How to avoid toxins in fabrics – and other products

6 12 2013

In response to a post a few weeks back, Susan Lanham wrote to us:  “I initially signed on to get this blog because I thought you would give practical ways to avoid these carcinogens. However, they are so pervasive, and there doesn’t seem to be any practical way to avoid them, so that reading your blog just makes me feel helpless and hopeless. More and more I just delete without reading: it’s like diagnosing a disease early when there is nothing to be done for it.”

Yikes.  We certainly didn’t want to turn people off in despair!  There is much you can do armed with a bit of knowledge.

We have always thought that information is the great motivator – that if people knew what they were buying, then they would demand changes in those products.  Remember that each time you purchase something,  you’re ensuring that the product you bought will keep being produced, in the same  way.  If you support new ideas, find that creative way to use something or insist that what you buy meets certain parameters, then new research will be done to meet consumer demand and new processes will be developed that don’t leave a legacy of destruction.

At least in theory, right?

The reality is that change takes a long time, and we’re living in a toxic soup now – so what can we do to protect ourselves right now?

And after all, just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.  So here’s my list of things you can do to begin to protect yourself from toxins in fabrics:

  1. Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can  – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now.   If you can’t find GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics, try to use 100% organic natural fibers.  Certifications are a shorthand which allows us to accept that the certified products are safe, but if you want to get granular, you can find out what they’re certifying (i.e., what the certifications are telling you).  Be sure to differentiate between, for example, a GOTS certified fiber and a GOTS certified fabric.  Big difference:  A product which uses GOTS certified fibers only may have been processed conventionally, which means it could be full of chemicals of concern.
  2. If it’s cheap, it probably has hidden costs, like your health or our ecosystem.  It’s expensive to go against the flow, and natural fibers cost way more than synthetics, even though the price of crude is going up.  So pay more, use less.
  3. Never buy anything made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or acrylic (which can be used as finishes or backings as well as fibers) and generally avoid other synthetics (such as polyester).  They ALL start with toxic inputs (like ethylene glycol), but the profiles of both PVC and acrylic makes polyester look benign by comparison.  In that same vein, avoid fabrics that are pretending to be something they’re not – polyester can be made to look like practically anything (one of the things we love about it), but it won’t have the characteristics of the natural fibers that make them such good choices for us.
  4. If you must use synthetic fibers, the best choice would be GRS Gold level recycled polyester.  This new certification means that the recycled content really is  95-100%, with the added assurance that chemicals used in the manufacture abide by the GOTS standards (eliminating endocrine disrupting chemicals, heavy metals, and a long list of other chemicals of concern); water is treated and workers are given minimal rights.
  5. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. The wrinkle free finishes are formaldehyde resins, and there simply are no safe stain protection treatments.
  6. Fly less.  (I never said these would be easy, but it’s good to know, right?)  In this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible.  Same is true of fabrics on cruise ships.
  7. Trust your nose.  If a fabric stinks, what does that tell you about it?
  8. Ask questions!  If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it.
  9. Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.  And share what you’ve learned.  This is an evolving industry, and we’re all looking for answers. But I know you’re just ONE person – and the problems do seem overwhelming.  Can just ONE person change the world? Margaret Meade said that committed people, banding together, is the only thing that ever has.
  10. Be aware of greenwashing.  This doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect product but it does mean honesty in letting you (the consumer) know exactly what is in the fabric.  If you see a green claim, Google the company name + environment and see what pops up.  If it’s a big company, do they spend a significant portion of their R&D budget on green initiatives?  What percent of their product offerings are “green” vs. “conventional”?

That does it for fabrics, but here are a few more things you can do to protect yourself :

  • Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.
  • Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals – wafted there from the other products in our homes.
  • Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the United States – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times.
  • Avoid polyurethane (i.e., poly foam, found in cushions and many other products) if you’re in the market for a new sofa or mattress, look for 100% natural – and certified – latex.
  • Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.
  • About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.
  • As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.
  • Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.
  • And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

I know that even that is a daunting list – it’s really hard to avoid some products and growing an organic garden just isn’t in the cards for some of us.  But if you do even some of these things your health – and ours! – will benefit.  Not to mention all the living things on Earth which depend on our good stewardship of this planet.





What you can do to avoid toxins

27 06 2013

North-Cascades-e1346800825850I’ll be taking a few weeks off so instead of sitting in front of the computer I’ll be hiking in the mountains and sitting by a lake. Have a wonderful fourth, and see you in August.

Last week I promised you the list of things to do to avoid toxins in your life. In putting together the list, it all became a bit overwhelming and I found myself asking whether it would really make a difference. I mean, the chemicals in use are so pervasive and ubiquitous that I wasn’t sure whether my puny attempts at reducing exposure would result in any improvements. Like that old adage: you can’t buy health – can you protect yourself from exposure? I mean, they found GMO wheat in a remote field in Oregon. Then I ran across the Michael Pollan piece in the New York Times (for the full article, click here) in which he talks about what we can do to fight climate change and it seems to reflect my own feelings about chemical exposure:

Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

But then he answers his own question: “Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

The fact that chemicals are not being directly linked to health issues is largely because of the long delay between time of exposure and effect, so causation is difficult to prove. As Ed Brown points out in his new documentary “Unacceptable Levels” (click here for more information), it’s only because these chemicals have been in our environment for so long that we can now start to monitor their results. Another reason it’s difficult to prove the effects of these chemicals is that we’re exposed to low levels of individual chemicals from different sources – and they enter your body and react with all the other chemicals found there. Yet chemicals are tested for safety only one by one. As Ken Cook points out, no doctor will prescribe a new drug for a patient before finding out what other drugs that patient is taking.

So, yes, it’s overwhelming but that’s okay. Now that you know, begin to read up a bit and learn what all the fuss is about. Then you can start to make some changes that might mean all the difference.

Back to my list: my top 11 suggestions to avoid toxins are below. If you can do even some of those, you’ll be ahead of the game:

• Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.

• Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals (want proof? click here )

• Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the US – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times. Click here.

• Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. Fabrics – even those made of organic cotton – are, by weight, 27% synthetic chemicals. Click here to get started on what that means!

• Check the labels on your furniture. The California Furniture Flammability Standard essentially requires that cushioned furniture, children’s car seats, diaper-changing tables and other products containing polyurethane foam be drenched in flame retardants – and most manufacturers build to that standard, so don’t think you’re off the hook just because you don’t live in California. (Click here to read why that’s important). Check the labels on electronics, too. Avoid polyurethane if possible.

• Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.

• About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.

* As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists (EWG has a good one, click here) that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.

• Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.

• And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

• Fly less – in this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible (click here and here ).

• Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.