Friday, September 26, 2008

Toxic phthalate news and avoidance tips

Phthalates, those pesky, hormone-disrupting plasticizers and fragrance disseminators, are getting under our skin, and new research continues to reveal how disruptive this may be to male reproductive development and virility.

Most recently, phthalates were found to impair the development of the testis in the human fetus, which could potentially harm male fertility in adulthood, according to a study published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives. In other recent studies, phthalates in breast milk were associated with changed levels of reproductive hormones in 3-month-old boy infants, and the chemicals were also linked to abnormal genital development in male infants.

Phthalates are found in most of our bodies, and, alarmingly, at their highest levels in children and in women of childbearing age, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s 2003 chemical body burdens study. Phthalates migrate readily out of plastics and personal care products and are prevalent in the environment.

“You can be exposed to low levels of phthalates through air, water, or food,” says Shanna Swan, Ph.D., principal researcher in the study of phthalates and genital development in humans, and director of the center for reproductive epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. How can we reduce our exposures? It’s simple, at least in principle.

1. Avoid personal care products, cosmetics, household cleaning products and air fresheners with “fragrance” in the ingredients list. Phthalates are used in synthetic fragrances. Buy only products whose ingredients lists specify that only plant essential oils and no synthetic fragrances are used. See Greenerpenny’s updated list of phthalate-free personal care product brands. Minimize the use of personal care products on newborns, infants and children. I will always be grateful to my son’s pediatrician, who said that you shouldn’t use soap, oils, lotions or powder on babies’ skin. “They don’t need it when they’re not crawling yet. Think about it. They don’t get dirty,” he said. “Just change the diaper frequently, and wash him in warm water.”

2. Avoid products made of PVC plastic, which is softened with phthalates. These include
many children’s products (toys, teethers,lunch boxes, school binders, raincoats, backpacks) and household decorative products (shower curtains, wallpaper, blinds) made of PVC.

3. Be aware of less avoidable exposures, but don’t panic.“You could be exposed by drinking water that contains phthalates, though it is not known how common that is,” writes Dr. Swan (if you are renovating, consider not using PVC water pipes). In addition, “Children can be exposed by breathing household dust that contains phthalates, or using IV tubing or other medical devices made with phthalates.” Health Care Without Harm has a campaign to get hospitals to stop using soft PVC medical devices and other toxins such as mercury.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Unclogging the drain without pain

Unclogging the drain without pain

Life is tough on drains, which get all choked up on sand, bits of grass, dirt, sunblock, shavings and worse. If it’s high time your drain took a breather, protect your health with a least-toxic, green product. Conventional cleaners are hugely toxic and dangerous. Swallowing or breathing the fumes of caustic drain cleaners can cause breathing difficulty, abdominal and throat pain, nausea, collapse and even death. They contain chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, also known as lye; and sodium hypochlorite, the active ingredient in chlorine bleach. Both of these substances can cause liquefactive necrosis, which, in crudest terms, means that your flesh melts away. (Think of the lye hand kiss in the movie Fight Club.) And if a drain cleaner can do that to your skin, imagine what it’s doing to sensitive fish and amphibians once it goes down the drain. (They can’t even be used in septic systems.) Furthermore, when combined with other common household chemicals such as ammonia, drain cleaners have been known to release toxic fumes or even explode. Adding insult to injury, when it comes to performance, Consumer Reports cautions against the use of conventional toxic drain cleaners due to their health risks, adding that they’re not much more effective than gentler bacteria-based cleaners or an old-fashioned plunger. Here are some greener, least-toxic remedies: In GreenerPenny’s opinion (and that of our apartment super, otherwise a hard-core chemical advocate), no drain remedy is as simple, effective, and eco-friendly as baking soda and vinegar. Pour one cup of baking soda down the drain followed by three cups of boiling water and one cup of warm white vinegar, and let the mixture bubble. If it doesn’t work, toss in the whole box of baking soda and more boiling water. If your pipes are especially old, narrow, or just prone to clogging, regular use of enzyme-based cleaners should keep things running smoothly. Cleaners such as Earth Enzymes and Bio-Flow contain live cultures of enzymes and bacteria that work to break down organic matter in your drains the same way bacteria in your stomach breaks down food. They’re safe to use in septic systems, safe to get on your skin, and actually smell rather pleasant. Think of them as yogurt for your pipes, bioactivated with live little critters to keep the plumbing smooth. Make either of the above part of your regular cleaning regimen, applying the mixtures as often as once a week, as preventive measures. Even if you’re temporarily out of enzymes, baking soda or white vinegar, dumping a pot of boiling water down the drain whenever you think of it will help melt away that schmutz. If you’ve got a mega-clog that won’t budge: Try CLR Power Plumber, a liquid drain cleaner that’s part of the EPA’s Design for the Environment program. It doesn’t have any lye, sulfuric acid, or flesh-melters of any kind, and works well on tough bottlenecks. And don’t neglect the plunger. This old stand-by of the bathroom arsenal works as well as the toxic cleaners on shallow clogs, though it does require some physical strength. But if even that fails, it’s time for the plumber's snake, also known as an auger or a drain snake, available at hardware stores. Consumer Reports lists their price at anywhere from $3 to $130 dollars, but as a professional plumber will likely use a snake, you may as well cut out the middleperson and do it yourself. Be sure to follow the directions carefully: basically you thread the coil down the drain until it can’t go any further, and then you pull it out and the less said about it, the better. If the snake fails, call a pro. You’ve earned it. Remember, prevention is the best medicine, as Treehugger confirms. Be considerate of your drain. Avoid pouring any kind of oil or grease down the kitchen sink, as these substances congeal in the pipes like fat in arteries. Cover the bathtub or shower drain with a drain sieve, available at any hardware store, to catch hair, and clear it daily. Drain cleaning can get pretty gross, but as this is a case where the wrong medicine can kill the patient, don’t compound the harm with caustic products. Household cleaning products swallowed by children are responsible for 10% of calls to poison control centers each year.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Water filters for a cool carefree drink

Water filters for a cool carefree drink

The season’s tropical storms can bring floods, and, as often follows, contaminated drinking water. And even in normal weather, as the New York Times recently reported, traces of pharmaceuticals such as pain relievers, antibiotics, and anti-depressants can be found in the water supply of 24 major cities.

While it’s more environmentally friendly to drink from the tap than buy bottled water, tap water can be purified and made more palatable with water filters, available in all price ranges. Before you invest in a filter, though, find out if you need one; learn what contaminants, if any, are in your water supply by calling your local water utility, or try You can also test your own taps for lead, particularly if your pipes are old.

There are many different filters available, ranging from simple Brita and Pur carafes to elaborate whole-house distillation and reverse osmosis filtration systems. What kind you choose depends on what contaminants you wish to remove and how much you want to spend. Consumer Reports has a guide that includes price ranges as well as pros and cons of each type.

A basic carbon filter, found in Brita and Pur systems, will eliminate lead, chlorine byproducts, some parasites, some pesticides, and some organic chemicals, but it won’t remove other heavy metals, arsenic or pathogens such as bacteria or other microorganisms. Faucet-mounted filters and countertop models also use a carbon filter, which must, in all cases, be changed at least once every three months. Under-counter systems, which attach directly to your water pipes and provide filtered water from a separate tap in your sink, only need changing twice a year, though they tend to be more expensive.

Avoid water filtration systems that use reverse osmosis or distillers, as these waste an enormous amount of water, energy and time.. Distilling water, for example, basically boils it until it becomes steam, which is then condensed back into water; a whole-house distillation system would increase energy use by 378 kilowatt hours per day. You can purify your water yourself by boiling it for 1 minute and then letting it cool, according to the U.S. EPA.

And while you’re at it, remember, it’s never too late to kick the bottled water habit. Bottled water is a $100 billion dollar industry in America, the country with both the best tap water quality and the highest per capita bottled water use in the world. Not only is it silly to pay for what you get for free in your own home, it’s also environmentally disasterous. Seventeen million barrels of oil were required in 2006 to produce the plastic for all those bottles, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the oil needed to transport the bottles to the drinkers. And as most of you know, some types of plastic bottles can leach chemicals into their contents, making your bottled water less healthy for you than tap.

GreenerPenny recommends reusable nontoxic bottles—click here for our list We also want to tell you about a nifty new idea, a water-filtering sports bottle by Water Geeks It’s made of BPA-free plastic and comes with a carbon filter built right into the lid, good for three months. Although there aren’t any toxins in our tap water, the Water Geeks bottle took away some slight chemical undertones and made the water taste great. Unfortunately, the filter makes it a bit difficult to draw water out of the bottle, so while it’s okay for sitting and sipping, you might be frustrated if you really need to hydrate, fast and easy, on the go. Still, a handy item to have on hand for emergencies, the sort of thing Katherine Hepburn might have whipped out of her carpet bag on the deck of The African Queen.

Certain ideas in this current green revolution have reached the tipping point and become decidedly mainstream: eschewing plastic bags for bring-along reuseable cloth totes at the grocery store; organic food and farmers markets; Jack Johnson. And now, buying less water in disposable bottles. There’s still a long way to go, but every day, strides are being made toward a more sustainable world.

Please tell your friends to check out, and send us your questions and ideas!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Green Budget Living: Food

As costs of raw materials and fuel rise, the food industry is making shoppers pay. We’re facing ever-higher grocery prices, and some manufacturers are compounding the injury by employing sleight of hand. Perhaps you’ve noticed some peanut butter, orange juice and mayonnaise for sale in slightly smaller containers, at the same price you paid for the larger ones. For more examples, check out

Meanwhile, Whole Foods supermarket stock has fallen, due, in part, to the perception that sustainably produced food is too expensive in this weak economy. That’s the myth. In reality, many organic and locally grown foods are priced competitively. At farmers’ markets, which require that foods come from farms no farther away than a hundred-odd miles, portions and prices tend to err on the side of generosity. A study by an economics professor at Seattle University, reports the Seattle Times, found that farmers' market produce was slightly less expensive, on average, pound for pound, than its supermarket counterparts.

Certainly, if one eats local in season, one can discover the same thing for oneself. And what a pleasure! For four weeks, I’ve been eating perfectly sun-ripened golden apricots and delectable white “donut” peaches from Redjacket Orchards at our local New York City farmers’ market; the price for both is $5 a heaping quart, or a little over 2 lbs. At the supermarket down the block, which thankfully sources some local foods, the same apricots and peaches are $6 for less than a pound and half (1.3 lbs), while hard California peaches cost the same as ripe local ones. An added benefit: Red Jacket uses integrated pest management, which relies on beneficial insects to control pests and allows pesticides only as a last resort. Conventional peaches have the highest dangerous pesticide residues of any crop, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

More price comparisons: Underripe Washington State apricots, flown 2,500miles, are twice the price of local, at $5/ lb. Blueberries, now in season at the greenmarket, are $3 for an overflowing pint, and $3.99 for a flat-top pint in most supermarkets.

Following are some tips for eating healthily and economically.

1. Save money and eat better by buying local

In a recent example of how consumer demand is steering the economy, Wal-mart just committed to buying $400 million worth of local foods. On average, non-local food travels 1640 kilometers from farm to store. That’s a lot of fuel burned and carbon emitted. Now, in peak harvest season, free your diet from the weight of these greenhouse gases by shopping at the farmers’ market and buying local produce when it appears in supermarkets. To find a farmers’ market near you, type in your zip code at

2. Buy organic when you can afford it.

Organic is not always more expensive. Wal-mart continues its commitment to buying organic, which you can also find in Costco. In the frozen meals section, Amy’s organic meals are priced in the same range as Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine and other conventional brands, from $3.99- $4.99 a box. We buy organic tofu for half the price in our neighborhood Whole Foods as in our conventional supermarket. Plus, organic is posed to be priced ever more competitively because it uses less petrochemical inputs dependent on the price of oil.

When organic is more expensive, be selective. Buy it where it matters, in the types of produce that, if conventionally produced, carry the most dangerous pesticide residues. Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines and strawberries top EWG’s list of foods better bought organic. Download the full list and handy wallet card at

3. Buy whole, not processed, foods. When you do buy processed foods, doublecheck how many ounces you’re getting for the price.

4. Eat less red meat. Sources of protein such as tofu and beans are generally 30-40 percent cheaper than animal products. Replace at least one red meat meal a week with an all-vegetarian meal. And a study published this April found that , on average, red meat is around 150% more greenhouse-gas-intensive than chicken or fish. For the full study, click here.

5. Clip “green” coupons online and pick up and use fliers at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and your local co-op and health food stores.

6. Make your own cookies, cakes and pies. And, make hay (and preserve fruits and tomatoes) while the sun shines!