Monday, December 31, 2012

Recycling Your Christmas Tree

Sadly, it is time to start thinking about how best to dispose of our Christmas trees. Don't put your tree out with the regular trash, where it will simply end up in a landfill.

In Mt. Lebanon, you can put your tree out at the curbside for pick up the next two Saturdays, January 5 and 12; trees will be recycled into wood chips. You can also drop off your tree at the Public Works facility during this period.

The Allegheny County Parks Department also has a Christmas Tree Recycling Program, which runs through January 19 this year at all 9 county parks. Trees will be mulched and used in the parks. See here for drop off locations.

Check with your local municipality for other tree recycling programs.

Remember to make sure that your tree is not in a bag and that it does not have any decorations, lights or any other material on it.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paying Attention to Food Additives

The New York Times ran an article last week about a teenager who started an online petition asking PepsiCo to remove an ingredient called brominated vegetable oil from its sodas and sports drinks.

Even if you avoid these types of drinks, the article is an eye-opening account of the almost total lack of oversight of food additives in the U.S. Since 1997, the vast majority of new food additives, including flavorings, dyes, and preservatives, never received a safety determination from the government. What's more, since 1958 at least 1,000 new ingredients have entered the food supply without the knowledge of the government officials responsible for ensuring food safety. Manufacturers are not required to submit even basic information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before including a new additive in their products.

How is this possible? For the past 15 years, the FDA has ceded its responsibilities to the food manufacturers themselves. If a a company can get a hand-picked "expert," that is, one of its own employees or contractors, to say that an ingredient is safe, the company doesn't even have to alert the FDA that it is putting the ingredient into food.

This almost complete lack of regulation stands in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the developed world. It is so troubling that many ingredients that have been banned from the food supply in other countries remain in products sold in the U.S. Food manufacturers, instead of removing a banned ingredient from all versions of a product, will manufacture two versions: one free of the banned chemical for sale in the rest of the world and one containing the banned chemical for sale in the U.S.

Why? Because in those instances, it is cheaper to use the potentially harmful additive, rather than a safe alternative.

      Brominated Vegetable Oil

The case of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in sodas and sports drink is a good example of the major food companies' tactics. This ingredient is added to drinks to keep the flavoring ingredients from separating. BVO contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, and it is patented as a flame retardant for plastics. Only limited studies of BVO have been conducted in humans and animals. However, it has been found to build up in fatty tissue, raising concerns because overexposure to bromine causes a host of neurological and reproductive effects.

The European Union has long banned the use of BVO in food. Sodas sold in the EU market use alternative, natural ingredients to achieve the same stabilizing effect. Why don't companies replace BVO in drinks sold in the U.S.? The companies say that switching would be too costly.

      Artificial Food Dyes

Petroleum-derived food dyes are added to a myriad of products, many of them designed to appeal to children--products such as macaroni and cheese, candies and fruit snacks. Some of these dyes are known carcinogens. British studies have linked consumption of artificial dyes to hyperactivity in kids.

European Union regulations require a warning label on food containing artificial dyes; the warning must state that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." These regulations have prompted U.S. companies, including Kraft, Coca-Cola and Mars to remove artificial colors from products distributed in other countries, but not from their products sold in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Nestle completed the process of removing all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from all of its candies sold in the U.K. In that market, Nestle uses concentrates of fruits, vegetables and edible plants to provide colors to it products. At the same time that the company was announcing these changes, it announced that it had no plans to make similar changes in its products sold in the U.S.

Avoiding Harmful Food Additives

  • I've linked to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's guide to food additives before. It is a useful guide with safety ratings for a large number of additives.
  • Read labels. (Also be careful with children's medications; many contain artificial colors and preservatives).
  • Choose organic products whenever possible, by law they may not contain artificial dyes and preservatives.
  • Avoid brightly colored candies and other foods. Eat chocolate!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jackie's Thoughts

Karen does such an incredible job with this blog and I am always grateful for every one of her posts.  I had a thought today that I just wanted to share in light of what we all have been dealing with this weekend.  Everyday many children in our schools say these words out loud: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".  For our children we must be "one", we must be "indivisible" we much teach "liberty" and we must seek "justice for all".  Under the watchful eye of our God we must recognize when we are called to act.  I have no idea what we are to do but I think every real good change begins with conversation and ends with compromise.  As we all mourn, my prayer  is that we live what we claim and truly become "one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all"!

Monday, December 3, 2012

How Green is Your Christmas Tree?

From flickr by
Which is more eco-friendly, a real or an artificial Christmas tree? Environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council all agree: natural is best, both for the environment and for your family's health. 

Nevertheless, sales of artificial trees continue to climb; they are expected to hit 13.4 million trees this year, for a record $1.07 billion in sales. In the U.S., twice as many homes will put up fake trees as will display real ones.

The vast majority of artificial trees are manufactured in, and shipped here from, China. Their transportation alone creates a huge carbon footprint. Fake trees are made from PVC, a petroleum-derived plastic. PVC is toxic to the environment and to human health throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal. During the production of artificial trees, highly toxic dioxins are released into the environment. Dioxins are potent carcinogens. Further, PVC cannot be recycled; these trees will end up in landfills or being incinerated, again releasing dioxins.

In addition, lead is added to PVC during its production. The PVC in artificial trees degrades under normal conditions, releasing lead dust. According to the EPA, when fake trees are 9 years old, the degradation of the PVC can result in "dangerous lead exposures."

A PVC tree has no place in anybody's home, but certainly not a home with children.

Real trees, on the other hand, help the environment by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere while they are growing. You can also support a local small business by buying a tree from a local tree farm. Pennsylvania is one of the top Christmas tree growing states and there are a number of tree farms in our area. We buy our tree every year from Nutbrown's Christmas Tree Farm in Carnegie. You can cut your own tree, or they will cut one for you. It is a wonderful holiday tradition.

Finally, remember to recycle your tree after the holiday. Many communities, including the City of Pittsburgh and Mt. Lebanon, will pick up your tree and chip it for mulch. I will post information about pick-up dates and drop-off sites as it becomes available.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why and How to Avoid Triclosan

Truly "green" rubber gloves--no triclosan in these
I had purchased the same brand of rubber dishwashing gloves for years. When I needed a new pair I simply grabbed one at the grocery store, never paying any attention to the packaging. The last time I brought a new pair home, however, these words in small type in the corner of the box caught my eye: "Ultra-Fresh--Antimicrobial protection." 

As a rule, I avoid products marketed as "antimicrobial" or "antibacterial" because many of these contain triclosan. In fact, in turns out that "Ultra-Fresh" is a trade name for a triclosan additive.

What is Triclosan?

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical found in thousands of consumer products, including soaps, dishwashing liquids, cosmetics, cutting boards, sponges, shoes, and toys. It is a pesticide. This ubiquitous chemical has adverse effects on our health and the environment, while at the same time being largely ineffective at what it is supposed to do. For example, the FDA and many other groups say there is no evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

Health Effects

Triclosan is so prevalent in consumer products that a study by the Centers for Disease Control detected it in the urine of 75% of Americans aged 6 years and older. Triclosan is absorbed through the skin and the mouth when we use products containing the chemical.

Animal studies have shown that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that can, among other adverse effects, decrease levels of a thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormones are critical to brain development and function, particularly in children. These studies, according to a 2010 letter by the FDA, "raise valid concerns about the effect of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients." (A link to a PDF of the letter can be found in this article.)

More recently, a paper published this year found that triclosan impairs muscle function, including cardiac muscle function, in both humans and animals.

Finally, some studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics! Products marketed as protecting us from bacteria may actually be helping to breed drug-resistant bacteria or "superbugs."

Environmental Effects

Most of the vast quantities of consumer products containing triclosan get washed down our drains and end up in our waterways. Triclosan is one of the most frequently detected chemicals, at some of the highest concentrations, in U.S. streams. One reason that this is a cause for concern is that triclosan may react with UV rays to produce low levels of dioxin, a highly toxic substance. Furthermore, triclosan is toxic to various types of algae, making it it a potential disruptor of aquatic ecosystems.

 Triclosan is also discharged into the ocean. A 2009 study found traces of triclosan in the blood of bottlenosed dolphins tested off the coasts of South Carolina and Florida. The triclosan was found in their blood in concentrations known to disrupt the hormones, and growth and development, of other animals. Scientists called the accumulation of triclosan in these wild marine mammals--top level predators in the food chain--a worrisome finding, because it demonstrates that the chemical is building up in the ocean's food web.

Avoiding Triclosan

The bottom line is that the use of triclosan in consumer products is a marketing gimmick that poses a whole host of threats to our health and to the environment, while at the same time providing no real benefit whatsoever. My rubber gloves are a good example of how prevalent this unnecessary chemical is. What possible good could be derived from adding this chemical to rubber gloves?

How to avoid it:
  • Read labels: Antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpastes and cosmetics are regulated by the FDA. If these products contain triclosan, it will be listed as an ingredient on the label. 
  • Stay away from other products labeled "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial," such as cutting boards, towels, yoga mats, shoes, clothing, towels, bedding and toys. These items may also be labeled with terms such as "fights germs," "protection against mold," "odor-fighting," or other similar claims.
Finally, I was happy to find a safe and eco-friendly alternative to my triclosan-laced rubber gloves. The gloves pictured at the top of this post are made by a company I really like: If You Care. They are made from Fair Trade Forest Stewardship Council certified natural rubber. And I found them at my local Giant Eagle.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cough and Cold Relief for Kids (and Grown-ups, Too)

We are well into the season for colds and coughs; our family has already suffered from one bout with a nasty cold. I thus wanted to share some remedies that gave us relief from some of our symptoms.

My daughter is still at an age where it is not safe to give her over the counter (OTC) cold and cough medications. The FDA strongly recommends that children under 2 not be given OTC cough and cold products at all. It is still studying the safety of these products for kids ages 2 to 11, and thus has not issued a recommendation regarding kids in this age group. In addition to potentially dangerous drugs, most conventional cough and cold products for kids also contain things like artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners and harmful preservatives that I want to avoid.

We had good results from two chest rub products that we tried. My daughter was able to sleep through the night despite having a persistent cough during the day with each of these products. Badger Aromatic Chest Rub is certified organic and contains essential oils of eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary and tea tree in an olive oil and beeswax base (it smells really good).

We also tried another rub that worked well for her: Maty's All Natural Baby Chest Rub (even though she is no longer a baby). This also contains essential oils, including eucalyptus, lavender and chamomile, in a sunflower and coconut oil base. Maty's also makes an All Natural Vapor Rub to be used by anyone age 2 and up.

I purchased the Badger Chest Rub at Whole Foods and the Maty's at the South Hills Giant Eagle Market District.

It is important to me that these ointments don't contain the potentially harmful ingredients found in more popular products, such as Vicks VapoRub. The camphor in the Vicks product can be toxic if it is absorbed through mucous membranes or broken skin. VapoRub also contains turpentine oil, which is not safe for children or people with lung problems, including asthma. Finally, it also contains petrolatum, a petroleum product which I prefer to avoid.

In addition to these products, I also gave her teaspoons of honey to mitigate her cough. Several studies (including this one, and one here) have demonstrated that, in addition to soothing a sore throat, honey may be an effective cough suppressant. Remember: never give honey to infants under one year of age; in rare cases it can cause infantile botulism.

The combination of one of the above chest rubs and honey worked really well for us. What do you use to treat your family's colds?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Controlling Stink Bugs Safely

They're back. As reported in this recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, our area is seeing an increase in stink bug activity this fall. We are experiencing this increase at my house--a large number of these annoying creatures are turning up inside.

Although stink bugs are completely harmless to people and pets, the article reports that a local pest control company is currently hard at work spraying the outside of houses with pesticides! An employee of the pest control company is quoted in the article: "They don't pose any threat, but still people don't want them . . . They are ugly."

Yes, they're ugly, but it makes absolutely no sense to spray your home, outside or inside, with hazardous pesticides in an attempt to control these harmless bugs. Pesticides are poisonous. The pesticides sprayed on the exterior of homes to control stink bugs, synthetic pyrethroids (click on link to PDF), are toxic to people and the environment. What's more, according to this fact sheet from the Penn State Cooperative Extension, these pesticides offer, at best "minor relief," as they "may not kill the insects much beyond several days or a week."

In addition, the Penn State Department of Entomology advises against the use of pesticides inside the house after stink bugs have entered the structure. Pesticides used indoors, such as insecticidal dust, spray insecticides and aerosol-type foggers, are not effective at controlling stink bugs. They may even cause infestations of carpet beetles (they feed on dead stink bugs) which will then attack woolens, dry goods and other natural products in your home.

So, what is the best way to control these pests? The best way to keep them from entering your home in the first place is to seal all cracks in your home through which stink bugs might enter, and to repair any damaged door and window screens. If bugs are entering your home, try to locate interior openings where they are coming in. Usually these will be openings such as cracks in baseboards, around window and door trim, and around exhaust fans or ceiling lights.  These entry points need to be sealed. Live and dead bugs can be removed with a vacuum cleaner. But, the above fact sheet warns, "the vacuum may acquire the smell of stink bugs for a period of time."

Finally, this video from the University of Maryland Extension provides a lot of information about keeping stink bugs out of your house and getting rid of them if they do get in (although I think I yelled "heck, no" out loud at my computer when the presenter suggests putting stink bugs that you've collected with a vacuum cleaner in your freezer to kill them).

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Chloramine in our Water

If you are a customer of Pennsylvania American Water (PAW) living in Washington County or southern Allegheny County, since March of this year your water has been disinfected using chloramine. Perhaps like me you are wondering why PAW switched from chlorine to chloramine for disinfection, and if there are any reasons to be concerned about the use of chloramine in the water flowing into my home and from my faucets.


Chlorine creates toxic disinfection byproducts (DBPs) when it reacts with certain chemicals and organic matter in water. These DBPs have been linked to cancers and birth defects.

One of the class of chemicals with which chlorine reacts to create dangerous DBPs are called bromides. In 2010 and 2011 the Monongahela river, from which PAW draws its water supply, was found to have elevated levels of bromides, threatening the safety of our drinking water. Bromides get into our rivers from various sources, including power plant, conventional oil and gas drilling wastewater, and Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater discharges.

From 2008 until the spring of 2011, natural gas drilling companies brought millions of barrels of chemically tainted shale drilling wastewater to municipal water treatment plants. These plants, which were not equipped to properly treat this wastewater, discharge directly into the rivers from which hundreds of thousands of us get our drinking water. This practice did not stop until the state Department of Environmental Protection asked the drilling companies to voluntarily stop it. Nevertheless, at the end of 2011 bromide levels remained high in our rivers. Nobody appears to have a definitive answer as to why levels remain elevated; one possibility seems to be that wastewater from power plants, as well as from conventional oil and gas drilling (all of which contain bromides) is still being discharged into our rivers.

The combination of chlorine disinfection and elevated bromide levels caused the water supplied to many western Pennsylvania homes to exceed permitted levels of certain DBPs. Specifically, in 2011 some samples of the drinking water that PAW supplied to its customers exceeded the maximum allowable levels of some of these DBPs by nearly 30%. (You can access the 2011 Water Quality Report for the Pittsburgh, McMurray, Mon-Valley service area here). In previous years, some samples contained nearly double the maximum allowable levels of these toxic substances.

PAW made the switch from chlorine to chloramine in order to comply with new, stricter federal regulations, to go into effect this year, governing levels of chlorine DBPs in drinking water. Chloramine produces lower levels of certain DBPs regulated by the EPA.


Unregulated Disinfection Byproducts

However,  "[c]ompared to water treated with chlorine, water treated with monochloramine may contain higher concentrations of unregulated disinfection byproducts." This is from the EPA's statement on Chloramines in Drinking Water. In other words, our water may now contain different, even more dangerous DBPs that are simply not monitored and not regulated by the EPA. The best the EPA can give us is that it and other organizations are conducting research into potentially dangerous but currently unregulated DBPs.

The EPA acknowledges that the use of chloramine with source waters with high bromide, high iodide or high total organic matter may lead to the formation of unregulated disinfection byproducts such as iodoacids and nitrosamines.

Studies have shown that chloramine can indeed react with bromides, iodides and organic matter to create DBPs that are highly toxic, yet are not regulated by the EPA. These unregulated DBPs include iodoacids, discovered in water treated with chloramines in a 2004 study. One of the scientists conducting that study said iodoacids "may be the most toxic family of DBPs to date." He went on to note that the study demonstrated that switching from chlorine to chloramines " . . . may be opening a Pandora's box of new DBPs, and these new DBPs may be much more toxic, by orders of magnitude, than the regulated ones we are trying to avoid."

Another chloramine DBP of concern is NDMA (it is also a chemical used in the manufacture of rocket fuels). NDMA is a nitrosamine and is classsified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen. The World Health Organization, on the other hand, says it is "clearly carcinogenic." But even though NDMA is clearly dangerous, and has been detected in our drinking water, the EPA does not regulate it, so it is permitted in our drinking water at any concentration.

Leaching of Lead

The EPA acknowledges that changes in water chemistry from chloramine use may impact lead levels in water. Chloramines can make water more corrosive, which can lead to pipe corrosion (in the distribution system or in the home) and an increase in lead levels in water. This happened when Washington, D.C. switched from chlorine to chloramine in 2001, causing lead to leach from aging pipes into drinking water. Between 2001 and 2004 tens of thousands of children were exposed to extremely high lead levels; in some homes lead levels in the water were hundreds of times higher than the amount the federal government considers a level of concern. Blood tests revealed that hundreds of young children had potentially damaging amounts of lead in their blood.

Closer to home, West View began using chloramine in its water in 2009. Testing in 2010 revealed high lead levels in water supplied to older homes with lead pipes. West View stopped using chloramines in 2010, but started using it again this year.

As my house was built in the 1930's, I am extremely concerned about the possibility of chloramine causing lead to leach into our water. PAW states that it practices "corrosion control" at its water treatment facilities. However, this is a complex science and the details of all the related environmental chemistry are not fully understood.

Removing Chloramine from Your Water

So, are there ways to remove chloramine and its dangerous byproducts from our water? Chloramine is not easy to remove from water; it is much more difficult to remove than chlorine. According to the EPA you cannot remove chloramine from water by boiling it, allowing it to sit at room temperature, or by using a reverse osmosis filter.

While it appears that some products claim to remove chloramine from drinking water or from shower water, the NSF only certifies certain products for chloramine reduction.

I am continuing to research ways to reduce or remove chloramine and chloramine DBPs, and will follow up in a future post.

Monday, September 24, 2012

PVC in School Supplies

A report published last month provides yet another reminder of why we should avoid products made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in every instance--especially products used by our children.

PVC is damaging to the environment and our health at every stage of its life cycle. A variety of toxic substances are used, created and released during its manufacture, use and disposal. Lead and other heavy metals are added during production. Dioxins, highly toxic and persistent pollutants, are generated as a by-product. Additives, including phthalates, are added before it is molded into final products, including children's products, such as vinyl school supplies and rainwear.

Phthalates are plasticizers used to soften PVC. Several phthalates have been determined to be probable human carcinogens. Exposure to phthalates has been associated with adverse reproductive outcomes in humans, including changes in fetal reproductive development. They are pervasive in the environment, making their way into the food chain. They are also pervasive in our bodies; the CDC has found that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.

The environmental health advocacy group, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), issued the report. They tested children's vinyl school supplies, including backpacks, lunchboxes and 3-ring binders, as well as raincoats and rainboots.  These included Disney, Spiderman and Dora branded products. 75% of the products tested contained elevated levels of phthalates. The levels found would be unlawful if the products were toys. However, no laws cover permissible levels in products such as school supplies and raingear. 65% of the products tested contained elevated levels of the phthalate DEHP, classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen. These phthalates are not chemically bound to the vinyl; they therefore can be released from the products, potentially exposing children to elevated levels of these dangerous substances.

Avoid vinyl school supplies, and all other vinyl products, such as shower curtains, miniblinds, wallpaper, flooring, raingear and garden hoses, as much as possible. Vinyl products are not always labeled as such, but may be labeled as "vinyl" or "PVC." Also avoid vinyl packaging--look for the number "3" in the recycling symbol, or the letters "V" or "PVC" underneath.

Finally, the CHEJ offers a comprehensive guide to PVC-free school supplies (go here for link to the PDF). The guide includes tips for avoiding PVC school supplies, as well as a spreadsheet of companies that offer PVC-free products.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Shower Filters for Chlorinated Water

Note: If you live in the city of Pittsburgh, your tap water is disinfected using chlorine. However, if you are a customer of Pennsylvania American Water living in Allegheny County, as of March 22, 2012, your water has been disinfected using chloramine.

When chlorine is used to disinfect water, it reacts with organic matter in the water to create volatile by-products known as trihalomethanes (THMs). One particularly dangerous THM is chloroform, deemed by the EPA to be a probable human carcinogen. According to the 2010 report of the President's Cancer Panel, long-term exposure to chlorine disinfection by-products such as chloroform may increase cancer risk.

Showering with chlorinated water is of particular concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control, chloroform easily enters the body through the skin and you can breathe chloroform that evaporates from hot shower water. Chloroform that is absorbed through the skin or inhaled quickly enters the bloodstream and is dispersed throughout the body. It affects the brain, liver and kidneys. In addition to being linked to various cancers, chloroform has been linked to reproductive disorders, including miscarriage.

Thus, experts recommend shower filters to reduce chlorine and chlorination by-products in shower water as much as possible. According to this article from Green America, the best type of filter to remove chlorine and its by-products is a combination carbon/KDF adsorption filter. The article recommends as a resource. However, NSF, a not-for-profit organization that provides independent third-party testing and certification for water treatment units, does not currently certify any shower filters to reduce chloroform and other THMs. NSF only certifies shower filters for chlorine reduction.

If you do not have a shower filter, or if you don't trust that your filter is in fact reducing certain dangerous chlorination by-products, you can take steps to reduce your exposure to those by-products. Take shorter, cooler showers and ensure that your bathroom is ventilated as well as it can be. Also, don't use a mist or fine spray setting on your shower head, as that can increase the amount of chloroform inhaled.

As for those of us whose water is now treated with chloramine--according to the the EPA, chloramine is more difficult to remove from water than chlorine. For example, showerhead filters and bathtub filter balls do not remove chloramine. In addition, the by-products of chloramine disinfection have not been studied and their health effects are unknown. According the the National Resources Defense Council, they may be as bad, or worse, than THMs. Stay tuned for a future post about chloramine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Packing a Waste-Free, Plastic-Free Lunch

When I posted earlier this year about avoiding plastic food containers and packaging due to the potential leaching of harmful chemicals, a few people asked about packing school lunches.

Well, it's time to start thinking about that seemingly endless parade of school lunches, and of what to pack them in.

Last fall, I purchased a stainless steel PlanetBox for my daughter, and a year later I am still a big fan. The PlanetBox is a bento-style lunchbox with four compartments. (The company recently started selling a version with three, larger compartments). It works perfectly for us. I usually fill two of the compartments with fruits or vegetables, one with a halved hard-boiled egg and the largest one with a sandwich. I purchased a carry bag that accommodates an ice-pack, so everything stays fresh.

Her lunch is completely waste-free, there is nothing to throw away. The lunchbox is easy to clean.  I wash it by hand but it is advertised as being dishwasher-safe. My daughter likes the cute magnets that you can purchase to decorate the PlanetBox. And I love the fact that after one full year of use (including lunches for summer camp) it is still in perfect condition. The price does reflect the quality of the product; I paid $60 for the lunchbox and carry bag.

If this style of lunchbox doesn't work for you, there are still a myriad of options available. is a wonderful source of products for packing a waste-free lunch. They have a wide selection of stainless steel containers. I have several of the LunchBots containers; they are great for packing sandwiches and otherwise replacing plastic bags. Whole Foods in East Liberty is selling some To-Go Ware stainless steel food carriers that look nice and functional.

Pack reusable utensils, and a reusable water bottle or insulated bottle, and you'll be doing your part to reduce the 67 pounds of lunch waste that the average American school-aged child throws away every year.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mattresses: Conventional vs. Organic

I'm in the process of choosing a mattress for my daughter's new bed and updating the research that I did five years ago when my husband and I purchased a new mattress. What I'm finding confirms the reasons we chose an organic latex mattress back then and why we will be purchasing an organic mattress now.

Most conventional mattresses are constructed of materials that can off-gas and otherwise degrade, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxic dust that we then breathe, absorb through our skin, and even ingest during the hours we spend sleeping.

Conventional cotton used to make mattresses may be contaminated with pesticide and insecticide residues. It also is treated during the production process with chemicals, some of which are very toxic. These include formaldehyde, dioxins and heavy metals.

Formaldehyde is also used in some mattresses to make the adhesives that hold the mattress together. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that has been linked to asthma, as well as lung, nose and throat cancer.

Most conventional mattresses contain polyurethane (PU) foam. There is nothing good to be said about PU foam. It is a petroleum-based material that emits VOCs linked to respiratory problems and skin irritation. Memory-foam mattresses contain a host of troubling materials--one lab analysis revealed that one model of this type of mattress emitted 61 chemicals, including the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene.

In addition, PU foam is extremely flammable and thus, in order to meet federal safety standards, manufacturers must take measures to make it resistant to flames. They do this by using toxic flame retardants or barrier fabrics, which also may contain harmful chemicals.

Many conventional mattresses manufactured prior to 2004 used PDBEs as flame retardants. The use of these substances was banned or phased out by industry as the evidence of their toxicity mounted. They are developmental neurotoxins as well as potent thyroid disruptors. PDBEs accumulate and persist in our bodies. They are still found in women's breast milk and the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.

There is no way to know what manufacturers are using today to meet federal regulations regulating the flammability of mattresses. Major mattress companies refuse to disclose this information, claiming that their materials are protected as proprietary trade secrets.

This article cites an industry spokesperson who says that most of the manufacturers now use fire-resistant barrier fabrics. Some of these are made of melamine-formaldehyde resin; as these fibers degrade they release formaldehyde. Others are made of modacrylic fiber, which contains antimony oxide, another known carcinogen. Still other barrier fabrics used in mattresses are cotton bonded with boric acid (which some object to as it is also used as roach poison) and rayon treated with silica (tiny fragments of glass or clay).

Of course, avoiding harmful materials is of paramount importance when shopping for a child's or baby's mattress. A report released in November of last year found that 72% of the crib mattresses sold in the U.S. contained one or more chemicals of concern, such as antimony, polyurethane, vinyl, other volatile organic compounds, and undisclosed flame retardants.

Wool is naturally fire-resistant. An organic mattress can meet federal fire safety regulations without the use of chemical flame retardants if it is properly constructed using wool.

If you are in the market for a new mattress or shopping for an infant's or child's mattress, there are many sources of safer alternatives to conventional mattresses that you might want to consider. We bought our organic latex mattress at the Organic Mattress Store in Hellertown, PA. We took a side trip there on a trip to Philadelphia; it is about 1 1/2 hours away.

I was happy to discover that an organic mattress store recently opened in Pittsburgh: the Natural Sleep Shop in Cranberry. This store carries the Savvy Rest line of organic mattresses and crib mattresses.

An organic mattress will almost certainly cost more than a conventional mattress. However, a natural latex mattress will also last longer than a conventional mattress. We were told that ours should last 20-25 years. When I considered that we spend 8 hours a day breathing and otherwise absorbing whatever is being released from our mattress, it made sense to me to go organic.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Buying and Storing Produce, Without Plastic

You're taking your reusable grocery bags to the store, right? But what do you do with your produce? I confess that I still use those plastic produce bags for a lot of my produce--way too many of them. I admire the people who just throw their produce into their carts or right into their reusable grocery bags. I'm sure that that is the right thing to do, but, as a bit of a germophobe, I can't quite get myself to do this with all of my fruits and vegetables. And sometimes it is just more practical to use a bag when I am buying many pieces of a certain item.

However, I have committed to kicking the plastic bag habit, thereby eliminating the waste as well as another instance in which our food comes into contact with plastic. That's why I am ordering reusable cotton bags to use at the store. I found two sources with both organic and non-organic cotton options. I've ordered many items from and have been very happy with their service and the products I've received. The site has this selection of reusable produce bags. Ecobags also has a good selection of cotton produce bags. Of course, it would also be a big improvement to simply bring plastic produce bags back to the store and reuse them.

Finally, here is a great guide from the Berkley Farmers' Markets on how to store fruits and vegetables without plastic.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What's in That Bottle of Olive Oil?

By Kevan
Recent research shows that two of the most adulterated foods sold are honey (which I wrote about in an earlier post) and olive oil. Olive oil is far more valuable than most other oils, and is costly and time-consuming to produce. Thus, it is often adulterated with cheaper oils, chemically manipulated or mislabeled. For example, many bottles on store shelves labeled "extra-virgin olive oil" do not in fact contain extra-virgin olive oil. These bottles contain oil cut with lower-grade or cheaper oils, or artificial colors. Some bottles contain oil manipulated to disguise rancidity.

In a recent book, Extra Virginity:  The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, author Tom Mueller writes that one Italian olive oil producer estimates that 50% of the olive oil sold in the U.S. is adulterated in some way.

Why should we be troubled by this? Good, fresh olive oil is a wonderfully healthy fat, as Mueller puts it, "a cocktail of 200+ beneficial ingredients." It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Bad or rancid oil loses those properties; it is full of free radicals and impurities. Furthermore, cheap oils, such as soybean, or some seed and nut oils, are extremely unhealthy. They are highly inflammatory, high in omega-6 fatty acids.

So, what can we do to avoid these adulterated olive oils and ensure that what we are buying is actually fresh, healthy olive oil? Mueller has posted this very informative guide to buying olive oil. He recommends finding a store where you can taste oils before you buy (see below). If that is not a possibility, he has many other tips about what to look for. Mueller notes that bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of an oil's healthful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. He advises to, above all, seek out freshness. I found this helpful article about recognizing rancidity in olive oil. The author claims that most people in the U.S. are actually accustomed to the flavor of rancid olive oil.

Sources for olive oil in Pittsburgh:
  • California Olive Oil Connection at the Farmers' Market Coop of East Liberty. This merchant dispenses its oils from bulk containers into reusable bottles. The oil is certified extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council; a certifying body that Mueller says provides a certain level of confidence that the oil is properly made.
  • Olio Fresca Olive Oil Company at the Pittsburgh Public Market. The last time I visited the Public Market this merchant had many olive oils available for tasting.
  • Finally, the much-loved Strip District institution Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., better known as Penn Mac, has a mind-boggling selection of olive oils. If you track down the olive oil buyer or other knowledgeable employee, you should be able to garner plenty of information to help you choose a great olive oil.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Keeping Pests Off Your Pets, Safely

Recently I blogged about alternatives to DEET insect repellents for kids and adults. For those of you with pets that go outside, summer and fall are also flea season. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has some great online resources to help you avoid toxic flea-control chemicals.

Flea collars and sprays often contain chemicals that can harm pets and people, especially children. In particular, 2 very toxic chemicals, tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) and propoxur, are found in some flea collars. Both of these chemicals are found in products marketed for cats and dogs. Both of them can poison pets and may cause long-term health consequences in humans. Propoxur is known to cause cancer in humans, and the EPA classifies TCVP as a possible human carcinogen. In addition, TCVP and other chemicals in the same family, known as organophosphates, are also suspected of being linked to neurodevelopmental problems in children.

To control fleas, the NRDC suggests starting with chemical-free methods and moving on to lower-risk chemical products only if necessary. Articles posted here and here contain suggestions about what you can do to approach the problem of flea-control.

If you find yourself needing a chemical flea or tick treatment, the NRDC has put together a very useful products directory. They checked the ingredients in more than one hundred flea and tick products and found that many contain toxic chemicals that can poison pets and harm people. The directory sorts the products into one of three potential risk levels. You can use it to look up a product you are considering or to search for a less toxic options. You can also print out this concise pocket guide to help you choose safer products.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Love It: An Effective, Safe Deodorant

Yesterday was the first day of summer and it hit 92 degrees. I thought it might be a good time to post about an all-natural deodorant that works really well for me, even in this weather.

When I started the process of replacing conventional personal care products with cleaner, greener ones, one of the first things I looked for was an effective natural deodorant. Like most people, I use this product every day and it stays on my skin all day. Conventional deodorants and antiperspirants contain a cocktail of ingredients that I wanted to avoid.  First and foremost on the list are the aluminum compounds used to plug sweat ducts to stop  the flow of sweat. Aluminum is a neurotoxin; small amounts are absorbed by the skin. The science on the health effects of aluminum salts in antiperspirants is conflicting. For example, there are no conclusive studies establishing a causal link between the use of antiperspirants and breast cancer. However, some studies have suggested that there is a relationship between the use of these products and breast cancer, and also that aluminum compounds can cause estrogen-like effects in breast tissue. Thus, the National Cancer Institute has determined that additional research is needed to investigate the relationship between antiperspirants and breast cancer. Further, conventional deodorants/antiperspirants can contain a whole additional slew of problematic ingredients, including BHT, synthetic fragrances and penetration enhancers, such as propylene glycol, that facilitate the skin's absorption of all that bad stuff.

So, I tried many different deodorants with cleaner ingredients, but couldn't find one that worked well for me. Let's just say that they didn't neutralize odors as well as one might hope. Last year, though, at an event sponsored by Women for a Healthy Environment, I asked natural beauty expert Jessa Blades if she could recommend a non-toxic deodorant that actually worked. Yes! she said:  Soapwalla's Deodorant Cream. She was right, this is a great product. It uses clays, baking soda and vegetable powders to absorb moisture, and organic essential oils to inhibit bacteria.

Two caveats:  (1) when I first started using the Deodorant Cream, I developed red bumps under my arms and stopped using it for a while. Apparently this is a not uncommon reaction, for many people it seems to be a reaction to the baking soda. I tried it again when I ran out of the deodorant I was using and have never had a problem since. I just try to remember not to use it right after shaving. Also, Rebecca, Soapwalla's owner will make a baking soda-free version if the baking soda causes a reaction. (2) At $12 plus $4 shipping, it is somewhat pricey. However, it lasts a long time and for a product that is so effective and so pure, I'm willing to pay the price.

Finally, given that everybody's body chemistry is different and people react to different ingredients, it is possible that Soapwalla's Deodorant Cream won't work for you. Thus, I am listing a couple of other cleaner, greener choices that have received rave reviews on various sites:

  • Bubble & Bee Pit Putty Deodorant Creams:  This company is serious about the safety of the ingredients is uses. Many of its products are USDA certified 100% organic.
  • Lavanila The Healthy Deodorant: I've used and liked this product a lot. It contains no petrochemicals, phthalates, propylene glycol, sulfates or parabens. I purchased the vanilla coconut scent at Sephora.

I would love to hear from anyone who has found a "clean" deodorant that works for them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bugs Be Gone

It's mosquito and tick season--time to take steps to ward off bites. The repellent DEET is very effective at keeping mosquitoes, ticks and other insects at bay. However, it is a neurotoxin which, as shown in Duke University Medical Center studies, affects brain cells. Further, it is absorbed quickly through the skin and enters the bloodstream. Commercial DEET repellents are often formulated with the solvent ethanol, which increases the amount of DEET absorbed through the skin.

As with all potentially harmful chemicals in the environment, children are at increased risk for subtle brain changes caused by DEET.  Their skin more readily absorbs chemicals and chemicals pose more of a threat to their developing nervous systems.

The author of the Duke University studies had this to say:  

The take home message is to be safe and cautious when using insecticides. Never use insect repellents on infants, and be wary of using them on children in general. Never combine insecticides with each other or use them with other medications. Even so simple a drug as an antihistamine could interact with DEET to cause toxic side effects . . . Until we have more data on potential interactions in humans, safe is better than sorry.

I do want to acknowledge that many government agencies and health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, maintain that DEET in concentrations of up to 30% is safe for kids over 2 months of age. (Although, see the lengthy list of precautions the EPA requires on DEET product labels.) If I were traveling to an area where dangerous insect-borne diseases were prevalent I would weigh the benefits and risks of DEET and other chemical repellents. But here in western PA, I choose not to apply this potentially harmful insecticide to my child's skin.

To protect my family from mosquitoes and ticks I take the following measures:
  • Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts when hiking or in the woods; tucking pants into socks. Not wearing bright colors.
  • Performing a full body "tick check" upon returning home from anywhere that might be infested with ticks, including our backyard.
  • Checking clothes for ticks upon returning home.
  • We don't use scented products (perfumes, soaps, deodorants, etc.), but these should be avoided as they can attract insects.
  • Botanical insect repellents: I found a natural repellent that works well on my kid, who is a mosquito magnet. All Terrain Kid's Herbal Armor uses six natural oils to repel insects. Because natural repellents work due to the scent of the oils, they do need to be reapplied more frequently than chemical repellents. This one works for about two hours and then needs to be reapplied.
  • I also plan to try another repellent, Bite Blocker, that I've read good things about. It contains soybean oil and geranium oil; a 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that it provided 1.5 hours of protection from mosquito bites.
  • Finally, I have been using these wonderful Bug Out! candles on our deck in the evening to keep away mosquitoes. I've tried the original and geranium scents. These are GMO-free soy wax candles that use essential oils to repel bugs. I found them at Whole Foods in East Liberty; they have the 20 oz. tin for 16.99 and the 2 lb. tub for 21.99.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Toxic Chemicals in Your Couch--And How They Got There

Last month the Chicago Tribune published a stunning four part series revealing how chemical companies and Big Tobacco have waged a decades-long campaign of deception that has led to the furniture, baby products and electronics in our homes being loaded with toxic flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and infertility. The kicker? These dangerous chemicals don't work--they don't protect us from fire in any meaningful way.

The campaign began with Big Tobacco, which wanted to deflect attention away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths and onto the couches and chairs that were going up in flames. So tobacco companies launched a campaign touting flame retardant furniture as the best way to protect consumers against fire. Big Tobacco's tactics have been carried forward by chemical companies evidently willing to go to any lengths to preserve the lucrative market for their flame retardant products. The campaign has included the creation of a phony consumer watchdog group (actually an industry front group) that spent millions of dollars lobbying state legislators and testifying at hearings before state legislatures about the benefits of flame retardant chemicals. The chemical companies also distorted and manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and to downplay their health risks.

Some flame retardants escape from the foam in furniture and other household products, and from the plastic casings of electronics, and settle in dust. We ingest surprisingly large amount of that dust. Toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than adults. The authors also note that a typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants in his body of any infants in the world.

The Tribune describes how the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed generation after generation of these chemicals into our homes without ever assessing the health risks. Current federal law gives the government almost no power to assess or limit the dangers from thousands of chemicals added to furniture, electronics, toys, cosmetics and other household products. The law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe. And even once adverse health effects have been demonstrated, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.

Manufacturers removed one flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, from children's pajamas decades ago after it was linked to cancer. Major health and regulatory agencies have identified chlorinated Tris as a cancer risk. Yet the EPA says it is largely powerless to do anything about the chemical and it is still used in couches, nursing pillows, car seats, highchairs, diaper-changing pads and other products made with polyurethane foam (without any warning labels).

I encourage you to take the time the read the entire series. It is an astounding account of the the almost complete lack of regulation of dangerous chemicals in household products and of the role of money in politics. For a good summary, take a look at Nicholas Kristof's New York Times op-ed piece.

Finally, if you are asking yourself, as I was, how you can reduce your and your family's exposure to flame retardant chemicals, the series includes this article about the difficulty of avoiding flame retardants. In it, one of the nation's leading experts on fire retardants describes how she switched the flooring in her living room from carpet to hardwood in an attempt to reduce the accumulation of dust. She also advises frequent hand washing to reduce exposure to contaminated dust, particularly after touching dryer lint, which can concentrate not only flame retardants but other toxic chemicals that escape from household products.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


In time for stocking up for the sunny weather--the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has posted its 2012 Sunscreen Guide. The guide is a great resource for choosing safer sunscreens and other products with SPF, such as lip balms, moisturizers and makeup.

Choosing a mineral-based sunscreen--one that provides a physical block against the sun's rays--will allow you to avoid the problematic ingredients found in non-mineral based formulations. Many of the chemicals used in non-mineral based sunscreens are potential hormone disruptors. For example, about 52% of sunscreens on the market contain oxybenzone, a potential hormone disruptor that penetrates the skin in significant amounts. If fact, it has been found to contaminate the bodies of 96% of Americans. Because of toxicity and skin penetration concerns, a number of experts caution against using sunscreens containing oxybenzone on children.

Mineral sunblocks do not penetrate the skin as chemical sunscreens do. However, the EWG advises consumers to avoid any sunscreen that comes in aerosol spray or powder form. These products pose risks of inhalation and lung damage.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What's In That Honey Jar?

Siona Karen via Flickr

Last year, Food Safety News reported that 1/3 or more of all honey consumed in the U.S. is likely smuggled in from China. Why should that concern us? Because the honey may be contaminated with lead and illegal antibiotics.  

Millions of pounds of Chinese honey is shipped to the U.S. through India, flooding grocery store shelves and ending up in hundreds of different processed foods. This honey has been banned as unsafe in dozens of countries; the European Union banned all shipments of honey from India beginning in June of 2010 because of the presence of lead and illegal animal antibiotics.

What's more, as reported in this article, more than 3/4 of the honey sold in major grocery chain stores (including Giant Eagle) and big box chain stores isn't honey at all.  It has been "ultra-filtered" so that it no longer contains pollen. Most of the world's food safety agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have ruled that any product that no longer contains pollen isn't honey. However, the FDA does not inspect honey sold in the U.S. to determine whether in fact it does contain pollen.

Why would pollen be removed from honey? Pollen is the only foolproof way to identify the source of honey. Without it, there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources. 

The California advocacy group, Center for Environmental Health, found high levels of lead in honey purchased from 3 different grocery stores in the Bay Area and Southern California. The honey had between 1.5 to over 2 times the legal limit of lead. On May 2, the group filed lawsuits against two grocery store chains, alleging violations of a California law which limits lead in consumer products.

I take all this as a very strong argument to stay away from any honey unless you can verify its source. The best way to do that is to buy local honey from one of the growing number of local beekeepers. I have purchased local honey from beekeepers at the Mt. Lebanon Farmer's Market, which opened for the season last Saturday, as well as the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District, which opens later this month. Other places to look for local honey: Whole Foods in East Liberty, the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip, the East End Food Co-op and Sunny Bridge Natural Foods in McMurray.

This article published last fall in Pittsburgh Magazine lists some other sources of local honey.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tide Free and Gentle (Except for Probable Carcinogen)

Proctor & Gamble markets Tide Free and Gentle laundry detergent to moms as a safer choice for their children's laundry. However, as reported here by the New York Times, testing by the environmental group Women's Voices for the Earth found problematic levels of 1,4 dioxane in Tide Free and Gentle. 1,4 dioxane is a solvent most commonly found in products that create suds, such as detergent, shampoo, and liquid soaps. It is a contaminant created during manufacturing, as the result of a process in which harsh and irritating ingredients are converted into less-harsh chemicals.  Because it is a contaminant, you will not find it listed on any product label.  The EPA considers 1,4 dioxane a probable human carcinogen.

It is possible to remove 1,4 dioxane from products, or manufacturers could simply forgo the process that creates it by using purer, less-harsh ingredients to begin with. However, Proctor & Gamble, has no plans to reformulate Tide Free and Gentle to remove this dangerous chemical.

A 2010 study by the Organic Consumers Association found 1,4 dioxane in nearly two-thirds of the laundry detergents sold in America.  Only a few brands were found to be free of the chemical.  Those brands included Seventh Generation Free and Clear (which I use and can highly recommend), as well as ECOS Free & Clear by Earth Friendly Products.

Friday, May 4, 2012

NYT Column on Endocrine Disruptors

Nicholas Kristof has a nice, succinct column in the New York Times about endocrine disruptors and their links to breast cancer, infertility, precocious puberty, and even diabetes and obesity. These chemicals are everywhere: in food packaging, plastics, cosmetics and widely used pesticides and herbicides. Kristof notes that new research is constantly being published about the long-term effects of these chemicals on our health, yet their use remains virtually unregulated.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Recent Article on Chemicals in Everyday Food Packaging

The Washington Post recently published an informative article entitled "If the Food's in Plastic, What's in the Food?"

The author discusses studies showing that plastic food packaging is a major source of the BPA and phthalates (chemicals used to make plastics flexible) which are found in the bodies of most Americans.  Other studies show that phthalates pass into food during food processing, some of it from the PVC found in the tubing in food processing equipment, conveyer belts and food prep gloves.

In an earlier post on plastic food packaging, I discussed how the FDA regulates as "indirect food additives" chemicals that migrate from packaging into food. The FDA has approved more that 3,000 of these chemicals for use in food packaging, including known or suspected reproductive toxins and carcinogens, including BPA, formaldehyde, some phthalates, styrene and various forms of PVC. A Swiss researcher quoted in the Post article found that at least 50 compounds with known or suspected endocrine-disrupting activity have been approved as food-contact materials.

The FDA approves these potentially hazardous substances for food packaging on the premise that "the dose makes the poison" and that the amounts of these chemicals that migrate into food are too small to be harmful. However, as the author of the Post article points out, that premise does not take into account the emerging science on endocrine disruptors. The science shows that these chemicals might be harmful at much lower doses than have previously been suspected of causing health problems.

The director of a Pew Charitable Trusts initiative examining FDA regulation of food additives explains that some of the chemicals approved by the FDA were approved back in the 1960's:  "Unless someone in the FDA goes back and looks at those decisions in light of the scientific developments in the past 30 years, it’s pretty hard to say what is and isn’t safe in the food supply."

Another criticism of the FDA is that it does not consider the effects of cumulative exposure.  We come into contact with an untold number of chemical-leaching products everyday. As a scientist notes in the article, "a variety of chemicals ingested separately in very small doses may act on certain organ systems or tissues as if they were a single cumulative dose." In other words, continued and repeated exposure to even trace amounts of different hazardous chemicals can have adverse health effects.

Finally, the article points out that we as consumers have no way to know what chemicals, and in what amounts, we are ingesting or serving to our families every day. Disturbingly, the FDA gets its migration data and preliminary safety information from packaging manufacturers and protects the information as confidential.

The information in this article reinforces the importance of choosing whole, fresh food (and foregoing packaged, processed food) whenever you can.  Farmers' markets will be opening in our area in the next few weeks. I can't wait to take advantage of these sources of fresh, local food.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Clearing Drains Safely

Chemical drain cleaners are among the most dangerous cleaning products. Most conventional drain cleaners contain corrosive ingredients like lye and bleach that can severely burn your eyes and skin; some contain dangerous acids. Hundreds of people are seriously injured every year by drain cleaners. You don't need these extremely hazardous products to clear your drains; there is no reason to have them in your home. (If you do, you can dispose of them at one of the Household Chemical Collection events held by the Pennsylvania Resources Council.)

To keep your drains clear, prevention is important. My bathtub drains are prone to frequent clogging. However, I can keep them running freely for a long time if I am diligent about some preventative measures.

Every week or so I pour a cup of baking soda down the drain, and then a few cups of boiling water. I follow that with a cup of white vinegar. This bubbles up in a fun way, usually dislodging yucky black bits. I sometimes then use a plunger to dislodge more gunk.

I have also used natural enzyme drain cleaners, such as CitraDrain, for maintenance. These are easy to use and are effective as a preventative measure. However, I find they don't work any better than the baking soda and vinegar method, and they cost a lot more.

If, as sometimes happens, I fail to keep up with the above measures, after a couple of months my bathtub will begin to drain very slowly, backing up water into the tub. In that case, it is time to reach for our plumber's snake. We have a hand-operated one that is 100 percent effective at cleaning out our sink and tub drains. It cost about $15 at the hardware store. (There are motorized models, but these can be dangerous.)

You won't have to call a plumber for a run-of-the-mill clogged drain if you get and learn how to use a snake.