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)

Good Parenting for the Chemical Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofa Saga, Part 5: A Happy Place to Sit

Everyone, exhale. Our (cleaner, greener) sofa has finally arrived!

I was very concerned that after all these months of anticipation, it would not measure up. But it is well-made, truly comfortable, roomy and fits my living room like it was made for it. Which it basically was.

Going couch-less was not easy. With this dark period now behind us, we can breathe a sigh of relief, fuss a bit over the cushions, and celebrate the close of our odd social pariah status. No longer will we have to burden casual visitors with an alarming earful concerning how and why I put my toxic Ikea sofa out on the curb, just to address the paucity of seating options.

We ended up with a couch from Robert Craymer, who had great designs and gave us a price break even before this blog started sending traffic his way, as I explain here. It was a long wait, although some of the delay was my responsibility as well, as I contemplated the materials, color, etc. Robert’s recently down-sized his operation and closed his storefront, and, as he told me, he’s happy to do orders, but they will take some time to fill.

It was finished in a simple, child-friendly brown, pre-washed twill. For filler, I did not go with latex, instead opting for the polyurethane foam with no flame retardants in it. (But others should at least review the excellent and detailed exchange in the comments to this post about the latex option, and the eco-issues with polyurethane foams.)

Here’s a picture with the pillows that I had on hand, which look great mixed with the four brown ones that came with the couch:

Happy thanksgiving! This year, we’ll be thankful for furniture that doesn’t add flame retardants to our house, and is lovely to sit on as well.

Now, about those chairs…

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If you’re new to the “Sofa Saga,” or the issue of flame retardants, these other posts may be of interest to you:

And here’s sobering coverage of a study released Nov. 15, 2012, linking maternal-fetal levels of PBDEs, a particular and ubiquitous flame retardant found in 97 percent of the study subjects, to delayed development in the child at age 7.

There’s more! Coming attractions include a guest post by Ken Fonville, of Eco-Select Furniture, with an update on the California process from his perspective.

Full disclosure: I have not been paid any commission whatsoever by either company for this review or any other post, but Robert did rather casually mention that he might send along some additional pieces given the referrals he’s getting from the blog mentions. Lucky me!

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

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

Three Days to a Brand-New BPA-Free You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few other thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

Tomato slices

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

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

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

― G. Love and Special Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pyrrhic Gesture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caps for pasta sauce:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio silence.

The rotten tomato for all of us:

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

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

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

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

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

2) If not BPA, what are companies using?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My translation: Vinyl causes cancer if you eat it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other rotten tomato for all of us:

Vinyl. In our food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side investigation: Are milk-boxes safe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion:  In the Sauce, Indeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My persnickety questions to companies:

Greetings,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stroller Brigade for the Safe Chemicals Act

Today before work, I stopped by the Capitol to check out the National Stroller Brigade in support of the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847), a bill to reform chemical safety and protect families introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-NJ), with the strong support of Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) and others.

Sen.’s Lautenberg and Durbin were there, of course, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-NY), as well as children, parents and activists from all around the country, including Michigan, Maine, and New York. It was a heartening show of support, kicked off by words of encouragement from Andy Igrejas, of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition that is leading the push for the legislation.

Sen. Lautenberg pointed out that the current chemical reform law is badly broken, given that of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, only 200 have even been investigated. Sen. Durbin recalled his days in the U.S. House of Representatives, decades ago, when he teamed up with Sen. Lautenberg (he’s been in the Senate for a long time!) to pass a new law that took on the tobacco industry to get a federal limit on cigarette smoking on airplanes (remember that??), saying that this singular action to emphasize the health hazards of smoking became a tipping point in the national discourse on cigarettes. If they could do it then up against Big Tobacco, he said, we can do this now on chemicals.

Sen. Schumer quoted his mother, who evidently is a wise woman: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” she told him. He went on to speak sympathetically about families grappling with childhood illnesses, like asthma and other conditions, linked back to toxic chemicals, and to describe the effort for the bill as a way to ensure that no more families and children needlessly suffer these health impacts.

A mom from Michigan with three young sons, Polly Schlaff, who lost both her husband at age 33 and other family members to non-genetic forms of cancer, also spoke very movingly, saying that, as a mom, she can’t “un-know” what she knows to be the truth about chemicals and health. And although she now knows better, she said, she can’t do better without government action to make the world safer for families and children.

And last, Hannah Pingree, former Speaker of the House in Maine, wrapped up the program, talking about her own body burden test, which showed that, despite the fact that she lives on a rural island in Maine, there are hundreds of chemicals in her body, many known to be health-threatening.

Virtually everyone talked about the Chicago Tribune series last week, the despicable tactics of the chemical companies and their link to similar malfeasance by the tobacco lobby. The solution to the problem, of course, is a far stronger federal law that requires companies to test chemicals to determine their safety and health impacts before letting them into products and our bodies.

What You Should Know About the Safe Chemicals Act

From a fact sheet on the bill from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • The Safe Chemicals Act improves chemical safety. For the first time, the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of their chemicals, in order to enter or remain on the market. If no information is provided, the chemical would be prohibited from use in products and workplaces. Where there is data that shows potential concern, chemicals must be proven safe before entering commerce, just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws.
  • Immediate action on the worst chemicals. EPA must immediately reduce exposure to the “worst of the worst” chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic compounds that build up and persist in our bodies, breast milk and the environment.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act protects our health using the best science. Many toxic chemicals especially threaten the health of pregnant women, developing fetuses, babies, young children and teens. Other uniquely vulnerable groups include the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, workers, and low-income communities—predominantly people of color—located near chemical hot spots. When determining a chemical’s safety, EPA would be required to ensure protection of vulnerable sub-populations, such as children, pregnant women and hot-spot communities, from all sources of exposure to that chemical.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act informs the market, consumers and the public. As a consumer you have the right to know the safety of chemicals you encounter everyday. The Safe Chemicals Act requires that basic health and safety information on chemicals be made public.

Sounds pretty great to me. Now, we just have to get Congress to pass it.

Are your Members of Congress supporting the Act?

Here are the Senate cosponsors:

Sen Begich, Mark [AK]
Sen Blumenthal, Richard [CT]
Sen Boxer, Barbara [CA]
Sen Durbin, Richard [IL]
Sen Feinstein, Dianne [CA]
Sen Franken, Al [MN]
Sen Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [NY]
Sen Kerry, John F. [MA]
Sen Klobuchar, Amy [MN]
Sen Leahy, Patrick J. [VT]
Sen Menendez, Robert [NJ]
Sen Merkley, Jeff [OR]
Sen Murray, Patty [WA]
Sen Sanders, Bernard [VT]
Sen Schumer, Charles E. [NY]
Sen Tester, Jon [MT]
Sen Whitehouse, Sheldon [RI]

If your lawmakers are already on the bill, great! Thank them for their support, as they are the ones that have to push this forward.

One thing I notice about this list? No Republicans. Yet consumer safety and the health of families should be a bipartisan concern. Here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today, and ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act.

My postscript: Sen. Lautenberg and Sen. Durbin have been working together a long time, and it’s a pleasure to watch such collegiality and warmth. I’ve also worked with them (or really, their staff) for years, and I can honestly say that they are both incredibly smart and caring, as well as right on the issues. Politicians get such a bad rap for being craven, and it’s mostly well deserved. At a time in which finger pointing and polarization is more the norm, the clear mutual regard and affection between these two Senators shows that it doesn’t have to be that way, and is certainly something that people outside Washington should see about the very best among our lawmakers:

Curb Alert: Free (Toxic) Sofa

Maya had finally gone down for her nap this afternoon, and I thought it was the perfect time to finally read all of the many articles that the Chicago Tribune published last week on the harms of chemical flame retardants.

I’ve been looking into this issue in a cheeky 4-part “Sofa Saga,” so I’d already skimmed a few of the pieces, but had not really had time to digest the whole series. I was reminded of the power of the investigation by Nicholas Kristof’s excellent column today as well.

So I was reading along, and feeling pretty good about things, actually, given that I hadn’t gotten any of the facts wrong in the blog posts, when I came to this paragraph:

In 2006, researchers at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cautioned that adding chlorinated tris to furniture would expose children to nearly twice the daily dose deemed acceptable by the federal agency. The cancer risk for children during the first two years of life would be seven times higher than what most physicians, scientists and regulators consider acceptable, according to the safety commission’s report.

Seven times the risk of cancer. Seven. My heart basically stopped for 20 seconds. My stomach rose up and took over my throat.

The sofa I have from Ikea has chlorinated tris in it, according to research by Heather Stapleton. I sat on that couch almost every day of my pregnancy, and my daughter Maya has played on it basically every day of her 20 months of existence. Sometimes, she licks it.

She was “reading” to her stuffed bear just today, sitting there, and here she is at 8 months:

When not sitting on that sofa, I was self-righteously running around town tracking down sources for expensive grassfed, organic beef to get rid of trace amounts of pesticides. Or spending a small fortune on wooden toys.

While sitting on that sofa, I chatted with the New York Times reporter who wrote an article calling me paranoid about toxic chemicals.

While sitting on that sofa filled with literally pounds of carcinogens, I’ve spent hours researching healthier products for my family, including a sofa without flame retardants. They make fools of all of us.

Some lame rationalizations flitted through my mind, while my heart grew heavy and sad. I open the windows sometimes, I thought. We vacuum. I began to feel physically sick.

Fury does not really describe it. I tried to finish the article. But I was sitting on that sofa.

A new, better sofa is eventually on the way, but it’s likely several weeks away at least, and maybe a month.

I thought about sitting on the floor. And then I thought, fine. The floor it is.

I was so angry that I was able single-handedly to put it out on the curb.

Here’s the note I posted to the neighborhood list serv (they already think I’m nuts):

Curb Alert: Free black “leather” large Ikea sofa, decent condition

Here’s my now-typical awkward caveat:

I dumped it because it’s full of a particularly harmful form of flame retardants, called chlorinated tris, that was banned from children’s PJs in the late 1970s as a mutagen — and is also now known to be a potent carcinogen.

I was already following this issue on my blog, but the Chicago Tribune series last week, which I am just reading now, made me actually get up and put it on the curb. I’m furious, actually.

It looks like rain, so if you want it, better come and get it.

Laura

Here’s the thing, Citizens for Fire Safety, you liars, I’m looking at you. And I’m a mom.

If my daughter ever gets sick in any way that can be tied back to her nearly two years of crawling all over this toxic piece of junk, I will personally show up everywhere you try to deceive state legislatures to finish the job of exposing you that was started by the Tribune.

And hey, chemical manufacturers, like the flame retardant chemical makers — Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura (“Chemtura”? Really?) — I’m telling you now, you have a problem that a little chemical switcherooni is not about to fix.

I’m done letting you be the only ones who know what’s in my house, and in our air, and in my daughter’s blood. What’s in our bodies can’t be your proprietary little stew of hazards. You want to keep it proprietary? Keep it out of my house.

I’m really over this experimentation on all of us. I’m so over learning two years down the road that, despite my best efforts, you’ve been poisoning my daughter, lying to lawmakers, and laughing all the way to the bank.

You’ve messed with the wrong mom. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. You’d better hope that lawmakers in California get to you first.