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!

Must Read: Flame Retardant Chemicals in my Gatorade??

Gatorade Vending Machine

Gatorade Vending Machine (Photo credit: revtango)

The New York Times ran a great piece today detailing one 15-year-old’s battle to remove brominated vegetable oil — “BVO” — from soft drinks in the U.S. market.

Sarah Kavanaugh, an observant teen in Mississippi, noticed the ingredient on the label of a Gatorade bottle, and started asking questions about what BVO was. When she learned about the “long list of possible side effects, including neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones,” she started an online petition on the citizen action site, Change.org, asking Gatorade to drop BVO as an ingredient: Gatorade: Don’t put flame retardant chemicals in sports drinks!

The Times reports that:

[A}bout 10 percent of drinks sold in the United States contain brominated vegetable oil, including Mountain Dew, also made by PepsiCo; Powerade, Fanta Orange and Fresca from Coca-Cola; and Squirt and Sunkist Peach Soda, made by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

The ingredient is added often to citrus drinks to help keep the fruit flavoring evenly distributed; without it, the flavoring would separate.

The Europeans and Japanese know better, so clearly there’s another way to solve the separation problem (I would bet it just costs a little more):

[T]he European Union has long banned the substance from foods, requiring use of other ingredients. Japan recently moved to do the same.

You may recall that one class of chemicals used as flame retardants are referred to broadly as “brominated” — this BVO additive is related, as the name suggests:

Brominated vegetable oil contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, used in things like upholstered furniture and children’s products. Research has found brominate[d] flame retardants building up in the body and breast milk, and animal and some human studies have linked them to neurological impairment, reduced fertility, changes in thyroid hormones and puberty at an earlier age.

Limited studies of the effects of brominated vegetable oil in animals and in humans found buildups of bromine in fatty tissues. Rats that ingested large quantities of the substance in their diets developed heart lesions.

The article further explains that food additive regulation is basically a joke. If a manufacturer can find an “independent” lab to certify that a chemical is safe for consumption, the company can use the chemical without even notifying the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

A company can create a new additive, publish safety data about it on its Web site and pay a law firm or consulting firm to vet it to establish it as “generally recognized as safe” — without ever notifying the F.D.A.

The last time the specific issue of the safety and risks of BVO was studied was back in the 1970s, and the data remain extremely thin — and cover periods of up to four months only, while the current standard is that additives must be studied for two years.

A private association, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, which conducts studies on food safety that are then evaluated by the FDA, revoked the designation of BVO as “generally” safe in 1970. After a few more (inadequate) studies of the additive by the Association, the FDA permitted the additive to be used in food:

[FDA] asked the association to do studies on brominated vegetable oil in mice, rats, dogs and pigs. She said that the organization made “several submissions of safety data” to the F.D.A. while those studies were going on, roughly from 1971 to 1974.

“F.D.A. determined that the totality of evidence supported the safe use of B.V.O. in fruit-flavored beverages up to 15 parts per million,” Ms. El-Hinnawy wrote.

That ruling, made in 1977, was supposed to be interim, pending more studies, but 35 years later it is unchanged. “Any change in the interim status of B.V.O. would require an expenditure of F.D.A.’s limited resources, which is not a public health protection priority for the agency at this time,” Ms. El-Hinnawy wrote.

Meanwhile, no further testing has been done. While most people have limited exposure to brominated vegetable oil, an extensive article about it by Environmental Health News that ran in Scientific American last year found that video gamers and others who binge on sodas and other drinks containing the ingredient experience skin lesions, nerve disorders and memory loss.

We know a lot more about the health effects of brominated chemicals (pdf) now than we did in the 1970s, and a lot of what we know is not good, linking them to harms like lowered IQ and fertility that were unlikely to be measured by these studies.

Moreover, I would wonder about the safety of offspring of pregnant women who drink these chemicals in beverages — given the links found by a recent study between levels of a different brominated chemical, PBDE, in pregnant women and learning delays and attention problems in their children at the age of 7. Those kinds of impacts simply can’t be seen in studies that last months, rather than years.

And what about Gatorade or sports drinks consumption by children after sporting events? Thanks to a blistering investigation by the British Medical Journal earlier this year, we now know that the whole “sports drinks” argument about replenishing fluids is a corporate-sponsored myth, at least as pertains to everyone but the Olympic athlete-in-training.

Yet these companies aggressively market these products to children, as a summary of that study in The Atlantic explains:

Both GSK [GlaxoSmithKline, which sells a UK sports drink] and Gatorade have developed school outreach programs that further the case for sports drink consumption during exercise. Though the Institute of Medicine says that, in children, “Thirst and consumption of beverages at meals are adequate to maintain hydration,” studies either directly funded by or involving authors with financial ties to Gatorade make a major case for the need to promote hydration, claiming, for example, that “children are particularly likely to forget to drink unless reminded to do so.”

All this makes it particularly appropriate that a bright 15-year-old is leading the charge, though it’s upsetting to learn that the FDA is evidently not even monitoring the evidence.

Go sign her petition! I did. You might also join me in pondering why the FDA is allowing a harmful chemical to be 15-parts-per-million in our beverages, and how the whole food additive system needs a serious overhaul in the name of public safety.

And now that you know what bunk it all is, you can save both money and your health by drinking water (perhaps with a spritz of fresh, organic lime or lemon) in lieu of all those sugary sodas and “sports drinks.” Now that’s refreshing.

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Update:
Gatorade has agreed to drop BVO from its sports drinks! Score one for Ms. Kavanaugh and Change.org:
PepsiCo announced January 25 that it would reformulate Gatorade. It was responding to a petition circulated on Change.org by 15-year-old Sarah Kavanagh of Hattiesburg, Miss., and signed by more than 200,000 people. “I thought [the petition] might get a lot of support because no one wants to gulp down flame retardant, especially from a drink they associate with being healthy,” Kavanagh told the Hattiesburg American. “But with Gatorade being as big as they are, sometimes it was hard to know if we’d ever win. This is so, so awesome.”
Awesome, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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O Christmas Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Stars Are Brightly Shining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deck the Halls 

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

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

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Joy to the World

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

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

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

Have a safe and happy holiday!

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Are You a Modern Canary?

Canary blue

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tweet, tweet, I say, a bit sadly.

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