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.