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: 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

Moms Clean Air Force: Clean Air From The Inside Out

  • March 28, 2012 11:53 am

My latest post for Moms Clean Air Force talks about how what we do and use at home daily can ripple out and touch a lot more than indoor air. Let me know what you think.

Q&A: Carpets

  • November 8, 2011 9:14 am
THE QUESTION
Hi,
I’m pregnant and was considering having the old wall-to-wall carpet ripped up in my living room and what will eventually be the baby’s room, to cut down on dust mites (he or she will initially be sleeping in my bedroom, which has hardwood floors).  I’m wondering, however, if the risk of possibly stirring up PBDEs in the carpet backing is the greater of two evils in this situation.  I will be out of town for 5 or 6 days and the carpet could be removed during this time.  The carpets are at least 15 years old, though.  I’m wondering if PBDEs are still a threat if the carpet is just sitting or if it is worse to stir them up.
Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Thanks,
Kim
THE ANSWER

Hi Kim,
Thanks for writing and congrats! Ah, carpets. It’s a tough call. That 15-year-old carpet has offgassed by now, but that’s a lot of years of grime, dust mites, and more. And ripping it up and out will release an unknown chemical cocktail–including, as you mention, flame retardants. Ultimately it’s your choice. I’d have to know more about what the carpet is, who made it, how it was installed, and what your space is configured like to say more.
If you do decide to have it ripped out, make sure you get all of your furniture out of the room and seal off the rooms where you store it; you don’t want the dust from the carpets settling on your bed or chest of drawers. Then, make sure there  is ample ventilation and that you have your place cleaned after the carpet is torn out by someone who specializes in post-construction clean up. The cleaners should have a vacuum with a HEPA filter and do meticulous wet-wiping of all nooks and crannies, baseboards, and more. If you can stay out for longer than six days and use air filters, all the better.
Next — what are you planning on replacing the carpet with? If you can leave the floors bare–and refinish them if need be with the greenest solution you can find–all the better. Then you can put down a few washable throw rugs.  If you want to put back in wall-to-wall carpeting, wool is preferable to synthetic fabrics, avoid chemical stain guard treatments, and be careful with the backings. Installation with tacks/nails is safer than with glues containing questionable chemicals. Ventilate any room with a new carpet for a while before letting baby sleep in it.
Here’s an excerpt from Planet Home on carpets:
Your child’s floor is best left bare. Padded play mats are tempting to break the falls of kids learning to walk, but they’re almost always made of synthetic rubber that off-gasses into the room’s air. Cotton rag rugs that can be thrown into the washing machine are ideal for kids’ rooms. Wool rugs without backing are also a good, washable option. Chose natural latex skid pads rather than PVC or other plastic versions. If you have wall-to-wall carpeting in some rooms in your home, set the children up in a room that doesn’t have it. Do not install new synthetic wall-to-wall carpeting with a glue adhesive. Avoid all rugs and carpets that are treated with stain repellents, mildew treatments, or other chemicals. Ask questions when you’re shopping. Deep pile rugs–even pure-grow wool ones–aren’t something you want in a kids’ room, as they’re dust-mite and pet-dander motels. And no matter what is on the floor, vacuum often with a machine containing a HEPA filter.
Hope this helps!
Best,
Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Label Reading

  • August 30, 2011 10:07 am

Most cleaning product labels are a very quick read because they usually contain very little information. If you’re lucky you might learn what the product is, how to use it, safety information, and any storage and disposal guidelines.  What you won’t find is a list of ingredients.  Why?  Oddly cleaning product formulas are currently considered government-protected trade secrets. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their contents to consumers. So they don’t.

While there are organizations working hard for label disclosure as well as chemical reform , at the moment it’s really up to consumers to self educate and seek out cleaning products from companies that willingly disclose ingredients (and use natural ones). Alternately you can make your own from safe household staples with ingredient lists.

In Planet Home, I explain how best to read cleaning product labels when there is no ingredient list. Here’s an excerpt:

LABEL LITERACY 101

1. Look for warnings. Avoid any product that has the words “danger,” “poison,” “toxic,” “hazardous,” or “flammable” printed on the label.  They are dead giveaways that there are harmful chemicals inside.  Be sure to check the front and back labels, including the fine print.

2. Check the listed ingredients. Avoid anything with no ingredients listed or that lists chemicals with known or probable chronic or acute toxicity.

3. Check to see if the product is fragranced. Stay away from synthetic fragrances, which may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.  Most products claiming to have the “fresh scent” of “morning air” contain synthetic Fragrances.  Fragranced products (including perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning products, and candles) can also release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home environment.  Many VOCs from cleaning products, such as formaldehyde, are known to be hazardous air pollutants and can have short- and long-term health effects.  Look for labels that read “VOC-free” or “free from dyes and fragrances.”  If you want a fragrance, seek out products that are scented naturally with essential oils.

4. Think about what the performance claims are telling you. These are the selling points clearly stated on the front label.  Products claiming to “whiten” likely contain bleach, and products claiming to “brighten” usually contain optical brighteners.  Use the Ingredients Guide to see what you’re really getting with that “streak-free shine,” and to learn why an ingredient is or is not hazardous.

5. Do a sustainability check. Choose products in packaging made with the highest PCR (post-consumer recycled) content and that can be recycled or reused.  As for the products themselves, buy ones that are biodegradable or compostable and claim to be “petro-chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” or “septic-safe.”

6. Go to SeventhGeneration.com and download the Label Reading Guide. It will help you better understand the ingredients in cleaning products and their risks.

Q&A: Dishwashers Vs. Washing By Hand

  • August 25, 2011 8:06 pm

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

What is your take on washing by hand and using a dishwasher??

Thanks, Meika

THE ANSWER:

Meika,

Thanks for your question.  The pros and cons of dishwashers have been debated down to the very last droplets of water, but at the end of the day they are more environmentally friendly than washing by hand, even if you factor in the energy used to manufacture and run the machine.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home re the eco-friendliest way to wash dishes:

Running a dishwasher filled with scraped–not rinsed–dishes using eco-friendly detergent free of chlorine and phosphates is preferable to washing by hand, especially if the machine has a good Energy Star rating and you don’t use the energy-draining heated dry option.  Only run the dishwasher when it is totally full (although be sure you’re not blocking the water or aeration methods with any dishes, or they won’t get clean).  Face everything inward.  Enzymes in detergent are there to eat off scum.  If you have over-rinsed your dishes, they will have nothing to work on and will therefore dull the surfaces.  Get to know your dishwasher: Does it have a heater or a fan?  Does it have a grinder?  Operate accordingly.  Don’t put everything under the sun in a dishwasher.  Opening the door a crack after the washing cycle is complete will help the dishes air-dry more completely, but it will also increase indoor air pollution.  Fragrances and chemicals (including chlorine) in traditional auto-dishwashing products get turned into vapors when the machine heats up, and so do the pollutants (possibly chlorine or chloroform, maybe radon) in municipal water.  We breathe these vapors as they vent out of the machine during the washing cycle, making dishwashers a major source of indoor air pollution.  Minimize the danger by using a natural (chlorine bleach-free) detergent and by not opening that door until the machine has had a chance to cool off.  Giving the racks a shake will help get the residual droplets off the dishes.  Keep in mind that your municipal water supply will likely provide your machine with chlorine anyway.  A whole house water filter will reduce some of the worst vapors, as will keeping your kitchen well-ventilated.  If your dishes aren’t getting as clean as you’d like them, try using less detergent if you have soft water and adding a natural rinse aid if you have hard water.  This keep minerals in the water from redepositing on your dishes.  You can buy a natural version, or simply use white vinegar.  If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, consider stainless steel interiors, which retain heat and reduce noise.  They also don’t off-gas (i.e., release fumes from the plastic) when heated to very high temperatures.

Hope this helps!

Best,

Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Cotton

  • August 23, 2011 9:05 pm

Can you believe it’s back to school/work/life season already?  Ugh. As cooler temperatures and new wardrobes (for some people, anyway) are on the horizon, it’s time to pause for a moment and think about what clothes are made of and what it entails to manufacture them. I found and continue to find the following facts about conventionally grown cotton shocking. They’re enough to send anyone straight to vintage/consignment/thrift shops. Second hand clothes are obviously a great way to reduce/reuse/recycle, but you’ll also likely be surprised by the gems you can find.  It might take some digging, but you’ll be rewarded with unique items and you’ll save money, too.

When buying new clothing, organic cotton is solid choice. Here are a few motivating facts excerpted from Planet Home about the cotton industry:

Conventional cotton often comes from genetically modified seeds and has been sprayed with pesticides, which is bad for farmers and the environment.  According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides.  These pesticides used on cotton happen to be among the world’s worst: Five of the nine most commonly used have been identified as possible human carcinogens.  Others are known to damage the nervous system and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormonal system.

That said, organic isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to sustainable fashion–not by a long shot. I explain further in this article I wrote recently about sustainable denim for The New York Times.

Meanwhile I’m personally just avoiding this whole change-your-wardrobe moment. My daughter could use a few items for school as she’s growing up up up, so I’ll fill her wardrobe in with hand-me-downs and maybe a few new things. I prefer to hold on to summer by avoiding wearing long sleeves for as long as possible, and to “shop my closet” when the weather forces me to. Amazing how much I’ve bought over the years that can be resurrected!

Q&A: Is borax safe?

  • August 5, 2011 10:48 am
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,
What’s your thoughts on Borax?  The name makes it sound scary…
Thanks,
Karissa
THE ANSWER:

Karissa,
Thanks for the question.  What are you thinking of using borax for?  In Planet Home, we do suggest using it for specific tasks (excerpted below), but the Environmental Working Group has damning opinion of it and links it to hormone disruption.  I use it only when I have to, which has so far been once in the last decade or so–for unwelcome guests. Otherwise I try to avoid it. If it can kill roaches, I don’t really need that residue in my sheets.
Hope this helps.
Best,
Alexandra

LAUNDRY

You can find Borax (sodium borate, a naturally occurring mineral composed of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water) in the detergent aisle of most grocery stores.  Add 1/2 cup of Borax to your regular detergent (liquid or powder) to give it an extra boost.  Borax will help to improve the cleaning power, whiten, and remove stains and odors.  You can also soak clothes in water with Borax (1 tablespoon per gallon of water) before washing.  When using on delicates, add 1/4 cup to your regular detergent instead.  Exposure to Borax can be harmful in high amounts, so avoid inhalation and ingestion.

UNWELCOME GUESTS

If, come spring, your living room has more bugs than you’d like to see, convince them to leave in a nontoxic fashion.  Pesticides have no place in the home.  For a natural ant killer, mix 1 part Borax and 3 parts sugar (granulated or powdered) with enough water to give the mixture a soup consistency.  Pour the mixture into one of more containers with lids.  Punch eight to ten holes in the lid(s) big enough for ants to access and place containers in infested areas.  Caution: keep out of reach of children and pets.  Borax is harmful when ingested.

What You Don’t Know: Investing Your Money

  • July 12, 2011 8:59 am

How often do you think about money?  Probably daily.  Whether it’s in the purchases you’re making or the salary you’re being paid, money is a constant in everyone’s lives.  Most of us try to spend our money as consciously as possible, hopefully making purchases from eco-friendly producers, buying local and organic food, and more.  What’s tricky is that there are many many layers to the classic phrase voting with your dollars.  It delves deeper than the items we buy; it should also be considered when seeking out services.  Sometimes our well-earned money is used by the banks we deposit it in to fund a toxic chemical company, or invest in bad mortgages, or goes to support mountaintop removal mining.  Use your influence when choosing banks, credit card companies, and even cell-phone providers.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home on how to go about this wisely:

To put your money in banks that have a set of values and a focus that are aligned with yours, begin by searching for an independent bank or a community investment bank.  You may run into a neighborhood bank exclusively focused on investing in low-income houseing or helping people start small businesses.  Read the fine print.  HSBC has dubbed itself the world’s “local” bank, which is like saying Wal-Mart is a local grocery store.  If you cannot find a community bank near you, choose one elsewhere.  Most banking can be done by mail, e-mail, and ATMs, so you’re not limited by geography.  The largest resource for socially and environmentally responsible banks and credit unions, plus financial planners, credit cards, mutual funds, and even retirement options is the Social Investment Forum.  Neighborhood groups, parenting boards, and friends and family may also lead you to some good conscious options.

It’s arguably easier to find green companies to invest in than it is to find a socially responsible bank; and locating that kind of bank is easier still than finding a holistic insurance provider.  The same websites that will help locate a better bank (below) can lead to a better insurance provider, though they are few and far between.  If you can’t find one, ask your current insurance company how it invests its money and see what you think of the answer.

http://ussif.org/

http://www.greenamerica.org/

http://www.greenmoneyjournal.com/

Q&A: Sunscreen (And DIY Skin Products)

  • July 7, 2011 8:22 am

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

Its that time of year again!  Lots of sunshine and playing outside.  My kids and I are all very sensitive to lotions and sunblocks, so we’re always trying out new products.  What sunscreens do you suggest for us?  Thanks so much!

Best,

Carolyn

THE ANSWER:

Hi Carolyn,

Thanks for your question.  Sunscreen has  been on everyone’s mind now that summer is officially upon us. Hats, shade, and staying out of the sun during its strongest hours are the best ways to avoid the bad rays (and maybe even catch a little vitamin D). But most of us duck out of the shade from time to time–sometimes for hours at a time–and so we need added protection. As far as sunscreen goes, choosing a mineral cream with an SPF above 15 and below 30 that does not contain nanoparticles is your best bet.  Oxybenzone is the main chemical used in sunscreens. The Environmental Working Group calls it a toxic chemical and says it has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage.  To find out more about safer sunscreens, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide. (I’ve been wearing Soleo and Badger this summer.)

The other thing to consider when taking care of your skin this summer are the cleansers and scrubs you’re using.  Reading the backs of labels can be confusing and frustrating, so why not make your own?  Its inexpensive, easy, fun (if you like this sort of thing), and, best of all, cheap.  Follow these simple recipes from Planet Home:

Dry Skin Face Mask:

Mix 1/2 cup cooked plain oatmeal with 2 teaspoons honey.  Apply to face, let sit for ten minutes, and rub off.  This mask is both moisturizing and cleansing.

Exfoliating Face Scrub 1:

Combine 4 teaspoons powdered brewer’s yeast, 2 teaspoons plain yogurt, 2 teaspoons almond meal, and 1 teaspoon organic honey and mix well.  Rub gently over face, then rinse with warm water.  Use immediately, do not store in the refrigerator.

Exfoliating Face Scrub 2:

Mix 1 teaspoon baking soda, a dab of mild, plant-based liquid soap, and a few drops of water.  Rub evenly over face and rinse with warm water.

Happy summer!