They could not use it if it was not safe………. Right? A letter to my Niece.

Dear Niece,

You asked me recently what would be a couple of simple changes that you could make to be ‘green’, and lighten your effect on the planet.  It was a sweet question to ask me.  First it showed you cared enough about a subject I am interested in (some in the family might say it is more like “obsessed with”) to find out more.  Secondly it showed you were looking to lessen your effect on the planet.

I think I stammered out a couple of hints, but wanted to take the time to write out a more useful, or in business-speak, actionable list of changes and the reason I think they are important.

As I mentioned, as much as I want to save the world- I care about the health of the people on the planet first.  Although Thoreau said, and I agree, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”  I would also hold that part of what make this beautiful planet tolerable is that we are healthy enough to find joy in living here.

Therefore, I want to write you first about moving towards more green products in your personal care and household products.  There are chemicals in these products that are unhealthy.  Our skin is not a barrier, a layer of saran wrap all over our body, but is permeable.  Basically anything we can breath, that we eat, or that touches our skin, is absorbed into our body.

In writing about this I feel like the bad aunt telling you that there is no Santa Claus, because the reason that I have concerns about these chemicals is that there is no regulation or law that keeps beautiful you safe.  People tend to have a core belief that if a product is on the grocery store shelf, it has been tested for safety.  Unfortunately this is not true.  The law that regulates chemicals in foods and household products is called the Toxic Substances Control Act (ToSCA),  and is administered by the EPA. It was passed in 1976, and any chemicals in common use at the time, about 60,000, were grandfathered into the law as already being safe.  Since then only 4 chemicals of these chemicals have been further regulated under the act: Asbestos, Radon, Lead and PCBs.  The ban on Asbestos, despite evidence of it’s danger, was overturned in 1991.  (Cosmetics are regulated by a different rule- the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.)

One problem with regulating chemicals is that it is difficult to show health effects with chemical exposures.  Because studies typically show clusters of disease around exposure to a certain chemical, the population exposed tends to have other things in common.  It is hard to isolate, and prove cause and effect to the exclusion of all scientific doubt, when there is no control group that has not been exposed.  Therefore it is possible to argue (and has been argued by chemical manufacturers) that problems cannot be attributed to one single chemical cause.  Another problem is that the EPA must prove harm before denying use of a chemical under consideration.  If no testing exists for that chemical, often the case in new formulations, there is little basis for a ban.  This creates a dis-incentive for chemical companies to test their chemicals, at all, before submitting them to the EPA for approval.

My feeling is that this leads to us being the test bunnies in a giant experiment exposing us to new chemicals, and new combinations of chemicals, every time a new product comes out.

The European Union takes a different approach to chemical regulation, called the precautionary principle.  This states that if there is a concern that a material might cause harm to the public or the environment, and there is no scientific agreement that it is safe, that material must not be used.  The burden of proving that is is safe falls on those manufacturing the product or material.  I like this principle very much, and wish that the US would start a similar approach to chemical regulation.

Luckily I am not the only one freaked out about this, there are numerous companies and non profit organizations that also are concerned.  This means that there is very good third party research going on, and information available to help you make good decisions. I used a number of them to come up with this list of changes you can make to keep you healthier and greener. However, you might need to start reading labels, since a lot of the changes are related to avoiding specific ingredients.  Sorry that I am making your life more complex, I do it because I love you!

So here are four concrete things that I very much wish you would do:

1- Don’t use Talcum powder.  Talc is a carcinogen, and it is nutso crazy that it is used on babies.  Use an alternative that contains cornstarch.  The frustrating thing is that many companies make both types of powder, so you have to read the label on the product.  Talc can also be an ingredient in face powder, so before you powder your nose check the ingredient list.

2- Avoid all Parabens.  These are used as preservatives in a lot of products, and there has been enough outcry about them that many, many products are now being labeled Paraben-free.  Please choose these products!

These preservatives are listed on the label as methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, benzylparaben, isobutylparaben, and propylparaben.  Parabens, specifically, are shown to accumulate in breast cancer tissue, and there are concerns that the way they are absorbed by the body leads to breast cancer and reproductive system cancers. These chemicals are in a class of chemicals known as hormonal mimics.  They have a similar enough molecular structure that when they are floating around in your body, a receptor in your body that is expecting a hormone to trigger a natural process sees this chemical and grabs onto it.  However, since hormonal mimic chemicals are not actually natural hormones, they do not affect the cell in the same way.  Therefore they alter natural processes, by being substituted in the cell for the actual hormone. (Do you like my explanation of organic chemistry?  Hey, I was an art major)  Hormonal mimics, also known as endocrine disrupters, are the subject of growing levels of concern.  Although the dose is very low when using this as a preservative in food or cosmetics, I still worry about ANY exposure to a product that might be carcinogenic or disrupt the endocrine system.

3- Skip the hand sanitizers.  There are two concerns about the use of this product.  Firstly, Triclosan, the primary ingredient in a lot of these products, is another one of those chemicals that acts as an endocrine disrupter.  It is in a lot of products, pretty much anything that is labeled “anti-bacterial”, and is definitely being absorbed by people.  It is found in the urine of 75% of the U.S. population.  (I am glad I did not work on that study) Secondly, there are concerns that use of this product accelerates the process of bacteria evolving to be resistant to antibiotics.  The FDA suggests that if you are concerned with the dangers of Tricosan, you should wash with soap and water after using hand sanitizers.  Hey, I have a good idea- why not just wash in soap and water!

4.   Don’t use Bleached products.  I know, this is a tough one, because nothing makes things white quite like bleach.  However it is a strong irritant for your eyes, skin and respiratory tract.

My real reason for disliking bleach is different.  In use, bleach combines with organic materials to create a class of chemicals called Dioxins.  This is especially true when bleach is used in an industrial process, such as making your coffee filter white.  The EPA has found that the exposure to dioxin, just from using bleached coffee filters, is enough to exceed your lifetime acceptable limit.  YIKES. There is no ‘safe’ level of dioxins, they are a more potent carcinogen that DDT.  They also bio-accumulate, build up in the fat cells of your body, so the exposure is additive over time.  Dioxins are associated with reproductive system harm, including fertility issues.

Dioxins also do not break down, so once formed they enter the environment and continue to do harm in the environment,

Because I do not want to create such a toxic chemical by my actions, and because I personally follow the Precautionary Principle, I never use bleach in my household cleaning.  However the primary concern with bleach use and dioxins are because of their use in industrial processes.

So, please do not use products that use chlorine bleach in their manufacture!  Buy unbleached paper towels, if you must use paper towels.  Often products are bleached with oxygen bleach, (Hydrogen Peroxide is an oxygen bleach) , and this is much safer.  Often these products are labeled as “not whitened using chlorine bleach”.  You can get printer paper, binder paper, and even (shhhhh) tampons that are whitened using this safer method.

I know this is a lot to take in, the issues are complex, and it is not possible to explain them in a short little note.  I find shopping and purchasing products to be increasingly challenging, the more I read and learn.  Know that even if you do one of the above actions, or do all of them, but only most of the time, you still will be making a difference.

My hope is that in the future, the potential health and environmental concerns of various chemicals will be the primary way to determine whether they are used in the products that surround us.  However, in the current world, it is important to use knowledge as your primary tool.  The following web sites are my favorite for getting more information about healthy products and exploring these issues:

This little film explains the problems with chemicals in cosmetics very clearly, much better than I could ever do:

A friend is working on a film about this subject, you can see the trailer here:

The most dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) as determined by the United Nations as part of the Stockholm Convention Treaty:

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics works to educate consumers and put pressure on manufacturers to create safe products:

Information about every kind of environmental chemical pollutant, and useful databases of safer products:

Healthy Child Healthy World works to limit children’s exposure to chemicals in the environment:

You can also search for information at the EPA web site:  – Go EPA

Posted in Food and Entertaining, General, Health | Comments Off on They could not use it if it was not safe………. Right? A letter to my Niece.

A Miracle on wheels

I am writing this entry in honor of International Walk to School Day, which is held around the world on October 6th.  For the years that my children were in elementary school, I worked every year to help kids and parents realize that they COULD walk and bike safely to school.  In the process I learned a lot about biking as transportation.

I love my bicycle, and it is one of my primary tools for sustainable suburban transportation, but let me start out this entry honestly.  I am a lazy person.  I do not like exercising, (except dancing) and I do not like activities that I have to wear exercise clothes for.  So I definately not talking about biking in lycra pants (conjures up a bad visual, in my case) or worse yet, driving my car somewhere so that I can unload my bike and take a ride.  I am talking about getting around, about substituting my bike for some of the trips I might otherwise take by car.

Now one great tool to help a person realize what kind of trips they might be able to do on a bike is the the Cliff Bar Two Mile Challenge web site.  This allows you to draw a two mile circle around your home on a map.  Why is this important?  Well first of all, it is heck-a easy to bike two miles.  I am not kidding!

It is hard to ride much slower than twelve MPH, but through the miracle of modern bike speedometers I found I average 9-12 MPH (just to put that in perspective, Lance Armstrong averages 33 mph, but slows down to 14 when climbing the frigging alps.)  I have mad skills at being lazy, I believe I might have mentioned that!

However, even at my speed, I realize that a two mile distance is not unreasonable, and includes many every day errands. It takes me about 6 minutes to go a mile, and within my 1 mile radius are two grocery stores, a hardware store, a drug store, my kids elementary school and two Starbucks!  I have timed myself driving to the closest grocery store, and from starting the car to fully parked takes 6 minutes.  So for short distances, the bike is as convenient as a car.  Now if I go all the way to the edge of my two mile circle then my map includes a Target, a Sears, about 27 restaraunts that I cannot afford to eat in, another hardware store, a major medical center, a good shoe store, my kid’s middle and high schools and a Peet’s Coffee!  The biking time goes up to 12 minutes, and the car would probably be faster in this case, if there is no traffic and no problem parking.  Before I mapped my two mile circle, I would not have guessed that all of these destinations could be reached on a bike in under 15 minutes.

If I did run any of these errands on my bike I would be burning 130-140 calories, and getting about 1/2 hour worth of exercise.  Which brings me to another reason that I am passionate about biking.  I don’t want to die!!!  Ok, that was a bit dramatic, but I am very aware that in America we have a crisis of inactivity, in all segments of the population. This, in spite of research that shows that the best way to ensure continued health is to get exercise at least 5 times a week. When I run one errand that is in my two mile range I get 1/5 of the exercise I need a week.  People often feel that they have no time to exercise, they are too busy running errands and doing things to put aside time to work out.  However they do have time to get in the car to do those errands every day.  If I did just three trips a week on my bike, I would be more than half the way there to optimal levels of activity, and hopefully I will look as great as this 85-year old Great Grandmother, Lis Stahl, who still rides her bikes to the shops every day in Copenhagen.  And I would do it all without creating pollution.

The National Transportation Survey shows that 25% of American trips are under a mile (shall we pause a moment for collective shock and outrage at this proof of HOW lazy we are?) and 40% of them are under two miles.  The first few minutes a car is running is responsible for 60% the dirtiest emissions.  So short trips, of a length that could be done on a bike, are more than half of the trips we take in a car on a weekly basis and account for most of the most damaging smog.  In addition to global warming, these emissions cause respiratory problems, especially in children.  So biking with kids to school both gives them added health-because of the increased activity, and because of decreased ground level pollution around schools.

At this point, when I am talking about kids biking, I would be remiss if I did not address the safety issue.  I happen to be lucky enough to live in a town that is both flat, does not have snow in the the winter, and is rated as being friendly to bicycles by the League of American Bicyclists.  I know it is terrifying to send your kids out on a bike, without your constant supervision and  a half ton shell of a car around them.  Because of the constant efforts of bicyclists and parents, more and more kids are biking to school in our school district, which makes them increasingly more safe, as this article shows.  Even in a big city like New York there is safety in numbers.  Nationally 14% of kids bike to school, and in my town 1/3 to 1/2 of the kids do.  I rode with them every day of their elementary school career, making sure that they understood the rules of the road, traffic patterns in our neighborhood, and always wore their helmet.

After that they were launched into the big world, and could ride back and forth to school, and out to local neighborhoods for a snack or to meet a friend.  All I can say is that the benefits in activity, environmental responsibility, health and independence, outweigh the risks for me.

Of course it helps that I have a hot set of wheels, a 1967 hub shifted three speed ladies street bike with a Paul front rack and a Nutcase helmet.  I can easily carry two bags of groceries in front, although I did stretch my limit when I bought 3 cans of paint recently.  It is important to be able to carry things, if you are going to run errands on a bike.  The next item I want to get is a cool set of bike panniers, the saddlebag type things that go over the back rack.

I am in good company in thinking bikes are hot, there are a lot of cool fashion cycling web sites, including Cycle Chic and my fav from my fellow Syracuse U alum, Velo Vogue.  So I can be inspired and get a fashion fix (love the wedgie boots!), without leaving the subject of miraculous bikes!  What’s more,  I can get exercise, create a lower carbon foot print, show off my cool cycle duds while getting the equivalent of 600 mpg!! That is pretty good for a middle aged mom!

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Introducing this new Blog

This blog grew out of my desire to walk my talk.  I am an ordinary Mom, with a greater than ordinary desire to minimize the effect that my family has on the environment.  As I try and do the right thing, save energy, and minimize my family’s exposure to chemicals, I have developed different practical solutions.  I get so excited when I discover new ways to do things, but feel that these stories aren’t really right for my bog on Sustainable Home.  That is a place where I talk about my green design practice, interior design, green architecture, and furnishings.  But I also wanted to write about trying to be sustainable in day-to-day life. So I have decided to start a sister blog.

Many people quote Gandhi’s  “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Often I think that people interpret this quote to mean that they must be strong enough to make change happen in this world through their own effort and force of will.  This is not the case; the story that this quote came from is about a mother, like me.

She brought her son to Gandhi, who was so revered that people often came to him for advice on many things.  She was worried for her son’s health because he was overweight and would not stop eating sweets.  She asked Gandhi to tell her son to stop eating sweets.  Gandhi said to come back in two weeks.  She was surprised but complied.  In two weeks she came back and Gandhi spoke directly to her son, clearly and compellingly asking him to respect himself and his life enough to eat healthy foods and give up sweets and sugar.

“Why did I need to come back?” She asked.

“Well Madam,” he answered, “I love sugar, pastries and candy.  Before I could ask your son to give these things up, I had to know that I could do so myself.”

I have worked in my professional life to educate people on green building, and it’s tremendous potential to save energy while making homes healthier, and saving building owners money.  But I am also a suburban housewife, mother of three, PTA volunteer who loves sewing, painting, hiking and gardening.   I want to be able to do all of the things in my life, but am conscious that every activity has some kind of effect on the environment.  So I am always seeking creative solutions to do things in an eco way.

If I can do it, with all the ordinary problems of getting my kids to school, shopping for groceries, doing lots of laundry, and entertaining: then I know that it is possible.  Before I ask anyone else to change their life, before I tell people that they should be greener, I green my own life. I have found that few of these changes require any sacrifice, and in fact many of them have paid off in increased fun, better health, and a more beautiful life.

Which brings me to another detail.  I love good design!  I am obsessed with glamour, charm and elegance.  I love my job because I can work with beach cottages, formal homes, warm modern kitchens, and funky vintage living rooms.  My clients are a constant source of inspiration.

I am not willing to sacrifice my style to be green.  So this blog is called “Seeking (Stylish) Suburban Sustainability.”

Seeking- because it is a process, there is always more to do, but even the first step makes a difference.

(Stylish) – Because what is the point of life without glamour, style and beauty? I rest my case!

Suburban – because that is where I live, and the suburbs have the reputation for being very un-sustainable.

Sustainability – because we need to figure this one out, or we will all be in deep doo-doo.

Hope the new bog is useful and interesting to you, dear reader. I am pleased as punch to start writing it.  Future blog entries at my other blog: will continue to be about green design, furniture and architecture.

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