Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Toxic Toys Databases

With the holidays fast approaching and toy recalls being announced daily, it occurred to me that someone should create a database of all toys being reported to contain lead or other toxins. I looked, and found that people already have. So if you want to check anything before buying it, here are some links.

Toy Safety Database
Consumer Product Safety Commission

Saturday, November 24, 2007

More About Dry Cleaning

In August, The Future Earth researched 3 types of dry cleaning, finding that each one posed a hazard to the environment or to the wearer. The good news is that I have since heard about 2 new kinds of professional cleaning methods- one wet and the other dry- that appear to be much safer.

Professional wet cleaning has been adapted for use on 'dry clean only' fabrics. The machines are much gentler than standard washing machines. There are no volatile organic compounds involved. This is pretty much the same thing as hand-washing clothes yourself, as I often do with my 'dry clean only' clothes. In 2003, Consumer Reports did a comparison of professional cleaning methods. This is what they found for the garments they had wet-cleaned: This method left the lambswool jacket severely pilled in all three cases. Two jackets looked as though they had not been pressed. One shrank. The sizing was removed from one skirt, so it looked limp. Another skirt shrank from a size 14 to about a size 10. The silk blouses took to water fairly well: Only one showed slight fading. They also mention wet cleaning is not covered by textile-care-labeling regulations. So if your garment is labeled "dry-clean," you opt to have it wet cleaned, and the garment is damaged, the clothing manufacturer likely would not be liable. I had no idea you could hold a garment manufacturer liable once something has been cleaned, did you?

Then there is liquid carbon dioxide cleaning. I was sceptical of this method at first, because I wondered if more CO2 is created during the process. But according to the Co-op America website, While CO2 is a main greenhouse gas, no new CO2 is generated with this technology, so it does not contribute to global warming... Liquid CO2 companies recapture the CO2 that's already a by-product of several manufacturing processes, and they then recycle it into the liquid solvent for cleaning clothes. The main drawback is that, while the CO2 itself is both cheap and abundant, the cost of a CO2 dry cleaning machine is very high—a new machine costs around $40,000. Few dry cleaners are adopting this technique for this reason. However, in the long run, these machines will save money by eliminating the disposal and regulatory costs associated with perc. Consumer Reports found this to be the best method of all of the methods tried in terms of preservation of the look and feel of the clothing tested.

The Co-op America website warns that you should ask the business whether they use a Solvair machine. In this case, the machine also uses glycol ether, which is a suspected neuro-, respiratory, and kidney toxin, and a possible hormone disrupter, according to the EPA. Another way to tell is to find out if the business is a member of the Carbon Dioxide Dry Cleaners Alliance (I couldn't find a website for them), which does not admit those who use Solvair machines.

To find out if there is a professional wet-cleaner or liquid carbon dioxide (glycol-ether-free) cleaner in your neighborhood, plug your zip code into this website. According to the website, there are none within 25 miles of my Brooklyn neighborhood. I heard about a CO2 cleaner that just opened in TriBeCa. I wonder if they are not listed because they are too new, or because they use a Solvair machine?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Even Fox News Features a Clip About the Dangers of Bisphenol A

I thought this segment on Fox News was a good description of the dangers of bisphenol A. (In a bit of irony from an environmental perspective, you have to watch a short add for an SUV at the beginning of the video.) Anyway, I am so glad that this is finally being discussed in the mainstream media. The day this chemical is finally banned in the United States, I am going to throw a huge party.

Jellyfish Attack Salmon Farm

Today's London Telegraph features a story that is a really bizzare example of the side-effects of global warming.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

REACH: What Effect Will European Legislation Have on Your Life?

In December 2006, the European Union enacted legislation entitled REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemicals). It requires industries to gather information on the chemicals they produce or import, and to register that information with a database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki.

Furthermore, it will restrict the use of or require substitution for chemicals shown to be harmful. From the website of the European Commission Environment Directorate General: Substances with properties of very high concern will be made subject to authorisation; the Agency will publish a list containing such candidate substances. Applicants will have to demonstrate that risks associated with uses of these substances are adequately controlled or that the socio-economic benefits of their use outweigh the risks. Applicants must also analyse whether there are safer suitable alternative substances or technologies... The Commission may amend or withdraw any authorisation on review if suitable substitutes become available... The restrictions provide a procedure to regulate that the manufacture, placing on the market or use of certain dangerous substances shall be either subject to conditions or prohibited.

The website has a timeline for enactment of the legislation: By 1 June 2008 the Commission will review Annex I (rules for chemical safety reports), Annex IV (substances exempted from registration where sufficient information is known showing that they cause minimal risk because of their intrinsic properties) and Annex V (substances exempted from registration under the pre-REACH legislation) of the REACH Regulation. By 1 December 2008 the Commission will review Annex XIII (criteria for identification of persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic or very persistent and very bio-accumulative substances (PBTs and vPvBs). By 1 June 2012, the Commission will review the scope of the REACH Regulation. This is to avoid overlaps with other relevant Community provisions and the rules concerning the European Chemicals Agency. By 1 June 2013, the Commission will review whether or not substances that have endocrine disrupting properties should still be authorised if a suitable safer alternative exists. By 1 June 2019, the Commission will review whether or not to extend the obligation to submit a Chemical Safety Report (CSR) to CMR substances below 10 tonnes and after twelve years a similar review will consider all substances below 10 tonnes. Furthermore, by 1 June 2019, the Commission will also carry out a review on whether or not to extend the duty to inform consumers about substances in articles to other substances which are not of very high concern but which could still be dangerous or unpleasant (e.g. allergens). The requirement for a reproductive toxicity test for volumes between 10 and 100 t per year (laid down in Annex VIII) will be also reviewed by the same date.

So what does this mean for American consumers and industries? Currently, we are protected by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed by Congress in 1976. The act authorizes, but does not require, the EPA to review the risks of a new chemical, require testing if it deems necessary, and regulate its use if it is found to show harmful effects on humans or the environment. The EPA must impose the least burdensome regulations possible. They are allowed to require warning labels if appropriate. However, any chemical already on the market before 1981 was grandfathered in, and is not regulated under this act (that's a total of 62,000 chemicals). I found some well-written descriptions of the TSCA on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) website: and the the Environmental Health Perspectives website:

The US chemical industry (as well as then Secretary of State Colin Powell) lobbied heavily against the passage of REACH out of fear that changing their formulations will be costly. This angered many officials in the European Union and may have backfired, according to Mark Schapiro, in his article for the Nation magazine and in his book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power. I enjoyed this passage from the Nation article:

Never before has an EU proposal drawn fire from such heavy guns. The US chemical industry, like other American industries, has been discovering that a presence in Brussels is now a must, and has had to learn new ways to exert influence in a governing institution with three chambers, twenty-five countries and twenty national languages, and in which the usual cocktail of campaign contributions, arm-twisting and seduction are neither warmly received nor, in the case of campaign contributions, legal. "We've certainly had to learn a lot about a new parliament, new procedures, new political parties," says Joe Mayhew, senior adviser to the American Chemical Council.

I heard an interview with Mr. Schapiro on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. He explained that now that the legislation has passed, many manufacturers will be changing their formulations for the European market, and US consumers may be the accidental beneficiaries. I attended a "modern materials" course for art conservators. An art material manufacturer and a distributer that spoke at the conference said that the law will have a big impact on the formulations of their products available worldwide.

It may also have a negative impact on the products available to US consumers. Since Japan already has stricter regulations that the US, and China has passed stricter regulations that will go into effect next year, the US may become the dumping ground for products that can't be sold in many other countries. Mark Schapiro cites this as an example of the diminishing influence of the United States as the rest of the world moves forward with greener laws and initiatives.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Government Agency Gives OK to Industry Despite Safety Concerns - Sound Familiar?

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article about carbon monoxide gassing of red meat to keep it looking fresh. It highlights how industries do their own scientific testing to determine if products are safe for the public, and how organizations like the Agriculture Department give approval without even questioning the findings. In these times, it is more important than ever to be an educated consumer. Our government's safety standards are lower than those of many other countries.

A New Carbon Credit for Old Trees

Next month, there will be a UN climate change summit in Bali. One proposal on the table concerns giving annual carbon credits (described here) to countries that currently have vast reserves of forests- provided they do not cut the forests down. This is a great idea because carbon credits are currently only available when trees are planted. But everyone agrees it is much more important to keep the aboriginal forests that are still standing in place. Cutting them releases large amounts of CO2. But why should the money go to the government? Shouldn't it go to the landowners and small farmers that would otherwise be doing the cutting?

I'll be keeping an eye on the summit to see how this idea is actually implemented.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Know Your Plastics

The numbers on plastic bottles actually refer to the type of plastic, not just the recycling method. Plastics 1, 2, and 4 are the easiest to recycle. Plastics 2, 4 and 5 are the least toxic. Stay away from plastics 3, 6, and 7 as much as you can.

#1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Often used for soft-drink and single-use water bottles. May leak antimony, a heavy metal.

#2 High density polyethylene (HDPE). Often used in opaque detergent bottles, juice bottles, hard plastic milk jugs and some plastic grocer bags.

#3: Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The problems with this plastic are that dioxins are produced during manufacturing and that they can contain heavy metals. See the documentary "Blue Vinyl" for more information. You can borrow it from me. Also, phthalates are often added to enhance flexibility. These are loosely bound and can be ingested when children chew or suck on toys made from PVC.

#4 Low density polyethylene (LDPE). Often used for see-through dry cleaning bags and produce bags.

#5: Polypropylene (PP). Often used in yogurt containers.

#6: Polystyrene, or styrofoam. Not recycled. Styrene molecules can get into your food if heated, if the food is acidic or fatty, or through cutting action with a knife or fork. You may also swallow some styrene when you leave those teeth marks on the cup.

#7: Anything that does not fit into categories 1-6, like polycarbonate. Not recycled. Some people mistakenly believe that polycarbonate is better to use than other plastics. This is not true. Although it appears to be more durable and is easy to reuse, it contains a chemical called bisphenol A.

Several scientists in the last couple of decades have had disturbing findings related to Bisphenol A. Bisphenol A (BPA) was originally invented as an estrogen replacement, but did not come into wide usage until the discovery was made in the 1950s that it made a good plasticizer. Plasticizers are added to plastics to improve their properties. Bisphenol A makes plastics clearer and more flexible. It is not well bound into the polymer; however, and it is soluble in water. This much is agreed upon by the scientific community.

The Centers for Disease Control published a study today on bisphenol A. You can read a synopsis here. They found the levels of BPA in Americans to be higher than the "safety threshold."

Another article tells the history of the research into the affects of Bisphenol A on mammals. Much of this story is also recounted in Theo Colburn's book Our Stolen Future.

At first, it wasn't clear exactly what the effects of this chemical were. To understand them requires a different understanding of toxicity than what we are used to. Traditional toxicity studies assume that it is the dosage of a chemical that leads to its effect. When it comes to a chemical like Bisphenol A, it is not the amount, but the timing of the exposure that is important. Because it is similar in shape to estrogen, the human body can mistake it for estrogen. One single molecule is enough to confuse the endocrine system. It is especially dangerous to developing fetuses and children. BPA exposure at a young age can lead to cancer, obesity, and fertility problems as an adult. (For this reason, I beg of everyone: do not feed babies with polycarbonate bottles- please use glass!) The effect on adults is less clear; however, some studies have found that exposure does lead to an increase in diabetes, obesity and cancer even in adults.

While independent and government scientists are getting results that would suggest that this chemical is dangerous, industry scientists are creating confusion by casting doubts on their results. Meanwhile, people around the world are consuming this product. As Ana Soto says in the article, “Now the industry will say that animals are not humans, which you can say as much as you wish, but that brings us to a situation; in order to know what is happening to humans, what are you going to do? Intoxicate pregnant women on purpose? In any case, we're already exposing people, because 95% of us have bisphenol A in our urine, so the experiment cannot even be done.”

Please avoid the use of plastics whenever possible. Every piece of plastic ever manufactured is still on the earth with us, and a lot of it is in the ocean. Plastic photodegrades into particle-size plastic shards that get mistaken for food by fish and mammals. Bioplastic is a good idea, but it does not degrade well in the ocean. A better solution is for federal, state and local governments to require take-back programs and require manufacturers to reuse or recycle what they make.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

More About Seafood

Someone just sent me an ABC news article about seafood. I don't know how long the link will stay up, so I will give a brief synopsis:

According to the article, around 80% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, but the FDA tests less than 1% of it. The state of Alabama has it's own comprehensive testing program, rather than relying on the federal government to safeguard its consumers. They reject 50-60% of imported fish due to the presence of banned chemicals, such as antibiotics and malachite (which is used as a fungicide and has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects). The state's agriculture commissioner has visited foreign fish farms and seen that some of the fish are raised in sewage.

Fortunately, there is talk this week of strengthening the FDA's ability to test, conduct recalls, and visit sites where food is produced. It may take some time for the bill to be written and passed.