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: 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

My intern Kelley’s thoughts on the documentary Toxic Baby

  • August 15, 2012 8:42 am

Kelley and I went to see a screening of Toxic Baby together and I asked her to let me know what she thought. I loved what she wrote to me so much, I asked her if I could post it here. (I’ll admit that part of why I loved it is that interning with me, which isn’t exactly the most gain-office-experience-traditional internship, is adding  a new layer of information and insight to her studies.) And she agreed. Her thoughts are below. If you haven’t had a chance to see Toxic Baby, I urge you to find a way to do so, or organize a screening near you. You can also see Penelope’s TED talk online. It’s worth a watch.

—-

“I had the great opportunity to view a screening of Penelope Jagessar Chaffer’s documentary Toxic Baby. After screening this film about the health hazards of chemical exposures, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my mind was blown.

As an environmental studies student in college, you would suspect that the majority of the film would be a reiteration of what I have previously learned in class. However this was not the case. The majority of what I have learned in class has been mainly focused on the food system and global climate change. Though these two topics are extremely important, Chaffer’s documentary does not focus on these. Instead, Toxic Baby’s main focus was the toxicity of chemicals in products and in the home – aspects that have not yet been covered in my course of study.

The film follows Chaffer and her discovery of the dangerous effects that certain chemicals can have. It was not until she became a mother that she discovered this information and made it her duty to protect her child from these toxic chemicals. The film consults with experts on the dangerous effects that chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, and flame retardants have on pregnant mothers and their children. All of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors and exposure to these chemicals are linked to an array of health issues, such as cancer, many different birth defects, and many more.

Reading about these issues, you can sometimes get very lost, and that is why seeing Chaffer’s journey as a mother exploring these issues is so great. It lays out the information easily for the everyday person and with the perspective of a mother.

What concerned me most after viewing this film is really the lack of public knowledge of the subject. As I stated before, my own academics have not touched upon these environmental health concerns – and I’m an environmental studies major! Imagine the lack of knowledge of the general population in regards to this problem.  And in the film Penelope’s knowledge on the subject only came about during motherhood. Hopefully, as this film gains notoriety and is seen by the general public, we can raise awareness of this serious issue and get these chemicals out of our homes.”
Thank you Kelley for coming to see the film with me and for letting me share your thoughts.

Q&A: Baby Seats?

  • July 11, 2012 8:44 am
The Question:
Hi,
I am considering buying a baby seat, like the Bumbo or Prince Lionheart Bebepod.  Each of these are supposedly made from “non-toxic polyurethane foam.” I also have a dish drying mat that contains “virgin polyurethane foam.”  Is there really such a thing as a “safe” polyurethane foam?
Thanks,
Kim
The Answer:
Dear Kim,
Excellent question. One I’d ask myself! I didn’t own a baby seat. Is there another way to get the benefits without a foam product? If not, and if you really decide you need a baby seat, try calling the companies you mention and asking them if they use flame retardants in the foam (which is highly flammable) and if so, which ones. I’m not a fan of foam products for babies or kids; most do contain questionable flame retardant chemicals. Thankfully a recent excellent investigative series done by The Chicago Tribune has heated up (pun intended!) the question of flame retardant necessity as well as safety. Now California is considering repealing their strict standards. If this passes, it should, in turn, dial back use in consumer products; it doesn’t make sense for manufacturers to make one product for California and another for the other states. My fingers are so crossed they’re losing circulation. This would be a huge, huge victory for environmental health.
Best,
Alexandra

Q&A: Beanbag Chairs

  • July 21, 2011 9:10 am

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

Can you recommend a beanbag (or beanbag-like thing) or a place to look for a beanbag? It’s for my son’s room. I’ve been looking online but don’t trust these sites selling “eco-friendly” bags made with recycled foam. That sounds bad, no? My gut says to steer clear of styrene, too. I wonder if you may be able to point me in some other good directions.

Thanks, R.

THE ANSWER:

Dear R.,

What an excellent gut you have. Trust it. There really is no telling what that foam is and what flame retardants might be in it. And I also wouldn’t willingly put styrene in my kid’s room. It can be hard to suss out what is in any given beanbag chair. The first thing to consider is the outside–I’d go for organic cotton here if you can. No stainproofing needed/wanted (those chemicals aren’t pretty, either; they’re the same thing that is in non-stick pans). But preferably something you can toss in the washing machine when it gets dirty.

The second thing to consider is the stuffing, which is what you were talking about re the foam and the styrene pellets. There are many eco-friendly ways to stuff a beanbag chair. The first thing that comes to mind is buckwheat hulls. I have a neckroll stuffed with this and the texture always reminds me of a beanbag. The second is actual beans, though this might be too heavy. There are other hull-like things that eco-futon stores tend to make pillows out of including kapok.

Next up is how to find an organic cotton cover filled with buckwheat hulls. Some people do make them (I just did a quick online search). Many people making conventional beanbags allow you to upgrade to choose organic cotton and buckwheat or natural latex for the filling–safe, safe, and safe. Ask what the certification on the organic cotton is. Or call a local futon store and see if they will make you one. If you cannot find something you want or like, you could make one yourself. That way you really control the filling and can use things like old t-shirts.

Or you could have someone make one for you. Sourcing organic cotton canvas and buckwheat hulls is pretty easy. If you don’t have a local seamstress (what’s the word for a male seamstress? tailor? I’m tired today!) near you, Etsy is a great way to go. I turned to Etsy for a similar project over the winter, and had a small organic sleeping bag made for my daughter.

I’m not comfortable recommending one store over another without further research, but here’s a good Mothering.com forum thread on the topic. And here’s a good place where you can buy wholesale organic buckwheat hulls.

If you’re reading this and do have a good product to suggest, please post in comments.

Hope this helps.

-Alexandra