $8 billion per month in 2012. Consider the resources involved, the packaging and shipping of such large items, and the pride everyone feels in refurnishing their home. And now think about the landfills as many people replace these items with safer sofas and chairs. This foam will break down for years, getting into our environment and bloodstream of humans and animals.

My blog lists some options for buying sofas without flame retardants in them, and my traffic was through the roof yesterday. The most common search term was “sofa without flame retardants.” (The amazing Green Science Policy Institute also has a nice list on their front page.)

Given that the rule in California was suspended by order of the Governor, companies should now realize the significant opportunity to sell couches without these chemicals in them to a newly awakened American consumer. And they should consider that at least one of these chemicals – chlorinated tris, or TDCPP – now requires a label as a probable carcinogen under a separate California disclosure law. The new study found that tris is the substance most commonly used in furniture after 2005, but I doubt consumers will be happy to buy furniture with cancer tags sticking out of them.

And what about a more radical idea: requiring furniture makers to take back and replace it with furniture without chemical flame retardants? If the government made them collect and remediate the chemicals, we would get far less of it dumped into the environment. And it would only be fair: consumers should not have to pay to replace new furniture, just so they – and their children – are not poisoned in their living rooms. Instead, those that profited should pay for the clean-up, just as we do with tire recycling programs or Superfund sites.

Of course, that’s just a fix for sofas. We’ll see this story about greed, lies and profits on chemicals over and over again, unless we do something fundamental to require the industry to put people first. The Safe Chemicals Act, which got a hearing in a key Senate committee last spring, is the answer, because it would set up a system for approval of chemicals that requires real consideration of the impacts they may have on health, including the health of vulnerable groups like children.

Here’s how to ask the Senate to act. You can think of the bill as the good parent that the chemical industry obviously needs, to teach them the basics of how human beings should act.

New Study Released Today Confirms: 85 Percent of Couches Contain Toxic Chemicals

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Environment Science and Technology, was just published today by Heather Stapleton. Its results confirm what she has been saying about the ubiquity and harm from flame retardants in sofas, and gives more credence to my incessant complaints, but that doesn’t really make me happy. At all.

A good number of foam samples — 102 — were gathered from around the U.S. and tested for chemicals added as flame retardants. In sum, the study demonstrates that:

  • 85% of the couches tested had toxic or untested chemicals in the foam.
  • The newer the couch, the more the toxic flame retardants were used.
  • Flame retardants use by furniture manufacturers across the country is increasing. Of couches purchased in the last 7 years, 94% contain toxic chemicals added as flame retardants.
  • In samples purchased prior to 2005, PBDEs were the most common flame retardants detected (39%), followed by tris (or TDCPP; 24%), which is a suspected human carcinogen.
  • In samples purchased in 2005 or later, the most common flame retardants detected were tris (TDCPP; 52%) and components associated with the Firemaster550 (FM 550) mixture (18%).
  • Since the 2005 phase-out of PentaBDE, the use of tris (TDCPP) increased significantly. (Note: this means that my experience of buying an Ikea couch because there were no PBDEs in it, only to find that it contained tris, is more common than anyone knew…)
  • Flame retardants were found at levels of up to 11%, or 110,000 parts per million, by weight of the foam. (Translation: this stuff is measured in pounds, as the Chicago Tribune stories said.)
  • Almost all couches (98%) with the TB 117 label (indicating they comply with rules for flame retardants in California) contained the chemicals.
  • Recent studies show toddlers have three times the level of their moms.
  • Previous studies show that children of color have levels higher than the general population. (So depressing!)
  • These chemicals continuously migrate from products, to house dust, to children and pets.
  • There are no data that show any fire safety benefit from using the flame retardants to meet the California flammability standard. (Here’s a link to a very clear and helpful post from a Ph.D. student in toxicology who walks carefully through all the evidence on this point.)

My pal Lindsay Dahl over at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has already written a great post on the study. As she says, the real solution to this problem is to address the elephant-sized toxic couch in the room: for Congress to get off its duff and enact comprehensive chemical reform, by passing the Safe Chemicals Act.

The bill that would establish a system for ensuring chemicals are safe before they enter the market, and therefore our living rooms. The bill had its first historic vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee this past summer, has 29 Senate co-sponsors, and awaiting a Senate floor vote. Take action here, and let the Senate know the time for action is now. Not tomorrow. Now.

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New to the issue or the blog and want to know more? Start in this happy place, and all the other links are at the bottom.

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?

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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!

Must Read: Today’s Great New York Times Story on Toxic Sofas

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been under the weather with viral bronchitis all week, but was cheered to see this long and wonderful article today in the New York Times featuring a personal heroine of mine, Arlene Blum.

Most shocking from the piece? This information from a new study on flame retardants in the blood of toddlers (the emphasis is mine):

Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.

The article talks about the California rule on flame retardants, now under reconsideration in that state. It also notes the need for a federal bill that would better regulate chemical safety, like the Safe Chemicals Act that just got a hearing in the Senate. And it makes clear the problem that new chemicals remain under a shroud of secrecy, under rules that allow the chemical industry to deem them “proprietary” despite being in all of our living rooms:

Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system.

The article also notes how difficult it is to find furniture without chemicals in it, which is certainly the case. In addition to the options I’ve laid out in prior posts, linked to below, I’ve recently found a few new cheaper possibilities:

  • First, I found a wonderful mid-century modern chair on Craigslist for a little more than $100 with the original mid-60s upholstery. Since these flame retardant chemicals generally entered furniture after 1975, it’s likely fine, though I didn’t have any testing done. Other wood-framed mid-century pieces, including sofas, could be fitted with custom-made cushions, which I’ve ordered from Etsy for some of our current furniture, or, if you’re crafty, even made by hand.
  • Futons are an option– according to a wonderful reader of this blog, SallyS, there are evidently a range of cushion options, including organic. Again, Craigslist may be an option for cheap solid wood frames.
  • Also on Craigslist, I scored a 20-year-old Italian-made leather chair for a very reasonable sum. Given its foreign make and age, I’m guessing, again, that this is likely ok. While I realize that very-old-and-foreign-made-and-still-desirable-for-my-sitting-room is likely a small category, I figured it was worth a mention…

If you’re hunting for more options, please check out the posts below as well as the incredibly helpful comments from resourceful readers for some greener manufacturers and other DIY ideas.

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

Toddler Nutrition: Feeding Your Child for Optimum Health

The hardest thing about nutrition is to actually do what you know you should do. We all know that a diet of whole, unprocessed foods is best, and that in order to avoid sugar, excess salt and nasty chemicals, cooking at home with fresh ingredients is preferable.

But knowing and doing are two really different things, as I am aware from my several evenings last week of watching videos on the evils of sugar consumption while stuffing my face with oatmeal cookies… though at least they were made at home!

Over a year ago, when Maya started being ready for solid foods, I first took a close look at how and what we were eating, and became far more interested in tracking nutritional controversies and monitoring what we bought and ate. It occurred to me then that while our pediatrician had said she was now ready to “eat whatever the family is eating,” our family meals were not healthy enough to be a strong foundation for the well-being of a person who weighed only 20 pounds or so.

I thought we could do better than our haphazard ways. For her diet anyway, and insofar as what we ate while we were home, I decided I wanted to close the considerable gap between what I knew versus what we did about nutrition, and to deal with at least some of the environmental health issues related to chemicals in food.

We let our concerns about Maya lead the way, in other words, which has meant that our whole approach to food has gotten better. Like anything about “greening” our choices or becoming more intentional about consumption, the changes we made were small, gradual and happened over time.

While each one may have caused some difficulty at first when we were figuring out what to do, they eventually became habit. It turned out that only four types of changes were needed to remake our approach, and that now it’s easier than I would have thought to just say no to parts of our diet that were less healthy.

Food expenses are now a much larger percentage of our family budget. But food costs as a percentage of household costs have dropped considerably since the 1960s, and, as a nation, the quality of our food supply has actually been degraded as chemicals and fillers have been subbed in for actual food. If we all were willing to spend a little more on simple, real food, the market would doubtless shift again.

Eating this way also tastes way better. These days, if we do skimp and eat something that is cheaper, processed or junky, both my husband and I can taste and feel the difference, immediately. For my husband in particular, who used to eat nearly every lunch at McDonalds, the dramatic differences our improved diet has worked in our sense of taste has been a shock (and is a bit of a pain while traveling!).

Below, I’ll describe our 4 categories of major changes and how and why we made them.

1) Going organic, and then eventually grass-fed, pasture-raised for dairy and meat:

We started by being much more careful about buying organic versions of whatever Maya would eat, and eventually, after some reading about the nutritional, contamination and sustainability advantages, have switched almost entirely to grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy foods.

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

First, choosing organic foods is important because the chemicals in pesticides show up in foods, albeit in small amounts. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time, according to the EPA, which notes that some pesticides also pose unique health risks to children. Even trace amounts have no place in food for either pregnant women or for small children, who need every nutrient and whose bodies are still developing. In addition, organic foods are free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unless contamination occurs by GMO crops.

We’re fairly strict about this one: when fruit or vegetables are not available in an organic form, we skip it and eat ones that are. In particular, fruits that are porous or have no skin to peel, like apples, grapes, berries or tomatoes, or things that grow on or near the ground, like potatoes and peanuts, tend to have higher levels of pesticides in them. We also buy organic for the processed versions of foods, such as raisins, hummus, peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Organic is certainly more expensive. If you are concerned about costs, you could buy organic food for just the pregnant women and children in your family, or you could target the organic foods you buy by looking at the helpful lists from the Environmental Working Group that indicate which foods have more or less pesticide residues — the Dirty Dozen or Clean Fifteen. In addition, farmer’s markets offer some well-priced organic or near-organic (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers) foods, and Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs) can offer savings on seasonal deliveries (though not all CSA farms are organic or near-organic; you can find a local one here).

Grass-fed dairy and proteins are higher in trace minerals, vitamins and nourishing essential fats, because the animals are living how they are designed to live by nature. Chickens that eat grubs and scratch in pasture, out in the sunshine, produce more nutritious eggs. And cows, which are ruminants meant to eat grass, do far better and require far fewer antibiotics or other drugs when on field.

In many modern farms, including for chickens and pigs, animals never venture outside, instead spending their lives in small metal cages or pens. And “free range” labels are misleading — most chickens that are supposedly in this category never see the light of day.

Our industrial food system actually sells us an egg, most of the time, that is worth less, nutritionally, than an egg should be. Trace minerals and vitamins are missing (lower vitamin D from a lack of sunshine, for example, or vitamin E) — as well as healthy, unsaturated fats, and thus we would need to eat more to get less.

Nutritionally impoverished food is so because of inhumane, factory farm conditions that are abusive to animals. Garbage in, garbage out. Given these connections, and what we know about what it does to us through our food, consumers should really be demanding better quality protein far more of the time.

On the nutritional side for children, and especially young children, its critical to know that the brain — and all of the connections in the brain — are actually made of fats, and so having high quality fats in the diet is essential to healthy development. As the LiveStrong Website notes:

Each neuron [in the brain] has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron’s axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.

For Maya, we use grass-fed butter liberally, and organic coconut or peanut oil for cooking. We also give her whole milk, and will continue to long after the dietary recommendations are to switch to skim (myelin develops throughout childhood). And for other essential fats, we feed her (organic) avocados and coconut milk weekly.

As this would suggest, we generally ensure that at home, we use grass-fed, pasture-raised milk, meats, eggs, and butter, as well as cheese when we can find it. These items are harder to find, but again, the taste is so delicious that it become its own motivation.

We buy meats and eggs from a supplier at our local farmer’s market, or look for ratings of 4 or higher at Whole Foods for meat (which is not always easy to find). We can get grassfed eggs, butter and milk at the local co-op (Natural by Nature is one brand for butter and milk; we also like the less-homogenized milk sold in deposit glass containers from Trickling Springs Creamery, which does have an organic option). For cheese, if you look closely, Whole Foods sells some very affordable grass-fed cheeses in the dairy case.

2) Minimizing processed foods:

I used to like Trader Joe’s more than anybody. But I’ve stopped going, because I realized that much of what I bought was convenience foods, much of which was full of preservatives and chemical additives. I’ve become a label hound, and basically will not give Maya anything with stabilizers, “gums”  and fillers (like guar gum, carrageenan, or the like), or sulfites or other preservatives.

In fact, I just put down the box if there is anything at all in it but simply described real food. As a consequence, the only pre-made food Maya eats with any regularity are the pot-pies from the organic farmer’s market stall, which are made with organic, real ingredients and nothing else.

Sugar

3) Minimizing sugars:

Kids love sugar, and Maya’s no exception. In the presence of sugar, she becomes all misty and rhapsodic, and will even bring up the topic unprompted. But the evidence is strong and growing that we’ve all been lied to, more or less, about sugar. A calorie, it now appears, may not just be a calorie. In fact, a calorie of sugar, rather than merely making us fat if we don’t burn it off, may actually do other kinds of harm in the body. And predictably, high fructose corn syrup is a health disaster.

Sugar belongs on our list of highly processed, refined and nutrient-deprived foods. At a minimum, it takes up room where real food should be. At worst, it does far more harm, including disruptions in brain processing and insulin production that derails health, leading a recent 60 Minutes investigation to ask whether it’s “toxic.” In the face of such suggestive evidence, I would propose, as I usually do, a more precautionary approach.

We do not give Maya sugar on any regular basis. She’s had ice cream or other treats perhaps 5 times in her short life. Her “cookies” have 2 grams of sugar only, and are used sparingly as snacks. I have been known to quietly forget to give her birthday cake at a party when it didn’t seem she would notice or care. I also have looked for alternatives to sugary beginnings for breakfast (20-odd other ideas for toddler breakfasts are here).

We skip sweetened yogurt (we make our own with plain yogurt and unsweetened berry jam); do not do fruit roll-ups or gummy “fruit snacks” or breakfast cereal; and generally endeavor to avoid any kind of pastry, white bread, or refined flour products. (Processed flour, without germ in it, basically converts to sugar when eaten.) We use organic brown rice cakes, oat-based crackers, nuts or fruit instead as snacks.

Unless she’s sick and needs a hit of vitamin C, we also do not generally give her juice, which is very high in sugar and can create a sugar craving. (Needless to say, soda and fruit drinks are completely off the list.)

We do sometimes allow coconut water on very hot days. And Maya does eat some wholegrain bread and occasionally has cous-cous or ravioli (wholewheat when we can find it). But I am skeptical of wheat generally, and look for other whole grains to use in our foods, like brown rice, quinoa or millet. I also will sub in rice flour in place of wheat flour in recipes on an experimental basis.

In general, monitoring sugar around children makes me feel Grinchy. Although I acknowledge that I am really out on a limb here, I really do wish that we would stop framing key events around sugar. Birthday parties, ice cream socials, etc., all put sugar consumption at the center of fun, and kids get the message loud and clear. As it turns out, for children, there is no level of sweet that is too much, and the marketers and candy makers know it. (In fact, when I taste how incredibly super-sweet they’ve made classic candies like M&Ms these days, it makes my teeth hurt.)

The party circuit cake-thing might even be acceptable if it was in fact a rare and special moment to eat sugar. But rather than being saved for a special occasion, today kids eat sugar all the time. As someone who has spent her adult life listening for the siren call of my next sugar fix, I think we will have a lot of work to do to wean the next generation off its highly addicting properties if it actually turns out that the nutritional studies now being done on the serious health risks of sugar are right.

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...4) Consuming a wide variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds:

Maya eats a small amount of protein at meals, and we try, sometimes repeatedly, to ensure that the real emphasis is on vegetables, fruits and beans.

We’ve had success with: corn, peas, broccoli, avocado, kale, spinach, mangoes, pears, apples, plums, peaches, apricots, berries of all kinds, melons, cherries, grapes, bananas (duh), figs, oranges, kiwi, onion, celery, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, asparagus, sweet pepper, squash, rhubarb (ok, with a little sugar), carrots and beets. I provide this list to show that there are actually a huge number of options in terms of texture, flavor and preparations to try.

While Maya won’t touch some of these things some of the time, she’s been known to eat all of them at one time or another, sometimes smothered in sauce or cheese. (Some thoughts about how to cook these things to appeal to a toddler are here.) When in doubt, making a chicken soup with lots of vegetables is a no-miss proposition.

Dried fruits (organic, unsulphured) are also a hit, including raisins (soften by cooking, as these are a choking hazard), dates, prunes, apricots, etc. Nuts and seeds are also big — we add cashews or almonds to rice, or flax seeds and chia seeds to oatmeal and baked goods (oats, incidentally, are very heart-healthy and have a different and less irritating kind of gluten than wheat).

I am cautious about soy beans, which have weak phytoestrogens in them, and researchers are really uncertain of their effects or safety. We do serve fermented soy, like soy sauce, or tofu (but definitely buy organic, as most soy is GMO). I do like most beans, and buy Eden brand, which uses a safer type of BPA-free lining in its cans. We also like lentils, including toor dal (yellow) and moong dal (green), which are terrific for health and as a medium for cooking vegetables.

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Eating out remains a challenge with these guidelines. Sometimes, I find a salad with avocado, chicken and vegetables, and let Maya pick at that. Ethiopian cuisine, which is common where I live, is also a good option.

There is also a premium on home-cooked food, which is demanding in terms of time. I try to involve Maya when I can, because it’s fun and studies show that kids involved in cooking have better diets.

I also often pack our food from home: at the pool last week, in lieu of ice cream or other poolside fare, Maya and a friend happily munched on cukes and rice cakes, with grapes on the side. Sometimes, we give kids sugar because it’s automatic and easy for us, or even because, really, it’s cuter. (After all, no one ever posts pics on Facebook of their kid eating a cucumber. Awww….)

And I notice that when I slip up and allow her to have sugar, Maya becomes hyperactive and has more difficulty sitting still or falling asleep, so on that one at least, it’s easy to see when things head south.

As I have a sample size of one, I can’t tell you whether Maya’s diet has made a difference in her health or behavior. In general, she’s a happy, calm, focused and healthy little girl. Given the relationship between inputs and outputs, it seems reasonable to think that a generally healthy diet might have something to do with her sunny, easy-going ways. Then again, we might just be lucky and my persnickety gene has skipped a generation.

Overall, though this was far from intentional, the up-shot is that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet, more or less. It just so happens that this has been shown by a study published just last week to be the diet most protective against obesity (among a test of diets that included the Atkins approach, and the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet). I do tentatively feel that if more kids ate this way, we’d likely have far fewer health-related issues with kids, and I’ll post a book review next that bears me out.

I am particular in saying that Maya eats a low-glycemic diet because I am still in thrall to the sugar fairy and am having a hard time kicking that habit when I am away from home or at work. While I don’t eat a lot of sugar by some standards, and long ago stopped drinking sodas, I have to have a little sumpin’, now and then. When you add that to the delicious, nourishing full-fat dairy foods and butter we use at home, it’s not exactly a combo that will make you skinny. A truly low-glycemic diet is the obvious next stop for all of us.

Even today, though, I do eat better, much of the time, thanks in large part to our girl, and how much she made us think about our food.

More resources:

Below are some helpful and interesting links to studies on the impacts of a low-glycemic diet, taken from this Children’s Hospital Website, which notes that they “show different ways that hunger, wellbeing, physical and mental performance are related to low-glycemic diets.”

  1. Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance (newly published study)
  2. Breakfast glycemic index and cognitive function in adolescent school children.
  3. Glycemic index and glycemic load of breakfast predict cognitive function and mood in school children: a randomised controlled trial.
  4. The glycemic potency of breakfast and cognitive function in school children. Long-term effects of provided low- and high-glycemic load low energy diets on mood and cognition.
  5. Effects of differences in postprandial glycemia on cognitive functions in healthy middle-aged subjects.
  6. The influence of the glycemic load of breakfast on the behavior of children in school.
  7. A low glycemic index breakfast cereal preferentially prevents children’s cognitive performance from declining throughout the morning.
  8. Better cognitive performance following a low-glycemic-index compared with a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate meal in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  9. Carbohydrate-induced memory impairment in adults with type 2 diabetes.
  10. The delivery rate of dietary carbohydrates affects cognitive performance in both rats and humans.

California Governor Brown Orders State to Change Flame Retardant Rule

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Breaking news! And great news! An obscure law in California is the only reason that there are harmful chemical flame retardants in furniture, and as of today, they will start a process to change that rule. Now we’ll just have to make sure that the state’s rule change gets rid of harmful — and potentially harmful — chemicals.

Here’s the statement from Gov. Edmund Brown in full:

6-18-2012

SACRAMENTO – In an effort to protect public safety by reducing the use of toxic flame retardants, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today directed state agencies to revise flammability standards for upholstered furniture sold in the state.

Governor Brown has asked the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to review the state’s four-decade-old flammability standards and recommend changes to reduce toxic flame retardants while continuing to ensure fire safety.

“Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment,” said Governor Brown. “We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals.”

Studies show that humans are at risk from exposure to toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in upholstered furniture. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group found that toddlers often have three times the level of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies as their parents, and California children have some of the highest levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies.

A peer-reviewed study by scientists at Cal/EPA found that California women have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found statistically significant associations between flame retardant levels in the blood of California women and reduced fertility. The researchers believe this link may result from alterations in thyroid hormone levels after exposure to the chemicals.

Numerous studies demonstrate that firefighters have significantly elevated rates of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and brain cancer. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that firefighters have a significantly elevated risk of cancer that may be attributed to toxic chemicals they inhale, including flame retardants.

The guidelines in place now—Technical Bulletin 117 for flammability standards—will be updated to reflect modern manufacturing methods that can lower the use of harmful chemicals.

The process to change these regulations will include workshops and the opportunity for public comment as well as administrative review.

Three Days to a Brand-New BPA-Free You

happy faceWhen I was in junior high school, I distinctly and embarrassingly recall being a little obsessed with a certain cheesy teen novella called “8 Days to a Brand-New You” — a romantic and moving make-over tale in which our geeky, bespectacled heroine becomes a total babe in eight short days (or something like that). You can see the appeal.

My friends are accusing me of always being the bearer of bad news, and it’s certainly a fair charge. But I also still cling firmly to the belief that it’s possible to make small and easy changes that will transform your life. Or at least improve things a little bit.

In the bad hair-day backstage video I did for the ANDERSON show, I mention that you can quickly and immediately see results in efforts to decrease levels of Bisphenol-A (BPA), a potent endocrine disrupting chemical that behaves like a hormone in the body and has been linked to reproductive health damage and other serious concerns.

How do I know this? Last year, researchers set out to pilot new research methods by doing a small, short study of 20 people in five families in the Bay Area, co-sponsored by the Breast Cancer Fund, an organization focused on prevention of breast cancer by identifying and eliminating links to toxins. The results were astonishing, as summarized here and below:

Participants ate their usual diet, followed by three days of fresh foods that were not canned or packaged in plastic, and then returned to their usual diet.

The researchers collected evening urine samples over eight days in January 2010 and categorized them as pre-intervention, intervention, or post-intervention samples.

Test results showed an average drop of 60 percent in BPA levels when study participants ate a diet that avoided contact with food packaging containing BPA, which is used to make polycarbonate plastics and in the lining of food cans.

Tests showed a 50 percent average drop in DEHP, a phthalate commonly added to some food containers and plastic wraps to increase flexibility.

People with the highest levels of BPA prior to the intervention dropped their levels of BPA by 76 percent, and for DEHP that gap dropped by a stunning 93 to 96 percent. Study participants were shocked by the dramatic results.

The key was to prepare fresh foods, and to reduce incidental use of plastic. Three days was all it took, because the body flushes BPA and DEHP quickly, and it stays out so long as we don’t reintroduce it.

Here are some simple tips to reduce these types of exposures:

1) Don’t eat from plastic where it can be avoided. For example, avoid plastic water bottles of all kinds, including baby bottles and sippy cups, plastic drip coffee makers (we use a stainless steel electric kettle and glass french press), and most canned foods, particularly for sweet, acidic, or fatty items (which, let’s face it, is basically everything).

2) Try to frequent restaurants where the food is fresh and to order items that are unlikely to have been frozen (because they’re often stored in plastic) or canned. Just ask what’s fresh — a decent waiter at a good restaurant will tell you, and it’s a good guide to what the chef is excited about anyway.

3) Don’t heat plastic in the microwave or dishwasher or use plastic utensils for cooking or eating.

4) Store food in glass and food-grade stainless steel (some options are identified here in the Kitchen Gear section, and in the comments here), and keep food well below the level of the lid to minimize contact, as they did in the study. Avoid plastic wrap, especially the cheap kind like they use at the deli counter, which is usually PVC, or, at home, use a bowl to keep it away from the food and check to make sure what you’re using is labeled “PVC-free.”

5) Avoid jarred baby food and ready-to-use formula for infants, as they likely have BPA or a potentially suspect BPA-substitute in the lid. Preparing fresh baby food and using dried formula powder from cans are safer choices whenever possible.

6) As this article from the Natural Resources Defense Council says “[d]on’t allow your children to have dental sealants made from BPA (or BADGE) applied to their teeth, and don’t have these sealants applied to your teeth while you are pregnant. Ask your dentist to provide BPA-free treatments.”

7) Refuse receipts whenever you can, and don’t let children handle them or paper money, which has BPA from receipts all over it.

8) Sadly, recycled paper products, like toilet paper and napkins, are also high in BPA, likely due to receipts in the recycling chain. I’m still wrestling with my conscience over this one, but for pregnant women in particular, avoiding all kinds of recycled paper is likely a good idea.

A few other thoughts:

1) While many sites recommend Tetra-paks, for the reasons I explain here, these just store food in a polyethylene layer of plastic, which poses basically the same level of risk as a water bottle (or even more risk for acidic foods given their tendency to leach chemicals from plastic). Confirming my hunch, some links to German studies demonstrating that Tetra-paks leach more estrogens than water bottles, as well as some additional facts about how they make these types of packages sterile that may contribute to this leaching process, are here.

2) There are some BPA-free canned foods on the market, including Eden brand beans (not tomatoes), Muir Glen canned tomatoes (not glass jars; the lids have BPA), and Native Forest coconut milk (this was on several Websites; for example, here, but is not on their site and is not labeled on the can, so I will confirm with the company and update this post; as a side issue, I just noticed that they do use fillers like guar gum, which may be hard to digest for some; you can also evidently make your own coconut milk from dried coconut).

3) In addition, a number of fish companies are reportedly using BPA-free cans, including Oregon’s Choice, Wild Planet, Vital Choice and Eco-fish.

4) A depressingly large number of brands still use BPA, as this helpful local co-op page demonstrates. Another list is here, as well as comments pointing out that toothpaste tubes also have BPA! (I’ll look into this a bit and report what I find.)

5) Stonyfield Farm yogurts are probably in better packaging, as the company really put its plastic supplier through some paces. It’s just too bad that the sugar levels in their yogurt for babies, toddlers and kids are so darn high.

5) When you can’t use fresh, frozen organic foods are likely safer on this front, but do check the small print on the packaging, as many frozen brands are organic “made in China” or in other places in which organic certification is, IMHO, at least suspect (more on this in a future post). Also, salt is often added to frozen veggies, which may be undesirable if you’re cooking for a child.

6) The issue with all BPA-free canned foods is, of course, the question of what they are using instead. About this, companies are remarkably tight-lipped, as I explore here. One exception to this rule is Eden foods, which comes right out and says their substitute is oleoresin, a mixture of pine sap from trees.

For this reason, I’ll use the Eden canned beans in a pinch, though I still prefer the far more toothsome texture of soaked dried beans. (A tip: getting a decent pressure-cooker really helps to make cooking beans a bearable use of time. It’s a staple item in an Indian kitchen for dal and the like, so we have one and use it almost daily.)

See, don’t you feel more babe-like already? What BPA self-improvement tips do you have? Please let me know!

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

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

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

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

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

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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