Archive for the ‘exposure’ 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.

The Environmental Professional and The Environmentalist   Leave a comment

I’ve mentioned before that environmentalists are notorious for having a really high bar, and not being satisfied because there’s always more you can do. I admit to having some of that in me. I’ll call that my spiritual environmentalist, who yearns for pristine landscapes, unique hand-crafted surroundings at home, and no worries about toxics or exposures. Then there’s my pragmatic environmentalist, who is aware of things like financial limitations, physical limitations, risk continuums, and the fact that the vast majority of Americans just want cheap goods. Usually those two sides to my environmentalism coexist peacefully with my job; actually they usually get along quite nicely. Doing environmental investigation and remediation work means that I can clean up contaminated soil and water, which really excites the spiritual environmentalist in me. The pragmatic environmentalist is the dominant side interacting with my work personality because environmental investigations are all about detection limits, regulatory limits, feasibility studies, and human health risk assessments.

Environmental work is also all about closing sites. And that, my friends, is where I’m finding my two environmentalist personalities at odds with each other. This week the regulator concurred with our recommendation to close one of my sites. It’s exciting for me professionally but there’s that piece of me that is saddened at the prospect of leaving soil saturated with heavy oil in the ground. It’s not contaminating groundwater, there’s no human health risk from vapors, and any attempt at remediation would really hurt the overlying business financially. I want pristine, but it’s not going to happen now. In a hundred years or so the oil will be biodegraded, and that just has to be good enough. Another of my sites is currently in limbo waiting for a new low threat closure guidance in the hopes of qualifying. It’s the same situation, but with groundwater contamination and no drinking water wells in the vicinity. There’s no unacceptable human health risk, and with the insurance money drying up continued remediation is difficult. Pragmatically, closure is appropriate. Spiritually, though, it disturbs me. Good thing the pragmatic side wins out.

Posted September 10, 2011 by mayakey in environment, musings

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Two Big Purchases, One Easy And One Not So   3 comments

Since getting our new car paid off this spring we can really start working on the wish list for the house. Two weekends ago we bought a grill, last weekend a dining room table, and this weekend a couch. Then we’ll pause to give me time to build my herb garden and sew up the new master bedroom curtains (not busy, not busy at all). The table and couch have been pretty big deals, and it was a bit of a toss up which was actually higher priority. While we have been using an office table as a makeshift dining room table, we didn’t have chairs and have been sitting on the loveseat pulled up to the table. I had to use a cushion as a booster seat to comfortably reach the table. It was also ugly and required a tablecloth, which cannot be cleaned with a wipe of a rag when it gets dirty. In competition though, on the sofa the fabric is completely torn up on the seat, and the top layer of batting beneath is also torn so the foam padding is exposed and crumbling. Therein is the problem: there’s a good chance that this sofa was treated with fire retardents, possibly including brominated fire retardents, and exposure becomes an issue when the foam starts coming out. Brominated fire retardents are persistent (don’t degrade), may contribute to neurologic and reproductive issues, and may be toxic to the liver and thyroid. So they affect me as an adult, they affect me as a woman trying to get pregnant, and they will be passed on to my child. Until we paid off the car we simply couldn’t afford to buy a couch, even a couch that didn’t meet my other requirements, so this has been a major chemical exposure that I have not been able to address. Oh, and the couch sags a bit, giving my husband back aches. Since we couldn’t decide which was really higher on the wish list, we tackled them at the same time. Yes, it’s obvious that the sofa was the more important one, but due to the higher price tag and greater research requirement it is a much more difficult purchase.

We started with the dining room table. My big requirement was that it be solid wood, so that it will last a long time and to eliminate offgassing from plywood or other engineered wood. From there we had two directions: secondhand (so that no new raw materials had to be used) or new from FSC-certified sustainably harvested wood. I think the option with the smallest footprint is the former, so we planned a weekend of driving from one consignment or antique store to another all over Sacramento. After the farmer’s market I decided to stop in at the consignment store nearest us to see if it was worth going with Mike when he got back from the gun show. I was in love by the third table. There were several tables that I could have lived with for a couple of years, and a couple that I could probably have lived with for decades. But there was one that was beautiful and seems perfect. It was also close to the most expensive table in the store. Mike and I went back in the afternoon, and he agreed that it is the table for us. It is solid wood, even the brackets under the table and the little drawers in both ends. The chairs are currently upholstered in a white cotton, but that should be easy enough to replace with leather upholstery and organic cotton or wool batting. Easy, and next-to-no driving around required!

Then we drove up the street to a store that sells custom furniture to start the process of getting a new sofa. Between the two of us we had some challenging requirements (ok, mine were the biggest challenges): firm cushions and back, leather, hardwood, organic fill, and no offgassing foam. We’re getting 3 of the 4. We didn’t even bother shopping any furniture galleries because we figured the chances of finding something hardwood, leather, and without/with a minimum of offgassing and toxic treatments were pretty much nil. A perusal of a few furniture store website where the words “(wood) veneer” showed up in every description proved that out. The issue with the wood is that many particleboards are made with adhesives that offgass formaldehyde and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Plus hardwood just lasts longer. The issue with leather stems mostly from the fact that I am tired of not being able to clean my furniture. I’m one of the few people who tries to wipe down my fabric furniture every spring and fall, but usually I give up long before the water stops turning black. I want leather where one wipe of a cloth leaves a clean surface. Additionally, since we’re about to have kids I understand that leather stands up better to “life”, stains less (as long as you wipe the spill up right away), and looks better with age. And leather is not necessarily treated with toxic flame retardants, stain repellents, and water proofers. (Just the not-so-inert leather processing chemicals, oh well; and some cleaning/protectant chemicals aren’t great either). Unfortunately, about 95% of leather sofas have soft cushion backs, so it was a challenge to get a leather tightback sofa that will be comfortable for Mike’s back.

I did have to compromise on the foam in the sofa, though. Not surprisingly in the green black hole of Sacramento, in a web search I wasn’t able to find any custom furniture makers advertising non-polyurethane foam, and I’m not crazy enough to drive to San Francisco for a sofa. (Side rant, the term really should be “made to order” not “custom”) The consultant at the store we went with also expressed concern that a latex cushion wouldn’t last as long as the polyurethane. So I’m stuck with the VOCs (specifically isocyanate, I think, which is used to make it foamy) offgassing from the foam. The cushion has a layer of down on top of the spring/foam layer, which is encased in cotton batting, so there’s another miss. “Conventional” cotton uses an absolutely crazy amount of pesticides. While I would have preferred a spring/latex cushion with organic cotton, hemp, or wool batting, this compromise is acceptable. It’s about as good as I expected to find. All-in-all the sofa purchase was not as hard as I feared, but it was a challenging purchase and since there wasn’t an example of the model in the store, hopefully we like it. In 8-10 weeks when it is delivered.

Posted June 11, 2011 by mayakey in home, pre-pregnancy, shopping

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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.