Back to School with Microban?

This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival on Back to School. Be sure to go check out the round up post at Mindful Momma with lots of ideas on going back to school – in green style.

My take on going back to school is pretty close to my good friend Lynn at OrganicMania. You can avoid back to school shopping by remembering to repurpose and reuse. I try to limit new purchases – although the reusable lunch sacks do get pretty worn out each year. So my kids get one new item each year. And I try to purchase with purpose – we don’t even get our class lists until after school starts, so I refuse to buy anything until I know exactly what my kids actually need.

But, that doesn’t mean I haven’t looked at the back to school merchandise when shopping. And boy,  has the use of Microban technologies in school supplies proliferated this year! If you aren’t aware, Microban is a broad range of antimicrobial technologies that are designed to protect products from microbes. Microban technologies do not protect the user of the product from disease causing microorganisms (if Microban International was making such claims, it would be subject to certain regulatory requirements and would have to have proof to support the claims).  Microban technologies are built into the product during the manufacturing process.

What is actually used in the particular Microban technology in a particular product is difficult to discern. It is generally understood that Microban in plastic includes triclosan, a chemical many of us are trying to avoid. But you don’t know for sure. Microban has many different technologies it is using now, including zinc and silver technologies, so the average consumer can’t really tell what formulation is being used in any particular product.

But what is being used begs the question. Why exactly do we need Microban technologies in our binders and other school supplies? It seems like a completely unnecessary use of a chemical. If I need disease prevention, then I should be wiping down the binder and encouraging my children to wash their hands. The Microban technology added to it isn’t going to protect my child from disease – good old handwashing with warm water and soap will do that.

So why the heck are we seeing Microban technologies added to so many products? Because we seem to have a fear of microbes. A completely unnatural fear of microbes. And we think the solution is some antibacterial germ killing chemical, when all we really need to do is wash our hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, rubbing vigorously. That’s it. And it doesn’t take antibacterial soap or antibacterial products.

So how about for back to school we skip the Microban technologies and send our kids to school with some castile liquid soap?


Celebrity Green – Healthy Kids in a Toxic World Panel at Pregnancy Awareness Month Event a Success

anna getty, kelly rutherford, josie moranI had a fabulous weekend. I got to attend, Without children, and speak the 2nd annual Pregnancy Awareness Month (PAM) kick off event, Motherhood Begins Now, on May 2, 2009. I also got to meet some people I have only communicated with via the Internet, which is always a pleasure.

The event was hosted by holistic lifestyle expert Anna Getty, actress Josie Maran, actress Kelly Rutherford, and actress Ricki Lake. I didn’t ever see Ricki Lake, but did see Kelly Rutherford. I had the pleasure of meeting Josie Maran, and being on a panel with our fabulous hostess and the founder of PAM, Anna Getty.  (Photo courtesy of Jason Meritt / Getty Image North America; from left, Anna Getty, Kelly Rutherford and Josie Moran).

The event had perfect weather, despite predictions of rain. Not a raindrop to be seen.  It was wonderful to see so many moms to be, moms and even a few dads (such as Jason Priestley) interested in going green and non toxic. The kids had a great time in the Kids Area sponsored by the Hot Moms Club. Also in the kids area was local eco-kids, with the company’s fabulous eco-dough and eco-paint. My kids love the products, and if you aren’t going to make your own playdough or paint, you might want to try these eco-friendly, non toxic (in the true sense of that word) versions, in eco-friendly packaging.

The event featured a great organic lunch from O Organics and celebrity chef Domenica Catelli. Who has been on Iron Chef America, which I love. So that was very cool.

I was thrilled to find out that O Organics is no longer limited to the Safeway / Vons stores, but will soon be coming to a grocery store near you. The certified USDA organic O Organics products are a good pricepoint with a great taste – we’ve eaten them for a couple of years now. My only criticism is that the packaging could be much more green – who wants organic catsup in a plastic container?

 My panel was “Raising Healthy Kids in a Toxic World.” A great topic! The panelists included me, Anna, Christopher healthy kids panelGavigan, CEO of my favorite organization, Healthy Child Healthy World and author of the book by the same name (now out in paperback), pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene (he of the perfect name and author of Raising Baby Green) and Kimberly Walls, founder of Epicuren Baby Skincare. (Photo courtesy of Jason Meritt, Getty Images North American; from left Kimberly, me, Christopher, Dr. Greene and Anna).

We started the panel by discussing the presence of chemicals in our environment, how we are exposed, that we carry a body burden, and that the placenta does not prevent the transfer. We then offered simple solutions for every parent and parent to be to reduce or eliminate toxic chemical exposures:

  • Take off shoes to reduce exosure to heavy metals and pesticides by as much as 65%;

  • Eat healthy and organic to reduce pesticide exposure and help the planet;

  • Green the cleaning supplies to reduce exposure to carcinogens, allergens and reproductive toxicants;

  • Green personal care products, particuarly to reduce exposure to hormone disrupting phthalates found often in synthetic fragrance; and

  • Skip conventional chemical pesticides.

Kimberly Walls is a woman after my heart, being passionate about scent and labeling of personal care products. We talked a bit about the problems with labeling, and how consumers are misled by marketing claims, including baby care products.

The panel seemed to short to me, but then I can discuss toxic chemical exposures all day long.

Here’s the unique URL for this post.


How healthy & non toxic is your child’s school? National Healthy Schools Day

This is a guest post from one of my favorite people, Janelle Sorensen.  Janelle is the Senior Writer and Health Consultant for Healthy Child Healthy World. You can also find her on Twitter as @greenandhealthy. 
classroomWhen my husband and I first toured schools to find the one we wanted to enroll our daughter in, I’m sure I was silently voted one of the strangest parents ever. Why do I feel I was secretly endowed with this title? Because every room and hallway we were taken through, I sniffed. A lot. And, according to my husband, I wasn’t terribly discreet. 
I didn’t have a cold or postnasal drip. And, I’m not part bloodhound. I was simply concerned about the indoor air quality. My daughter was (and still is) prone to respiratory illnesses and I wanted to be sure the school she would be attending would support and protect her growing lungs (in addition to her brain). For many air quality issues, your nose knows, so I was using the easiest tool I had to gauge how healthy the environment was. 
While air quality is a significant issue in schools (the EPA estimates that at least half of our nation’s 120,000 schools have problems), parents are also increasingly concerned about other school health issues like nutrition and the use of toxic pesticides. Many schools are making the switch to healthier and more sustainable practices like green cleaning, least toxic pest management, and even school gardening. What they’re finding is that greening their school improves the health and performance of students and personnel, saves money (from using less energy, buying fewer products, and having fewer worker injuries among other things), and also helps protect the planet. It’s truly win, win, win. 
To highlight the issue, the Healthy Schools Network coordinates National Healthy Schools Day. This year, over three dozen events will be held across the country (and more in Canada) on April 27th to promote and celebrate healthy school environments. 

With April 27th just around the corner, what can you do? Healthy Schools Network recommends simple activities such as:

  • Adopting Guiding Principles of School Environmental Quality as a policy for your School;
  • Distributing information related to Green Cleaning or Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
  • Writing a letter or visiting your Principal or Facility Director to ask about cleaning products or pest control products; 
  • Walking around your school: looking for water stains, cracks in outside walls, broken windows or steps, and overflowing dumpsters that are health & safety problems that need attention. Use this checklist
  • Writing a Letter to the Editor of your local paper on the importance of a healthy school to all children and personnel.

You can also help support the efforts of states trying to pass policies requiring schools to use safer cleaners. (Or, initiate your own effort!) There are good bills pending in Connecticut, Minnesota, California, Massachusetts, and Oregon. According to Claire Barnett, Executive Director of the Healthy Schools Network, the key pieces to promote on green cleaning in schools are: 

  • Not being fooled by ‘green washing’ claims—commercial products must be third-party certified as green (to verify claims);
  • Understanding that green products are cost-neutral and they work; and,
  • Learning that “Clean doesn’t have an odor.”

  She encourages parents and personnel to tune into one of the archived webinars on green cleaning (like the first module for general audiences). The fact of the matter is that whether you’re concerned about the quality of food, cleaning chemicals, recycling, or energy use – schools need our help and support.  Instead of complaining about what’s wrong, it’s time to help do what’s right – for our children, our schools, and our planet.    


What are you going to do? There are so many ideas and resources. Find your passion and get active on April 27th – National Healthy Schools Day. 

Additional Resources: 

And, a note from TheSmartMama, you may also want to use The Everything Green Classroom Book as a great teacher gift!  Also, check out some of my related posts:  asbestos in schools, getting rid of PVC in school supplies and lead in school drinking water supplies

Reducing the Kids’ Risk of Arsenic Exposure from Treated Decks and Play Structures

skull and crossbonesReuters UK published an article the other day that a recent study that found a strong link between arsenic and adult-onset diabetes.  The article identifies arsenic in drinking water as the primary source of exposure for adults.  But, it got me thinking about arsenic and the risk of exposure for children, especially as our children go back to school.  So, I thought that re-visiting the topic was a good idea for a blog. 

Arsenic is naturally occurring.  It is probably most infamous because it is an odorless, tasteless, colorless poison that can be readily dissolved in any drink.  It is used in lots of mysteries, although a heavy dose is detectable in a dead body so it isn’t the perfect poison.  A better mystery is the slow poisoning, such as lacing arsenic in powdered sugar doughnuts (anybody flash back to the Flowers in the Attic series?). 

Arsenic is a carcinogen found in groundwater.  We are exposed to arsenic in our drinking water.  The water consumed by 13 million Americans has arsenic present in excess of the drinking water standard, primarily in rural areas. 

But, our kids can also be exposed to arsenic via arsenic treated wood in decks and playgrounds.  Yes, we used arsenic (actually, chromated copper arsenate or CCA) as a preservative for outdoor wood for a number of years.  The EPA banned the manufacture and sale of arsenic-treated wood for most uses in 2004.  But, wood decks and kids’ play sets built before 2004 most often contain arsenic.  70% of the homes in the US are estimated to have arsenic treated structures, and 14% of public children’s playgrounds are estimated to have arsenic-treated wood. 

If you have a wood deck or any outdoor wood structures, or if your school or daycare has any such structure, there is a risk that your kids might be exposed.  Kids can ingest arsenic transferred from when they touch treated wood or nearby soils.  Arsenic exposure is by ingestion – not simply skin exposure.  But kids can certainly become exposed if they place their hands in their mouths after touching arsenic treated wood. 

To understand what to look for, check out this video. If you want to test your wood, or have your school or daycare test its wood, you can order a test kit from the Environmental Working Group.  (Or, you can have me come and do a Healthy Home visit and use my Niton XRF analyzer to test for arsenic, as well as lead, cadmium, chromium, bromine as a measure of flame retardants, etc.  I recently tested the deck and soils of some potted fruits and vegetables on the deck for a client – and we determined that the side walls of the deck were treated and had arsenic, but the soils were clean.) 

If you do have a wood deck from 2004 or before, or an older kids play set, you can take precautions to reduce the potential exposure and protect your kids. 

Smart Mama’s Simple Steps to reduce exposure from arsenic-treated wood: 

  1. Wash hands!  It seems like washing hands is always recommended to reduce chemical exposures, from arsenic to lead.  According to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, washing with soap and water removes arsenic from the hands and reduces risk.  The study found that the wash water from children washing their hands after playing on arsenic treated wood had arsenic levels 400% greater than the arsenic levels in wash water from children playing on other structures.  To wash, use a liquid or bar castile soap and wash for 20 seconds.
  2. Seal regularly.  Seal the wood regularly using a non-toxic, water-based paint or sealer.
  3. Replace high traffic areas.  Replacing the entire structure or play yard may be too expensive or impractical, but perhaps you can replace the frequently handled areas, such as handrails.
  4. Skip pressure washing.  As much as your husband may love his pressure washer, don’t use it on arsenic-treated wood as this may result in the release of arsenic from the wood.  If you need to clean, do it gently with liquid castile soap and water, not harsh detergents.  And don’t sand arsenic treated wood – you’ll release arsenic-contaminated dust.
  5. Watch the dirt.  Nearby soils may become contaminated, particularly if they are located where water runoff drains.  Consider making this area inaccessible to children with some bushes, and don’t use for planting edibles.

LEAD: Could your child be going back to school with lead in her lunchbox?

Your child’s lunch box could contain lead, a highly toxic metal.  Lead is used to stabilize some polyvinyl chloride plastic (“PVC”).  PVC is used as a liner in some lunchboxes and soft lunchboxes may be made out of PVC.  As a result, your child could be exposed to lead. 

Lead is known to be harmful to children even in relatively small amounts and it can impair brain development and cause other behavioral and developmental problems.

Power Rangers Lunch BoxThe Center for Environmental Health (“CEH”), a nonprofit environmental organization, reported it found lead in the PVC plastic of several lunchboxes it tested in 2005.  Following the release of CEH’s findings, and the lawsuits it filed, several states issued recalls for soft insulated lunch boxes.  In its August 2006 magazine, Consumer Reports (“CR”) reported that a CR staffer visited two New York-area stores and found lunch boxes from the companies mentioned in a recall.  CR’s tests found that the boxes contained lead.  In lunch boxes tested by CR, the PVC plastic linings contained fairly high levels of lead, and CR’s tests confirmed that some of this lead can transfer in small amounts to hands and to unwrapped food stored inside.

CEH found the highest lead levels CEH found were in the lining of lunch boxes, where lead could come into direct contact with food.  This is consistent with the test results reported by CR.   As a result, children may be exposed to lead when they eat food that has been stored in the lunch boxes.  They may also be exposed as a result of handling the lunchboxes just before eating.

However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a public statement asserting that PVC lunch boxes are safe.  The CPSC’s website reports that it found no accessible levels after testing 60 lunch boxes. 

But the CPSC’s results have been criticized.  According to documents the Associated Press obtained, two types of tests were performed.  The first involved cutting a chunk of vinyl from the lunchbox, dissolving it and then analyzing how much lead is in the solution.  The second involved swiping the surface and then determining how much lead has rubbed off.

The results of the first type of test, looking for the actual lead content of the vinyl, showed that 20 percent of the bags had more than 600 parts per million of lead, the federal safe level for paint and other coatings. The highest level was 9,600 ppm, more than 16 times the federal standard.

But the CPSC did not use those results.  Instead, the CPSC focused exclusively on how much lead came off a lunch box’s surface when swiped.  For the swipe tests, the results were lower, especially after the researchers changed their testing protocol. After a handful of tests, they increased the number of times they swiped each bag, again and again on the same spot, resulting in lower average results.

As reported by the Associated Press, an in-house e-mail from the director of the CPSC’s chemistry division explained that CPSC re-tested with the new protocol “which gave a lower average result than the prior report … ,” he wrote. “This shows … that the overall risk is lower than our original testing would have showed, as the amount of lead dislodgeable is mostly taken out with the first wipe and goes down with subsequent wipes.”

CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese explained it this way: “The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find. With fewer wipes, we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic.”

Using the lunch boxes should not result in a high enough exposure to cause severe lead poisoning.  However, the cumulative exposure, especially when coupled with the likely exposure to lead from many other sources, could result in the accumulation of lead in children’s bodies sufficient enough to cause problems. 

Smart Mama’s Simple Steps:

Replace any vinyl lunch boxes.  Consider replacing your child’s lunch box with a reusable nylon bag or some other material. 

Wash hands!  Don’t forget to remind your children to routinely wash their hands to reduce the transfer of germs but also to reduce their exposure to lead.