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.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Nontoxic Dishwasher Detergent

Not too long ago, eco-friendly automatic dishwasher detergents just didn't work very well.  They either didn't clean well or left residue on dishes.  Thankfully, there are now options that do the job and are not toxic to us or the environment.

One thing we don't have to worry about avoiding in dishwasher detergents are phosphates. Phosphates pollute freshwater, creating algae blooms that consume all the oxygen in the water and kill fish and plants. Two years ago several states banned the use of phosphates and the major detergent makers stopped using them.

Things we still have to be concerned about avoiding include chlorine bleach, synthetic fragrances and artificial dyes. These ingredients are volatilized, or vaporized, by the heat of the dishwasher and released in the steam that vents from the machine during use. Even more of these chemicals are released into the air if you release a burst of steam by opening your dishwasher before it has cooled.

In fact, dishwashers can be a significant source of indoor air pollution. A 1999 study showed that dishwashers are very effective at stripping harmful chemicals from detergents, as well as from public water supplies, and releasing them into the air.

To protect your indoor air:

  • Ventilate your kitchen as much as you can during and after running the dishwasher.
  • Don't open your dishwasher until it has had time to cool down following a cleaning cycle; this  will avoid that chemical-laden burst of steam that escapes if you were to open it immediately after it stops running.
  • Use a "green," chlorine-free dishwasher detergent.
I use these Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwasher Pacs.  They contain no chlorine or synthetic fragrances and clean my dishes really well without leaving any residue behind. The Whole Foods in East Liberty stocks these.  They are also available from Amazon, and are eligible for free shipping with Amazon Prime.

Do you use an eco-friendly detergent that works well for you?