Ten Easy Tips for Hosting a Greener, Healthier Kid’s Birthday Party

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I like parties. I always invite most everyone I know, and find it a wonderous thing to get invited to them as well (hint, hint).

Nonetheless, for the first two years of Maya’s existence, I thought a birthday party was unnecessary, given that she wouldn’t really notice one way or the other. But by the ripe old age of three, well, she’d already attended a bunch, and she was quite specific about her desires for a cake in the shape of a bunny. (As luck would have it, my always-helpful Mom happened to have just such a cake mold on hand, left over from some ’70s baking adventures. It’s aluminum, but I let it go, just this once…I did use raspberries to color some of the frosting, which ended up a light pink.)

IMG_1580So this year, a party it was. And for the first time I had to tackle the problem of hosting a gathering that met my newly adopted standards for organic most-everything. In the end, we definitely blew our budget, but it was delightful. I really enjoyed the from-scratch but low-key nature of the gathering. Most importantly, Maya had a wonderful time, and so did the people who delighted us by coming to celebrate.

IMG_2064So here’s a summary of lessons learned, tips and links for hosting your own greener gathering!

Top Ten Tips for Hosting a Greener Kid’s Birthday Party

Given the higher cost of hosting with organic and nicer foods, I’ll start with a few ways to keep the budget lower on other items:

1) Pick an affordable spot to have it, which may require some searching. We would have hosted it at home, but felt compelled to invite too many people for our wee abode. So we comparison priced local spots at parks. While County parks where we live wanted $100 for a picnic area, the National Rock Creek Park was $8 for a grove. Hosting it in a spot where we didn’t pay per-child also was a relief when extra kids wanted to come, and we could accommodate anyone we needed to.

2) Use seasonal decorations that you can eat or enjoy later. We ditched the plastic decor and kid themes and put squashes, pumpkins, and pomegranates on the table instead, along with a fall-colored orchid. We stuck dried colorful leaves and acorns in a pumpkin vase, and brought out serving plates we use for the holidays, which fit the autumnal theme perfectly. We’ll carve the pumpkins, cook the squash into soup, and enjoy the plants over the next weeks and months.

3) Find some of what you need for entertaining at the thrift store. I hit a local thrift store’s Labor Day sale and found great items for cheaper than you would pay for disposable tableware, including a punch bowl with 14 cups for $5 and a large serving platter for $7. For a tea party theme, mismatched plates from delicate sets work great, and if you pick up these kinds of things, they can be used year after year, or even for playtime with little concern given their affordability.

4) Keep the menu simple, and make it from scratch. For an early afternoon event, I made only four things: mostly-organic hummus, some homemade pickles, guacamole, lemonade and cake. For the rest, I put out fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced or chopped as needed, a few chips and nuts, crackers, olives and cheese. It was plenty! Simple menus allow you to shop for nicer ingredients, and to put care into what you prepare. The biggest hits were the lemonade mixed on-site from organic sugar, water and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. In keeping with the DIY theme, for future parties, I would consider letting the kids decorate their own cupcakes with icing tips on (PVC-free) plastic baggies of frosting, or having guests mash up their own guacamole from a table with all the prepped ingredients and a molcajete.

IMG_20685) Use toys you already own for amusements. Last year, I scored a bunch of costumes and dress-ups at a yard sale for a only a few bucks, and they made the perfect side activity in a corner of the grove. The kids enjoyed messing around with those and a box of puppets I’ve collected from thrift stores and yard sales.

6) Make the crafts part of the favors, and let the kids decorate the favor bags. We used simple brown lunch bags for decorating at the craft table, along with wooden eggs and doo-dads I ordered directly from a great low-cost supplier in the woods of Maine. The kids had a ball painting the eggs, gluing feathers to them, and building items out of the wood. Their creativity was amazing!

7) Pick simple games from your own childhood. There are a ton of simple games, depending on the ages involved — like boiled or raw eggs on a spoon races, gunnysack races, three-legged races, musical stepping stones, water balloon toss or horseshoes and bean bag toss. You can use craft store felt squares to mark out spaces on the grass if needed, and then keep them for felt crafts like these. Some games, like Mother May I, Red Light, Green Light, Duck, Duck Goose and Simon Says require no props at all. If you want to take it up a notch, Green Planet Parties has a number of lovely game options and birthday favors that can work well, especially for smaller parties. (Just allow plenty of time for it clear customs if in the U.S., as the mostly handmade goodies ship from Canada.)

8) Having a “no gifts” rule is a nice touch, if your kid can cope. It’s kinder to other parents and also ensures you won’t be dealing with unwanted items that aren’t as green as the things you prefer for your home.

9) Keep it on the small side — or at least, don’t sweat the small stuff. File this one under “do as I say” but of course the recommended size for children’s parties is modest, and many folks follow a rule to invite the number of children that corresponds to the age of the child. This reduces costs, as well as the number of pricey biodegradable or green tableware items you might have to buy.

We’ll aim for this in future years, as this year’s was a bit ridonculous (though great fun). I did manage to shrug it off when the much-coveted bunny cake actually was dropped into the dirt and obliterated en route to the picnic table. This helped Maya move on as well. It appeared to make some sense to her when I said the bunny had returned to the woods from which it came. It’s always nice when a child’s capacity for magical thinking can help save the day…

10) Pick up the right stuff for entertaining that you can use again and again. In keeping with the greener kitchen list I posted earlier, here are some (un-commissioned) links to greener items for entertaining I found:

IMG_2066On the cake, which is always the most fun thing to think about, if you are as timid a baker as I am, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozens of wonderful cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. That is, you can’t unless you ignore Deb’s careful and detailed instructions as I once did to my profound sorrow. I’ve made her scrumptious apple cake before, and for the birthday I loved the vanilla-buttermilk cake from her new cookbook.

Ms. Smitten is far more meticulous about stacking layers and the like (mine happened to both be lop-sided in ways that perfectly mirrored each other, so it turned out alright), but she does have sound advice on this score if you need it. If you run out of time to decorate more inventively, as I did, I also recommend having some nice-ish fresh fruit on hand, as a few thinly sliced kiwis and some berries are a great cheat and dress up a cake with little fuss.

For gluten-free cake, I did use a mix, and found that Pamela’s Chocolate Cake Mix (which I found at Whole Foods) worked well when I substituted coconut oil (using a little less than called for) for vegetable oil. The cake was very moist and slightly coconut-y, which was appealing with the chocolate.

A few notes on things you may want to avoid:

1) Most bouncy huts and the like are made of PVC, a poison plastic, and some are even likely contaminated with lead. There’s no need to put kids inside these for any real length of time, particularly indoors. Balloons are also PVC, as are many “party store” decorations like banners, etc., so keeping these outdoors is a good idea to the extent you may want to use them. The mani-pedi party one 5-year-old girl I know got invited to is also just a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons.

2) In a 2009 study, 100 percent of the face paints tested came up positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin that is now thought to be harmful in much smaller amounts. We use Giotto Face Pencils, which the company claims are lead-free, but they are no longer available from any vendor I’ve found in the U.S. (you can get it shipped through ebay from Europe). MightyNest also sells Glob, another lead-free brand, but it contains phenoxyethanol, which gets a 4 on Skin Deep, as a preservative.

Most of all, do try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can! This time is so fleeting, really, and nothing marks time for all of us like a birthday!

If you have tips from your party hosting (or party-going) experiences, please share!

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Safer Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Avoiding the Dreaded “Icky 11”

IMG_1559If you’re on a search and destroy mission for toxins in your home (and you are — right, friend?), a pretty good place to start is the bathroom.

Personal care products are rife with nasty and suspect stuff. If you still harbor any doubt we’re all citizens of a Chemical Age, just try reading aloud the ingredients of a typical bottle of shampoo. Then, when you’ve finally untwisted your tongue, you may want to reconsider your beauty routine.

Not So Pretty in Pink

In 2007, Stacy Malkin sounded the alarm with her landmark book about the “ugly side” of the beauty industry, linking common products to cancer and a host of other serious health problems. Since then, the cosmetics industry has been on notice that consumers want better, safer products in cleaner, greener packaging. The good news is that even in comparison to a few short years ago, many better options now exist, some of which are listed below.

Still, many products are still loaded with suspect chemicals. An environmental health group just last week sued several retailers for allegedly failing to label shampoos and otherproducts that containing a known carcinogen, cocamide diethanolamine (cocamide DEA). The Center for Environmental Health said it has a list of 100 offenders which allegedly run afoul of the excellent right-to-know label laws under Prop 65 in California.

For another example, here’s the list from a “natural” oatmeal lotion marketed for use on babies that contains at least 4 chemicals of concern (the “ick” you’ll soon learn how to spot yourself!):

IMG_1618 Under the government’s watch, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way to store shelves. While many of them remain untested, some of them have known links to cancer and reproductive health impacts. Shockingly, the FDA can’t require companies to test for safety.

Some unlucky folks also have far greater exposure to harmful beauty products on the job. Salon workers, for instance, face many of the nastiest chemicals—formaldehyde, pthalates and others—hour after hour, day after day. Grassroots groups have started pushing for safer working conditions in salons, and wonderful, active coalitions like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are doing great work to make products safer for consumers. Congress is taking note, though the bill currently being proposed to fix the problem still needs some work.

IMG_1573Revenge of the Nerds: Becoming a Label Scanner

In the meantime, you should know what’s safe and what’s, well, not so much. So I’ve compiled my own list of the worst offenders, as a rough guide. I also recommend checking on stuff in the incredible database on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website. It allows you to search for products, providing a detailed analysis of ingredients and any chemicals of concern. You can also search by ingredient if a product’s not listed.

Because it’s hard to shop for better products when you have a toddler nagging at you, I’ve found that committing a few key abbreviations for certain chemicals to memory and learning how to do a quick label scan is an invaluable asset. Although its not an exhaustive list, the below is a half-decent crib sheet for when you’re standing in the makeup aisle cursing under your breath. (That’s probably me next to you, squinting at the teensy print and cursing audibly.)

Like with food, better products these days often have fewer ingredients, and organic ingredients, labeled as such. Their labels tend to include parentheticals with real words in them like (coconut) or (flax oil). On the other hand, if you see a long list of chemicals (especially those with numbers or a string of capital letters), that tends to be a good product to avoid. I read up from the bottom of the list, because that’s where the worst offenders often hide out.

IMG_1575 Key Chemicals to Avoid: The “Icky 11”

1) Phthalates

Phthalates are widely used in perfume, nail polish, soap, shampoo, moisturizers, soap and hair spray. They’ve been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and can cause reproductive and developmental disorders. They are listed under a variety of names, and two of them—dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate—are banned from cosmetic products in the European Union but are still used in products in the U.S.

Pthalates are also used to make plastics more pliable, including in polyvinyl choloride (PVC), as in this staggering list from the National Library of Medicine:

flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.

So they’re everywhere, and worth avoiding when you can. As to cosmetics, here’s what’s tricky: sometimes they’re added to products under the generic term “fragrance,” so in addition to avoiding any ingredients with “phthalate” in the name, you should also steer clear of products containing “fragrance.” This is especially true for pregnant women, pre-teens and young adults, and babies, who are more vulnerable to their health hazards. Pick “no-scent” or “no fragrance” as your go-to whenever possible, and stay out of the department store perfume aisle! 

2) Parabens

Like phthalates, parabens come under a variety of names. The four that most commonly appear in cosmetic and bath products are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. They’re added to shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions to kill microbes.

Parabens are found in adundance on store shelves and have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. They’re absorbed through the skin: U.K. researchers found detectable levels of six different parabens in twenty human breast tumors in a 2004 study.

3) Lead or Lead acetate

Lead acetate is a toxin that affects reproduction and development. It’s not as common as parabens or phthalates, but it’s a doozy. It scores a terrible “10” in the Skin Deep Database, and has been linked to cancer and is banned from cosmetics in Canada. Currently the FDA allows it in the U.S. except in products applied around the eyes. Do not buy any products containing this chemical and toss any you might own.

In addition, a recent study found shockingly high levels of lead in lipstick (especially the dark reds and browns I wore all though the late 1980s and early ’90s, trying in vain to steal Molly Ringwald’s look from “the Breakfast Club”). I will just note that this puts a potent neurotoxin on your lips, kinda’ close to your brain.

Kids shouldn’t play with your lipstick, either. And while we’re on the subject of lead, I have more bad news. Face-painting make-up used for kids has been found to have dangerous lead levels and should be avoided: a 2009 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 10 out of 10 face paints tested. This is a hard one, as it’s on offer at every durn festival we go to and is popular at Halloween. If you want to pack your own safer stuff or have it on hand for dress-ups at homes, you can make your own or buy this product, which looks to be the safest I’ve found.

4) Formaldehyde and toluene

Formaldehyde and toluene are found in nail products like polish, treatments and strengtheners. They’re also found in hair dyes and the now-notorious hair-straightening products called “Brazilian Blowouts.”

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory toxin. Toluene is a neurotoxin that can impair breathing and irritate the skin. They’re both terrible for you, and pregnant women should be especially careful about exposure because of the threats they pose to developing fetuses. Staying out of salons while pregnant is a great idea for a number of reasons.

5) Coal tar

Coal tar is found in a number of dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and skin lotions. It’s a black, viscous liquid that’s produced during the distillation of coal. It’s a known carcinogen and bioaccumulating respiratory toxin, but despite these health concerns, it was deemed safe for consumers at typical levels of use. Because it poses such grave consequences for health, I would highly recommend avoiding it.

IMG_15706) Aluminum chlorohydrate

Aluminum chlorohydrate is used in anti-antiperspirants. It’s suspected of causing breast cancer, and subject to restrictions in Canada. While EWG only gives it a 3, a raft of finding linking effects on breast cancer tumors to aluminum are worrisome enough to include it as a precaution.

7) Triclosan

Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent found in many deodorants and soaps. It’s been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin irritation. It also can encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria. Definitely to be avoided.

8) Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)

These chemicals are used to adjust the pH in products like shampoos and hair dyes. Each carries a number of concerns, but DEA (including cocomide DEA mentioned above), is a likely carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory toxin, and is the most dangerous of the three.

9) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)

EDTA is found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, soap, body wash and moisturizers, to prevent spoilage and as a way of keeping clear liquids from getting cloudy. It makes chemicals more absorbable through the skin, which is a reason to avoid it as well. It has a low hazard rating from EWG but has been classified as expected “to be toxic or harmful” by Environment Canada. It is known to cause liver damage and skin irritation. It has killed patients in large doses using it for chelation in alternative medicine and appears to increase lead absorption in patients.

10) Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate (SLS)

Along with other sulfates with very similar names–sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance—SLS is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to cause the product to foam and remove debris. SLS has a bad reputation but EWG gives it a relatively low hazard ranking. Though it can cause skin irritation, the primary concern is that SLS can be contaminated with two really nasty chemicals—ehtylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer and is banned in Canada.

11) Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene glycol can be found in makeup, sun screens and body washes. While it gets a relatively low hazard score from EWG, like SLS, there’s a chance of contamination with ehtylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which pose grave health concerns. It’s often followed by a number.

IMG_1561Weird Science: The Label Lies

So there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there. And the “good guys” are hard to find. Due to lax marketing laws, many items labeled as organic actually contain few organic ingredients. Even worse, some more natural products, like those deodorant stones, are not as green as they seem.

Second, there is massive greenwashing in this area: terms like “all natural,” or “green” or “nutrient rich” are not defined in law, and therefore should not be taken seriously by you at all. (Just do as I do and pronounce aloud “wah wah wah wah” like the teacher in Charlie Brown’s class while standing in the aisle. Stores love that.)

Third, some prominent “natural” brands have actually been acquired by much larger companies, including Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine, and some of the products have been reformulated to be less of a sure thing (though both companies remain far better than the average).

Sadly, the medical establishment is of little use here. When I took Maya to a skin doctor recently, I was shocked to see that the lotions with medication in them the doctor was handing out samples of all contained some of the worst offenders on the Ick List. Then I went home and read the bottles of our other children’s products, like the liquid suspensions of ibuprofen. All of them had suspect dyes and parabens. Nothing like dosing children with a sip of potentially hazardous yuck to fix a minor health problem!

toxic-docBecause of all this, the best approach is to simplify your routine. Just decide what products you really need on a daily basis and for the occasional special event, and toss the rest. I use much less stuff than I used to, and really, truly don’t miss it.

Then you’ll also have more time to look up the facts on what you do need: just check in the EWG database. They have great lists by product category starting with 0, or no known risk from chemicals. I aim personally for nothing higher than 2, and mostly 0s and 1s. I’m even stricter with kids’ stuff, and prefer 0s or 1s for that. I also check the individual listings for each product so that I know all of the ingredients are a-OK.

Of course, you can always make stuff yourself. There are a ton of great recipes on the interwebs for everything from toner to lotion, bath salts to body scrubs. There are also suggestions about cleaning your skin with honey, which was lovely when I tried it, or with food-grade oils, which I also found to be easy and effective when I gave it a go. And it works for babies too!

Olive and coconut oil make great hair conditioners (and detanglers for kids’ hair), and organic shea butter has been a life-saver for us for treating Maya’s mild eczema. Farmer’s markets are another good source for simply made products and home remedies.

IMG_1568Some Kind of Wonderful: Products We Actually Like

Below are a few of my favorite companies. These are items we’ve actually used and liked. In addition, I’ve indicated some more widely available and affordable substitutes from major retailers as stuff I’ve used in a pinch or when I wasn’t feeling spendy.

The blog for one of my favorite companies, Bubble & Bee, is amazing and very much worth checking out for its wealth of interesting information from Stephanie, the company’s thoughtful founder.

Baby and kid products:

Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:

A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):

Note: None of these links are commissioned, though Sappho Cosmetics was kind enough to send me free samples of their make-up when I returned to work. While much appreciated generally, this did not influence my evaluation of their products.

Additionally, for reasons that elude me, the headings all ended up referring to ’80s movies. If you have more to suggest on that score, or products you personally use and like — no commercial posters allowed — then please weigh in! If there are other chemicals you avoid, I’d love to know that too.

IMG_1569Other posts you may like:

 

Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

IMG_0387

Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!

Is Gardening Actually Green? Some Considerations for the Aspiring Gardener

IMG_0396Far too late this spring for efficient planning, I got bitten by a gardening bug. You know the kind: a large beetle-like apparition that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear about hydrangeas until you find yourself wandering, dazed, through what seems like acres of plant nurseries, credit card in hand.

Or perhaps that sort of thing just happens to me. At any rate, given my lack of actual information about growing things, after spending a penny or two on some fancy and not-so-fancy plants, I panicked and decided I’d better bone up on how not to kill them right away.

I’ll be first to admit I’m an inconsistent, mostly aspirational, green-to-black thumber. Indeed, it should be stipulated that I spent much of my wayward adolescence brattily refusing to assist my parents as they toiled about our yard. I was too busy watching reruns of Three’s Company reading War and Peace. So I’ll forgive their incredulity now as I plumb the soil, or gad about with my trowel like a dowsing rod that could point the way to my misspent youth.

As a semi-grown-up, I first got interested in gardening during the all-too-brief period in which I lived — believe it — in Manhattan. We paid literally one million dollars per month for 600 square feet on the Upper West Side, at garden level, and had our own tiny patch of ground. It was such a luxury to have a patio “area” that I wanted to try at least to make it nicer than the patch of scrubby dirt that greeted us with appropriate NYC diffidence.

But I knew nothing, and knew I knew nothing. My folks — ever willing to assist in my flights of fancy on the cheap, bless’em — actually drove up from Virginia with patches of sod and spare hostas and other plants liberated from their own yard. And friends came by to help us dig and install (thanks, Steve!). A few days of work, and this:

Eventually became this:

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IMG_0533IMG_0517It was bliss. And then, sadly, we moved. And then, happily, had a baby. Two years after being installed in a house with a postage stamp yard in Takoma Park, I had barely lifted a three-pronged diggy thing. Sometime this past April, I looked around in despair and decided change had to come, and that change was me.

But since my last short-lived pass at gardening, I had a green awakening and started this blog. So I resolved to look into what I was doing to the yard and why, rather than just purchasing some pretty flowers and plopping them in as before.

Here’s the upshot (get ready to be shocked, I tell you, shocked…): while it’s possible to do gardening with environmental concerns in mind, it’s not always as easy as it should be.

There’s actually a ton of greenwashing in gardening. As I discovered, the garden sections of stores are filled with poorly labeled plants  — most do not say whether they are native or not (hint: most are not) — while the shelves are filled with (Monsanto‘s) chemical solutions to common gardening problems, lead- and PVC-laden garden hoses, “organic” potting soil that uses both chicken parts from who-knows-where and peat moss from our rapidly depleting carbon-sink bogs, and plastic, lots of plastic.

Although I’m a newbie gardener, below I offer some resources as I’ve discovered them to date. I also hope for your assistance as people who actually Know Things About Plants in sharpening the list and offering more tips.

IMG_0400Un-Greenwash Your Gardening: A Few Basics

Don’t Get Soiled

Soil is home for your plants. Just like your home, you’ll want it to be free of nasty chemicals. Most gardening store have an array of options, many of them proclaiming themselves to be organic in large fonts and bright colors.

It’d be nice if we could believe these eye-catching appeals to eco-sensitivity, but it’s just not that easy. There are actually no labeling rules that define “organic” with regard to soil, so that “organic” in this context can just mean, well, organic matter. Duh.

The upshot is that it takes some work to figure out what you’re feeding your plants. Be sure to eyeball the list of ingredients on the back of the bag. Of concern are the fertilizers, in particular something called “poultry litter.” The name is vague, but poultry litter, to put it simply, is everything that can be shoveled from the floor of a poultry farm, including excrement, bedding, feathers and feed.

Some manufactures purchase their litter from big factory farms like Perdue, and while the soil may be advertised as organic, Perdue doesn’t observe organic practices. It stands to reason that if the source of the litter isn’t organic, the litter isn’t organic either. The easiest way to know if your “organic” soil is actually organic is to look for a label from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

My personal faves are Organic Mechanic (which is a company with major ambitions to do this right) and Black Gold. There’s also the option of making your own soil at home, which requires a robust compost and likely some experimentation to get it right. We’ve just started composting at home, using lawn clippings and kitchen scraps, and I can’t wait to work it into the heavy clay soil around the house next spring.
IMG_3894Harry Potting (Mix)

Potting mix is the way to go if using containers for your plants inside or out or need to root seeds. But watch for vermiculite, a mineral that comes with a sordid past.

For decades, the primary source of vermiculite sold in the United States was a mine in Libby, Montana. The mine had a natural deposit of asbestos, and much of the vermiculite extracted from the mine was badly contaminated. Asbestos-tainted vermiculite is less of a concern now, because the mine closed in 1990, but vermiculite is still not risk-free, and even a tiny amount of asbestos can be harmful if it gets into your lungs. According to a piece on Eartheasy:

Today, most vermiculite is safe. However, that is not to say it cannot contain asbestos. Vermiculite which is accompanied by a great deal of dust likely has residual asbestos in its contents and should be used with caution. Current EPA regulations ban products which contain 1% or more asbestos. Unfortunately even products containing less that 1% asbestos are still extremely hazardous, particularly when in loose dust form as vermiculite often is manufactured.

IMG_0391Mulch, Smulch

Mulch is great for your garden. It helps soil retain water, suppresses weeds and prevents compaction. There are a variety of kinds available, each offering its own unique benefits.  As you decide which one best suits the needs of your garden, keep a few things in mind.

Peat Moss

Peat moss, which is made up of partially decomposed plants, has a great earthy aroma and supplies nutrients to plants as they need them. However, it accumulates in peat bogs, and to remove the peat, the bogs must be drained, contributing to wetland degradation. Additionally, peat bogs are one of Mother Nature’s most effective tools to combat climate change. The peat acts like a sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When peat moss is removed, not only is a natural carbon sponge lost, but the harvested peat actually releases carbon dioxide back into the environment.

Cypress

Cypress mulch is another popular mulch that comes at a high cost to the environment. To produce the mulch, manufacturers have destroyed vast swaths of cypress forests in Florida and Louisiana. The forests are home to all sorts of creatures but also act as natural buffers against storms and hurricanes.  Once destroyed, the majority of them won’t grow back.

Wood mulches

Be careful when buying wood mulches. It’s possible, though not likely today, that the wood was treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate and can leach arsenic. To make sure the mulch you’re buying is safe, look for a label indicating that it’s been certified by the Mulch and Soil Council, which tests products for the presence of treated wood.

Plastic mulch

Plastic mulch is made from polyethylene, which is considered one of the safer types of plastic out there, but why use it, given the many alternatives? Plastic mulch isn’t biodegradable and will eventually end up in a landfill or the ocean, where it harms sea life. It also blocks water from penetrating the soil and can cause runoff.

Cocoa hulls

Cocoa hulls add nutrients to your soil and will make your garden smell like chocolate, but choose another mulch if you have a dog. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, and cocoa hulls can make your pooch very sick if ingested.

Leaf Mulch

Many municipalities and counties now collect leaves and other garden waste for mulching, which can be less expensive than other mulches. Leaf mulch is excellent for soil development, but not as good at suppressing weeds as wood or other types of mulch. The drawback is that yard waste can contain pesticides and other chemicals used on lawns. As it’s impossible to tell what’s in it, locally-made mulch is not the best choice for organic food gardens, but it may be perfect for flower beds.

IMG_1627A Highly Liquid Proposition: Your H2O

Keeping a garden watered over the hot summer months can be a demanding proposition, so there are a couple ways to reduce the impact your garden has on the water supply. To conserve, water at night and early in the morning, when the temperatures are cooler and the water is less likely to evaporate right away. Just be sure to keep an eye out for rot and fungus, and switch to early mornings if the water is sitting overnight.

You can also set up a rain barrel to collect water that runs off your roof. After the initial investment in the barrel, the water comes at no cost. Montgomery County, near where I live, has a substantial tax credit for “rainscaping,” including rain barrels, porous paving and rain gardens (the program unfortunately excludes Takoma Park. Grr…).

Rain barrels are easily found at most gardening stores, but you can also build them yourself. Be aware that unless you rig up a pump, the water will best be used in irrigation-style drip hoses dug into the ground.

Unfortunately, the common garden hose also has a problem, besides the ubiquitous kinks. Many are made of PVC, include harmful pthalates, and have lead in the fittings and other parts, as an environmental investigation by Healthy Stuff found. As I use ours to water our ostensibly organic garden and to fill various water play stations for Maya, as well as with the sprinkler she plays in, I searched high and low for a better option. I found this rubber hose, which does appear to be lead free. Once you learn to lay it out flat, it works just fine, and no lead or other issues of concern!

IMG_0408Pollinator defense: Invasives, native plants and crowd-sourcing your clippings

Non-native species are sold at many gardening stores, and the more aggressive among them out-compete their native counterparts and spread, so checking on pedigree a bit before you plant is a good idea for both planning your yard and the planet. Some plants, like the butterfly bush running wild in my yard in the picture above, have both more and less invasive versions, or are considered invasive in certain zones of the country, so be sure you know what you’re getting into.

I’ve found gardening stores to be, well, less than forthcoming on these grounds, and even the better ones tend to hide their less showy native plants in a back corner somewhere. But perseverance and research pay off, especially if you invest in perennials that return each year. Be sure to “amend” your soil generously if needed to assist a new planting, and to monitor how plants are doing to be sure that they are happy in their new homes.

To learn if you are unwittingly introducing a hostile species into your ecosystem, do a little research before buying. Here’s a list of problem plants and native alternatives in the Mid-Atlantic region and here’s another helpful source for native plants and garden design (pdf), as well as a list of resources from Montgomery County’s Rainscapes program. You can also find a list of solutions specific to your state here and a list of attractive native substitutes here (pdf). Native species are wonderful to mix in with other plants, as I have, or to plant exclusively as purists do, because they help to sustain the local ecosystem and nurture bumblebees, which are fighting a terrible battle with colony collapse, as well as butterflies and other species.

If you feel overwhelmed, you can always call in a professional, but be sure that they are on the same wavelength. Where I live has a small but very nice community of folks who are more eco-minded, including a specialist in local wild edibles and a local expert in creating kitchen gardens and children’s natural discovery areas. Another easy way to avoid invasive plants and learn about native options is to participate in a plant swap and solicit the advice of knowledgeable gardeners in your area. There are a ton of online exchange communities and list servs in which real gardeners swap plants and trade knowledge, all for free or for a low cost to join.

Plant swaps are another great way to expand your garden, pick up tips and connect with your community. The native plant swap school fundraiser I attended last spring was the beginning of my gardening obsession and a great way to give back to the community. Plants like bee balm, native ferns, and wildflowers (some of which are edible) are wonderful additions to gardens. If you discover that your area doesn’t have a swap, here’s how to organize one yourself….

You can also offer unwanted plants from your yard (and sometimes even get others to dig them up for you!), or ask for cuttings on neighborhood list servs, which is how I got several new hydrangeas and rose plants this year. Friendly folks actually allowed me to prowl their yard at will, and about a third of the plants actually survived my clumsy attempts to root them.

To deal with cuttings properly, just strip the bottom leaf nodes and plant. Be sure to grow more delicate plants like hydrangeas under old, large glass jars to protect them as they learn to root. A rooting mix works nicely for these, and you can even use disposable cups you have hanging around, as I did. You can also plant seeds and scraps from your kitchen, like avocado pits (but don’t expect fruit for years, if ever!) and even pineapple tops.

IMG_6545The same process worked with this rosemary from a friend’s large and healthy plant. I rooted it in water for three weeks or so, without any cover, and when it sprouted, I planted it. More rosemary for the garden!

Your Lawn, by Monsanto

Here’s the bottom line on pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Don’t use them. They contain neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. They kill insects and animals besides those you’re targeting, including honeybees, according to the current research and the European Union’s ban on a certain classes of pesticides. They also contaminate the watershed when they’re swept away in runoff. And children are exposed whenever they play outside.

Here’s just one write-up of a single product, in a Forbes article on “green-ish” efforts by the folks who brought us Miracle-Gro:

The active ingredient in Scotts Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control is 2,4-d, which is made from dichlorophenol and acetic acid. It can kill dandelions, but it’s nasty stuff, capable of causing nervous system, kidney and liver damage in humans.

Need more evidence? Here’s the excellent Beyond Pesticides site:

Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are possible and/or known carcinogens,  18 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system, 19 are linked to reproductive effects and sexual dysfunction, 11 have been linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 24 can cause kidney or liver damage, and 25 are sensitizers and/or irritants. Children are especially sensitive to pesticide exposure as they take in more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals.

My own fair city of Takoma Park is one of the first larger local jurisdictions in the U.S. to ban lawn pesticides earlier this month, a fact about which I am unduly proud despite the fact that I was not at all involved. Yay us.

By taking steps to promote a healthy garden, you can minimize problems with pests and weeds. You can use mulch, edge your garden beds well, and use ground covers and competing plants to suppress weeds, and when buying plants, choose ones that are pest-resistant. There are also natural weed-killers you can mix up from dish-soap, vinegar, salt and related ordinary ingredients.

Of course, the most direct way is to get on your knees and pull them out. While you are cursing them, you can reflect on the fact that gardening — and actual contact with soil — is an effective way to replenish your microbial health. And if you feel like giving up or giving in, you could always eat your dandelions. Jo Robinson’s new book, Eat Wild, is my vacation reading for next week. I’m so excited to start nibbling what I find on the lawn!

IMG_0393Raising the stakes on garden beds

Raised garden beds are one of the most common sources of toxins in a garden. The wood that’s used to retain the soil is sometimes treated with chromated copper arsenate, which prevents rot but also leaches arsenic, or copper azole, which includes a potent fungicide. If you’ve inherited one of these beds, remove the wood and transfer the soil to somewhere children and pets won’t contact it.

When building a new bed or replacing one, choose types of wood that are naturally rot-resistant like juniper or cedar. Some companies offer pre-made beds as well, though I don’t think the information on the sealant this company uses is very clear. For greater rot resistance, you can use milk paint, which is naturally non-toxic. Milk paint is available in stores but it requires only a few ingredients, and if you’re feeling particularly crafty, you can make it at home.

Last, as summer turns to fall, don’t forget the many indoor gardening options. If you’re feeling hip, you could always order up one of these new super cool miniature fish-tank-herb-gardens from Back to the Roots, which are a closed-loop waste cycle as well as a meditative design element for your living room.

If you have other tips, please let me know! And feel free to check out my Pinterest page on gardening, which has many, many more design ideas. Happy growing!

Hot Reads: Gagged Children, Huma-liation, Safer School Supplies, and More

colored-pencils-1342888218RrfAs promised, here’s the weekly linky with all the news you have really, really needed this week and missed, as well as some you likely didn’t miss but wish you had.

I think I should get a prize for keeping to a calendar, two whole weeks in a row.

  • This will make you gag: ClimateProgress has a shocking write-up of a recent settlement in a PA fracking case in which drilling company Range Resources reportedly insisted on a clause in the settlement agreement with a family that includes a lifetime ban on any mention of fracking for the family’s children, including a 7- and 10-year-old. Those poor kids! With only $750,000 in damages, there won’t be enough money to pay for the therapy they will need! Bribing and extorting families injured by fracking into total silence is a key part of the industry’s strategy to publicly claim that there is no evidence of harm. Before the gag order, the family

complained that drilling caused “burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches, and contaminated their water supply.” But after the family was gagged, gas exploration company Range Resources’ spokesman Matt Pitzarella insisted “they never produced evidence of any health impacts,” and that the family wanted to move because “they had an unusual amount of activity around them.” Public records will show, once again, that fracking did not cause health problems.

  • Are we done with the “Good Wife” yet? Both feminist (Ruth Marcus) and not-as-feministy (Sally Quinn) commentators have evidently had it with the appalling spectacle of loyalty-uber-alles from Huma Abedin, whose cringe-inflicting performance at Tuesday’s press conference really did reflect a new low for the scandal wife. And Michael Tomasky’s op-ed mercilessly clarifies the spurious Huma-Hilary comparison. Now I love a political meltdown as much as anyone, and certainly am sympathetic to Huma’s argument that infidelity is a problem for their marriage to resolve, but I’m also just really sick of having to think about Anthony Weiner‘s, er, body parts. I’m flabbergasted by the idea that Abedin knew about all this and decided to put it on public trial by helping her husband run for office. I tend to agree with Marcus that it’s a sext too far to then claim wife-privilege absolves him from the ick-factor. And then there’s their child to consider. Yet some found the perspective of Sally Quinn (aka, the human pearl earring) “a setback for women everywhere.”  What do you think?
  • Safer, greener school supplies: The school year is, eerily, just around the bend and many parents will be assembling shopping lists of necessary (pencils) and not-as-necessary (gold-plated sneakers) items. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice published a helpful guide. As they make clear, some routine items contain nasty chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is linked to an array of health problems. Beware the character-themed lunch boxes containing elevated levels of this plastic! Right on time, the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World also issued a call for purchasing tips. What are your favorite healthy supplies? Submit your tips to ana@healthychild.org by August 9 and you’ll be entered to win a free book.
  • What to do on the bad days: Parenting can be less fun than you expected. Sometimes, it’s no fun at all. There are moments when your toddler’s tantrums make your head ring, when a surly child brings a wave of heat to your cheeks. Here’s a parent and psychologists’ eloquent and honest reflection prompted by a recent tragedy in Canada, where the two young children of a 32-year-old mother suffering from postpartum depression were found drowned. Her body was recovered several days later near a bridge. The story is heart wrenching, and an extreme example of what can happen when a parent becomes hopelessly overwhelmed. The trials of parenthood are an unavoidable part of the job and all parents take the good with the bad. On days when being a parent isn’t as bliss-filled as we hoped, we need to be honest with ourselves and seek support. I’ll be posting more soon with some resources that help to simplify parenting.
  • Poultry pushiness: In a bow to Big Chicken, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule to increase line speeds in poultry processing plants from 140 to 175 birds a minute. Poultry workers already suffer from astronomical rates of carpal tunnel syndrome: forcing employees to work at elevated speeds would only make matters worse. The rule would allow companies to ramp up production, but you have to wonder, will the employees be compensated for all the extra work they’ll be doing? A 25-percent increase in production should equal a 25-percent increase in pay, right? Riiiight. A coalition of advocacy groups is demanding that USDA start over on the rule.
  • Chemical Plant, 2.0: I was pleased to hear that President Obama ordered federal agencies to revamp regulations governing chemical plants. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been nothing if not sluggish in promulgating important rules to protect the safety of plant workers and surrounding communities. Just a couple weeks ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board threatened to publicly rebuke the agency for its failure to act. Among other things, the new order calls upon the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to require plants to switch to safer chemicals. This is encouraging. Let’s hope it signals a new-found willingness to stand up for health and safety.
  • A Tale of Two Hearings: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held an epic, five-hour hearing with three full panels of witnesses. I’m still plowing through the written testimony, and am actually so excited to spend my Friday geekily watching the video archive. Some of my personal heroes testified, including Tom McGarity, of UT Austin Law School, and Ken Cook, of the Environmental Working Group. The take-away: there seems to be real energy for chemical reform, which would be wonderful — you can see the twitter action here and here. More heroines appeared later in the week in a long-awaited and much-welcomed hearing in Senate Judiciary on the deadly paralysis by analysis that grips so many of our federal agencies. Peg Seminario and Rena Steinzor, both eloquent advocates for public health, and Janette Fennell, a major force working to improve vehicle safety involving children, all talked about the successes of rules that work, and the high costs of government failure to act.

And so, the good and bad in our dysfunctional democracy, all mixed in… stay tuned for more informative infographics on parenting coming soon!

A Conversation that Could Change the World

Some Things Never Change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we buy stuff for our homes — like food or personal care products — many of us, including my own family, try to do the best we can for the planet and our own health. Conscientious consumption, or a genuine attempt at it given the limits of our budget and information, is a glossy new trend, as we can see from shopping sites like “Ethical Ocean” that have recently sprung up and claim to tailor offerings to your values. (On my recent visit, not all of the things for sale at EO were as good on public health grounds as I would like, but most were more thoughtful than average.)

Yet outside the home, we all find ourselves in situations with far less control, even around food. We end up in hotels, airports, restaurants — spaces, which appear cold, impersonal and impervious to our desires for a better way of being in the world. I’ll often take a minute at the start of a conversation with a waiter to send them back to the kitchen with a pointed question — one that risks comparisons from colleagues to that truly hilarious Portlandia episode in which they track down the provenance of a chicken, including his name (Frank).

Still, I’m undeterred by the joke, and try not to be cowed by the need to seem cool. It’s not about hipsterism, really to ask basics like: “Is the salmon farmed?” “Is the coffee fair trade?” “Are these eggs from free range chickens?” Even when the answers come back as unpleasant ones, as they normally do, the kitchen has been put on notice.

Michael Pollan put it this way last night at his eloquent book talk here in DC, “Food is about our relationships with people, animals, the environment.” You have a relationship, for the moment you are ordering in a restaurant, with the choices they are making for you, with the waiter and the people behind them. Why not use it, just a little, and trade on it, in order to make a statement for good?

Of course, many stores are no better. I can still vividly recall one day, not long after Maya was born, when I walked into a local CVS convenience store and realized with a sudden shock that there was almost nothing in the store I would consider buying. I wandered the aisles piled high with plastic and chemically-laden baby products in a stupor, coming to the slow, somewhat painful conclusion that the state of my own information had far outstripped where the marketplace was. I felt discouraged at the amount of work ahead of me, the decisions that would have to be made about what options were, truly, better ones. And yet I was also determined, even proud, that I was taking a stand, that I knew better than to buy the stuff on offer and slather it all over my newborn.

Being me, I also had to suppress an urge to stand in the aisle and preach to other shopping moms, about whom I felt a little sad. While other parents are wonderfully potent allies in this fight, as I’ve found on this blog, any attempt to convert unsuspecting shoppers with our missionary zeal is more like to alienate than educate. In many ways, our fellow customers are the wrong target, anyway, stuck as we all are with the choices in many stores and with the markup for better things that would decimate too many family budgets.

The real target for our attention and action should of course be the corporations. And it could be so simple! I was moved and inspired by my recent action to tell Safeway to “Mind the Store” by asking them to work through their supply chain to rid themselves of toxic chemicals. All Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force and I did was to look over some items in the store and present a letter to the store manager during our brief and friendly conversation. We were nervous, because any kind of confrontation inherently makes humans nervous, but really, it was all good.

Since that day, I’ve been mulling over how to do more of this addictively easy, heady but minimalist activism. It took 3 minutes! And it made me feel great. You should do it too, IMHO.

As I”m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a world in which 300 people just died in a building collapse in Bangladesh, after major international brands like Walmart, The Gap and H&M refused to agree to a union proposal that would improve the safety of factories. (Most piercing detail: two women in the factory were evidently so pregnant that they gave birth while trapped inside the rubble.) This refusal continued even after last year’s devastating fire, in which more than 100 workers were killed after being locked into a building by managers.

So I’m sure your inner skeptic is whispering in your ear, as mine does, asking, why bother? Just how powerful is it to do this kind of thing, in terms of actually getting changes? That’s a fascinating question.

Most of us are passive about the things that make us unhappy. We listen to the skeptic before we even know what we’ve listened to. Paradoxically, though, this means that those who do speak up are understood as voicing the views of potentially hundreds of other people who didn’t bother to raise the point. Because companies hear from so few customers, you have more power than you may know.

One classic study on how businesses should respond to consumer complaints urges companies to see them as “gifts” that provide a company with the chance to improve and continue the dialogue with consumers. Even companies that lack responsiveness to individual complaints will see a pile of them as a possible new trend that threatens their business model, and will, if they are any good, eventually pay some attention.

Because I tend to go to places with the possibility of healthier food or better products, there’s even more interest there in real dialogue. I’ve given lists of better children’s products to my local co-op, requested product additions from Whole Foods, bothered the management at Trader Joe’s repeatedly with complaints about the BPA lining in their canned goods, and complained at local eateries about styrofoam to-go packaging. Just this morning, I asked the manager at Panera about their eggs, which disappointingly show no sign of being organic or even “free range.”

While it does require a little nerve, and a few minutes of your time, if we all did it instead of assuming that our conversations will be met with indifference, I think we would amaze ourselves at the pace of changes in some (better) companies.

You could also print and hand them a little, friendly card making your point. Or make your own on the spot with a napkin or scrap of paper. It could say: “Hi there, I would be a more loyal customer if you would do X.” Making a record of the interaction makes more of an impression, and links you to others who may be doing the same. And of course, there’s always social media — a FB post or tweet takes seconds, and a video or photo of the action can speak volumes, influencing everyone else in your networks to do the same.

For certain companies, their leadership regarding the environmental practices is on the line. And they’re not always doing all they can. Flor carpeting, for just one example, has excellent sustainability practices in general but lines the bottom of its products with PVC, a so-called “poison plastic.”

For these kinds of companies, as well as all the others who are not even trying, we should hold their feet to the fire and push them to pioneer truly better products and packaging.

First, we have to get over our skepticism, our natural feelings of embarrassment, and our shame in all of the choices we’ve already made. We have contact with literally hundreds of companies every time we shop or eat out, and those relationships are within our power to change, if we only we were to take that power seriously. Its our assumption that how we feel doesn’t matter — and that we have to live, silently, with our complicity in these systems we know enough to despise — that will kill our spirit, in the end.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?

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Tell the Manager: Your Company Can Do Better

Three simple thoughts on the nuts and bolts of shop-tivism:

1) Break the stereotype: be nice. Most of the time, the person you are speaking with has little power to impact the situation. Be clear and be heard, and ask them to act as they can, but a little smile and eye contact can make it more likely they will.

2) Make a record. If you have a minute, write down your issue with specifics so someone can pass it along. It makes much more of an impression, and helps to ensure that someone up the food chain hears from you. Below are some examples:

3) Follow up as you have time. Told to contact corporate HQ? Do it if you can, when you can. Emails, tweets, Facebook are also all great.

If you are voting with your feet — you can let stores and restaurants know that as well: for example, a note to the manager saying this kind of thing can be powerful: “I’m not a customer of yours — Wal-mart, H&M, Gap — because I don’t shop at businesses that won’t ensure the basic safety of workers in their factories around the world. I’m appalled at your anti-union activities and the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and enough is enough.”

Last, please share your stories: let me know if you’re as inspired as I am to get out there and get heard!

(A special shout-out to my new friends in Reno — Lindsay told me you are out there, which was so lovely… so stop lurking and say hi!)

Related posts:

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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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.

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

Tomato slices

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

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

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

― G. Love and Special Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pyrrhic Gesture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caps for pasta sauce:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio silence.

The rotten tomato for all of us:

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

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

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

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

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

2) If not BPA, what are companies using?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My translation: Vinyl causes cancer if you eat it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other rotten tomato for all of us:

Vinyl. In our food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side investigation: Are milk-boxes safe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion:  In the Sauce, Indeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My persnickety questions to companies:

Greetings,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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