ISO: A Truly Healthy Toddler Snack

Goldfish crackers

Goldfish crackers (Photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author)

I am not going to mince words on this one. American toddlers are drowning in cheesy fish crackers and sugary purees of jammin’ fruits, and it’s about time someone said so.

Both work-at-home moms and working moms rely, heavily, on snacks. We are always going somewhere, and need portable food items. But we should ask what, exactly, our choices of food for children are doing to their developing preferences, brains and life-long habits. Just take a minute to read this brilliant, stomach-churning article about the way the industrial food complex has chemically mapped our taste buds to maximize junk food addiction. I noticed two things amidst my general nausea:

  1. The plastic-packaged, fat, salt and sugar bombs that are Lunchables are now a billion dollar business (!), built almost entirely on the need for parents to have convenience foods for kids.
  2. It only takes a few days — three or so — of “normal” eating to break a salt addiction.

When infants move from dense purees of real food (whether in a BPA-lidded infant food jar or not) to a toddler’s diet, they are supposed to begin to eat what the family is eating, according to our pediatricians. But here’s the catch — most of us (including my family, before we gave it a rethink) don’t eat that well.

Before Maya, we ate a lot of processed stuff out of the freezer, and we ate out a lot. We also barely cooked, though we probably cooked at home more than most folks, both because we like to cook and out of general cheapness.

After people have kids, as should be obvious, they have even less free time than before. With so many families with two working parents, who is supposed to get the cooking done? At our house, most days, we manage something. But it does feel thrown together.

Stop Chef

This lack of time for preparing a family meal has proven to be a serious problem for the quality of our lives and health. In fact, people now spend more time watching cooking shows than cooking. Here’s the ever-insightful Michael Pollan in a column 2009 (making a point he also drives home in his new book, Cooked):

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves…

Could it be that toddlers spend more time in their play kitchens than we do at the real stove?

Pollan also looks at the subject of working moms and the lost time to cook (and explains how women had to be un-guilted out of their cooking obligations by the clever food companies):

It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.)
…. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Yuck. I hadn’t made a connection between nerve gas and the industrial food system until just this second. As he goes on to relate, while women did have to be convinced to hang up the apron, the food industry was up to the task:

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake.

And Pollan helpfully explains what this has to do with health:

A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them. The French fry did not become the most popular “vegetable” in America until industry relieved us of the considerable effort needed to prepare French fries ourselves. … When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food.

Pollan’s writing about the general subject of the lack of home-cooked fare, and not considering, in particular, the (absent) culinary lives of children. But his point is even more poignant when we consider that children (for the most part!) eat what we give them, and will certainly not complain when a food item has been exquisitely engineered to send their brain chemistry into the stratosphere.

Moreover, since working moms have to pack snacks and lunches, and stay-at-home moms like to leave the house to go to the library or museums, what a toddler eats must be easy, ready-to-go, spoil-proof and unlikely to be rejected. The food industry is all over this assignment — giving us the “children’s aisle” full of yo-go-gurts and organic fruit purees that remove all the healthy fiber and leave behind the sugars.

Most Unsweet

A typical snack given to an 18-month-old is a fruit puree with, say, 15 grams of sugar and a paltry 1 gram of fiber, like this one. (Don’t be fooled by the “Sugars” line, which says only 11 grams; as Marion Nestle explains in What to Eat, hidden sugars — that is, those that the government allows companies to exclude from the label —  can be roughly figured out by looking at the “Total Carbohydrates” line and asking what’s missing.) As a side-note, Plum Organics new “squeezable oatmeal” provides a whopping 18 grams of sugars.

A toddler I knew who always seemed to be jumping off the walls had, the one time I observed it, a snack of a fruit puree paired with a banana — one of the highest glycemic index foods around (contributing another 15.6 grams of convertible sugars) — and pretzels, which lack nutritional value, are high in sodium, and made of white flour the body converts into — you guessed it — sugar.

To put this in context, consider that a teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams. So the 30 grams of various sugars from the banana and puree alone is comparable to nearly 8 teaspoons of sugar.

We would never put 8 teaspoons of white sugar in a cup and hand a kid a spoon. Yet that is exactly what we are doing with the “jammin'” fruit smoothies and gummy jelly “fruit” snacks and all the other junk in the kiddo section of the grocery store. Even the healthier-looking options like organic yogurts are full of sugars. And here’s a shocker — a small serving size of Motts apple sauce contains a stunning 22 grams of sugar, which converts to 5.5 teaspoons of sugars.

Here’s the (IMHO far too high) recommendations on sugar consumption from the American Heart Association in 2009:

Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. (In order to accommodate all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for discretionary allowances like sugar.)

In other words, according to the AHA, that one fruit puree should be it, sugar-wise, for the day (though is an 18-month-old really a “preschooler”? And really, 4 teaspoons?! Even picturing feeding a toddler that much sugar makes we want to hork.).

Not that the guideline is very clear. You may have noted the weasel word “added,” which shows that the AHA’s a bit too in thrall to the titans of sweet stuff. Like Marion Nestle likely would, I would suggest a “food product” like the puree is so devoid of fiber that, in itself, the sugars qualify as “added” sugar, and, more to the point, that the AHA’s use of the word “added” has been rendered functionally meaningless by all the many ways that sugar is concealed these days as “fruit” or fruit-y sounding names.

And that was before scientists — and 60 Minutes — started asking whether sugar is actually toxic. Here’s a recent write-up by Marc Bittman about a new study on that question:

A study published in the Feb. 27 issue of the journal PLoS One links increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. And after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.

In other words, according to this study, it’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes.

The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.

As Rob Lustig, one of the study’s authors and a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said to me, “You could not enact a real-world study that would be more conclusive than this one.”

Swimming Upstream

And when toddlers aren’t swimming in sugar, they are often surrounding by salty savories like pretzles or the durn fishies. For a decent break-down of the issues on goldfish crackers specifically — including problematic food dyes, high salt, low fiber and other quibbles (to which I would add the use of non-organic and genetically modified ingredients) see this article.

Unfortunately, the piece rather glosses over the sodium issue. Keep in mind that the FDA “Daily Values” are always for an adult, even if the food is being marketed to and for kids. In fact, the recommended levels for toddlers on sodium are not to exceed 1 gram daily, which makes a (small) serving of crackers that clocks in at 230-250 mgs a full quarter of a toddler’s daily salt intake.

Normal foods have sodium as well, of course, meaning the child could rather easily exceed the daily limit. But the real issue is whether parents are taking the food industry’s cue to develop obedient tastebuds-in-training and whether the crackers, with their fiber-less cutesyness, accomplish anything that toddlers actually nutritionally need for health. As the AHA basically says, empty calories in a child’s diet too often takes the place of where real food needs to be.

The Times piece on addictive foods makes clear that there are certain food combinations rigged to create an addictive quality — including foods that are salty, crunchy and melt away in the mouth. The “melt-away” effect tricks the brain into thinking that the items has no calories. And the marketing triumph here is complete — would parents feed these foods to their young children if they weren’t shaped like fish?

Let’s Do the Time Warp, Again…..

It also often seems like snack recommendations for kids — like these from Parents’ magazine (which were the top post when I googled “healthy toddler snacks”) — are so paralyzed with fear about the obesity crisis that they are utterly stuck in the early 90’s when it comes to nutritional advice. Their list includes processed ham slices and “low-fat cream cheese” as ingredients for healthier fare.

But we know now that processed food is the enemy — not fats per se, and that kids actually need healthy fats (read: unsaturated and some saturated fats like those in milk and coconut) for healthy brain and body development. Among other reasons, healthy fats help build myelin, the basis for neural connections in the brain, and also help satisfy food cravings and reach a feeling of fullness. Certain fats are critical for healthy growth, and children actually use these fats more efficiently than adults do. This is why we still give Maya whole milk, and supplement with high quality fish oil (cleaned of PCBs and other contaminants).

Avoiding fats may actually trigger a larger problem, because the second you look towards “low-fat” foods, you are in the land of chemicals and industrially engineered foods. Fillers, sugar, salt and gums generally take the place of where food should be. We have little idea how many of these additives and substitutes impact human health. And some of the evidence we do have is not reassuring, as the author of Pandora’s Lunchbox, another fright-fest on food, tells us in her well-written but troubling tome.

The other problem with processed foods like crackers or Lunchables is that it is, bacterially speaking, dead. Meaning: cleansed of microbial activity. Michael Pollan’s latest blockbuster article on our “microbiome” of organisms living in our guts has been an eye-opener for me and many others, and makes our lack of cooking and over-consumption of processed foods problematic from a whole new (teeny tiny) point of view. Our children, like us, should be eating real food and playing in the dirt, particularly as the article observes that the basic formations of micro-organisms we carry around in our digestive tract are mainly determined by the ripe old age of three.

Snack-well-er

Unfortunately for me, Maya has figured out that about everyone else in the world has snacks that taste more addictive than hers do, and has developed a preternatural gift for weaseling her way in and mooching off whomever is around. This puts me in the untenable position of having to tell her to put down snacks that some generous person has allowed her to have with a mumbled excuse like, “I’m trying to teach her not to be such a mooch. Ahem.” It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.

So I’m certainly not promising that you’ll be able to fix the situation entirely by dreaming up better snacks for your child. But, FWIW, below are some ideas we’ve used successfully for snacking.

Here’s what I like to see in a snack: 1) Dietary fiber and nutrient density (whole fruits and veggies, grains, nuts and seeds); 2) No sugar or only natural sugars from dried fruits, dates or the like; 3) Low or no sodium; 4) Grains other than wheat, or the use of seeds like flax, chia, wheatberries, etc.; 5) Only a few ingredients and only real foods with no additive, preservatives or other chemicals; 6) Organic if at all possible. Drinks are milk or water, generally speaking, with very little juice.

Specific foods we like as snacks on-the-go:

(just to be clear, none of these are commissioned links)

  • Fruits and veggies (organic berries, apples, grapes and such, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, raw zucchini, lightly cooked broccoli); frozen fruits (or even corn and peas) go right into a container when we leave and are thawed but still cold when ready to be eaten, which Maya loves.
  • With a little prep (really, it’s easy), pickled vegetables are also an option. Here’s my basic recipe, and some fancier ones from the Times.
  • Nuts and seeds — I mix up (organic, unsulphured) sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, and shredded coconut. This can be modified, obviously, with any combo you like and is a great and filling snack. Cashews are also great, as they are soft and easy for toddlers to chew.  (Be aware that some brands of almonds are sprayed with a fungicide, and that peanuts can have high levels of pesticides, so organic is best.)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (Look for “grassfed” or “pasture-raised” organic eggs, which have more vitamins and minerals — available at Whole Foods, through CSAs or farmer’s markets; sadly, the label “free-range” means little).
  • Cooked (organic) sweet potatoes, left in the skin to be scooped out with a spoon.
  • Annie Chun’s salty tasting seaweed snack, which Maya loves, has 140 mgs of sodium per box, while the Trader Joe’s brand has 100 mgs. I consider this on the high side, so it’s far from a daily thing. At least seaweed has a good bit of Vitamin A, as well as trace minerals.
  • Organic brown rice cakes with nut butters (cashew, almond, peanut) — changing the nut butter alters the vitamins and other benefits. We like the Artisana brand, which does not have anything added and appears not to have either vinyl or BPA-plastics under the lid, although it is pricey.
  • Date cookies, like the raw, organic ones from Go Raw, which come in a wonderful variety of flavors like carrot, chai, lemon and even chocolate. You can also evidently make your own, which I haven’t yet tried. They are a bit sweet, but so dense that you don’t really eat very many at a sitting.
  • In moderation, dried, organic, unsulphured fruits, including apricots, raisins, dates, papaya wedges. Be aware that dried fruits also contain a lot of sugar, and eat in moderation.
  • Blue corn chips, like the organic ones from Garden of Eatin’ (60 mgs sodium per 11 chips).
  • Seed-based crackers, like Foods Alive Organic Flax Crackers (we like the maple/cinnamon flavor).
  • Good, ol’ fashioned “ants on a log” — the classic celery and nut butter with raisins, which can be assembled at the park from its ingredients.
  • Homemade, organic low-sugar oatmeal cookies or pumpkin muffins with whole wheat flour substituted in; or zucchini or carrot bread with same.
  • Hummus, bien sur — though I can’t find an organic one at the local store, which grrs me. I sometimes make my own from Eden brand (due to their BPA-free cans) chickpeas or dried beans.
  • With refrigeration, wild-caught canned salmon and albacore tuna salads — with real mayonnaise, sliced almonds and celery, even apple in the tuna. These brands are allegedly BPA-free.
  • Plain (organic, grassfed) yogurt with a little fruit jam mixed in. Again, you can freeze this in a (stainless steel) ice-cube tray and let it thaw out over the course of the day.
  • Organic versions of freeze dried fruits, like Nature’s All Foods organic strawberries (available at Whole Foods). These are desserts though, as they utterly lack fiber and are basically distilled down to the fruit sugars.
  • You could try something fancy and European, like this scrumptious pan bagnat, which may work better with a slightly older child. Maya turned her nose up at it, despite enjoying the permission to sit on her sandwich. I intend to try again sometime to get her to eat it sans anchovies, and I enjoyed it very much.
  • Kind bars (though they are not organic, and some of the chocolate-y ones are more like candy). Trader Joe’s also has a few fudgy organic bars that work as a special treat.

What are your ideas for healthier snacks for your child? I can’t wait to add to our list of possibilities!

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Some related posts:

The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

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

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

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some related posts:

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?

###

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:

Asking Safeway: Who Will Mind the Store?

Yesterday, I gladly joined the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign to ask retailers to do a far better job of screening their products for hazardous chemicals. The group has developed a list of 100 plus chemicals identified by scientists or regulators as hazardous, including such substances as triclosan, which was featured in the recent Dateline piece, and parabens.

Before work, I ventured out with my friend, Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force, who writes about our visit eloquently here, to check out products and deliver a letter to the local Silver Spring Safeway store manager, to make the case that people in their own community care about getting rid of toxics. When we got to the store, we perused the aisles, looking at labels with their tiny print, and trying to figure what, exactly, was in what.

We had a hard time with many product categories — cleaning products, for example, don’t actually have to say what’s in them. For example, here’s one that is clear as mud:

mystery cleanerYet all the overwhelming smells of the fragrances and perfumes (that could be harmful pthalates, as Dateline explained) in that aisle actually made me a bit dizzy.

We did find some products with triclosan, clearly labeled, including the Hello Kitty hand soap Dateline identified — which is particularly upsetting given its cutesy child-appeal marketing — as well Dial Complete, another cleanser, which (dubiously) promises a “Healthier You.”

HK front

HK showing triclosan Dial complete triclosanIn addition, through careful scouring, we were able to spot some products with parabens in them, including this antacid called “DiGel:”

Digel frontdigel backIt was difficult, even with a list of chemicals, to decipher everything. Molly put it well in her great post:

We felt lost in a thicket of chemical names, tiny fonts on tiny labels, and terms we didn’t understand.

And we were aware that we weren’t able at all to figure out packaging concerns like the Bisphenol-A (a chemical which acts like hormones in the body and has been linked to numerous damaging health impacts) that is in most can linings and on receipts.

After wandering the aisles for half an hour with our brows deeply furrowed, Molly and I approached the store manager to present a letter asking Safeway to do this kind of work on behalf of consumers. The letter was an invitation for retailers to get ahead of the consumer wave that I truly believe is coming — which will demand that products we use in our everyday lives not damage our health.

Retailers — who have everything to lose when customers vote with their feet — also have tremendous power over what they sell. They could be major drivers for change, if they saw it as part of their job. So our job is to make them see the appeal of changes that would drive their supply chains to do better — not just for products with niche appeal to organo-Moms like me, but for all the millions of Moms, Dads and others who don’t compulsively read labels on everything they buy and really shouldn’t have to.

David, the store manager, was welcoming about our message and received our letter and the list of 100+ hazards with warmth, promising to pass it along. He even let us take a picture, which spoke volumes for the people managing retail stores like Safeway, who want an authentic connection to their communities and customers. There would truly be nothing better than if a retailer like Safeway were to take this letter seriously and work through its supply chain to remove these toxic chemicals from its stores.

Me and DavidThis action was fun, easy and made me happier all day long. Even if you don’t have a great partner like Molly, it’s easier than you think to speak a little truth to power while you are shopping. So go to the campaign Website and register, then empower yourself to be bold, friendly and clear about your priorities next time you go to pick up groceries — it only takes two minutes to let the store manager know where you stand and what matters to you.

And let us know how the conversation goes with tweets and posts! I’ve been very inspired by the other mom bloggers and activists who’ve joined in the campaign:

See you out there!

Dear California, You Owe America a New Couch

IMG_3300Sent to: tb117comments@dca.ca.gov
Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation
4244 South Market Court, Suite D
Sacramento, CA 95834

Dear Governor Brown and Chief Blood:

After years of being duped by stooges from the chemical industry, you have finally taken a big step in the right direction.

Your proposed rule on flame retardants in furniture (TB 117-2013) would greatly improve the lives of both Californians and the rest of America, which buys furniture impacted by California’s standards, by allowing furniture makers to drop the use of IQ-destroying, fertility-lowering, carcinogenic chemicals.

In fact, your previous “fire safety” standards did not protect public safety, as tests by federal regulators show, because they delay a fire by only 2-3 seconds, while making smoke, toxicity and soot worse. A comprehensive paper by Arlene Blum and other leading scientists, “Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks?” from Reviews on Environmental Health in 2010 (pdf link here) explains, on pages 281-2:

Laboratory research on TB117 supports this lack of measurable fire safety benefit. A study at the National Bureau of Standards in 1983 showed that following ignition, the important fire hazard indicators (peak heat release rate and the time to peak) were the same in TB117-compliant furniture where the foam was treated with chemical flame retardants and in non-treated furniture. A small flame was able to ignite both regular furniture and furniture meeting the TB117 standard—once ignited, the fire hazard was essentially identical for both types.

A 1995 report from the Proceedings of the Polyurethane Foam Association provides further evidence that TB117 does not improve fire safety. Small open flame and cigarette ignition tests were performed separately on 15 fabrics covering TB117 type polyurethane foam, conventional polyurethane foam, and polyester fiber wrap between the fabric cover and the foam cores. The study found no improvement in ignition or flame spread from a small open flame or cigarette ignition propensity using TB117-compliant foam.

The authors also provide other reasons why the old California test, which exposed the internal foam directly to flame, is pointless — for one, because the fabric often also catches on fire and can provide its own ignition source.

In fact, though its not due to chemicals, the number of people (and children) who die in a fire has gone down dramatically over the past century, which makes sense when you think about the absence of headlines about cows allegedly knocking over lanterns and lighting whole cities ablaze. It’s a resounding victory for public safety measures, as these numbers from the National Fire Protection Association (pdf) indicate:

Out of a million Americans, average number who died of unintentional injury due to fire:
in 2007: 9

in 1992: 16

in 1977: 29

in 1962: 41

in 1947: 56

in 1932: 57

in 1917: 105

Nonetheless, California evidently was taken in by chemical company goons posing as fire safety “experts” touting lies and exploiting the tragic deaths of infants for their own profits.

Interestingly, California lacks a law that provides penalties under the law for lying to state officials or lawmakers. In contrast, federal law has criminal penalties for intentional deception of a federal official, and the federal rulemaking docket at the CPSC on flame retardants, curiously, does not have any comments on burned babies as a part of the submissions. My conclusion? You guys should get one of those laws that makes it illegal to lie to you about important things.

In this case, the consequences were awful. For all of us, really. Because of your terrible judgment, we have pounds of dangerous and pointless chemicals in our homes, in our indoor air, and in the bloodstreams of our children. As the Blum paper says:

Many of these chemicals are now recognized as global contaminants and are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function.

How many kids have you put at risk? Let’s make a rough estimate. A recent paper reported on by the New York Times, found flame retardants in the blood of 100 percent — every single! — toddler they tested. And a table under the Population tab on this page indicates that there are an estimated 50.7 million children in the U.S. ages 0-11 today. The CPSC study (pdf) as to chlorinated tris (just one of these chemicals) in 2006 specifically concluded:

The estimated cancer risk for a lifetime of exposure to TDCP-treated upholstered furniture was 300 per million. In children, the estimated cancer risk from exposure during the first two years of life alone was 20 per million. Both of these risks exceed one-in-a-million. A substance may be considered hazardous if the lifetime individual cancer risk exceeds one-in-a-million.

So the overall risk for a child from exposure to tris is 20 times 50 million children, or one thousand kids (extra) with cancer. And, sadly, childhood rates of the worst kinds of cancer are on the increase. According to the National Cancer Institute:

Over the past 20 years, there has been some increase in the incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of invasive cancer, from 11.5 cases per 100,000 children in 1975 to 14.8 per 100,000 children in 2004.

In fact, it appears that a person’s lifetime risk of dying of cancer is 192 times their risk of dying in a fire:

Lifetime odds of death for selected causes, United States, 2008*

Total, any cause 1 in 1

Heart disease 1 in 6

Cancer 1 in 7


Exposure to smoke, fire, and flames 1 in 1,344

And that’s just for cancer risks. There’s also reproductive harm, attention deficit issues, and other health damage linked to flame retardants. For just one example, here’s sobering coverage of a 2012 study linking maternal-fetal levels of PBDEs, another ubiquitous flame retardant found in 97 percent of the study subjects, to delayed development in the child at age 7.

In sum, you’ve royally screwed up. The best thing to do when you’ve made a colossal error in judgment? Apologize and try your best to make it right.

There’s really no two ways about it, California: you owe Americans a new couch. One that won’t poison our homes and make our children sick. One that won’t show up in our bloodstreams, ‘fer Pete’s sake.

Seriously. This is really not too much to ask, given the harm you’ve caused. IMHO, the chemical companies could pay for it out of the profits they made peddling all that cancerous stuff. Certainly, the good people of California, who have the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies in the world, have suffered enough.

At any rate, I look forward to hearing from you. A (flame-retardant-free) loveseat in a nice brown or beige would do just fine.

All best,

Laura

###

Related posts:

And now, for some things YOU can do on flame retardants…

Car seat 1

(Photo credit: treehouse1977)

I’ve been busy getting used to working again, getting Maya transitioned to the new schedule, working on my nascent book proposal, and hatching plans for a new on-line venture, about which you will hear more soon.

In addition, just this week, a terrible family tragedy has consumed all of us. We’re okay, but our loved ones are really hurting.

I will be back posting again shortly, as soon as I get my feet under me. In the meantime, here’s news you can use:

On a personal note, the latest CEH study makes me want to hork and have one of my classic post-hoc freak-outs about Maya’s $^%#!^ car seat. We’ve been using a Britax for its excellent safety ratings from Consumer Reports, but I was always upset about the flame retardants, as I ‘splained here. CEH says:

One product, a Britax infant car seat purchased from Babies R Us, contained significantly more Tris than the average amount in similar foam baby products tested for a 2011 national study. That study warned that baby products with 3-4% Tris could expose children to the chemical in amounts greater than the federal “acceptable” daily exposure level.

Oh, wow. If I was ticked off and worried before, I really should just chuck and replace them now. Britax did promise to phase the chemicals out by this past January, but has evidently missed that deadline, according to the good people who comment on such things in my posts. I will check out the other options asap, and share what more I find out.

And I will grapple with my normal dilemma of trying to resell what once was a 400-dollar car seat to some family less informed than me — if the past is any indicator, even my dire and honest explanations will not get in the way of a deal once proffered. So more kids get exposed, or it goes straight to the landfill and back to all of us as it degrades. What a crappy dilemma. Anyone know what the stores do with them that have buy-back programs? Maybe that’s an option…

If there’s big news I missed, please let me know. Next post, I promise to fix the glitch in my rant on toddler snacks and re-publish that bad boy.

A Bodacious Valentine’s Day

Be still my heart
 (Photo credit: EraPhernalia Vintage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breast cancer. Image made by Itayba

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

The Best and Worst Week, Basically Ever

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Photo credit: Cayusa)

I’ll start, as one always should, with the good news. On Friday, the state of California, acting at the direction of Governor Jerry Brown, has proposed a revised flammability standard for furniture that would require no chemicals!

The new rule, which is undergoing a 45-day comment period before being finalized, will require only that fabrics used in furniture resist a smolder test like that from a cigarette, and will not require that interior foams meet any test. Because furniture can be made to be less flammable through a good choice of fabric, this will allow better manufacturers to drop the use of chemicals altogether.

Because the California rule impacted the national market for furniture, this represents a tremendous step forward for public health. However, it is not a ban on the use of chemical flame retardants, so it does not mean that new furniture will necessarily lack flame retardants (FRs) — at least for a while. Consumers looking to buy new furniture should still ask whether the foam and fabric have been treated, because it takes time for manufacturers to alter their practices and research new foams and fabrics. (There’s a few sources here and here if you need ’em for FR-free furniture.)

But it’s great news! The Consumer Federation of America is organizing consumer letters for the comment period, here — you should go sign one to let regulators know that you also support flame retardant standards that do not require any chemicals.

Now for a less happy word on why, after my cheerily naive posts last week, it took me two days to catch up to Friday’s good news. I was slain by the Norovirus. And by slain, I mean decimated, flat out on the couch, unable to move. While Maya seemed a little under the weather late last week, I had no idea that her body was carrying a insidious viral passenger meant for me. On Sunday, I started to feel woozy, but by Sunday night, I was all chills and fever, in rapid cycling fashion.

On Monday morning, Maya woke me up at a brutally early 6:30 a.m., and I didn’t feel right. At all. In fact, my head was so wobbly on my shoulders that I worried that it would pop off and roll down the hallway like in that grisly scene from the first season of Louie. Maya pleaded with me to get up, so I struggled to my feet, making it only as far as the bathroom. I looked down at her, and she said, “Poopy.” Her diaper was straggling halfway down her leg, inside her pajamas.

I picked her up, got her up on the changing table atop the dresser, and then lost my grip on everything. It’s true what they say about the floor coming up to meet you. I fell backwards, and then passed out cold on the floor. I must have really gone down with a thud because my head hurt for two days despite the thick carpet.

When I came to (How could I have forgotten to put on my glasses?? Another bad sign.), I saw through the blur, and then remembered in real horror, that Maya was four feet off the ground. I struggled to stand up, which took a few tries, and then, in my addled state, somehow thought finishing her diaper and getting her pants on was the next relevant task. I got her dressed, and let her slide down to the floor along my body.

I was sweating like I had just finished a marathon (irony, pure irony), which the doctor later told me is a cortisol reaction to a blackout. I found the phone and discovered that my husband was still at the bus stop. He came right home, and we went to the hospital. After a battery of tests, they pronounced me flu-ridden, dehydrated and exhausted, with a soupcon of pink eye for good measure. They pumped me up with a drip and a pain reliever or two and sent me home with a scrip for the conjunctivitis.

Thus began my week from heck. Take it from me, the Norovirus is like a Dementor that saps your will to live. After laying both Maya and me out flat for several days, it lightened up a bit only to deliver a nasty set of secondary infections that required doctor’s visits and drugs. Then I had a very poor reaction to the (overly strong) antibiotic, and was kaputso for another two days.

We’ll just call it the Lost Week. Here are the questions I kept pondering in my still-queasy, half-alive state:

1) When you are sick and so is your kid, what in the samhey are you supposed to do? You can’t hand them off to someone else for fearing of giving another toddler the Bubonic, and you can’t really take care of them and get better yourself. After Monday, my husband had to go back to work and my mom (who did drive out to take care of Maya and stayed all day Monday) retired in fear of joining the germ-fest.

Then, it was just me and little Ms. Fellow Misery, and I’ll just say I did not love the company. I could not read to her, really, or play, and so the days were dreary, awful affairs. Needless to say, I violated every principle dear to me: we ordered (non-organic, and fairly gross) pizza; we watched a few videos. I couldn’t feed her or properly take care of me, I couldn’t see anyone or take her anywhere. It was isolating, and after the blackout, even a little scary.

2) How long will it be before Maya forgets what happened? Although I have never had this kind of fainting episode before, Maya keeps asking whether I will fall down, and before bed every night this week, has said she feels she is falling. She is also giving me lots of hugs and saying she wants to take care of me, which I have to admit is cuddlicious. Still, it’s clearly affected her. I know kids are resilient and all that, but it tears at my heart that I obviously scared her and seem less reliable in her eyes.

3) How can I prevent this from happening again? Everyone who has ever spent time alone with a child has feared a moment where they might be somehow, suddenly incapacitated. And this week, when it happened to me, it was just as terrifying as you think it might be. My resolution is to try to take better measure of my limits, and certainly (duh) never to put Maya in high places whenever I don’t feel well enough to stand.

But it goes deeper than that: before this happened, I don’t think I had really ever grappled before with this new responsibility to Maya that is really, first and foremost, about taking care of me. It’s like what they always tell us on planes: we have to get our own oxygen masks secure first.

We were lucky, and I am very grateful, but it could have been so much worse, as I shudder to think. Despite this awful, relentless illness, I think I found out the relatively easy way: when we don’t take good care of ourselves as parents, it’s our kids that could get hurt.

Nothin’ But Blue Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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