Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Less-Toxic Life List

Reading Deanna Duke’s book The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You has made me look much more carefully at the things that I do and the products I buy for my family.  It’s not realistic for me to think that we will be able to eliminate our exposure to questionable chemicals, but we can focus on reducing that exposure.  Hopefully our bodies can battle the toxins we do take in more easily on their own, if they’re not being completely bombarded with them.  As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, it’s a case of “pick your battles”.  Well, these are the battles I decided to pick…

First, a pat on the back for things that we already do:

Keep lots of houseplants-plants do an amazing job of purifying the air, naturally.  Apparently, they can help filter the air up to 100% over 24 hours in a closed environment, if you have enough of them.  But you DO have to remember to give them water so that they don’t die.  Damn.

Use stainless steel cookware-we invested a few years ago in a nice collection of All-Clad pots and pans.  We love them and now can feel especially good about the fact that they aren’t poisoning us every time we cook a meal.

Use Apple computer products-because of its lack of restricted chemicals like lead, mercury and arsenic (which many computers contain…yuck), PVC-free components, and long battery charge, Apple’s computers are far safer than their competitors.

NO antibacterial soap or cleaners-use natural, handcrafted soap.  Antibacterial soap is Evil.  It’s full of Triclosan, which is not only really bad for fish and other wildlife, but gets stored in the body long term and is linked to endocrine abnormalities, immune-system weakening and cancer.   It’s also usually loaded with synthetic fragrance, which contains phthalates and neurotoxins.

Eat organic-we don’t eat all organic food, but we try to choose the organic or natural options whenever possible.   For produce, I put special focus on avoiding the non-organic versions of items that are known to carry the most pesticides, and buying the ones that usually have less.  Having said that, if my kids are having a snack at a friend’s house and have to choose between a non-organic apple and a candy bar, I hope they choose the apple. 

Starting down the road to a less toxic life:

No more nonstick cookware-we don’t have much of it, but what we do have is going away.  This stuff is loaded with nasty chemicals and has a tendency to flake off after repeated use, so you basically end up eating Teflon chunks.  It’s gross and definitely not good for you.  For example, my husband will be getting this stainless steel bowl rice cooker for the holidays, to replace the non-stick one we currently have.  Shhh, don’t tell him.

Wash my hands more-as if the normal reasons for washing your hands weren’t enough, now I’m aware of the fact that most paper printed with thermal printer ink (like cash machine and register receipts) is full of BPA, which rubs off onto your hands, seeps into your skin and follows you wherever you go.  Cashiers often have extremely high levels of BPA in their blood.  If my kids ever get a job at 7-11, they’re wearing gloves to work.

Shop online more-one of things that’s most difficult for me in trying to be a chemical watchdog for my family is that there are so many to keep track of.  I use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to look up information on specific products, but if I don’t plan ahead and bring a list with me when I shop in stores, I can never remember all the chemicals that should be avoided.  If you shop online, it’s much easier to look up that information because you’re sitting at your computer already.

Bring a cheat sheet-some things I just won’t buy online, so I’m going to carry a list in my wallet of the most heinous and pervasive chemicals…and the many different names they go by.  Hopefully this will help me to make better choices when I shop.

No plastic in the microwave-I know this is not new information, but the book really reinforced for me the importance of heating food in containers made from glass or metal, since the chemicals in plastic leach so easily into the food, especially at higher temperatures.  I’ve let it slip in the past, but won’t any more.

Be  less American-by this, I mean buy the European versions of products, if possible.  The EU has much stricter laws regarding questionable chemicals, where the burden is on corporations to prove that an ingredient is safe before it goes into the product.  Many American companies offer European versions of the same popular brands they sell here, only without the garbage in them.  Why don’t they just sell them in the US since they’ve already spent money on reformulating the recipes, you ask?  Probably because they’re afraid of appearing culpable and being sued if/when people get sick or have reactions to the American versions.  If they change the formulas, it implies that they contained something bad in the first place.   Sheesh.

Be strong, mom-I vow to buckle less under the whining pressure of my children when they ask to buy crappy chemical-laced, un-naturally colored, heavily fragranced or highly processed consumables.  Or better yet, I’ll just try not to take them to the store with me in the first place.

The harder changes to swallow:

Electronics-there’s a high likelihood that living in a world filled with electronics and high-voltage transients (dirty electricity) could affect our bodies on a cellular level.  If you think about it, these high frequency technologies (like in microwave ovens, cell phones & wi-fi ) are pretty new.  They’ve all become common within my own lifetime.  Time has not yet tested how our bodies can process and adapt to this widespread electromagnetic exposure.  It’s really scary.  But I also value electronics and feel like the positive impact they have on my life in other ways is very significant.  Even if I were to give up electronics and “go Amish”, my neighbors would still have wi-fi.  There’s really no escaping it.

Plastics, in general-we’ve been trying to transition away from plastics over the past few years, but it’s not easy.  I’m thankful for stainless steel and glass containers for storing and reheating food, but plastic is literally everywhere.  I will not take my daughter’s Polly Pocket dolls away from her, but I will make sure that she does not put them in her mouth…or in the microwave.

REI am in trouble-I am from the Northwest, and I do love the outdoors and all the gear that goes with it.  Apparently, water repellant sprays and fabrics that are wrinkle-resistant or weather resistant like Gore-Tex are full of nasties.  And fleece…I love fleece (sigh).  These fabrics contain Teflon, off-gas PVCs, or are full of PTFEs to keep things from sticking to them (like rain).  Seriously?  You mean I might actually have to carry an umbrella in Seattle?  This one is going to be difficult.  Camping in wool is just not an option for us.

The biggest overall change will come from being better informed and more aware of the hazards in many products.  Choices will have to be made, but at least I have a better understanding now of the issues involved.  What things might you try to change, to lead a less toxic life?


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Non-Toxic Avenger

I just finished reading an excellent book called The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You, by Deanna Duke, an environmental writer, blogger, wife and mother.  The book will simultaneously educate, motivate and scare the wrinkle-resistant pants off of you.

It documents how, one awful week in 2007 Deanna's family received two earth-shaking bits of news: her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (high-functioning autism) and her husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (an often fatal form of leukemia). These diagnoses triggered an array of questions about what caused the two conditions and whether or not exposure to environmental toxins could be a culprit.  Her questions led to reading books, research articles, and more questions, until she decided to do some investigating on her own.  Are the levels of toxins that we, as Americans, are exposed to every day making us sick?  Is a little bit OK?  Where does the line get crossed? 

“Many companies and individuals representing the chemical industry argue that small doses of potential toxins like parabens and phthalates and polyethylene glycols (PEGs) don’t hurt the human body, that we are capable of processing them and ridding them from our systems.  That is true to some degree, but given the fact that there are so many products that contain a maelstrom of chemical ingredients, with some estimates that the average American uses upward of 10 products a day, it begins to add up.  And your body has to work that much harder to “process” all those chemicals.  With multiple parabens and phthalates in each product, sometimes applied multiple times a day, your body is working full-time to eliminate them.  And then those small doses aren’t negligible anymore.”

Deanna felt that a scientific approach would be the best way to get more information, so she made herself a guinea pig, of sorts.  At that time she was living the life of an environmentally-minded and generally uncontaminated person, choosing organic food for her family and trying to buy (or make) natural products that were not laced with chemicals, whenever possible.  To gather the necessary data for her research, she stopped doing that.  Instead, she ate the common foods that an average American eats and she used personal care products that the average American would.  Her plan was to let her body simulate the amount of chemicals that most Americans would have in their systems (the toxic body burden), get a complete round of blood work and testing done to find out what those “common” levels are, then go cold turkey off of all toxins…and see how long it would take for her body to become clean again.  Luckily for us, she documented this journey in a book.

The book itself is very well written, giving us background on her family’s medical challenges and her motivation for finding out more about environmental toxins, then getting into the nitty gritty of the data gathering phase of the research.  She’s a very funny writer and this comes out in the book.  I laughed out loud on several occasions.  Deanna does a good job of trying to make the information in the book accessible for an average person.  She knows that the lifestyle choices that would need to be made in order to reduce toxic exposure have to be reasonable and achievable, or else no one will bother to do it.  She pokes fun at herself a lot when she talks about some of the more extreme anti-toxin choices she had to make during the second phase of the project.  She refers to herself as the “crazy lady” on several occasions.   She’s not crazy, but she is thorough. 

I won’t go into many of the details in the book, because frankly, you should buy it and read it for yourself.  It’s so full of information, that it can be overwhelming.  The questionable chemicals in every aspect of our daily lives are so numerous and pervasive that it’s hard to imagine removing enough of them to actually make a difference.   It was hard not to get discouraged, mostly when trying to imagine how to convince people like my sixth grade son, who keeps pestering me to buy toxic bombs like Axe Body Wash, that we should eliminate many heavily marketed or established products from our household repertoire.   Ultimately, I took comfort in Deanna’s statement that “It’s about striking a balance between the risks of the problem and the risks of the solution.”  To me, this is a variation on the parental axiom: pick your battles

One major question that I had, which Deanna did address extensively in the book, was regarding the performance of eco-friendly, non-toxic products vs. chemical-laced conventional ones.  She struggled with finding effective substitutes for some toxic items like mold fighting cleaners, dishwashing liquid, deodorants and drain cleaners.  Happily, she mentions many specific products that she either likes or dislikes (and why) so I have much less research to do on my own now.  

I recommend reading this book with a pencil in hand and a hefty pad of post-it markers so that you can refer back to the details at a later date. It's worth your time, because being uninformed can kill you too.

Follow-up post: My Less-Toxic Life

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Colorful Crayon Foliage

Beautiful Fall leaves are the inspiration for this fun and easy kid project. These would make great table decorations or place cards for your Thanksgiving dinner this week. 

All you need is a colorful collection of crayons, waxed paper, paper towels, scissors, and iron and ironing board.  The colors shown in these photos are perfect for Autumn, but this is a great project for any season.  It's also a great way to use up broken or scrap crayons that are too small to comfortably hold in your hand and usually end up in the garbage or getting sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

First, using a crayon sharpener or cheese grater,  make crayon shavings in a variety of colors.

Kids love this part of the project, because they're usually obsessed with sharpening things and this is a great excuse to do LOTS of it...and end up with a very satisfying pile of colorful shavings.

On your ironing board, place one sheet of waxed paper and distribute your crayon shavings over the top.  Place another sheet of waxed paper on top of that, followed by a piece of paper towel (so that the wax from the paper doesn't melt onto your iron).  Iron the waxed paper and crayon shavings on low heat until they are all melted.

At this point, you could cut leaf shapes freehand, or you could use an actual leaf as a template to cut out your colorful waxed paper.

See!  Beautiful!  

Have a great Thanksgiving!

All images courtesy of Britt McCombs