Friday, August 31, 2007

More Reasons not to Wear "Pre-Worn" or "Stonewashed" Jeans

Images (left to right): Justin Jin/Panos Pictures; Nikolay Okhitin/Panos Pictures

So how does denim get that worn look? It is either hand-sanded or treated with potassium permanganate by workers in Mexico or China. Both methods are damaging to the lungs of the workers, who are often not given adequate safety gear. In addition, the waste ends up polluting the water and the farm fields of nearby communities.

Image: Maquila Solidarity Network and the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley

The good news is, jeans look better if you take the time to wear them in yourself. The wear patterns on jeans manufactured that way look fake, and kind of dorky, to be honest. If you really want old-looking jeans, I suggest buying them at a thrift store.

For more information, please read this transcript from NPR program Living on Earth dated July 13th, 2007.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nail Polish

I have mixed feelings about wearing nail polish. My toes look naked without it, but if I am trying to avoid ingesting harmful synthetic chemicals, I probably shouldn't put them on my skin either. I used to polish my fingers and toes religiously when I was a teenager. I was one of the first to wear wacky colors back in the 80s, when they were really hard to find. I used to buy pigments at the art supply store and mix them with clear nail polish to get intersting colors. I realize now what a bad idea that was- some pigments can be absorbed through the skin and are banned from use in cosmetics by the FDA.

I thought I would do a little research on nail polish to help make up my mind. I found a great site that explains the history and technology of nail polish. Then I went to the Skin Deep website (see link at right). According to this site, the safest brand of nail polish is called Honey Bee Gardens ( The ingredients are water, water-miscible acrylic, polyurethane formers and thickeners (soy based), non-ionic soaps, carmine, mica, iron oxides, and/or titanium dioxide. I looked online for some customer reviews, but couldn't find any. It does say that it can take up to an hour to set.

The worst brand is Barielle Natural Nail Camouflage. The ingredients are butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, nitrocellulose, polyester resin, isopropyl alcohol, dibutyl phthalate, stearalkonium hectorite, camphor, propyl acetate, tosylamide epoxy resin, benzophenone-1, titanium dioxide, fd&c yellow 5, d&c red 6, hydrated silica, tocopheryl acetate, calcium panthothenate, calcium fluoride, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and parfum. (Update: this product has been re-formulated- see comments)

It got me wondering whether there were any nail salons in New York that used less toxic nail polish. An internet search tuned up Priti Organic Spa. It's expensive, but I always feel rotten when I go to a regular salon where the young employees are getting exposed to volitile organic compounds such as butyl acetate, ethyl acetate and isopropanol all day. Those nail salons should not be so cheap considering the costs these women will pay with their lives and health in later years.

The possible health effects of all chemicals used in industry are spelled out in their MSDS (or 'Material Safety Data Sheet'). The one for ethyl acetate reads Inhalation can cause severe irritation of mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract. Symptoms may include burning sensation, coughing, wheezing, laryngitis, shortness of breath, headache, nausea and vomiting. High concentrations may cause lung damage. An irritant to the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract. Exposure to high concentrations have a narcotic effect and may cause liver and kidney damage. Causes irritation to skin. Symptoms include redness, itching, and pain. Repeated or prolonged contact with the skin has a defatting effect and may cause dryness, cracking, and possibly dermatitis.

So I went into Priti Organic Spa and gave it a try. They use a few different brands of polishes, some of which are for sale at the salon. Their polish remover has the following ingredients: soy ester, corn ester, orange oil and vegetable glycerin. (As I reported in Films to Watch Part 1: The Future of Food, soy and corn products may be genetically modified.) This remover will even take off your old 'toxic' nail polish with a bit of scrubbing. You get a nice long foot treatment for your money. Expect to spend at least an hour there, because the polishes do take a long time to dry. But what I was most delighted to discover is that once dried, the polishes last about 4 weeks before they begin to look like they need a new application.

Less toxic polishes and salons is an idea that I expect will gain in popularity in the next few years. The EPA has awarded to Seattle non-profit groups $100,000 to help local salons become greener in what they are calling the 'Toxic Beauty Project.' The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the story on June 26. Here is an exerpt:

The issue is a matter of environmental justice, an area of environmental protection that targets low-income and minority populations, who often bear the brunt of pollution and related threats.

"The interesting environmental justice issue here is that the owners and operators (of the nail salons) are largely Vietnamese, but the clientele is largely African American -- not exclusively -- but to a large degree," Cunniff said. "It's an interesting intersection between two communities."

The three-year project will be a partnership between Cunniff's organization and the Seattle-based Community Coalition for Environmental Justice. His group will focus on the shop owners and workers, while the latter will address the customer side.

"We really want to look at community education about what people are putting into and onto their bodies," said Melissa Carnay, project lead for the Community Coalition of Environmental Justice.

The non-profit groups will be researching chemicals that would be safer to use in the salons.

They'll be figuring out if the alternative products are effective and readily available through distributors.

Carnay said she wants to empower women to know that they can lobby nail-polish makers to provide a safer product.

Another focus will be on installing equipment to reduce exposure to the chemicals, including simple fixes such as providing salons with stainless steel containers with tight-sealing lids for disposing cotton balls soaked in solvent.

More-involved projects could be the installation of ventilation systems.

The goal is to target all the aspects of the industry, from manufacturer to customer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Films to Watch Part 1: The Future of Food

This is a documentary that I will be thinking about for a long time. I think it is really important for everyone who eats food to see this. If you'd rather just read my synopsis, here it is (but if you plan to see the film, you may want to stop reading now):

In the 19th century, there were 7000 kinds of apples and 5000 kinds of potatoes grown in the world. Now, 90% of those varieties are extinct. There are only 4 kinds of potatoes commonly grown today. With less biodiversity, crops are more vulnerable to pests and drought. It has put farmers on a pesticide treadmill. The nitrogen bombs used during World War II led to the technology that gave us nitrogen fertilizers, while nerve gas led to insecticides. Both have led to polluted water.

In the 1980s, Monsanto introduced Round-Up herbicides. In the 1990's, they introduced genetically modified seeds called "Round-Up Ready." To create these seeds, they put genes that are resistant to the herbicides directly into the plant's DNA using bacteria and viruses. Now, Monsanto sells the farmer both the herbicide and the seed. The thing that is most concerning of all about this is that, once released into the environment, the spread of these new genes cannot be controlled.

The US patent office did not allow the patenting of living things until 1978, when thay allowed the patenting of an oil-eating microbe. That microbe was never used, but the case opened the way for corporations to begin patenting human genes, body parts, species, and seeds. One result is that a company patented the breat cancer gene, and has limited research for a cure. Monsanto, Dupont, and ConAgra bought every seed company and patented them all. Over the last two decades, they have also staffed the FDA and the EPA with Monsanto executives.

A farmer in Canada named Percy Schmeiser has been using canola seeds derived from those used by his grandparents his whole life. One day, Monsanto came onto his property, sampled his plants, and discovered some with Round-Up Ready technology. The demanded that he purchase a license. He fought the company in the courts because he did not choose to use Round-Up Ready plants; the seeds had blown onto his property. After years of litigation, during which time he had to destroy his entire store of seeds, the Canadian Supreme Court decided in favor of Monsanto saying that the farmer's plants were Monsanto's property. There are estimates that 9000 other farmers have been forced to settle with Monsanto, and now pay them a license fee.

In the United States, the government does not require testing or labelling of genetically modified (GMO) foods. Japan, Iceland, and the European Union require labelling, which makes it harder for US farmers to sell their products there. Mexico banned GMO corn to protect their heritage of native corn varieties, but GMO seeds have been spreading into the country anyway.

Right now, there are only 5 genetically modified crops grown: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and wheat. Many other GMO crops are in the development stages, including what is known as a 'terminator gene.' This will render a plant's offspring infertile and require the farmer to buy all of their seeds from a supplier. The problem is, if this gene gets out and cross-pollinates with other plants in the wild, it could be devastating for the environment.

Polls have shown that American consumers would prefer to have genetically modified food to be labelled as such, so that they can choose whether or not to buy it. Since 2000, senators Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Boxer have repeatedly introduced the The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, S. 2080. If you support this act, please let your senator know. Meanwhile, the best way to avoid buying GMO food is to buy organic fruits and vegetables, or to buy directly from local farmers who do not use genetically modified seeds.

Hooray for NYC Council Member Bill de Blasio!!

from a press release issued by Bill de Blasio, 39th District, Brooklyn, on August 22nd, 2007:


City Hall— Council Member Bill de Blasio will introduce legislation at today’s Stated Meeting that would prohibit the use of Styrofoam by City agencies and food establishments. De Blasio’s bill would ban the use of Styrofoam by all city agencies. The Department of Education (DOE), for example, goes through 850,000 Styrofoam trays a day which add up to over 4 million trays per week and over 153 million per school year. In June, Councilmember de Blasio joined Parents Against Styrofoam in Schools (P.A.S.S.) to call on the DOE to switch to either reusable plastic trays or trays that are biodegradable.

Polystyrene, more widely known as Styrofoam, is composed of Benzene, Styrene and Ethylene, which are all listed on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s hazardous substance list. Styrofoam is virtually immune to biological decomposition and also resists compacting and therefore, by volume, consumes more landfill space than other types of materials, such as paper. Due to the physical properties of polystyrene foam, the EPA states, “that such materials can also have serious impacts on human health, wildlife, the aquatic environment and the economy.”

“It is mind boggling that our City which is becoming a leader on environmental issues, is still using Styrofoam when we know it is extremely harmful to our environment and creating massive amounts of waste,” said Councilmember de Blasio, a member of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee. “It is unacceptable that the DOE is using Styrofoam, a substance that once it hits our landfills stays there forever.”

The legislation will also include a ban on Styrofoam “to-go” containers used by city restaurants and delis. The bill states that “no owner, operator or employee of a food establishment shall place, wrap, or otherwise package food or beverages in packaging made of polystyrene foam or offer for sale food or beverages packed in such material.”

The cities of Berkeley, California and Portland, Oregon were some of the first to prohibit polystyrene food packaging. Other jurisdictions which have instituted similar bans on polystyrene include: San Francisco, California, Freeport, Maine, Santa Cruz, California, Santa Monica, California, Sonoma County, California, Malibu, California and San Clemente, California.

Styrofoam Fact Sheet

➢ Polystyrene, or the Dow Chemical brand name, Styrofoam, is composed of Benzene, Styrene, and ethylene. Polystyrene becomes Styrofoam when it is injected with certain gases, known as blowing agents, to make it 30 times lighter than its original weight.

➢ The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger
associated with Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

➢ 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste.· The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.

➢ Studies show that toxic chemicals can leak out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems. These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.

➢ Polystyrene foam is often dumped into the environment as litter. This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.

➢ Initially a portion of polystyrene production was aided by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals that break down ozone in the troposphere. When this issue came to light, polystyrene manufacturers negotiated a gradual phase-out of CFCs in the production process and no CFCs have been used since the late 1980's. Though polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are "ozone-friendly" or free of CFCs, this is only partially true. Some polystyrene is now manufactured with HCFC-22, which, though less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC’s, is still a greenhouse gas and harmful to the ozone layer. In fact, according to a 1992 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, HCFCs are three to five times more destructive to the ozone layer than previously believed.

Source: "Polystyrene Foam Report." Earth Resource Foundation.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Non-stick Pans - Just Say No

From today's London Independent:

Chemicals in non-stick pans may retard babies' growth
Toxin in daily use in the home should be phased out, says researcher
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Published: 26 August 2007

Chemicals used in non-stick pans, fast-food containers, carpets, furniture and a host of other everyday household products are retarding babies' growth and brain development, two startling new studies suggest.

The studies – from the United States and Denmark, both published in the past month – found that babies with increased levels of the chemical in their umbilical cords were born smaller and with reduced head sizes. Though the changes were small, reductions in weight and brain development at birth have been associated with health problems throughout life.

The chemical – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – has been used so widely and is so persistent in the environment that it has been found all over the world – even in the Arctic and in remote Pacific atolls – in rain and water supplies, food, wildlife and human blood.

One of the studies, carried out by researchers at the blue-chip Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, found the chemical in every single one of the 299 umbilical cords analysed, suggesting that every baby is born already contaminated by it. Similar levels have been found in babies in Europe and Japan.

It also found that the babies whose cords had the highest concentrations of PFOA were born lighter, thinner and with smaller head circumferences than others. The second study – carried out in the US and Denmark, with babies drawn from the Danish National Birth Cohort – came up with similar findings for birth weight, the only measurement it made.

The studies, published in the prestigious journal Environmental Health Perspectives, are important because they measure effects on people, and suggest that PFOA is damaging at far lower levels in the blood than had been realised. Laboratory research has previously shown that the chemical causes rats to be born smaller, but only at levels many thousands of times higher.

The results are bound to cause increasing controversy over the chemical, which is used to make non-stick pans and stain resistant coatings for fabrics. It has already been under attack as a suspected cause of cancer , but this is the most damning evidence of damage to date.

Non-stick pans left accidentally on rings and in ovens to heat up without food in them are known to give off the chemical at high temperatures, and it has also been found in household dust – but nobody yet knows how it is getting into women's blood and being passed on to their babies. The results are bound to increase pressure for it to be banned.

Professor Lynn Goldman, the main author of the Baltimore study and a former head of toxic substances at the official US Environmental Protection Agency – calls for the chemical to be phased out and "not released to the environment".

And Dr Gwynne Lyons, the director of Chem Trust, a new British charity for protecting people and wildlife from harmful chemicals, says that failing to do so would be "sheer folly".

DuPont, the only US manufacturer of PFOA, has announced plans to phase it out – but not until 2015. The company says it is taking the step merely because of the chemical's persistence and as a result of public concern.

DuPont has long insisted that "there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA", and now adds: "Our position is that the studies have not changed our position.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dry Cleaning

There are some new drycleaning stores opening up in North America that advertise themselves as "green" or "organic." What do these terms mean exactly?

Traditional drycleaners use perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, perc, PCE, ethylene tetrachloride, or tetrachloroethene. The chemical formula is Cl2C=CCl2. There are a number of different chemical processes used for making it. According to NIOSH, or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, overexposure causes irritation, nausea, vertigo, incoordination, headache, somnolence, skin erythema, or liver damage. According to the Merck Index: "This substance is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

OK, so we know it's bad for the workers who use it, but how bad is it for us? Since there is a lingering scent, there must be lingering chemical on the clothes. I have incredible sensitive skin, but I have never had a reaction to drycleaned clothes, while I've had skin reactions to some kinds of laundry detergent. Nonetheless, whatever the level of your exposure, this is the kind of chemical that gets stored in your fat, can linger in the body for a long time, and can get passed on to your offspring. We are exposed to those kinds of chemicals all too often, who wants one more, even if the effect is not immediately obvious?

According to the EPA, "[perchloroethylene] can be added to aerosol formulations, solvent soaps, printing inks, adhesives, sealants, polishes, lubricants, and silicones. Typewriter correction fluid and shoe polish are among the consumer products that can contain PERC." There have been many incidences of soil contamination from dry cleaning plants. Perchloroethylene spills are particularly problematic because it does not bind soil, but is soluble in water, so it can get into groundwater supplies or evaporate into the air.

So, when an "organic" drycleaner opened in my neighborhood, at first I was happy to see an alternative, but then someone at work mentioned that although it is more expensive, this might not be any better. Further reasearch indicate that the solvent used is petroleum based, and is manufactured by Exxon-Mobil. It turns out that this was the most common drycleaning solvent until 1921, when perchloroethylene was invented. The health and environmental effects of petroleum are well-known. It is called "organic" based on the chemical definition of organic, which means that it is carbon-based. It bears no relation to the meaning of "organic" we have come to associate with certain kinds of food.

"GreenEarth cleaning" uses a silicone-based solvent called D-5 (manufactured by Dow-Corning) that attaches to the grime embedded in fabric and removes it when the solvent is extracted. NPR's Morning Edition reported on this on January 10th. A study on rats found that it caused cancer and liver damage. The EPA says there is not enough information to regulate it, therefore they don't need to.

So, why do we need to dryclean anything anyway? These methods actually involve a liquid, so the term "drycleaning" is a misnomer that really just refers to the fact that there is no water used. Water causes plant-based fibers to shrink or swell, and results in the fabric becoming misshapen. It also lingers in the fabric longer before evaporating, weighing it down and stressing the seams. Nonetheless, I have discovered over the years that most clothing with a "dry clean only" label can actually be hand-washed without any noticeable damage. I would be most wary of washing clothes cut on a bias, or things with many layers, like a coat. For those, I wish I could recommend which of the three processes was the safest. We could use some more scientific studies as well as guidance by our regulatory agencies to help us to make an informed decision about these new choices. Meanwhile, I will be skeptical of "organic" and "green" claims.