Archive for the ‘chemicals’ Tag

A Plug for EWG, and the Stepwise Approach to Less Toxic Products   Leave a comment

This year’s summer eco-audit was exposure. For the audit I’ve focussed on personal care products, and this year also looked at cleaning products. Previously it has been a bit of a challenge to do this audit as it was hard to find information about safety of the various ingredients in the products I was using. And what resources I did find didn’t really help with the questions “how much should I be concerned about this?”, or “what’s in this product that doesn’t list ingredients?”. But thanks to Environmental Working Group, I was actually able to do a comprehensive audit of every personal care product that Conan and I use this year because if the product itself isn’t in their Skin Deep database, I could search by ingredients. (I only had one bottle from a gift set that didn’t have ingredients listed, and I ended up tossing it anyway because the rest of the set turned out to be unacceptable.) Since Skin Deep includes a 0 to 10 ranking for each product and ingredient, as well as an indication of how much data there was on which to base the ranking, it is a great tool for getting a sense of where to focus my concerns. The Guide to Healthy Cleaning isn’t as comprehensive, but I still found the rankings to be really helpful since I otherwise have no idea if some complicated chemical name is something inert or harmful.

Overall I found that my products are generally pretty well ranked (it helped that I just tossed all my conventional makeup when Conan became tall enough to reach into that drawer, and tossed a couple other things that I had laying around when I found out the ingredients). That made me realize that my “stepwise” approach to reducing exposure to potentially harmful compounds in personal care products works better than I had expected. When I first did this I was completely overwhelmed by the list of compounds that “they” say are “bad” and not to use. Most of those compounds are also things that I would never be able to keep in my mind between shopping trips and I’m not willing to keep a bunch of wallet cards. So I focussed on a couple things at a time. Turns out you reach a point where the products that don’t contain the easy-to-remember chemicals-to-avoid, also don’t contain many of the hard-to-remember chemicals! (It might also help that I’ve all but stopped shopping for personal care products at conventional grocery stores and drug stores.)

My personal path started back in college when I decided that I wanted to avoid mineral oil and petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly) as they are petroleum products not plant products. As time went on I started to avoid D&C and FD&C colors (not necessarily an exposure thing but based on the desire to avoid compounds derived from coal tar), BHT, parabens, and “fragrance” (which is an issue because it can include anything and often includes some very toxic compounds). Lots of “natural” brands do still use the term “fragrance” on their ingredient lists, but for some of those brands I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since they do explicitly say that they don’t use any toxic compounds (like Aveda, Dr. Bronner’s, and Toms of Maine).

My next step? Aside from “fragrance” in a handful of my products, most of which are companies that I’ll take the gamble with, the only red-flag compound in my list was retinol (vitamin A). Since I need to go to the dermatologist soon anyway, I’ll talk with her about Vitamin A. Apparently, it’s a cancer hazard when exposed to sunlight, and can bioaccumulate to the point of being a developmental toxin. I sort of knew this already from a dietary standpoint: too much vitamin A is bad since it can build up in the body, but eat all the beta carotene that you want (it won’t build up but is easily converted into vitamin A). I’m guessing that the little amount in my lipstick and under-eye concealer isn’t really a concern but I’ll follow up anyway.

I will also add that this is why we need a Safe Chemicals Act! No one should have to worry about whether the personal care products they are using contain carcinogenic or toxic compounds, and we shouldn’t be the guinea pigs used to find out.

Safe Chemicals Act Moving On Up?   Leave a comment

As I caught up on my blogroll today I discovered great news: the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee moved the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S847) up to the full Senate! For the last few years my hopes (along with countless others) have been so high that the 1976 Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) would finally be amended to provided needed modernization. Not that TSCA hasn’t done a lot of good over the last few decades as far as regulation of nasty chemicals/classes of chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, and hexavalent chromium at least. But there are just so many chemicals that are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic that are allowed to be used in consumer products with no restrictions. There are so many chemicals that bioaccumulate in tissue, most especially human tissue since we’re at the top of the food chain that are allowed to be used in consumer products with no restrictions. There are so many chemicals that are persistent in the environment, taking significant time to degrade, that are allowed to be used in consumer products with no restrictions.

I have long believed in the Precautionary Principle, and long desired better regulation of chemicals. I define “better” as regulation of chemicals where human health takes priority over corporate bottom lines. Being pregnant heightens the desire. It’s too late for my baby. Baby is at its most vulnerable now since it’s doing all that developing completely immersed in my contaminated womb, and after birth won’t be that much better with still high exposure compared with body weight and development rate just from my contaminated breast milk. Sad but true. Baby’s worse off than I was because the world is more contaminated and by a greater variety of chemicals today than 34-35 years ago.

For all that I believe strongly in the Precautionary Principle, I have to admit that I’m not a supporter of the push to ban BPA. As far as I’m concerned we just can’t go about this one chemical at a time. Plus, if we ban BPA does it get replaced by something more or less toxic? Does that significantly reduce estrogenic activity in those consumer products? BPA is not the only estrogen-mimicker that we are exposed to. On the other hand, we need what the Safe Chemicals Act would do: not allow use (unless an exemption is received) of chemicals that are or may be “known, probably, or suspected reproductive, developmental, neurological, or immunological toxicant, carcinogen, mutagen, or endocrine disruptor”, or “persistent and bioaccumulative”. Manufacture of chemicals that are found in tissue or environmental media at concentrations above what naturally occurs or chemicals that are manufactured or discharged in extremely high quantities would also be restricted. Now that is what I’m talking about!

Posted August 1, 2012 by mayakey in advocacy, environment

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I’m Shocked! Shocked About Mislabeled Less-Toxic Nail Polish   Leave a comment

In today’s newspaper there was an article about a report released this week by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control that found that some nail polishes marketed as being free of toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate do in fact contain those chemicals. Absolutely shocking, I say! Who would ever believe that a company would have misleading advertising that claims (explicitly or implicitly) that it’s products are healthy/not harmful for consumers? Oh, wait a minute, that’s greenwashing, which is rampant.

The DTSC’s concerns are not primarily exposure of women wearing the nail polish, but the exposure of the salon workers who are surrounded by nail polish all-day-every-day at their jobs. My concern, however, is MY exposure to toxic and carcinogenic compounds in nail polish that I wear. There’s a reason that I stopped wearing nail polish before we started trying to get pregnant. Not only can the volatile chemicals be inhaled, but some chemicals can be absorbed through the nails and skin as well. For the last decade or more I have only purchased nail polishes that state that they are toluene and formaldehyde-free; I think that dibutyl phthalate-free polishes must have come on the market only in the last few years when I haven’t been paying attention. But even without the “toxic trio” as the article refers to them, nail polish still contains a soup of other harmful chemicals. Basically, it is just not possible to make nail polish as we know it today without that soup. I’m highly skeptical that the so-called “organic nail polishes” on the market today aren’t just substituting less-harmful chemicals for the toxic solvents, colors, and other ingredients in conventional polishes. So while it is disappointing to know that there is a possibility that my nail polishes aren’t living up to their marketing claims, since I already consider them to be toxic soup it doesn’t really change anything. I still love me some painted toenails.

Posted April 11, 2012 by mayakey in personal care, pre-pregnancy

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Dealing with Greenwashing in the Dry Cleaner Industry   2 comments

After his short trip to Las Vegas, Mike had a few items of clothes labeled “dry clean only” that needed to be cleaned to get out the cigarette smoke smell. I hadn’t yet gotten around to researching a local dry cleaner near our house, so there was a flurry as I quickly attempted to do my research before he just went to the nearest one. Unfortunately I didn’t find one I could recommend, just one that I wasn’t completely opposed to. Especially in California greenwashing is rampant in the dry cleaner industry. The use of the very hazardous chemical perchloroethene (perc or PCE) is being phased out in California, and many dry cleaners have made the switch to other cleaning methods already. However, some of those alternative methods aren’t exactly “green” or healthy, so the “green cleaning” ads that many of those companies use are considered greenwashing in my book. GreenAmerica did an article on dry cleaning alternatives back in 2007 (when they were still called Co-op America and the monthly newsletter was called Real Money) that I used for my research last week.

Now for me, I just handwash anything “dry clean only” and have been for years. I figure that people were wearing wool, silk, linen, and cotton for millennia before dry cleaning was invented, so obviously they can be washed in water. And since I avoid synthetic fabrics that means my entire wardrobe can be wet cleaned. Yes, I handwashed my hemp-silk wedding dress, and hung it up to dry.

I started with dry cleaner that is about a block from where our workplaces. My research consisted of asking what process they used to clean the clothing. At that first place (which uses plant leaves in the logo, subtly implying that they are a green cleaner) the lady had no idea what process is used to clean the clothes. My question completely baffled her. Scratch that place from the list; for all I know they could still be using perc, which is not at all an option especially since we’re trying to get pregnant.

So I searched for other dry cleaners near us and found a couple more. The second place that I called at least knew what process they use: hydrocarbons. He assured me that it is not perc, and that it is “organic”. Unfortunately for him I’m an environmental engineer who took organic chemistry. When talking about agriculture “organic” means raised/grown without synthetic pesticides, when talking about chemicals “organic” means containing carbon atoms. Perc is organic, it is also carcinogenic and toxic. So are many, many, many other organic chemicals. Basically they just use a petroleum-based solvent instead of a chlorinated organic solvent. Again, not an option when we’re trying to get pregnant since I don’t know what will be off-gassing from the “clean” clothes.

The third place that I called very directly advertises as a “green cleaner”. They use the GreenEarth process, which uses a silicone-based solvent. On the plus side there is no risk of off-gassing from the clean clothes, and it degrades into sand, water, and carbon dioxide. On the negative side, according to the GreenAmerica article, the solvent may be a carcinogen and the manufacturing process generates a known carcinogen. Since I was short on time, though, this is the cleaner that won out. At least our exposure to anything hazardous is nothing or next to nothing, even if the workers at the dry cleaner have an exposure risk and there are problems up the supply chain.

Ideally I would have found a cleaner that uses a wet cleaning technique or a liquid carbon dioxide process (other than Solvair). Since we hardly ever take clothes to a dry cleaner, I don’t know if or when I’ll continue this research. Maybe I’ll do another flurry the next time the need arises.

2010 Water Quality Report   Leave a comment

Our annual Water Quality Report recently came in the mail. It’s a good document to get in the habit of reading. As an environmental professional, I always find these reports frustratingly skimpy on the data; but I’m guessing most people find them hard to read and would prefer to ignore them. Water agencies are required by law to collect a certain number of samples and analyze for a certain number of analytes. These reports are how they communicate that information to their customers. It’s how you can know that your water is safe, at least when it is in the distribution system. Lead or copper can get into the water in the pipes inside the building, but that’s not the responsibility of the water agency.

A short water quality report is a good thing. Water agencies only have to report detections, so the shorter the table, the fewer analytes were detected over the course of the year. Sometimes I think it would actually be good PR for a water agency to print in the background or in fine print in a corner somewhere the complete list of all analytes so that consumers can know what’s NOT in their water in addition to what MAY BE in the water. There are two major categories of analytes: those with primary Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and those with secondary MCLs. Primary MCLs are health protective. Secondary MCLs are more aesthetic (i.e. taste, color, or odor). Some chemicals have both primary and secondary MCLs, in which case the primary MCL is naturally the most important one. For primary MCLs there is the MCL and the MCL Goal. The goal is the level below which there are no known health risks. Unfortunately it is not always possible to treat water down to the goal because of technological limitations and/or cost, so the MCL is set as the lowest level that is actually feasible while also being protective of health. Especially since I am trying to get pregnant I am very interested in comparing the detections to the MCL Goal, instead of just the MCL.

In our case it is somewhat comforting to know that the only regulated organic compound detected was dibromochloropropane (DBCP). This is on the one hand comforting to know since our water agency is situated right on top of an area with significant groundwater contamination from AeroJet. I have several coworkers who work with local water agencies to protect their well fields from these groundwater plumes. On the other hand, however, I am not pleased to see that there was at least one sample where DBCP was detected at a concentration several times above the MCL Goal. To be completely honest, it doesn’t worry me that much, though. I still have no plans to filter our water at home. Just because one sample (ok, I don’t know how many) over a two year period was above the MCL Goal and below the MCL doesn’t mean that I’m getting constant exposure to that chemical. And the MCL is still considered health protective. For all I know they may have turned off the well with that detection anyway. It may be contrary to my devotion to the precautionary principle to not want to filter my water now, but I’m looking at it from a cost/benefit side. A carbon filter for our drinking water wouldn’t provide protection from the exposure through skin and lungs in the shower. Right now the cost of a whole house filtration system is just not high on the wish list. I’d rather replace our 19-year-old sofa so that I’m no longer exposed to any fire retardants and other chemicals in the exposed foam.

On top of these regulated substances, there is unfortunately also the issue of unregulated contaminants and emerging contaminants, but that’s a whole different topic for another post someday.

Safe Chemicals Act Announced   1 comment

I’ve been remiss in not publicizing the announcement of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which would work to close the loopholes in TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) that allow thousands of new chemicals to be developed and put into use by the public without safety testing. I haven’t read the full text of the new bill yet, but considering how strongly I feel that the Precautionary Principle needs to be codified to reduce our exposures to thousands of chemicals that contribute to health problems, and the initial support that the bill is receiving from organizations that I trust like Environmental Working Group, I think that this is probably something worth supporting. When I find the time I’ll be reading the text and trying to stay up-to-date on its progress through both House and Senate. For now if you want to read the text, go to Senator Lautenberg’s press announcement for the summary and links.

Posted May 11, 2010 by mayakey in advocacy, environment

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The Precautionary Principle   Leave a comment

The Precautionary Principle (PP) has been around for a long time, but many people have never heard of it or don’t really know what it means. I believe very strongly in the PP, so I’m going to take a stab at presenting it. The plain English translation for the PP would be “better safe than sorry”. The PP means that if there is a possibility of causing harm, and/or scientific uncertainty, than the burden of proof lies on those who create the activity/material that may cause harm rather than those who would potentially be harmed. Think of the PP as an offshoot of the moral law “Do No Harm”. Currently, the burden of proof is almost always on the victims.

It is appropriate in our English legal system for the burden of proof to be on the prosecution (the representative of the victims) and not the defendant (who allegedly caused harm). This protects people from false accusations. Also, there is no way to run tests or models and predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not someone may do something illegal in the future. How could you prove that someone is a murderer if there is no murder? But note that our legal system does employs the PP when it comes to sentencing: a guilty verdict indicates that the person does present a danger to society and as a result the person is placed in prison to protect the general public from future harm.

It is not appropriate in the case of new developments for the burden of proof to always be on the victims. It is significantly easier and cheaper to run models to determine the floodplain of a 100-year storm (a storm of such severity that it would not be expected to occur more than once every hundred years) and limit building within that floodplain, then to clean up the mess when the 100-year storm hits and destroys homes. It is significantly easier to run lab tests to determine the fate of a new chemical in the environment (eg. will it end up in air, water, or oil? will it accumulate in plant and animal tissue?) and to determine potential health effects of exposure, then to figure out the health effects in the general population where there are millions of other variables that complicate the analysis.

The development of chemicals is where I see the PP pushed the most by advocates. The basic idea would be that chemical companies must conduct testing BEFORE a new chemical is put into general use, rather than AFTER it is linked to problems in the general population. The chemical industry fights back by saying that this would stifle innovation. I don’t see how that would be. It doesn’t put a stop to new developments, it just slows down the pace of the application of those new developments. Pharmaceutical companies have to do studies before a new medicine is approved and that doesn’t seem to have stifled innovation in the industry. Not that I am advocating using the same system that we use for new drugs; there are way too many flaws in that system! The PP involves looking at more than one facet of a new development before putting it into use. After all, new developments aren’t made in vacuums, and the “side effects” are usually the problem.

The way I see it the PP would make it SIGNIFICANTLY easier to make educated, informed decisions. The amount of effort that I have to put forward currently to living a life free from known or suspected toxins/mutagens/irritants/etc is frustrating because I have to make decisions based on sketchy, incomplete data. When there is a suspicion I try to follow the PP and remove the offender from my life until I know that it is safe, but that means doing a lot of label reading, internet searching, and plumbing the shallow depths of my scientific knowledge. And there are numerous situations where I find that I cannot avoid something questionable because it is ubiquitous. I absolutely understand why most people aren’t willing to put forth this much effort, but I believe that everyone has a right to live an uncontaminated life anyway.

Posted March 14, 2010 by mayakey in environment, health

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