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.