Land of Fruits and Nuts – Joining Team ENERGY STAR

Epic Team ENERGY STARSo, in the Land of Fruits and Nuts, we have to remodel the home. “Have to” is an understatement – the home’s major systems are failing – we’ve had the sewer pipe burst underneath the house, the water pipes have failed in 2 separate locations, the furnace broke down completely, and electrical panel is shot. So we are undertaking a full house remodel.

In doing so, you can be sure that we will be making the home as green as possible, including making it more energy efficient. Yes, we will be joining team ENERGY STAR.

ENERGY STAR is a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is designed to help us save money and protect the environment through energy-efficient products and practices.  Now, for my husband, energy efficiency is more about saving money. If you don’t think energy efficiency can save you money, keep in mind that the average US household spends more than $2,000 per year in energy bills.  With ENERGY STAR, you can save over one-third, or more than $760, on your household energy bills.  For me, energy efficiency is critical to preserving the environment and conserving our natural resources. Yes, for me, it is all about the EPIC fight to combat climate change. And that is why we are joining Team ENERGY STAR – an initiative developed to engage and educate American youth and their families about saving energy in the home. This year, ENERGY STAR partners PTO Today and LG Electronics have brought in the heroic characters from the new movie EPIC, to help kids learn about the importance of saving energy while having fun at the same time.

Why does being energy efficient help the environment? Because most of our energy – about 70% of the electricity we use – comes from power plants burning fossil fuels.  Burning fossil fuels causes greenhouse gas emissions – the gases that contribute to climate change. Also, burning fossil fuels spews out a host of chemicals that cause severe  health concerns for those living near and far from the power plants. Don’t think it matters because you don’t live near a plant? Much of the mercury contaminating our seafood is a result of mercury released from fossil fuel burning power plants. We are all part of this amazing interconnected web, and our personal choices do matter.

In any event, because we have to replace so many appliances and products, virtually all of them, we will be purchasing products that bear the ENERGY STAR certification.  If we can, we will select products that are part of ENERGY STAR’s Most Efficient – the best of the best in energy efficiency. The ENERGY STAR’s most efficient program has products identified in the following categories: boilers, clothes washers, furnaces, refrigerators, windows and more (even computer monitors)! If you have to by new appliances, be sure to check out the ENERGY STAR Most Efficient models.

We will also be looking for energy efficient lighting. Did you know that the average home spends about 12% of its electricity bill on lighting? A single ENERGY STAR certified light bulb can save between $40 and $95 in electricity costs over its lifetime. So we will be looking for certified fixtures and bulbs.

So, for us, being part of Team ENERGY STAR and the ENERGY STAR program is very important this year.

Not buying new stuff this year? That’s okay. You can still take the ENERGY STAR pledge and take personal actions to reduce your energy use at home. You can also help your family and friends, perhaps even your school, to reduce energy. Take some easy steps – turn off lights when not in use, replace bulbs as needed with energy efficient bulbs, set your thermostat so you don’t run the heat or air conditioning when you don’t need it, etc. Our personal choices can help us not only save money, but conserve energy and thereby minimize climate change. Go check out the ENERGY STAR website for more tips and information. Join Team ENERGY STAR to work towards educating our kids and take the ENERGY STAR pledge to do something now.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I am writing about Team ENERGY STAR because I support the program and because I believe it is important to educate the public about energy efficiency and climate change. The opinions expressed in this post are my own. However, please be advised that I did receive a modest “thank you” reward from LG, an ENERGY STAR partner, in appreciation for my post.

Kim Kardashian As An Earth Mama?

bigstock-A-beautiful-young-pregnant-wom-24168806Last night an article on Yahoo caught my eye – the title boldly asserted Kim Kardashian – Earth Mother with her new pregnancy. I snorted my drink onto my computer screen and almost fell out of my chair laughing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy from Kim and wish her the best. I am even happy for her if she is discovering a healthier lifestyle because she is pregnant. But doing a photo shoot with less make up does not make one an Earth Mother. Nor does reducing one’s Diet Coke intake make one an Earth Mother.

It actually might be great if Kim Kardashian were becoming an Earth Mother. She garners so much attention (whether you love her or hate her) that it could bring attention to some of the issues that so called Earth Mothers hold dear – whether the issue is climate change, energy issues, reducing lead exposure, safer chemicals in consumer products, fracking, GMOs, or whatever.

But Kim Kardashian’s Earth Mother experience seems just as fake as her reality TV life. I don’t think she is eliminating doing her nails or at least using a less toxic nail polish. I don’t think she is avoiding synthetic fragrance because of the possibility of hormone disrupting phthalates or carcinogenic compounds.  I don’t even think her comment about limited Diet Coke has anything at all to do with the artificial sweetener or the possibility of exposure to bisphenol A due to the lining of the aluminum can.

I also don’t think she is going to buy products for  the nursery that are safer than conventional products, whether it is formaldehyde free furniture or avoiding polyurethane foam pieces.  Do you think she is considering flame retardants? I don’t. And I don’t think she will look for safer baby products such as Earth Mama Angel Baby’s products.

Perhaps she means something more than a trendy label to improve her public image, but I honestly don’t think so. I don’t believe a Teflon-coated reality TV star enamored of modern conveniences (fake nails, fake tan, fake eyelashes, disposable clothing, disposable water bottles) can be an Earth Mother.

But it would be great if she proved me wrong.

Is “Being Green” The New Battle In The “Mommy Wars”?

Hot Trendy MamaI really hate the so-called “Mommy Wars.” I get it that every parent wants to think his or her way of parenting is best, and I get it that we wall make different choices (stay at home, work at home, or work outside of the home; stay with kids, nanny, daycare or child care; public or private school; soccer or not; fast food or not; whatever) but I don’t get criticizing somebody else for his or her parenting choice. We shouldn’t be fighting – we should be working together and celebrating our differences. (Okay, one caveat – you can criticize a parenting choice and take action if the choice is immediately harmful to child – such as leaving an infant in a hot car on a hot day).

I suppose it is hard to not criticize, because if somebody else’s choice is good, then it must be better than your choice, right? At least that is the thought process. And if your choice isn’t good (like working outside of the home and putting your kids in childcare), then it must be bad, and harmful to your kids. So then you are a bad parent. As a result, it is better to criticize the other parent’s choice as a preemptive strike because if you don’t, you will branded a bad parent.

Okay, ugh.

In any event, Clorox Green Works is launching a new ad campaign that, well, mocks eco fanatics for their “greenness.” Apparently, some survey found that women feel more pressure to be green (39%) than skinny (29%). So Green Works has come up with The Green Housewives who are parodies of eco green fanatics (all while shopping and consuming, which, is well, not very green but let’s set that aside for now). And, by the way, these Green Housewives don’t really know what they are talking about and their choices don’t seem particularly informed. Are they interested in being green to reduce energy consumption? Improve working conditions? Reduce exposure to toxic chemicals? Reduce plastic consumption? No, they are just eco fanatics spouting lots of buzzwords.

In any event, so now apparently we are pressuring one another to be a certain level of green and making one another feel guilty about our choices and their greenness or lack thereof. Will this be the new battle in the Mommy Wars?

I hope not. Certainly, peer pressure is a method to advance social change, and we need social change to improve. If social pressure can assist with reducing energy consumption, conserving natural resources, and improving health, safety and the environment, then, well, I am all for it. But that doesn’t mean I get to criticize somebody else’s choice that isn’t as green. It doesn’t have to be a war. I can simply lead by example without preaching.

I know that being green seems to lend itself to being “greener than thou” instead of educating, and it lends itself to media coverage that is fear mongering and a culture of denying oneself material goods. Unfortunately. Somehow we  need to change the dialogue so that being green is positive.

That being said, there still seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that being green is more expensive. Being green seems to be a status symbol in certain circles – that you have a hybrid car, for example. But being green is not more expensive. That is really the myth that Clorox Green Works is selling.  Clorox Green Works is pushing, like all the cleaning companies do, the myth that you need several specialty cleaners to really get your house clean. And you don’t. You can clean your house with basic pantry staples that are LESS EXPENSIVE than buying any of the conventional cleaners or even the “greener” cleaners. Baking soda, vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, salt, lemons, hydrogen peroxide, cream of tarter – all LESS EXPENSIVE (significantly) than buying a glass cleaner, a counter cleaner, a tub & tile cleaner, a toilet bowl cleaner, etc.

Also, saving energy – less expensive. You will save money if you set your thermostat so as to reduce the amount of heat or air conditioning needed.

Granted, clothing and food items may be more expensive – but to be honest, being green isn’t about buying new stuff all the time, it is about making do with what you got. So you make do with your sheets, blankets, clothing, etc. If you do  need to replace and aren’t into buying recycled items, even the big box retailers have options for organic, fair trade, etc. items.

Food is probably the one place where it tends to be more expensive – if you are comparing to buying conventional goods to organic goods at a super market. Studies, however, show that many Americans eat out regularly – often convenience foods. Those convenience foods are expensive, and you can reduce your total food costs if you cook at home with organic over eating out. And we tend to by food in convenience packaging (single serve apple sauce, for example). Buying in bulk can significantly reduce food costs. Also, growing your own (even in containers if you are in an apartment) can be less expensive.

So let’s forget the battle of the green in the Mommy Wars. But if you want to know how easy it is to clean with baking soda, or to use rags instead of paper towels, or how I haven’t broken my glass bottle in 2 years, I’m happy to talk about.






The Food and Drug Administration & Cosmetics

I’m speaking at The Divine Female, an event from yogitoes and The Yoga Beauty Bar for conscious beauty and breast cancer awareness, on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. about deciphering beauty ingredients.  I was talking to my mom about it, and she espoused a view held by many – that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) makes sure the beauty products we use are safe.

But that assumption is false.  In fact, despite the fact that most of us believe the FDA looks out for  us, when it comes to cosmetics, it really doesn’t. So I thought I would discuss a bit of background about the FDA.

The FDA is responsible for over-the-counter and prescription drugs and medical devices, biologics, food (except for meat, poultry, egg products, and the labeling of alcoholic beverages and tobacco) and food additives, radiological products, and cosmetics.  How the FDA oversees personal care products is the most relevant generally to this blog.

The FDA’s authority over cosmetics is relatively limited.  As explained on the FDA’s website, “FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices.”  FDA does not approve cosmetics ingredients before they are placed on the market, with the exception of certain color additives and a few substances are banned from cosmetics.  In fact, the FDA explains

“[i]n general, except for color additives and those ingredients which are prohibited or restricted from use in cosmetics by regulation, a manufacturer may use any ingredient in the formulation of a cosmetic provided that the ingredient and the finished cosmetic are safe, the product is properly labeled, and the use of the ingredient does not otherwise cause the cosmetic to be adulterated or misbranded under the laws that FDA enforces.”

The list of prohibited or restricted ingredients is amazingly short.  In comparison, the European Union list of prohibited or restricted chemicals is over 1,100 chemicals, although some of the chemicals would never be found in cosmetics.

Who determines whether a cosmetic is safe?  As explained on the FDA’s website, “[c]osmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing,” and not the FDA.  In other words, no independent agency determines whether a product is safe.  In fact, the FDA doesn’t even define the criteria.  While the regulations provide that each ingredient must be adequately substantiated for safety prior to marketing, the FDA doesn’t provide clear guidance as to the meaning of “adequately substantiated” or “safety” for cosmetics.  If cosmetic companies don’t adequately substance a cosmetic product’s safety before marketing it, they are required to include on the label the following statement:  “Warning – The safety of this product has not been determined.”  But if there are no definitions or guidance, how does a company even determine whether a product complies?  In fact, the Environmental Working Group (“EWG”) states that it reviewed more than 20,000 cosmetic product labels and did not find a single one with the statement.  I’ve never seen such a statement either.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that cosmetics are inherently unsafe.  But, at least one study concluded that approximately 89% of the ingredients routinely used in cosmetics have not been assessed by the FDA or the industry.  According to the EWG, 98% of all personal care products contain one or more ingredients never publicly assessed for safety.

Who does review cosmetics ingredients?  The companies manufacturing beauty products may privately conduct their own assessments.  The cosmetics industry also relies upon the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (“CIR”).  The CIR was created by the cosmetic industry trade group to police the industry.  The CIR is funded by the member companies of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association and its recommendations regarding safety are just that, recommendations, not requirements, and can be ignored.  Also, the CIR’s focus is whether a cosmetic ingredient causes irritation or allergic reactions, not carcinogenicity or reproductive or developmental toxicity.  For an illuminating discussion of the CIR and the cosmetics industry, I highly recommend Stacy Malkan’s book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.

Not only does the FDA have no authority to approve cosmetics ingredients before products hit the market, the FDA is not authorized to require recalls of cosmetics.

The FDA is also responsible for food contact substances.  FDA’s regulation of food contact substances is also relevant to this blog (think BPA for example).  Food contact substances are those items that are not directly added to food, but are in contact with food, such as packaging materials.  If a new food contact substance is proposed, or a new use of an existing food contact substance is proposed, a manufacturer must give the FDA notice of it unless there are existing regulation related to the used or the substance or use is considered “Generally Recognized as Safe” (or “GRAS”).

This voluntary GRAS notification program was proposed in 1997.  In 1997, the FDA abolished its existing procedure by which it approved petitions to designate substances because the FDA did not have the resources to review and approve the petitions.  Under the GRAS notification process, a manufacturer informs the FDA that it has determined that a substance or use is GRAS, as opposed to petitioning the FDA to approve the use or a substance is GRAS.  As explained by the FDA, if the manufacturer’s determination is correct, the use or the substance is not subject to any legal requirement for FDA review and approval.  In fact, since the GRAS notification process is voluntary, a manufacturer may market the substance or use without informing FDA if the manufacturer determines it is GRAS or, if FDA is so informed, while FDA is reviewing that information.  Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  As long as a manufacturer determines the food contact substance or use is GRAS, it can go ahead and market it.

What is “safe” for these regulations?  According to the implementing regulations, the term “safe” means “that there is a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the intended conditions of use.  It is impossible in the present state of scientific knowledge to establish with complete certainty the absolute harmlessness of the use of any substance.  Safety may be determined by scientific procedures or by general recognition of safety.”

So how does this voluntary GRAS notification process work?  Let’s look at one potentially relevant example.  If you’ve used or are using formula, you probably know  some manufacturers supplement their infant formula with DHA and ARA.  But, some manufacturers use DHA and ARA extracted from laboratory-grown fermented algae and fungus and processed with hexane, known as DHASCO and ARASCO, although not identified as such on the list of ingredients.  DHASCO and ARASCO are structurally different from the DHA and ARA found in breast milk.  The manufacturer of DHASCO and ARASCO submitted a notice to the FDA stating that DHASCO and ARASCO added to infant formula are GRAS.  The FDA responded to the notice that it had no further questions.  DHASCO and ARASCO are currently marketed in infant formula.  But, the FDA and the manufacturer recognize that some infants have adverse reactions from consuming infant formula with DHASCO and ARASCO such as diarrhea, bloating, vomiting, jaundice, apnea, flatulence, and other gastrointestinal problems.  Nevertheless, the manufacturer maintains they are GRAS, so the manufacturer is free to market them.  And these infant formula products are not labeled to indicate the presence of DHASCO and ARASCO (as opposed to DHA and ARA), so you can’t tell when buying formula.

So that is a bit about the FDA. More information to come on deciphering beauty ingredients.


Red Vines Black Licorice Recalled: Elevated Levels of Lead

American Licorice Company has voluntarily recalled all of its 1 pound bags of black licorice with a “best by” date of February 14, 2013 following testing by California health officials which found elevated levels of lead.  The testing revelead that black licorice candy could have as much lead as 0.33 parts per million (ppm), resulting in a dose of up to 13.2 micrograms of lead per serving.

For reference, the California Department of Public Health states that the recommendation is that children under 6 years of age consume no more than 6.0 micrograms of lead per day, and the level for which a Proposition 65 warning is required is 0.5 micrograms per day for lead as a reproductive toxicant.

Lead is toxic. Mild lead poisoning is associated with hyperactivity, irritability, sleeplessness, lack of concentration, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Persistent neurological impairment can follow even mild episodes of lead poisoning. More information is available on this website and also at the  California Department of Public Health.

Consumers can return the bags to the retailer from which they were purchased for a full refund.

So far, no explanation for why this batch of candy had elevated levels of lead.  The company indicates that “[s]afety is the number one priority for [the] company.”

Getting the Lead Out – Folk & Herbal Remedies

Healthy living often includes considering natural or herbal remedies for getting and/or staying well.  I’ve blogged before about how I have been growing and drying my own herbs for use in teas, tinctures, salves and other applications. However, several commonly used traditional and folk remedies have been found to contain lead.  Some are contaminated with lead from the manufacturing process or soils.  Some are made of lead or lead salts.  For example, greta is a traditional Mexican folk remedy commonly used to treat children’s stomach ailments.  But, greta can contain as much as 90% lead, and can poison children, instead of making them better.

Reports of children being poisoned by folk remedies are more common then you would think.  One story expressed a young mother’s grief and guilt over poisoning her two children and a niece with greta.  She gave it to them to help with stomach problems.  She is quoted as saying “[i]nstead of doing something good for them, I did them more harm.”  Luckily, the high levels of lead were detected a week later during a routine checkup.  The children have reportedly suffered no ill effects.

Traditional and folk remedies are the second most common source of lead poisoning in the United States.  The CDC estimates that traditional or folk remedies may account for as much as 30% of all childhood lead poisoning cases in the US.  But, it is suspected that many cases go undetected.  Many doctors don’t ask about alternative medicines, and most people don’t volunteer the information.  And only about 14% of children are tested for lead.

Many of these remedies are manufactured outside the US and purchased in ethnic grocery stores and neighborhood shops, or brought into the US by travelers.  These remedies are often cultural traditions, handed down by generations.  For example, ayurvedic remedies have been used in India for at least the last 2,000 years.  But, one survey of ayurvedic remedies sold in the Boston area found that 20% of them contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury and arsenic.

Many people think “my grandmother used it, so it must be okay.”  Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it safe.  The traditional or home remedies can cause serious cases of lead poisoning because the lead concentration is often very high and the medicine is intentionally swallowed.

So, since you can’t tell just by looking at a folk or herbal remedy whether it contains lead or another potentially harmful ingredient, do a little bit of research before taking a folk or herbal remedy. Following is a list of common herbal or folk remedies that have been found to contain harmful ingredients – but this list isn’t comprehensive.



Alternative or Folk Remedies and Cosmetics Found to Have Lead Present






Used to Treat





Al Murrah Colic, stomachache, diarrhea Saudi Arabia
Albayalde or albayaidle Vomiting, colic, apathy, lethargy Mexico,Central America
Alkohl (also known as kohl, surma or saoott) Umbilical stump remedy (also used as a cosmetic) Middle East,Africa,Asia Can contain up to 83% lead
An Kung Niu Huan Wan China
Anzroot Gastroenteritis Middle East
Ayurvedic remedies including Guglu (reports of 14,000 ppm lead), Sundari Kalp (pill, reports of up to 96,000 ppm lead), and Jambrulin (reports of 44,000 ppm lead)[iii] India
Azarcon (also known as rueda, liga, coral, Alarcon and Maria Luisa) Empacho, vomiting, diarrhea 95% lead
Ba Bow Sen (also known as Ba Baw San or Ba Baw Sen) Colic, hyperactivity, nightmares and to detoxify “fetus poisoning” China
Bal Chamcha Liver problems, digestion, teething, milk intolerance, irregular stools, bloating, colic, poor sleep, poor dentition, myalgia India
Bal Jivan Baby tonic India
Bala Goli (also known as Fita) Stomachache, often dissolved in gripe water Asia,India
Bala Guta Children’s tonic India
Bala Sogathi Improve growth, teething, coug, cold, fever, diarrhea India
Balguti Kesaria For children and infants India
Bao Ning Dan Acne, pain, removing toxins China
Bezoar Sedative Pills China
Bint al zahab (also known as  bint or bent) Diarrhea, colic, constipation and general neonatal uses Saudi Arabia,OmanandIndia
Bint Dahab Saudi Arabia
Bokhoor (and noqd) Calming Kuwait
Cebagin Teething powder Middle East
Chuifong tokuwan Hong Kong
Cordyceps Hypertension, diabetes, bleeding China
Deshi Dewa Fertility Asia,India
Emperor’s Tea Pill Maintain body’s natural balance China
Farouk Teething powder Saudi Arabia
Ghazard (also known as Ghasard or Qhasard) Digestion, relieve constipation in babies Asia,India
Greta Digestive problems Mexico 97% lead
Hai Ge Fen China Powder added to tea
Hepatico Extract Healthy liver and promote regularity China
Jeu Wo Dan Cast dressing China
Jim Bu Huan Pain China
Kandu Stomachache Asian,India Red powder
Koo Sar (or Koo Soo) Pills Menstrual cramps China Lead believed to be present in red dye
Kohl (also known as Alkohl) Cosmetic, skin infections
Kushta Diseases of the heart, brain, liver, and stomach, aphrodisiac India,Pakistan
Litargirio Deodorant, foot fungicide, burns, wound healing Dominican Republic Approx. 80% lead
Lu Shen Wan China
Mahayogaraj gugullu High blood pressure India
Mahalakshmi Vilas Ras with gold Cold related symptoms, blood deficiency, wound healing, asthma India
Navratna Rasa General debility, rickets, calcium deficiency India
Ng Chung Brand Tik Dak Win China
Pay-loo-ah Rash, fever Southeast Asia
PoYing Tan Minor ailments China
Qing Fen Cast dressing, pain China
Santrinj Teething remedy Saudi Arabia 98% lead
Sundari Kalp Menstrual health India
Surma Teething powder India
Swarna Mahayograj Guggula with gold Rheumatism, gas, menstrual cycles, progesterone deficiency, mental disorders, fertility, menopause India
Tibetan herbal vitamin Strengthen brain (remedy for mental retardation) India
White Peony Scar Repairing Pills Scar Hong Kong
Zhui Feng Tou Gu Wan Bone ailments, joint pain, numbness China


Lead in Folk Remedies:  Smart Mama’s Simple Steps To Reduce Exposure

Skip the remedy.  If you don’t know whether it is safe or no, skip the remedy.  I understand that many of these remedies have been used for generations.  But, they can contain high levels of lead.  If you don’t know whether they are safe or not, then skip them.

Discuss with caregivers.  Discuss medications and remedies with all caregivers, including remedies.  Make sure your caregivers, including your relatives, do not provide any medical care, including home remedies, without checking with you.

Cleaning up indoor air quality – VOCs & paint

Indoor air quality is important to our health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are consistently higher indoors than outdoors, with some VOC concentrations up to 10 times higher indoors. Some scientists believe that indoor pollutants are 1,000 times more likely to be inhaled as compared to outdoor pollutants because we spend about 90% of our time indoors, our activities put us near sources of indoor air pollutants, and indoor emissions are partially trapped inside buildings.

Household cleaners, scented products, and paints and coatings contribute to indoor air pollution.  Although emissions from paints and coatings are highest during and immediately after application, they release low levels of toxic emissions into the air for years after application.  Some paint-related activities can dramatically increase indoor air concentrations of VOCs.  A basic science lesson:  a paint consists of a resin (or binder), a carrier, and pigments that gives the paint its color.  Once the paint is applied to a surface, the carrier evaporates, leaving behind the solid coating.  The carrier is usually a VOC.

VOCs are chemicals that contain at least one carbon atom and that easily evaporate at ambient temperature.  VOCs are emitted as gases from certain liquids and solids.  In other words, VOCs readily volatilize, or evaporate, out of the solid or liquid into the air we breathe.  You are familiar with VOCs.  The smell of gasoline?  VOCs evaporating.  The scent of a freshly mowed lawn?  VOCs evaporating. In fact, isoprene and monoterpenes are two of the most common VOCs emitted from vegetation. Monoterpenes (VOCs) give us pine, lemon, and many floral scents.

The term “VOC” is often used in a precise regulatory context, and the definition is defined by laws.  From a regulatory perspective, VOCs are usually of concern because they evaporate at room temperature and then react in sunlight to help form ground-level ozone, an integral component of photochemical smog.  These VOCs are referred to as smog precursors.  Smog is that green haze that hangs over many large cities, and that we are working to eliminate.

But you are probably more concerned with VOCs because they have health effects.  VOCs can cause respiratory distress; skin and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; muscle weakness; and even more serious ailments and diseases.  For example, formaldehyde, a VOC often found in the home because of its presence in engineered wood products, including furniture, cabinetry and building materials, is considered a probable carcinogen by the EPA, is listed on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, is genotoxic (damaging to genetic material), and also causes eye, nose and throat irritation.

When it comes to trying to reduce toxic chemical exposures, understanding the regulatory framework is important for any class of products.  For example, if you buy a paint labeled “low VOC”, you are usually buying a paint that has low VOC content based upon the definition of VOC under the federal Clean Air Act.  In this context, VOCs are defined in terms of photochemical reactivity (ability to form ozone), and not toxicity.  In the regulatory context, certain VOCs are exempt from regulation because they are not photochemically reactive (they are not smog pre-cursors).  However, these VOCs may be toxic.  For example, methylene chloride and 1,1,1-trichloroethane are not considered photochemically reactive, so they are exempt.  But they are associated with adverse health effects.

Methylene chloride is irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract and is identified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA. 1,1,1-trichloroethane is not classifiable as to its carcinogencity in humans.  However, animal studies have shown that 1,1,1-TCAcan pass through the placenta.  Babies of pregnant mice exposed to high concentrations ofTCAdeveloped more slowly and demonstrated behavioral problems. So, even if the paint is low-VOC, you may still want to skip it.  Plus, the amount of VOCs is the amount in the base coating.  The colorant added to the paint may have VOCs, so you need to consider the VOC content of the base plus colorant.

How do you find the right paint?  Conventional paints are generally classified into two categories:  latex (or water based) paints (in which the carrier is water), and oil based paints (in which the carrier is an organic solvent).  When you use oil based paints, the carrier, an organic solvent VOC, evaporates after application and pollutes the air.  Latex paints do not use solvents as the primary carrier so VOC emissions are minimized.  So latex paints are usually a better choice over oil based paints to reduce toxic chemical exposures.  However, latex paints may use solvents to emulsify the binder, which are emitted after application, so they may still be problematic.

Paints labeled as “low VOCs” or “zero VOCs” may have fewer toxins present than conventional paints.  However, remember the earlier discussion about regulatory context?  The low or zero VOC paint is designated as such designed for photochemical reactivity (whether or not it is a smog precursor) and/or odor, not the amount of toxins.  The assumption that paints labeled as odor-free or containing low or no VOC’s are free of toxicants is false. While these paints are environmentally friendly, and I am all for reducing smog, they may still have some toxic chemicals present.  Look for the VOC content in grams per liter on the paint label – choose one with the lowest number.  Generally speaking, and keeping in mind that VOC content is regulated for smog formation potential, not health effects, a paint that says “Maximum VOC Content:  45 grams/liter” is preferable to one with a higher number.

Also, there are several specific private certifying companies that consider toxicity as well as simply regulatory VOC content limits. More on these in a separate blog post.

In addition to VOCs, you should look out for other potentially toxic ingredients, such as ammonia, crystalline silica, fungicides, and biocides.  Biocides include copper, arsenic disulfide, phenol, and formaldehyde.  Almost all paints contain toxic preservatives.  The amounts are relatively low, but you may want to consider biocide-free paints.  Also check the pigment used to make the color.  For both the paint and the pigment, ask the manufacturer or supplier for the MSDS (or get it off the web), which should identify the ingredients and have a section on health effects.

Another option is natural based paints and finishes.  These paints are made from natural raw ingredients such as plant oils, plant dyes, clay, chalk, milk casein, and bees’ wax.  Natural paints typically use linseed and soy oils as binders, pine- and balsam-derived terpenes or citrus oils as carriers, minerals and sometimes plant-derived compounds as pigments, and lime and chalk as thickeners.  These paints are preserved by linseed oil or other natural ingredients.  Although natural paints and finishes do not contain petroleum products, they may still emit VOCs from ingredients like citrus based solvents.  Some of these contain essential oils which can cause allergic reactions.  Certain natural oil paints emit odors or compounds, such as those from citrus oil, which chemically sensitive people may find hard to tolerate.  Mineral, lime and milk paints are generally well tolerated and are the least toxic paints available.   But, always check the ingredient list or MSDS.  Not all “natural” materials are safe.  Cadmium may be used as a bright yellow pigment, but cadmium is toxic.

Lessons from The Lorax: Hope Will Change The World

I was so excited when I first learned that Universal Pictures was releasing Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. My kids and I saw the trailer in a movie theater, and they were excited too. Why? Because they were familiar with the tale, since I have repeatedly read it to them. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is oft read environmental children’s book in our house.

And then, I was approached to be part of a compensated blog tour in support of Universal Pictures’ Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and I was even more thrilled. Rarely do I get to participate in such activities for a variety of reasons. As an added bonus, the other blog tour participants are bloggers and people I admire and respect (see below). As a result, I am thrilled to blog about Lessons from The Lorax: Hope Will Change The World.

Now, the book The Lorax is a more than a bit gloomy. The Once-ler creates demands for his Thneed with slick marketing, and ultimately chops down the entire Truffula Forest to knit Thneeds. In the process, the Bar-ba-Loots get the Crummies because of gas and “no food in their tummies” so The Lorax, speaking for the trees, sends them away. The Swomee Swans get sore throats from the “smogulous smoke” and their singing falls silent. Again, the Lorax sends them away. The Humming Fish can’t hum because of Thneed manufacturing by-products being dumped in their ponds so the Lorax sends them off too. Eventually, no Truffula trees are left, and the Once-ler’s factory shuts down. The Lorax leaves with an ominous “UNLESS” inscribed on a pile of rocks and our bit of hope is tied to a single seed the Once-ler passes to the boy (representing the reader).

Quite a lesson. A narrative of gloom and doom. A tragic scenario of creeping doom UNLESS we mend our ways.

When my mom read The Lorax to me when I was little. I remember being so depressed – overwhelmingly depressed by the plight of the Truffula, the Bar-ba-Loots, the Swomee Swans and the Humming Fish. But my mom always gently reminded me that it was a cautionary tale, and encouraged me to do something about it if I was moved. I encourage my kids to do the same.

Much environmental journalism uses the Lorax narrative to seek to compel change. And I’m honestly not sure it works to compel change as a doomsday scenario. Most of us can’t see the potentially world ending results from our individual actions. So, it doesn’t compel us to change our ways according to most studies. Or we think our individual changes won’t amount to anything or won’t stop the doomsday from coming. So we don’t do anything at all.

We don’t heed the warning “UNLESS.” And often we don’t see the hope present in the remaining Truffula seed.

But with hope we will change the world. And that is the lesson from The Lorax I want to pass to my children. Whether you see hope in science and technological advances, or hope in sustainable design, or hope in a mere seed, that hope will change the world.

The movie The Lorax encourages hope too, and causes us to question our indulgence in all things technologically advance and artificial. The movie changes the narrative a bit (although it ultimately remains a tragedy). The town is called Thneedville, where everything is artificial and no trace of nature remains. Director Chris Renaud explains:

We came up with the idea to have Thneedville be a bit more relatable. It’s like Vegas or Disneyland or Abu Dhabi. We see ourselves in it a bit, and it is kind of fun. There are inflatable bushes and mechanical flowers and trees, and it’s a place with no real nature. Everyone seems to be happy, and they have everything they want: from giant cars to robots and other mechanical devices. But then it becomes a question about sustainability. While all this stuff is fun and great, is it in balance with the broader planet, and how do we maintain that balance?

Ted seeks to win the affection of the girl of his dreams, Audrey, by finding her a real tree. And he learns about the history of Thneedville, its artificiality, and then seeks to set things right with the last Truffula seed, we get a bit more hope than we do in the book.

I’m not sure if the message will ultimately be more persuasive to effectuate significant change in our quests to consume. But I am certain that it will at least inspire conversations about nature, environmentalism, extinction and more. Most importantly, about hope. And that is a lot. More than most big screen movies today. Conversations I am more than happy to have with my kids. And conversations that can be readily adapted to encourage kids to be more involved with nature, to consume less and differently, to question marketing messages, to understand the interlocking web of our planet, to take joy in simply planting a tree.

What are the Lessons from The Lorax? This blog tour is highlighting quite a few. For example,  yesterday Jennifer Lance at Eco Child’s Play reminds us to identify and skip the Thneeds in our lives.  Tomorrow, Beth at My Plastic Free Life will tackle yet another.

I personally had a hard time settling on just one lesson. The Lorax has a lot to teach us. At first, I thought I would talk about that the lesson from The Lorax isn’t about not having what you want, it is wanting what you got (thanks to Sheryl Crow’s Soak Up The Sun for that appropriate lyric).

I settled on hope will change the world because it is the reason to keep going and being green. There is no reason to give up on being green – one seed could change the world. So, take heed of the Lorax’s warning of UNLESS. Keep hope alive and stay being green.


For Those Over 40, Higher Levels of BPA in Urine Linked To Obesity

For those over 40 years of age (including this author), a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found higher levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in urine are associated with obesity, abdominal fat and insulin resistance. The study looked at 3,390 Chinese adults over the age of 40, and concluded that BPA was positively associated with generalized obesity, abdominal obesity, and insulin resistance in middle-aged and elderly Chinese adults.

If you need some background on what is BPA, I’ve got a FAQ on it.

The study is consistent with other epidemiological studies which have shown links between BPA and metabolic disorders.  Because virtually all American adults have BPA in their bodies, this study suggests that BPA may pose a significant health risk. 

BPA is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic, so food and drink stored in polycarbonate plastic can result in exposure (think of those 5 gallon water bottles).   BPA is also used in the manufacture of epoxy resin linings for virtually all canned food and drink in the US – so to avoid BPA, skip canned foods. Think fresh, frozen, dried or jarred in glass over canned.  At least one study confirmed that you can reduce BPA dramatically by eliminating canned foods.  BPA is also used in the manufacture of certain thermal receipts, and can be absorbed through the skin.

Just one more reason to avoid BPA.

We’re killing birds with our bottle caps

I’ve blogged before about the horrific impact of disposable plastic on our oceans – from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to animals stuck in plastic soda rings. Well, now, we’ve got one more thing to consider – bottle caps. Yep, those plastic bottle caps are killing birds. Why? Because birds eat those plastic caps thinking they are food, and then starve when their bellies are too full of plastic things that aren’t food.  According to a recent article by the BBC,

“about one-third of all albatross chicks die on Midway, many as the result of being mistakenly fed plastic by their parents.”

Photographer Chris Jordan has been documenting birds on Midway Atoll (way out in the Pacific Ocean, near the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). And his images of the carcasses of baby birds with bellies full of plastic bottle caps will get you doing what you can to make sure those bottle caps don’t get swept into the ocean or any other plastic debris.  Five tons of plastic comes to the remote Midway Atoll every year – cast off and forgotten by us.

So, yet again, let’s take steps to eliminate disposable plastic. Switch to reusable grocery and produce bags. Use a reusable stainless steel bottle instead of buying bottled water. Buy items in bulk instead of single serve containers. Let’s keep in mind that plastic just doesn’t go away and our world is an interconnected web. Need more ideas? Check out Beth’s My Plastic-free Life.