Monday, May 17, 2010

Phthalates in food: to avoid 'em, choose organic

Phthalates in Food: To avoid ‘em, choose organic

GreenerPenny aims to keep you posted about how to avoid phthalates, chemicals that have been found to interfere with the body's hormones, lower children's IQ, and even cause childhood behavioral problems. New studies have found associations between high phthalate levels and lower IQ scores and behavioral problems. There's no hard evidence that phthalates actually cause these problems, but nevertheless, scary stuff!These sneaky chemicals crop up on products made with vinyl, like shower curtains, tile flooringand some plastic cling wraps used on food, and anything that's artificially fragranced—shampoos, lotions, laundry detergents. So avoiding those products and storing food in glass or stainless steel containers should, in theory, keep you and your home free of phthalates.

But phthalates may, it turns out, be lurking in your refrigerator, in conventional produce and poultry. In a new study published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives, Justin Colacino, a grad student from the University of Michigan, used data from the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to collect information about levels of phthalates in people's urine and what they ate. He found that people who ate poultry had some of the highest levels of phthalates in their bodies, and also that eating a lot of fresh produce, particularly potatoes and tomatoes, was associated with high phthalate levels.

A second study published this month in a journal called Abstracts of Environmental Research offers more evidence that our food may be contaminated with these chemicals. This study was relatively small and involved sending 25 adults to live in a Buddhist temple in Korea for five days (Koreans, the authors write, have even higher levels of phthalates in their bodies than Americans do). Before the study started, they were asked to recall everything they ate for 48 hours, and their urine levels were tested for phthalates. The researchers noted that eating a lot of dairy was associated with high levels of phthalates. Then, for five days, the adults at a vegetarian diet, at the end of which their urine was tested and phthalate levels measured a second time. There was a marked drop in the levels of phthalates in people's bodies after the five days.

Neither study was very clear as to how these chemicals are making their way into our food. (In the Korean study, the authors didn't specify whether their "vegetarian diet" included dairy and they didn't say whether the adults were exposed to personal care or cleaning products that contained phthalates, so their results may have overestimated food as a source of phthalate exposure). However, Colacino writes that phthalates are used in many pesticides, and because they bypass wastewater treatment plants, phthalates can end up in sewage sludge, which is used to fertilize conventional crops. The pesticides and sewage sludge are used on the vegetables we eat and on the corn that's fed to cows and chicken.

No study should deter people from eating a healthy diet that includes fresh vegetables, even if this produce contains phthalates, but you can cut down on your exposure to phthalate-contaminated pesticides and sewage sludge with one simple shopping tip: buy organic.

• Pesticides and sewage sludge aren't used by organic farmers, so you can at least be sure that your tomatoes and potatoes won't have as high levels of phthalates as their conventional counterparts; potatoes, by the way, are on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list for having some of the highest levels of pesticide residues.

• Don't rely on "certified pesticide free" labels that are cropping up on grocery store produce. Those aren't verified by any independent third parties and they also don't guarantee your produce wasn't grown in phthalate-laden sludge.

• Buy local. Organic produce can be expensive, but it's farmer's market season! Now's the time to find a local farmer who grows food organically, whether it's certified organic or not, and stock up. And let your freezer be your best friend. Learn how to freeze vegetables (it's so easy a Caveman can do it!) so you can eat local and organic throughout the winter without making too big of a dent in your wallet.

--by Emily Main

For further info:

The IQ study appeared in March:

The behavior study was in January of this year:

Top Green Sunscreens 2010

Here’s Greenerpenny’s newly updated, 2010 Sun Products Short List of least-toxic, full-spectrum UV blockers.
Here's my practical tip for surfers and other water babies out in the summer sun, wind & waves: Use what works. For me, that means a mix of pure green, like California Baby pure mineral block, and a runner-up that really stays on, like Shiseido's sunblocking foundation for faces. Both below.
When it comes to sun protection, no one has to be perfectly green.
I also try to surf early or late in the day, outside the window of the sun's strongest UV rays, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.


Top Picks

These mineral-based products block both UVA and UVB rays, and are free of toxic/ irritating synthetic sunscreen chemicals*.

Alba Botanica Sun Mineral Kids/ Fragrance Free, SPF 30
, Z, T, H, A, Nn
Badger SPF 30 + Sunscreen and All Season Face Stick, Z, H, F, CO, Nn
California Baby SPF 30 No Fragrance face stick or lotion, T, H, F, Nn
Loving Naturals Organic SPF 30, Z, H, F, CO, Nn
Purple Prairie Botanicals SPF 30 Sun Stuff or Sun Stick, Z, H, F, CO, Nn, http: //
Think Baby and Think Sport SPF 30+, Z, H, F, Nn
Goddess Garden Kids SPF 30+, Z, T, H, F, CO,
Heiko Kids SPF 40, Z, H, NS,
UV Natural Sunscreen, Sport SPF 30+, Z, H, F, Nn,
Elemental Herbs Kids Natural Broad Spectrum SPF 20, Z, F, Nn,
Mexitan SPF 50, Z, T, H, F,
Miessence Reflect Outdoor Balm, SPF 29.5, Z, NC, CO, Nn,
Erbaviva Children’s Sunscreen SPF 15, T, F, CO,
Nature’s Gate Mineral Sunblock/ Sport Block, SPF 20, T, Z, A, http://
Jason Natural Cosmetics Earth’s Best Organic Sunblock, Mineral Based/ Chemical Free SPF 30+, T,Z, NC,
John Masters Organics SPF 30 mineral sunscreen, T,Z, CO, Nn,NC,
Kasia Good Day Sunshine SPF 30, Z, T, H, F,
Lavera Sunscreen Neutral SPF 40, T, NC,
Soleo Organics Chemical Free Sunscreen SPF 30+, Z, H, NC, Nn,
Tru Kid Sunny Days Face & Body Stick SPF 30+, Z, T, H, NC,

Everyday (not beach or sport) Sun Protection

Keys Soap Solar Rx Therapeutic SunblockSPF 30, Z, H, F; manufacturer notes product is not waterproof nor designed for coverage during active sports/perspiration. Its zinc particles are smaller than 100 nm, per EWG.


The following are free of BP-3, but have other ingredients of concern.

Aubrey Organics Natural Sunscreens SPF 20-25, T, F, (padimate-O) Avalon Baby Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 18, T, F (peg-100 stearate)
Banana Boat Kids SPF 50, T, Z, NS, (octinoxate, homosalate)
Blue Lizard Sunscreen Sensitive/ Baby SPF 30+, T, Z, H, NS, (parabens)
Burt’s Bees Chemical Free Sunscreen SPF 30, T, NC, (“fragrance”)
Kiss My Face SPF 30 Face Factor/ Oat Protein, T, NC (avobenzone, octinoxate)
Mustela SPF 50, T, Z, H, NS,
Neutrogena Sunblock/ Stick SPF 60 and Pure and Free Baby Sunblock/Stick, T, Z, H, NS (peg-100 stearate, polyethylene, BHT)
Shiseido Sun Protection Stick Foundation 35, Z, T, H, NS, now paraben-free! octinoxate, parabens, “fragrance”),
Solbar Shield SPF 40, Z, T, H, NS (peg-100 stearate)
Solar Protection Formula SPF 58, T, Z, NS (parabens)


T: Titanium Dioxide
Z: Zinc Oxide
H: Rated most highly effective against both UVA and UVB rays by Environmental Working Group,
F: Full member, Compact for Safe Cosmetics (CSC)
CO: Contains certified organic ingredients
Nn: Non-nano, safer size particles > 100 nanometers
A: Associate member CSC
NC: Signed CSC but not in full compliance
NS: Has not signed CSC

*No benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone/BP-3), homosalate, octinoxate, octyl-methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, padimate-O, parsol 1789/avobenzone, parabens, “fragrance”(phthalates)and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor, all of which have been linked to allergic reactions, hormone disruption, reproductive harm to wildlife, damage to skin cell DNA, or the growth of cancer cells in lab tests.A particular baddie, BP-3, has been implicated in the feminization of male ocean fish and promoting disease in corals as well as hormone disruption in lab tests, and is widely present in the bodies of the American population.

For detailed information on sunblocks, a top cosmetics companies list, choose it/lose it charts and chemicals to avoid in all personal care products, see my new book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth through Simple, Everyday Choices

Buyer Beware: Buy the specific product listed, and doublecheck labels of other products by the same maker. Some of the companies above use synthetic chemicals in other sunblock products, including some for kids!

Check if your company has signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics here:

**To avoid nano particles, look for sunblocks that contain micronized particles of at least 100 nanometers Titanium or Zinc Oxide, which are less likely to penetrate skin, per Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG’s Skin Deep Database Sunblock ratings of over 500 products now include particle size. Search your sunscreen's rating at

Remember, UV avoidance is the best policy! Whenever possible, cover up with hats and long sleeves/ rash guards, and stay out of the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

For more seasonal green living and health tips, and to ask me questions, come to my web page,; if you haven't already, please subscribe to GreenerPenny’s free monthly email newsletter on our home paage.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Toxic Fire Retardants Lurking in Mattresses and Couches

You shouldn't need a science degree or private investigator's training to figure out what chemicals are in the products you buy. But try and find a couch that isn't made with chemical flame retardants, and you might feel the need for such skills--not that they'd necessarily help.

The furniture industry has been one of the slowest to respond to the greener products trend, and despite the fact that large companies, like Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, are selling sofas with organic cotton upholstery or certified-well-managed hardwood frames, the foam cores are still likely to be treated with harmful flame retardants in order to comply with a California law requiring that all furniture sold in the state be able to resist open flames. Chemical flame retardants are increasingly being linked to learning problems, infertility, and even cancer.

But what exactly are those chemicals? No one seems to know. During the 80s and 90s, furniture was treated with a class of chemicals called polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs). By now, after being linked to a variety of health disorders, including thyroid and behavioral problems, penta-BDE, the most common PBDE used in the polyurethane foam found in sofas, has been phased out. Good news, right? Not exactly. Furniture manufacturers still had to comply with California law, so they replaced penta-BDE with a cocktail of other chemicals, whose identity, in many cases, is unknown even to the companies selling the furniture.

Heather Stapleton, a professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, has been trying to figure out what fire retardants, exactly, these companies are using--for which one needs samples of the foam to test in a lab. "Often, furniture companies are asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, saying they won't test the foam to see what's being used," Stapleton says. It's disconcerting, to say the least.

Stapleton's tests have revealed that quite a few companies are using a chemical called tris, which was linked to cancer as far back as 1978 and, she says, acts like a pesticide when it enters the body. A March, 2010 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal published by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, found that tris impairs a man's sperm quality, possibly leading to infertility. Stapleton's tests found tris being used in furniture and pillows made by Ikea, which was hailed as a responsible company for being one of the first to eliminate PBDEs from its product line. The chemical was also found in IKEA mattresses, says Arlene Blum,Ph.D, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

If companies aren't using tris, Stapleton's tests have found that they're likely to be using a trademarked mixture of chemicals called Firemaster 550, which has never been tested for safety. Like PBDEs, Firemaster 550 contains bromine, which means it has the potential to build up in people and in the environment. It has been found in house dust, raising concerns about exposure expressed in this report.

It's rare that a piece of furniture would be labeled with the type of chemicals used to make it flame resistant, but there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:

-If you can afford one, buy a sofa made from organic cotton, latex, and wool. Companies such as Q Collection, Dalla Terra, and If Green make furniture (usually starting around $5,000) without hazardous chemicals of any sort and are a safe bet. See GreenerPenny's list of natural, chemical-free mattresses.

-Buy local. Unless you live in California, there's no law requiring that furniture be open-flame resistant, so you can try to find a local craftsman that can tell you exactly what chemicals are, or aren't, in the furniture he or she is making.

-Avoid products that meet California Technical Bulletin 117. While you may have no other choice but to buy a flame-retardant sofa adhering to California standards, you don't have to buy flame-retardant nursing pillows, throw pillows, baby strollers, chair pads, mattresses, or any of the hundreds of other products made with flame-resistant polyurethane foam. If you see a hang tag on a product that says "Complies with California TB117," put it down! Look for another alternative made from cotton, wool, or other natural materials.

-Check your fire alarm. While it may feel reassuring to buy flame resistant furniture, the Consumer Product Safety Commission notes that just 100 deaths and 118 injuries are caused by furniture fires every year. In most cases, those are associated with improperly extinguished cigarettes. Change the batteries in your fire alarms every six months and keep cigarettes out of your house. That will protect you much longer than toxic furniture!

For more information:

Tris was used as a flame retardant in sleepwear until health concerns arose.

Tris was found to enter the human body through exposure to flame retardants.

Firefighter organizations have expressed concern about occupational exposures to toxic fire retardant chemicals.

by Emily Main

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Green vs Toxic Cleaning Ingredients

Choose It:
• Baking Soda
• Borax
• Cornstarch
• Hydrogen peroxide
• Lemon juice
• Plant essential oils
• Table salt
• Vegetable oil
• Washing soda
• White vinegar

Lose It:
• Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs)
• Ammonia
• Chlorine Bleach
• Fragrance (synthetic, likely contains phthalates)
• Glycol ethers
• Lye
• Nonylphenols (NPEs)
• Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
• Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
• Terpenes
• Triclosan (antibacterial)

Excerpted from my book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices

For the dirt on glycol ethers in cleaing products, particularly when they react to other ingredients such as terpenes, click here.

Phthalates, suspect hormone disrupters that have been connected to reproductive system deformities in male infants and obesity in adults, have recently been linked to attention deficit disorders.

For more info, go to and sign up for our free monthly e-newsletter, plus the chance to win green giveaways!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Green vs Greenwashed Personal Care Labels

I never cease to be amazed at the prevalence of the word "organic" in the brand names of many personal care products, some of which not only contain not a single certified organic ingredient, but several toxic synthetic chemicals, such as paraben preservatives, and phthalates in synthetic fragrance!

As for "natural," don't even get me started. I will restrain myself to repeating that "natural" is an undefined and unregulated claim in the cosmetic marketplace.

What labels are meaningful? Quite a few. See the Choose It/ Lose It list below.


The Certified USDA Organic seal on a personal care product means that the whole thing is certified organic, meaning it must contain, at minimum, 95% certified organic ingredients. This is still a rarity, but some companies such as Organic Essentials and Origins Organics do make USDA certified products.

Australian Certified Organic uses stringent standards on a par with USDA's; it is accredited by the reputable International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

The Soil Association: An EU seal from the respected UK organic farming research institute, it's not quite as stringent as USDA Organic, allowing more synthetics, but is pretty pristine all around.

BDIH (Association of German Industries and Trading Firms) is an EU seal barring all petroleum-based ingredients. Very strict, the best, really, except for not requiring certified organic plant extracts.

Natural Products Association's (NPA) seal strictly limits chemical processing and additives, but is not as strict as BDIH. No organic requirement. Bars many specific toxic or irritating ingredients, including phthalates, parabens, and sodium laureth and lauryl sulfate.

NSF/ANSI (National Sanitation Foundation International/American Natural Standards Institute) requires the product to be 70 percent organic (per QAI standards) and strictly minimizes synthetics.

Made With USDA Certified Organic: As with food, the product must contain a minimum 70 percent certified organic ingredients, and no synthetic preservatives. All major cleansing and moisturizing ingredients must be made from organic, not conventional or petroleum-based, substances. However, there's a loophole that doesn't regulate the processing, which can create synthetic byproducts such as 1, 4 dioxane.

Contains USDA or Quality Assurance International (QAI) Certified Organic Plant Oils/Extracts": The whole product is not certified organic, but look on the ingredients list and see how many of the plant essences are certified organic. QAI is an international third party certifier that works with USDA. Chances are you're getting a pretty good green deal.

ECOCERT is a respected European mark still rare in this country. It requires at least some percentage of certified organic ingredients, and forbids many synthetics and problematic processing that can create toxic byproducts, but does allow some synthetics, so one should still read ingredients lists.

OASIS (Organic and Sustainble Industry Standards): This EU seal specifies 85 percent organic ingredients, but uses industry, not third-party, certifiers.

CERTIFIED VEGAN: No ingredients taken from animals


The following labels and claims are meaningless.

Chemical Free/ No Chemicals

Contains No Hazardous Ingredients per OSHA Regulations

Earth Smart

Environmentally/Eco Safe

Environmentally Friendly


Organic, when it appears on the label or in the name of a product that is not certified organic nor contains at least 70 percent certified organic plant ingredients.

For more information, including comprehensive shopping lists of Top and Runner Up Green Beauty Brands, see my new book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple Everyday Choices.

For news & updates, check our home page at

See GreenerPenny's specific product and brand recommendations and critiques here.