Friday, January 8, 2010

Every Day Toxins and How to Reduce their Effects

Before I continue with this blog, I should admit. . . I was slow to jump on the bandwagon for global warming reduction efforts.  Not that I was a global warming denier, I just thought (and still do) "That's just ONE of the issues we face!  What about all the toxins everywhere, especially in our homes!"

I am a big believer in reducing your chemical exposure as much as possible.  As we have "progressed" as a society, we have learned how to make so many more products than anyone can wrap their mind around.  When these products show up in a store, on a shelf, or in your food, it is second nature to assume it's safe.  We all know there are regulatory agencies out there, the people making the products are scientists, so- it has to be safe.  Unfortunately, the effects of most of the things we use are simply unknown.  There are not enough regulators available to study every new product created, or every new chemical synthesis.  Even if there were, there are too many confounding factors to make definitive statements regarding the use of common products and ultimate effects on health.  This is particularly true because most products with harmful chemicals- even additives that are known to cause cancer- emit those toxins at low levels, and effects wouldn't be expected for decades.  By that time, you've likely exposed yourself to a plethora of products, so a regulator really has no supporting evidence to make a determination that a certain product should not be released to the public.  One great example is the BPA issue right now.  It's very difficult to make a causal determination between BPA in a baby's bottle and cancer later in life.  This also highlights the biggest problem- that the entire system is flawed. Right now, the regulators bear the responsibility of PROVING that the product a company wants to put out is not safe.  If the regulators can not do this, then the product goes to the public.  Europe is changing that system, and is instead requiring the manufacturer to prove that the product is safe.  I don't know if the US is going to adopt this system, but even if they do, it still seems like a good idea to reduce your chemical exposure as much as possible.  You don't know for sure that plastic is leaching enough BPA into your fluids to cause you to develop cancer.  Yet, why take that risk?  What risk level are you comfortable with regarding your personal likelihood of contracting cancer?  In addition, you have so many other exposures that you can not control.  Cumulatively, these exposures can wreak havoc on your internal systems, so why not take out as many of those additive exposures as possible?

As it turns out, the more you reduce your exposure to chemicals, the more you also reduce your overall CO2 footprint.  They play together well.  I actually think that if your position is to reduce your CO2 footprint, you actually take the job of eliminating chemicals from your life more seriously.  Somehow it's always easy to say to yourself- "well, I know that pesticides are potentially toxic to me, but organic strawberries are so expensive, and the FDA hasn't banned non-organics, so maybe they're not really that bad.  I'm going to take the risk, save money and just wash them really well".  You may not actually have that whole conversation with yourself, but it is happening at a sub-conscious level.  If your goal is to reduce your CO2 footprint however, you realize that buying strawberries in Chicago in the winter is a terrible thing to Publish Postdo- they were shipped here from some place like Chile, probably soaked in pesticides, the pesticides being made from materials mined from Africa, and then probably grown on land that was previously rainforest.  You suddenly realize that your CO2 footprint for those strawberries is pretty horrible.  You are responsible for supporting mining operations, shipping across the ocean, air shipping in a refrigerated plane, and destruction of rainforest!  In the winter, even organic is a bad choice because they are still coming from far away, so you simply put them down and grab some locally grown winter squash instead.

My example above is food based, but this is true with nearly any product you use at home.  Given that it's winter right now, a lot of you are likely to be burning candles and using lotions to heal your dry skin. I know I do!  My husband is particularly crazy about scented candles.  Well several years ago I read about the dangers of candle burning towards impairing your indoor air quality.  It seems most commercially produced candles are paraffin based, and paraffin is a petroleum product.  The scents they use are not pure essential oils (which are truly the oils of the plant), they are delightful blend of chemicals.  And often the wicks are made with lead in them to help them stand up straight.  You can read a bit about that from the American Chemical Society.  Don't totally freak out, it's ok to light candles infrequently, but if you're lighting a bunch every day in your tightly sealed and winterized house (like we do!)- you may want to reconsider.  And that's what led me to making my own candles!  I've been making my own candles from soy wax and bees-wax, with hemp wicks and essential oil fragrances for several years.  They are EXTREMELY easy to make.  You can google candle making and find lots of websites with instructions, but I like this one, I find it very straightforward.  I really love making candles!  The only downside is that I don't add any color additives, as these are generally chemical based.  So all my candles  are white. This is only a downside if you're really into decorative candles. But, I've found it's a lot of fun to make pillar candles of different heights, and to pour candles into various jars.  I re-use the same jars over and over.  Pretty jars that once held fruit make excellent candle holders.  Varieties of jars, shapes and sizes make up for lack of colors.

I actually make a lot of things including an all-purpose cleaner, a bathroom shower spray, bathroom cleaner, hand soaps, facial toner, lotion, and chap-stick.  I've tried variations on dishwashing detergent but haven't found a good one yet.  My cleaning product recipes came from one of two books- Clean and Green or Better Basics For the Home, both by Annie Berthold-Bond.  She began making all of her own products after it turned out her child was allergic to the fumes being given off by commercially available products.  I was also concerned about the toxicity, after realizing so many of the products I was using tell you to wear gloves.  If you can't even touch it, how can this be good for your home!  I started buying eco-friendly products then.  At some point, I started to wonder, "what on earth does eco-friendly mean?"  As I looked into it, I found an organization known as the Green Seal.  Green Seal is an independent, non-profit organization that examines products which are submitted on a voluntary basis, and determines if they are ecologically sound.  At the time I was looking into it, NO household cleaning products available were given the Green Seal of Approval.  Generally products that are otherwise "green" add preservatives to obtain a longer shelf-life.  These preservatives make them disruptive to the environment. More companies have become cognizant that obtaining the Green Seal is actually a great marketing tool, and have either submitted their already green products, or began re-formulating their products.  Now products like Simple Green and even Oxy-Clean are given the Green Seal.  Notably though, popular eco-products like Seventh Generation and Method are not on the list.  Green Seal also certifies things like paint, and windows.  Even though household products are now approved, I am in the habit of making my own all-purpose cleaner, and continue to make it.  It's a very simple recipe- 1 Tbsp borax, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp vegetable-oil based soap (like Dr. Bronners).  Put it all in a a large spray bottle, then add a small amount of hot water.  Shake it up to dissolve the borax and baking soda.  Add 1 tsp of your favorite essential oil (I like cinnamon because it smells great, compliments most other scents in the kitchen, and has anti-microbial properties), and fill the bottle with water.  Voila!  I give this out to family and friends, and have received rave reviews!

I became interested in cosmetics after reading Ms. Berthold-Bond's books for cleaning products.  She has recipes for lotions and facial cleansers, and it got me interested in the entire concept.  Like candles, a lot of body products contain synthetic fragrances, colors and petroleum based products.  What is particularly unfavorable about this in something like a body lotion, is that you are smearing it all over your body's largest organ! Your skin breathes and absorbs, if you are smothering it with chemicals, then your whole body is affected.  I use lotion all the time, so this became troublesome to me.  Additionally, you may remember the lipstick scare from a couple of years ago.  Though lipstick is commonly made with heavy metals like lead, this only became widely known recently.  People started freaking out, and then all the hype died down and nothing has changed.  Fortunately the Environmental Working Group has been devoting a lot of time and energy to this issue for a while, and will continue to do so.  They have developed a database known as Skin Deep, which gives a hazard ranking score to cosmetics, sunscreens, etc.  What is particularly disturbing is that so many products contain endocrine disruptors and bio-accumulators.  Endocrine disruptors can destroy your central nervous system, your thyroid, and have been known to affect entire aquatic communities- keeping tadpoles from developing into males, for instance (there are entire populations of only female amphibians in some regions due to endocrine disruptors existing at high levels in the water).  Bio-Accumulators are products that do not get processed and eliminated from the human system.  They build up.  Your exposure increases over your life-span.

When organizations like the EPA and NIOSH estimate toxicity from products, they look at exposure routes.  Those routes are typically ingestion (through the mouth), absorption (skin, eyes), and inhalation (nose, mouth).  Now, where do you use cosmetics? EXACTLY!  The problem instantly becomes clear- everywhere you put your cosmetics- eyeshadow, mascara, loose powder, foundation, lipstick, etc. is in a direct route of exposure!  Maybe the particular amount of any chemical exposure in one application of lipstick is not very high.  In fact, it is likely very low, or else you would have an acute exposure reaction.  But, don't you re-apply throughout the day?  Don't you wear it pretty much every day?  How many years have you been applying it?  Does your favorite cosmetic contain a bio-accumulator?  As previously mentioned- the effects of long-term, low-dose exposures are not well defined.  The risk is truly unknown. One option is to stop wearing makeup, but it seems unlikely that most women will do this.  You can instead use the database to find products with a low hazard score, and then switch from your product to a less hazardous one.  I have done this for things like mascara, which I do not know how to make.  However, why not just make your own things?  I make my own lotion regularly and have made many other items.  Most of my recipes come from a community website:  Individuals submit their own recipes, and there are links to places to buy the ingredients.  I have found  great lotion, chap-stick, facial toners, and even aftershave formulas here.  I generally don't put fragrance in my lotion.  But today I am making an orange ginger scented lotion to mimic the scent sold at Bath and Body Works.  It's a lot of fun to try to come up with good scent blends using essential oils!  It's so much more satisfying to smell exactly how you want to smell, knowing that you are removing just one more area of risk from your life at the same time!

The greatest part of making all your own products is that you are reducing your reliance on petroleum.  Instead of being paraffin based, or chemical based, my products are based in shea-butter, cocoa butter, almond oil and essential oils!  Sounds luxurious doesn't it!  Instead of everything being prettily packaged in a new plastic bottle, I put mine in jars that used to hold pasta sauce for example.  Decorate with scraps of ribbon and fabric if you like!  I've actually been re-using an old lotion pump bottle for the past 5 years.  Instead of your products being produced in a big manufacturing plant with emissions and large waste streams, you make it at home, with very little energy input. You're not contributing to a waste stream either, in fact if you re-use bottles and jars you are removing from the waste stream! Instead of your products being shipped all around the world, it goes from you kitchen to your bathroom!  On top of all that, there is a sense of self-reliance.  I know these products aren't actually necessary to stay alive, but just knowing that I know how to make my own lotion makes me feel confident that I could figure out how to get through a natural disaster, or a long power outage, etc.  I know how to do things that most people don't, I can get by.

My ultimate advice: challenge your sense of security.  For every product you use, especially those you use frequently, and particularly those products you use on your body or spray into your air (see this article on air freshener toxic effects), think about what is in them.  Read the labels. Do an internet search on that product +health or +toxins.  Then do a search on making your own, or look at the Green Seal or Skin Deep websites to find safer alternatives commercially available.  The most important weapon you have to save yourself and the world is knowledge.

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