What You Don’t Know: Kitchen Cleaners And Your Food

  • June 28, 2011 1:21 pm

Many people will spend the extra dollar or two on buying organic, especially when it comes to poultry.  Unfortunately, many are still using an army of questionable chemicals to clean their kitchen counters, cutting boards, and knives.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home about kitchen systems and keeping your free range, organic, local, delicious chicken as chemical-free as you intended.

One of the many hot-button topics when it comes to chicken – conventional vs. local/pastured vs. free range organic (local or not) – is how the birds are disinfected post-slaughter.  Conventional chickens in the United States tend to be disinfected in chlorine baths, a procedure that has long been banned by the European Union.  It’s also banned by USDA organic rules.  There are other ways of decontaminating poultry: ozone baths, eco-water baths, or air chilling.  If you’ve sought out and spent good money on a chlorine-free chicken, be careful where you put it.  Cutting it on a counter or board that has been cleaned with chlorine or any other disinfectants and retains its residue undermines your choice.  Think it through.  If you clean with conventional cleaners in a kitchen, you’re applying them to your meals, adding toxic chemicals you were trying to avoid by buying organic or low-sprayed local food.  Shift your mind-set to consider your kitchen in a holistic, systemic fashion.  Don’t compartmentalize the food from counter cleaners or even pots and pans.  If you don’t want your chicken to be contaminated with chlorine, don’t contaminate your kitchen-or any room in your home-with it, either.

So what is the takeaway here?  Think big picture. It’s never a good idea to chlorinate your unchlorinated chicken. So do buy local pastured organic poultry. And do be mindful of how you’re cleaning those much used surfaces in your kitchen.  Whatever you clean with will get into your food and your body.  Buy natural plant-based cleaners or make your own. You can just use vinegar or hydrogen peroxide. If you want something a little fancier for surfaces other than cutting boards, here’s a DIY all purpose cleaner, also from Planet Home:

Combine 2 tsp washing soda, 2 tsp borax, 1/2 tsp plant-based liquid soap, and 1 cup water in a spray bottle and shake well.  Lemon juice or essential oils can also be added for fragrance.  (Washing soda may leave harmless white reside on a surface if not wiped well.)

Q & A: Safe, Plastic-Free Mattress Waterproofing

  • June 16, 2011 9:48 am

THE QUESTION:

Hi,

I like to use a waterproof cover on mattresses due to the fact that my daughter is STILL not night potty trained (don’t get me started). Is there such a thing as a non-plastic but effective waterproof cover for a mattress? Once we go to all the expense and trouble of buying nice mattresses so they breathe good things when sleeping, I hate to toss a plastic cover over them to protect from the pee when they’re potty training, but I’d also hate to soak the durn thing with pee as soon as we buy it…

Jessica

THE ANSWER:

Thanks for the question.  You’re in luck; there is an easy answer for such a difficult problem.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home explaining what to use for waterproofing your mattress. I also discuss this in The Complete Organic Pregnancy.

For the safest waterproofing, avoid plastic altogether and opt for a wool “puddle pad.”  Lanolin in wool is naturally water resistant.  Wool is also durable: a flat pad (i.e., not fitted) can grow with the child, transitioning to a single bed when the time comes.  Sleeping on wool is also more comfortable and regulates body temperature better than plastic.

Wool puddle pads can be found all over the place, especially online. I prefer eco or pure grow wool. Keep in mind that while lanolin is naturally water resistant, wool still does get wet. You’ll want to purchase more than one pad to swap in when/if needed in the middle of the night. Good luck!

What You Don’t Know: What’s In Your Tampons Etc.

  • June 14, 2011 8:22 am

More than half of the population must use them monthly, but do most women think about how fem care (as the industry calls them) products impact the environment or even their bodies? Nope. Kind of a big oversight for something you’re so, um, intimately involved with. Think about it: conventionally produced tampons are made of cotton, which is one of the most highly sprayed crops on the planet. They can also contain plastic, rayon, and are often scented. Here is an excerpt from Planet Home about the risks associated with using them:

According to the National Research Center for Women and Families, approximately 43 million women in the United States use tampons.  And no one knows the cumulative health effect of using conventional feminine care products.  While the boxes on most drugstore shelves aren’t required to list ingredients, most tampons are cotton or a cotton-rayon blend with scent.  Fragrance can contain hormone-disrupting chemicals and can also be irritating to skin, especially in such a delicate area.

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.

Highly absorbent rayon is manufactured from wood pulp, a process that involves bleaching with chlorine-containing substances.  The eventual product may contain chlorinated hydrocarbons as well as dioxin residues.  Highly absorbent synthetic fibers can be a breeding ground for the bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome.  Although some synthetics have been banned, the FDA still allows the use of viscose rayon in certain amounts in tampons.  Dr. Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Center, and a leading expert on the health risks of tampons, says that rayon can still create a breeding ground for toxins.  All-cotton tampons present the lowest risk.

Luckily, there are alternatives!  And plenty of them.  Look to these companies for eco- and you-friendlier fem care:

7th Generation

Maxim

NatraCare

To avoid using an agricultural/disposable product, you can choose a reusable one. Glenny, my editorial assistant, swears by The Keeper. Here are some of her thoughts on it:

“I purchased my first and only Keeper back when I was a college sophomore, about seven years ago.  Short of waxing poetic about it, I will share my top five reasons for absolutely loving my Keeper:

1. It saves me money.  As a college student I only had to pay $18 for mine, but you can purchase yours today for only $37!  Compare that with the monthly expenditures on tampons and other menstrual products and you’re saving a bundle.

2. Its a small step toward a healthier planet.  Made of natural gum rubber it is a zero waste product.  No throwing out wrappings and used napkins, no toxic cottons to worry about.

3. I’ve had mine since 2004 and it is still in top-notch condition.  Life expectancy is 10 years!  Honestly, my relationship with my Keeper is the longest and healthiest I’ve ever had.

4. No toxic shock syndrome.  Enough said.

5. Portable!  Slip it in your purse for those days when you might start your cycle.  No need to lug liners and tampons around with you, and you’ll definitely never have to sneak out to the pharmacy for an emergency purchase.  The Keeper is small and discreet, and usually comes with a darling little bag to keep it in.

No matter which option you choose, make sure you’re thinking about your body and the environment.  You’ll be much happier because of it!”

Q&A: How To Deal With Mold

  • May 26, 2011 4:40 pm

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

I live in a 17th Century building with very thick walls and lots of black mold. We Clorox-spray it off in the winter, but now have a newborn baby whose lungs are probably going to be black with mold before he picks up his first Gitane / or perhaps bleached with Clorox before his first sniff of blow. It’s too cold to leave the windows open (what rids us of the mold).

Any suggestions on getting rid of it other than Clorox?

Thanks, Daisy

THE ANSWER:

Well leave it to my old school buddy to ask an extremely colorful and yet important question. (Hi, Daisy!)

Mold can grow anywhere in your house, and it can be easy to get rid of. But you have to know what you’re dealing with. There is black mold (bad for you) and then there is black mold (unsightly but safe). It can be hard to tell which is which, but the toxic stuff is rare and tends to crop up primarily on consistently moist material that contains cellulose (paper, wood, ceiling tile etc.). That doesn’t sound like what you’re contending with on those walls. But if it is, I’d call in an expert asap.

If you know that your black gunk is the run of the mill variety, here is an excerpt from Planet Home on how to deal with mold in your bathroom. This method involves hydrogen peroxide and can work elsewhere, too.

I’m more concerned about that Clorox spray than I am about Gitanes, especially for the moment. Chlorine bleach is the most common cleaner accidentally swallowed by children. If mixed with ammonia, the combo releases highly toxic chloramine gas. It’s considered a severe irritant and a carcinogen precursor. And there are all sorts of environmental concerns that come up regarding what happens when chlorine bleach is released via wastewater and comes into contact with natural materials (it can form dioxins, furans, trihalomethanes, and more). It’s best avoided, especially in a home with a newborn.

The excerpt:

If you see any mold forming, particularly at the bottom of your shower curtain or on that hard-to-keep-dry crack between the tub and the wall, use a cleaner containing hydrogen peroxide or plain old 3 percent hydrogen peroxide.  Keep in mind that peroxide is good at killing active mold, not mold spores.  The gray color won’t go away immediately or sometimes ever (this usually comes from mildew that has gone deep into porous grout).  It can’t hurt to spray this area daily if you have a perpetual mold issue.

And do keep those windows open from time to time, even if it is chilly. Ventilation is key when battling mold, so is reducing moisture.

How are YOU dealing with mold?


What You Don’t Know: What My Editorial Assistant Didn’t Know

  • May 24, 2011 9:46 am

This week I asked my editorial assistant (sounds much better than intern, no?) Glenny Cameron if she’d mind sharing what she has learned/what she didn’t know before starting to work with me a month or so ago–if anything. Needless to say I’m extremely touched by what she wrote. She’s amazing. Seriously, this is an inspiring must-read. Thanks, Glenny. Have anything to add to her thoughts? So curious!

—-

Before working with Alexandra I considered myself a very environmentally aware person.  I buy organic, I shop locally, I reuse plastic bags and refuse to buy bottled water.  Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), there are loads and loads of things to learn about the sustainable lifestyle, and I thank Alexandra for engaging me in them.  There is always more that can be done, more of the world to save.  So, here are the top five things I’ve learned in the past few months, complete with excerpts from The Conscious Kitchen and Planet Home.  Some are small and silly, but we all have to start somewhere, right?

1. Bananas.

I love bananas.  They are now a guilty pleasure.  Enough said.

There are a number of items in your fruit bowl (and in your cabinets – see chapter seven) that might be certified organic but fall into the realm of still not being great to buy.  In this realm, no exotic is more widely available, or controversial, than the banana.  The ubiquitous yellow fruit is nature’s perfect answer to packaged goods – every parent’s nutrient-dense dream snack.  Yet, it’s a deeply flawed food.  Its pretty much the poster fruit for how confusing trying to eat consciously can be.  Bananas are grown very far away, are environmentally destructive, are often harvested under conditions unfair to laborers, and the variety we all eat will apparently be extinct in the not-so-distant future.  The greenest and most environmentally devoted eaters around don’t eat bananas, or refer to them as a guilty pleasure…Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined.  Food for thought.

2. Organic cotton.

This is a difficult topic because most of my clothes are not made with organic cotton.  The main reason is that organic cotton can be very expensive and I am at times, very poor.  Another reason is that most of my clothes shopping is done in secondhand or vintage stores, where you will rarely find organic goods.  [Note from Alexandra: Secondhand is better than newly manufactured organic cotton items. Go Glenny!] After learning that cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world (accounting for 25% of annual insecticide use globally!) I made a conscious decision to switch to organic cotton whenever possible.  This meant buying new sheets, towels, and looking into organic cotton alternatives for the clothes I buy new (socks, underwear, etc.).  Although I haven’t completely revamped my wardrobe, I now sleep soundly in my organic bed.  [Another note from Alexandra: Awesome!!] Check out ecochoices.com for more information on worldwide cotton production.

3. Plastic.

I know that all of the nasty chemicals that are found in plastics aren’t news to anyone reading this site.  They weren’t to me either, but I needed a push to start actively avoiding them in my life.

BPA – a hormone disrupter (it mimics estrogen) that has the FDA, Health Canada, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, among other entities, in a tizzy, and parents and hikers across the nation switching their baby and water bottles to BPA-free versions.  Manufacturers have taken consumer temperature and are busily marketing “safe” plastic products.  Unfortunately, some of the resulting BPA-free items contain other chemicals that are new to this arena and haven’t exactly stood the test of time.

Phthalates – this family of chemicals, which make plastic flexible (among many other things), are endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxicants.  The are currently being voluntarily removed or banned from everything from nail polish to neonatal tubing to toys.  They’re less ubiquitous in a kitchen than BPA but are likely found in certain plastics (like meat and cheese wrappings) as well as PVC (vinyl) flooring and even in cleaning-product fragrance.

Sure, I use (organic) cotton totes and only use my plastic bags for my garbage can, but I when I looked in my cupboards I was ashamed to realize how much food was stored in plastic containers.  My cereal and pastas were in plastic bags and my fridge was filled with leftovers in plastic tupperware!  What was I thinking?  So I threw it all out and bought loads of canning jars to use as storage instead.  I even moved my spices.  It was easy! [Yet another note from Alexandra: Nice! Love this!]

4. DIY cleaning.

I must confess, I have a fairly high tolerance for dirt and dust and have never lived in a sterile environment.  Perhaps it’s leftover from growing up in the country, in a house where the windows were always open and pets of all kinds were rampant.  I truly believe this is why my brother and I have incredible immune systems.

That said, most of my cleaning was done with minimal products, usually just water.  On the occasion when I was inspired enough to actually use some disinfectant, I turned to the all-natural brands like Seventh Generation or Ecover.  Fortunately, Alexandra’s tips on DIY cleaning have buffered my “do less” attitude toward cleaning while still keeping my apartment germ free.  I’ve even passed these tips on to my mother, who I can thank for fostering my housekeeping habits (or lack thereof).

DIY Cleaners

-Soap plus water equals mopping solution.

-Soap plus baking soda and a drop or two of water equals excellent mildly abrasive paste.  Extras to mix in include lemon, natural essential oils, or even hydrogen peroxide.

-Water plus vinegar equals glass cleaner.

5. Unplug.

Living alone and living simply means that I have few appliances.  I don’t own a coffee maker or a desktop computer.  My TV is rarely used.  But, for the gadgets I do use – lights, clocks, speakers – I never thought to unplug them when not in use.  I admit, my cell phone charger was usually plugged in until reading Planet Home.

Appliances use energy even when turned off.  Pull plugs out of the wall to stop energy draw.  Alternatively, plug them all into a power strip and turn the strip off when not in use, as well as overnight.

A very simple step towards greening your life.

Video: How To Unclog Drains/Prevent Clogs Using Safe Pantry Staples (Vinegar And Baking Soda)

  • May 22, 2011 9:44 am

Here’s a chatty, foam-tastic video that shows anyone how to clear their drains and prevent further clogs with 1/2 cup baking soda, 1/2 cup vinegar, and a little hot water. So easy, even I can do it.

Q&A: Sheets And Towels

  • May 19, 2011 9:39 am

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra,

Any home organic companies you recommend? Sheets and towels can be so expensive I’m hesitant to just buy them “blind” – I’ve purchased some Gaiam organic sheets and they are fairly cheap feeling and ill-fitting.

Thanks,

Lis

THE ANSWER

Dear Lis,

Thanks for the query. I hear you louder than I’d like. I bought several sets of organic sheets about 5 years ago and they’re currently worn so thin they’re tearing. I don’t remember my conventional sheets before then wearing out so soon. I don’t wash them overy often, and usually only in cold water. The dryers in my building are industrial so maybe that’s a factor. Then I purchased another organic brand when my daughter moved into a twin bed. These are already wearing through after only 3ish years.

Having only personally used two brands, I’m unfortunately not up to suggesting brands, especially as what I like might feel uncomfortable to you. That said, I will explain how to go about finding the best of what’s on the market. I must admit I’d buy my ripped brands again anyway. There are too many excellent reasons to buy organic cotton sheets beyond durability and fit, including that the Sustainable Cotton Project says cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides. These happen to be among the world’s worst pesticides. I choose organic to avoid being involved with that system. Besides, now I have many lovely rags to clean with.

It’s hard to know what’s what in the world of organic cotton. I try to buy from manufacturers who say they work with certified cotton and specifically mention  third party labels like USDA organic, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), or sets that meet Oeko-Tex standards. I also have natural undyed and unbleached sheets. It can be difficult to find out the specifics on manufacturing processes and the safety of dyes. So I just go natural. There are certainly sheets on the market adhering to these standards that come in colors. Another thing to consider is country of origin. If you want to support local farmers, you might not want your sheets from places as far away as China or India. When it comes to food, it’d widely accepted that USDA organic domestic is more trustworthy than USDA organic international. I assume the same goes for cotton. It’s harder to police. Since cotton is a crop, I also like to look for Fair Trade labels or mention on the sheet packaging (these aren’t always available).

Here’s a little something on linens from Planet Home:

The greenest sheets (and towels) are the ones you already have.  But it buying new, choose 100 percent organic cotton, either undyed or dyed in an ecofriendlier fashion.  Choosing organic is mainly about making a positive environmental impact; the exposure to toxins from contact with the cotton itself while sleeping is minimal.  Dyes, on the other hand, can come off on skin and are environmentally harsh.  If you see something called “green” cotton, don’t mistake it for organic.  It’s conventional cotton that hasn’t been bleached with chlorine or treated with formaldehyde, a carcinogen.  Bamboo is an eco-friendly material, but not when it is made into a fabric.  Bamboo sheets are basically rayon and not a great choice.  If you’re going to use conventional sheets (or towels), natural fibers are best.  Do not purchase anything with a permanent press finish, which is treated with formaldehyde, a VOC that you will inhale as you sleep.

If you’re reading this and have an organic sheet and towel brand you love, trust, and think makes a durable product, please say so in comments!

Q & A: Taming Toxic Furniture

  • April 28, 2011 8:17 am

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra,

I have a question for you.  I am coming to you because I actually didn’t know who else to ask. I am about to have a baby and in March we got new furniture from Restoration Hardware.  It clearly has a toxic smell.  I try and avoid the room and keep the windows open but the smell has not gone away.  First I would like to know- what do you think the smell actually is?  Second, how dangerous is this to my bay in my belly?  Thirds, how would you get rid of it? (air purifier, etc.)  Obviously I will keep the baby (when born) out of the room, but I am freaking out that my new furniture is really hurting my baby.

Please Help!!

Thanks!

Carrie

THE ANSWER

Dear Carrie,

Thank you for taking the time to send me your question. What kind of furniture are you referring to? I can’t tell you what the smell is without smelling it myself, unfortunately. And even then I might not know. That said, your nose knows. Truly. If it doesn’t smell good, it likely isn’t good. And you’re right not to want your growing baby around a seemingly questionable unknown. There are all kinds of things that can be lurking in furniture that would be best avoided, including formaldehyde–a known carcinogen–in the glues binding particleboard.

You can avoid this by carefully shopping for furniture. Once you already have a stinky table/cabinet/whatever in your house, there is one way to seal in offgassing chemical emissions from new furniture that has porous surfaces: in The Complete Organic Pregnancy and Planet Home I recommend AFM Safecoat Safe Seal, a water-based low-gloss sealer. Call the company directly to describe what you’re contending with and they can advise you. They also sell a variety of paints, stains, and more.

Ventilation (open your windows!) and air purifiers also help. So can taking the furniture outside if you can (make sure you have it under somewhere in case of rain). And the strongest offgassing will diminish as time goes by. If it continues to bother you, you might want to cut your losses and seek something else.

Good luck!

Thanks,

Alexandra

Here’s a passage from Planet Home where I discuss Safe Seal:

Much new furniture is made of composite woods like particleboard and medium-density fiberboard, which are temptingly inexpensive but best not brought into the bedroom; these can off-gas formaldehyde.  Though the vapors from new furniture containing formaldehyde glue diminish over time, they remain in high concentrations in smaller and improperly ventilated rooms.  If you have reason to suspect the fumes in your home are too high, there are inexpensive kits available that have been used by the Sierra Club to test levels in FEMA trailers.  For less serious levels, there are also houseplants known to act as air filters.  If you have a piece of composite wood furniture you love and don’t want to part with, move it to a room in the house where you spend less time.  You can also seal in the emissions…[from] composite wood parts with a product proven to reduce formaldehyde emissions, such as AFM Safecoat Safe Seal.

For more on which houseplants to use, check this out.

What To Expect…When Reading This Blog

  • April 18, 2011 8:36 am

Last night I drew a diagram of all of the things that I do. It was a dot I called “me” in the middle, and then circles all around me of what I’m working on, involved with, or otherwise doing. The verdict? I’m busy! (And, um, overextended.)

In an effort to make sure blogging doesn’t keep getting back-burnered, I’ve come up with the following schedule. This way you’ll know what I’m posting and when, and can come back to read accordingly.

I’m launching the new schedule this Tuesday, in honor of Earth Week, and will be raffling off several free copies of The Conscious Kitchen and Planet Home to new readers who follow me on Twitter and/or fan me on Facebook mentioning the new, more frequent blog via post or tweet and suggesting one thing I should cover on it.

  • TUESDAYS: Look for relevant information and excerpts from all of my books, linked to whatever is happening in the news
  • THURSDAYS: Q&A days! You send in your questions, I answer them.
  • SATURDAYS: Mish-mosh day, mainly food-related. I’ll be posting farmers’ market videos, ingredient thoughts, recipes, and more.

I promise to stick to the schedule, but of course reserve the right to do slightly less or maybe even more, especially when The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat comes out on June 7th.

If you like what you read, please let your friends know about it, and make some noise in comments. If you’re interested in hearing even more from me, sign up for my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, or “like” me on Facebook. I’m on there daily posting links to what I’m reading and thinking about throughout my days.

How To Make Your Own Cleaning Products (My Visit To Stone Barns)

  • April 15, 2011 6:11 pm

A few weeks ago I taught a DIY cleaning product class at the gorgeous Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in   Pocantico Hills, NY. Before I got around to demonstrating how to make the cleaners, I chatted about what ingredients and materials to use, and, of course, about the reason(s) why everyone should want to minimize the use of harsh chemicals in their homes.

Did you know that in cities like L.A. home products (cleaning products, paints, stains, etc.) are the biggest pollutant after cars?  Or that more than 300 man-made chemicals can be found in our bodies that weren’t there just three generations ago?  We don’t know what effect these toxins are having on our health as they mingle around inside of us. Cleaning product formulas are currently government protected as trade secrets so you either have to buy from a natural product company going above and beyond and disclosing their ingredients on a label, or you can make your own. This way, you’ll always know exactly what’s in your “product.” There’s nothing you can’t make with vinegar, water, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and castile soap. Lovely extras include lemons, olive oil, and maybe an essential oil or two.

Here are some of the DIY cleaner “recipes” I shared from Planet Home:

  • Tub Scrub: Baking soda + natural dish soap + a few drops of water = tub scrub. For a very soap scummy tub, use extra baking soda. Basically a 1 to 1 soap to baking soda ratio. (I tend to mix this in the palm of my hand with no measuring. I also, um, use it to exfoliate my face.)
  • Glass Cleaner: Make a 50/50 solution of white distilled vinegar and water. Just like your grandmother used to. Use newspapers instead of paper towels to wipe windows and mirrors.
  • Furniture Polish: Mix 1/4 cup lemon juice with 1/2 teaspoon olive oil in a glass jar. Dab solution onto a soft rag for use. Make only as much as needed; it doesn’t keep.

For anyone who hasn’t visited Stone Barns, go!  Here are some pictures of the farm from after the class and book signing. Yes, that is me trying to kiss a chicken. I wanted to give the photo as a present to my butcher. Thankfully the bird was smarter than me and wouldn’t come closer.