Q&A: Chemical Flame Retardants?

  • December 19, 2012 9:43 am

Question:

Alexandra,

I recently sent an email to members of my family as they shop for holiday and baby gifts, including fleece footed pjs. I’m sending part of it to you below. There has been some backlash. Was this overkill? I did ask them to try not to take it personally. I just don’t want to expose the baby to harm.

Here is some info on flame retardants that I think important to share. When thinking about buying gifts, please keep in mind that if there is a label on the product that indicates that it is in accordance with California state regulation 117, or is made with any type of foam in conjunction with the product not being labeled as organic, or is labeled as “flame retardant,” please think twice before buying it.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Sarah

Answer:

Dear Sarah,

This is a real concern. The overkill part largely depends on your family.

There are flame retardants basically in all foam products (they’re made from petroleum and so are very flammable), even fleece pajamas. It is good common sense not to go out of your way to purchase and place unneeded foam around your baby, though it is unavoidable in things like car seats. It’s of course more important to have a car seat than to minimize exposure to flame retardants in foam, in terms of risk factor.

Flame retardants are in such wide use that these things are found in the blood/bodies of almost all Americans, which is why it’s a good idea to expose yourself to less of them if and when you can, especially since at the moment they’re almost impossible to avoid in couches and other upholstered furniture (though there are some indications this may get better soon). So it’s easier said than done to avoid entirely, but you can minimize. They’re in this computer I’m typing on, too, by the way.
How you speak to your own family is largely an issue of personality and pre-established relationships. I have ways of addressing these issues individually with the various members of my own family. I do know that feelings get hurt when anyone rejects a well-intentioned present. And tempers flare when gift givers are told what they bought or what they want to buy is toxic. It’s an odd thing. At this point my own family members are very careful about what they buy for us and our daughter. I know it’s a burden for them. Some let me know this more than others. Some just do what they want. I have smiled and thanked countless people, then returned or exchanged my fair share of foam-filled things and fleece everything over the years. No one noticed (that I know of), and no hard feelings. Just saying.
If you’re looking for some good reading to share, The Chicago Tribune has been working on a great investigative series on flame retardants this year. Well worth emailing around and then it’s the reporters doing the lecturing, not you. Which is a good thing.
Best,
Alexandra

Q&A: Are candles safe to burn?

  • December 5, 2012 9:50 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

In the winter I love to burn candles. I think it creates a warm atmosphere at home. But I have been reading about how maybe they’re not safe. I saw something about chemicals in their scents that aren’t good for you. Do you become exposed to these when you burn candles?

-Annette

Answer:

Hi Annette,

Thanks for your question. It’s a good one. You’re certainly not alone, especially around the holidays. You can absolutely inhale chemicals in fragrance, some of which have been linked to hormone disruption, when you burn scented candles, among other pollutants. Here is an excerpt on candles from Planet Home, which I co-authored. I think it will help answer your question.

“Conventional candles made from petroleum emit plumes of soot and phthalate-containing scents. Their wicks can contain metals like zinc, tin, and even lead. If you really like fragrance, non-petroleum-based candles, like unscented beeswax or essential-oil-scented non-GM soy wax versions with cloth wicks, are far preferable to their conventional counterparts.”

I personally have given up on candles, besides the infrequent unscented beeswax one. Beeswax has its own lovely scent–warm and honey-ish. I’d suggest giving it a try.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Which Christmas Tree Is Greener? Real or Fake?

  • November 28, 2012 9:17 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

My family is just about to buy our Christmas tree for the holiday season and I just wanted to know if you buy a real or a fake tree?

Best,

Claire

Answer:

Hi Claire,

Thanks for writing. I commend your organization. I tend to be the last minute decorating (and shopping) type. Technically I’m not supposed to buy a tree at all–and not for eco-reasons! I’m Jewish. But growing up we always celebrated Christmas with a tree and all. Then when I was 10 my non-Jewish stepfather came into our lives, making our typical winter celebration, um, more kosher.

My family oddities aside, when it comes to trees–Jewish or not–holiday celebrators tend to get confused about which is better for the environment: real or fake. To which I add what I think is actually the greenest option: something potted you will keep alive indoors and then plant outdoors when the weather permits. Not interested or don’t have a spot to plant a tree? Let someone else it for you. Some places now rent out live trees.

But back to the more typical debate: real (cut) versus fake. Some people assume fake is best because it can be reused year after year. Unfortunately most faux trees are made of PVC (aka the poison plastic), last only a few years, and then wind up in a landfill. Not very green after all.

When it comes to real trees, millions of them do get cut down every holiday season. That said, more and more municipalities are offering ways to recycle or mulch these after the holidays. The website Earth911.com contends that about 93 percent of trees cut for Christmas are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs. So unless you’re willing to fake it creatively with, say, a cardboard cut out or follow the ideas in this amazing ApartmentTherapy.com post, I’d opt for a small cut tree that you recycle or mulch once Santa has come and gone.

You didn’t ask, but as long as we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about tree lights. Those sparkly strands look good but they suck up more energy than you’d think, and their PVC wires might contain lead. To avoid energy drain and lead dust, skip the lights. Or try a lead-free LED strand.

Happy decorating!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Do You Do Black Friday?

  • November 21, 2012 11:11 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

I am a sucker for a good deal, which is why I tend to shop on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I was wondering if you take part in these festivities this time of the year?

Best,

Laura

Answer:

Hi Laura,

But you already know the answer to this question, don’t you? I’m teasing you. A little. So the season for consuming has arrived! I, too, like a good deal. I’m all about supporting the local economy, but am not a fan of overconsumption or wild days of shopping where people trample each other and buy goods that largely aren’t good for them or the environment. There’s something about these hyped up shopping days that drive people out of control. And we all end up buying way more than we actually want or need. Most of these products will ultimately wind up in landfills.

That said, I’m no grinch. I love giving and getting gifts. One way to support the economy and celebrate your friends and family is with experiential gifts–gift certificates for massages or restaurants, babysitting IOUs, theater tickets, and those sort of things. I’m also a big fan of food and drink gifts (oils, vinegars, homemade anything, organic wine) as well as seed packets for the gardeners in your life. There is very little waste or packaging involved with any of these gifts, and those organic wine bottles can be recycled.

So give yourself a break this Friday. Sleep in. Hang out with your family (if this is enjoyable). Take a walk. Go ice skating (my personal favorite Friday-after-Thanksgiving activity). You’ll have plenty of time to gather great gifts for friends and family before the holidays, I promise.

Hope that helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: E-Waste?

  • November 7, 2012 9:24 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I wanted to know if you could tell me where to recycle old electronics? Thanks.

Best,

Mandy

Answer:

Hi Mandy,

Odd to be responding to this after a week I’ve just spent without my electronics, thanks to Hurricane Sandy knocking out electricity in my New York neighborhood (oh what I would have given for a battery powered radio, which I sadly didn’t have). And on a day when all I can think about is the election and the impact who we vote for has on the environment, chemical reform policy, and so much more. But life goes on and Wednesdays are my Q&A days! So here goes.

This is a great question actually; recycling electronics properly is so important. E-waste is extremely harmful to both humans and the environment. I wonder what will happen to all of the broken electronics from the storm. Will anyone sort them out of the piles and piles of soaked furniture, construction materials, and broken bits of life?

Here is an excerpt addressing e-waste from Planet Home, a book I co-wrote with Jeffrey Hollender:

“The constant desire for new electronics has caused an abundance of electronic waste, or e-waste, which is filled with hazardous substances that aren’t easily recycled and shouldn’t be thrown away. Electronics may contain lead, mercury, and flame retardants (which are added because they generate heat that can lead to fire when housed in flammable plastic), among other dangerous materials, and extra steps are necessary to ensure they’ll be refurbished and reused or recycled. When tossed in a landfill, their toxic components leach into the groundwater; when incinerated, they pollute the air and can harm workers.”

The takeaway here? Try to use what you own for as long as you can. Don’t give in to the lure of the latest iThing every time a new gadget comes out. If your electronics are truly no longer useful to you, try to donate them to someone or to an organization that might still find them useful. If something is really done, take care to recycle it properly.

Here in New York, there are many places that collect e-waste, including the Lower East Side Ecology Center. For places near you, check out Earth911.com. Also, America Recycles Day falls on November 15th this year. Their site has information on recycling e-waste as well as many other items that need recycling. Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: GMO’s?

  • October 31, 2012 9:01 am

Question:

Hello Alexandra,

I’ve been reading a lot on genetically modified food lately, and I was wondering if you could break it down for me? Like what exactly it means, why it is bad for me, and what should I choose?

Thanks.

Heidi

Answer:

Hi Heidi,

Yes, GMO’s have been getting a lot of attention lately, which is a good thing, and especially in California (more on this in just a bit). In order to understand GMOs, it’s helpful to know what they are. Here is how I defined them in The Conscious Kitchen:

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and Genetically Modified (GM) Food

These terms refer to plants and their resulting crops that contain artificially altered genes as well as conventional insecticides actually incorporated into the organisms.  These biotech modifications make the plants disease-, insect-, and/or virus-resistant in an effort to increase crop yield.  Though safety research has been conducted, there’s still significant concern about the health and environmental effects of GM food, which is not permitted under USDA organic standards.  These foods are also referred to as GE (genetically engineered).

The concern with GM foods is the unknown. No one truly knows what the long term chronic health affects are. And here’s the rub: I can’t tell you what to choose. Because we don’t currently know if and when we’re eating genetically modified food. GM foods aren’t required to be labeled in the United States. This is not true for all countries. In Europe, Japan, India, and  China, labeling is required. Stateside, the only way to know if you’re not eating GM food is if you choose organic. And even organic crops are now being cross-contaminated with GM seeds.

That said, if you’re eating anything containing corn or corn derivatives (corn syrup, corn oil) or soy or soy deriviatives or even beet sugar–which is about 100 percent of all processed or packaged foods–you are absolutely eating genetically modified food.

The reason why you have been hearing so much about GMOs leading up to the election is that for the first time, the public is going to vote on labeling. On election day Californian voters will have a chance to say yes or no to Prop 37, which would require GMO labeling. This isn’t to say GM foods are safe or unsafe, this is just giving consumers the right to know if their food contains GM ingredients or has been genetically modified. Studies have shown that 90 percent of the public is in favor of GMO labeling. There has been ample money spent by huge businesses in an effort to defeat the labels, so we’ll see what happens on election day. What gets passed in California often spreads to the rest of the country.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Natural Home Cold Remedies

  • October 24, 2012 9:13 am

Question:

Hey Alexandra,

Winter is creeping on us now, and I already have a cold. Was wondering if you knew any home remedies? Thanks.

-Scott

Answer:

Scott,

You and me both — pass the sustainable tissues (or should I say reusable handkerchief?). I had a cold a few weeks back and reached out to my communities on Facebook and Twitter  to see if anyone had any recommendations besides the usual steam plus honey and lemon tea suggestions and I got tons of great ideas.

  • “Horseradish root. Grate the whole thing while breathing it in. Put some in a pot of boiling water, a towel over your head and breathe in. It hurts, but it works. Add the rest of the horseradish to what you are eating. Voila.”
  • “Have you discovered Fire Cider? Also, a neti pot can help, especially if you add a generous amount of salt and make it as warm as you can stand.”
  • “Green chile miso broth. Make it almost thick and as spicy as you can handle. Drink don’t spoon it, it will clear your head (not just your sinuses but also your brain).”
  • “A twist on honey/lemon tea works really well: Mix vinegar with the mother in it and raw honey in hot water. It’s great!”
  • Quantum Cold and Flu.)”
  • “Coconut chai does it for me every time. Simmer in coconut milk: a ton of fresh grated ginger, a ton of turmeric, some cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom. Add a caffeine free chai teabag as well if you’d like. Add some honey and drink often. This is my favorite under the weather drink and it’s saved me tons of times.”
  • “Shots of apple cider vinegar throughout the day and raw garlic.”
  • “Doses of elderberry syrup, fermented cod liver oil, coconut oil, raw garlic”
  • “I just rubbed eucalyptus, tea tree essential oils with a lavender infused carrier oil on my lil’ one’s feet, also with a cold. Sound asleep”

So take your pick and let me know what worked out for you. Feel better!

Best,

Alexandra

Moms Clean Air Force: Seafood and pregnancy

  • October 23, 2012 8:41 am

My latest post for Moms Clean Air Force is about the dangers of seafood for people–pregnant or not. Has your OB or doctor ever warned you to be careful about which fish you eat?

Q&A: “Green” Kitchenware?

  • October 10, 2012 8:55 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

Looking to buy some new pans for my kitchen, and was wondering if you had any green recommendations for me?

Best,

Deb

Answer:

Hi Deb,

You’re not alone. This is a question I get often! Yes, there are ways to make sure that your new cookware is safe. As I explain in The Conscious Kitchen, you should opt for cast iron, stainless steel, or enamel-coated cast iron.

Cast Iron is great because it’s safe, cheap, endlessly durable, and retains heat very well. If you are looking to add more iron to your diet, you’re in luck; small amounts of the iron will leach out of the pan and into your food. Cast iron does require oil or butter so your food won’t stick to it, but it does become more non-stick over time, especially if you care for the pans well.

Enamel-coated cast iron is a bit pricier than the other two, but well worth the splurge. It’s cast iron with an enamel coating is composed of fine glass particles. Glass is nonreactive and very safe. It also retains the heat well and is extremely durable. I use my enamel-coated cast iron dutch oven so often it just lives on the top of my stove. There is no point in putting it away.

Stainless steel is another solid safe material for pots and pans. It’s lightweight and sturdy. Just don’t store acidic foods in it (tomato sauce, rhubarb) as this can start to break it down.

I prefer these three materials to any of the new “green” pans on the market. Many of these contain proprietary materials and “green” chemicals that make them similar to the non-stick pans I hope you’re replacing. I don’t want to cook in anything proprietary! And these just aren’t as durable as the tried and true materials mentioned above. I have heard from a lot of readers that they’ve bought various new “green” pans and they wound up falling apart quickly. Cast iron won’t fall apart!

Hope this helps you with your decision. If you’re looking for other kitchenware, check out The Conscious Kitchen for additional tips.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Glucose Tolerance and Screening Test Alternatives?

  • October 3, 2012 8:13 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I’m entering my third trimester and know I am going to have to take my glucose test [for gestational diabetes screening] at my next OB visit. Is there any (organic?) alternative to that standard gross dyed orange drink loaded with high fructose corn syrup? I have been avoiding foods containing dyes and HFSC when pregnant and would prefer not to have to drink this stuff.

Best,

Holly

Answer:

Hi Holly,

First of all: congrats! And jinx. I’m outing myself here as I haven’t really been talking about this publicly, but I also just began my third trimester and dealt with this recently, so good timing.

If you’ve been avoiding dyes and HFCS for your whole pregnancy, one drink certainly won’t harm you and your baby, but I totally get where you’re coming from. That’s how I wound up in my doctor’s office eating 47 organic jelly beans at once. Oh the heart palpitations. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The answer is yes, there are alternatives. The wild card is if your OB or midwife is willing to let you try them. Basically you need 50-grams of glucose for the test and there are any number of ways to get that into your body, wait the required hour, then take the blood test. I’ve read anecdotal stories about pancakes with syrup and orange juice doing the trick. Same goes for cinnamon rolls or other sugary treats.

I also found this study about jelly beans as an alternative to the beverage and shared it with my OB who was happy to let me eat them instead of drinking. Keep in mind that while the study says it takes 28 jelly beans, you need to look on the “nutrition” label on the back of the jelly bean brand you choose; the glucose level is different in different products. We did the math together and I wound up having to eat a whopping 47 of  the beans I bought for the purpose. Kind of gross and I would have preferred something else but I suspect it would be harder to measure out the exact grams of glucose in a pancake breakfast. I was so jazzed I left the office during my hour wait and did 5 errands before I came back for the blood draw.

While my OB was open and willing to let me swap where I was getting the glucose from, the nurse who took my blood did look at me like I had three heads when I mentioned I had eaten jelly beans instead of had the drink. Her bias didn’t phase me. I drank the glucose drink when I was pregnant with my daughter, now 6, and vowed never to do it again. I’m glad I didn’t have to.

I know people who are allergic to various food dyes and I think this is a great alternative for them, too.

Let me know how it goes.

Best,

Alexandra