Perfluorinated Chemicals: Not Your Friend

Hiking Oil Creek State Park in our likely-perfluorinated gear 

Hiking Oil Creek State Park in our likely-perfluorinated gear 

Pefluorinated chemicals are ubiquitous in our lives; not only are they used to make nonstick pans, waterproof and stain-resistant treatment for fabrics, camping equipment, workout clothes, Goretex, dental floss, and food packaging, but the chemicals themselves lurk in all of our bodies. First produced the in the 1950s, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are organic molecules in which C-H bonds have been substituted with C-F bonds, giving them slippery, hydrophobic, low-friction properties.

This past May, scientists from around the world issued a statement urging consumers, governments, and companies to reduce and avoid the use of these substances due to their extreme persistence and toxicity. 

Next month, the next round of lawsuits against DuPont, the maker of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, used to make Teflon) and other PFCs will go to trial. Following a class action lawsuit ten years ago, thousands of individuals are suing DuPont for exposure to PFCs, which have been epidemiologically linked to testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines, reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty, and increased risk of miscarriage. Many of the plaintiffs are family members of those who have died from these conditions. (For references, see Madrid Statement).

DuPont knew for decades that PFOA caused cancer and was a risk to pregnant women, but covered up the evidence and continued to produce PFCs and dump the waste into the environment. Two recent investigated journalism series have been released on the story behind DuPont’s deception, and they are definitely worth a look:

Read either or both, but just do it. 

When you’re done, look at this interactive map from EWG that shows what counties’ water supplies are contaminated with PFCs. Scientists have also recently published that the “safe” limit for PFCs in water set by the EPA is probably 100x too high. 

You may know that PFOA has been phased out, but keep in mind that the new chemicals replacing it are similar in structure, still fluorinated, and have many of the same heath risks; clearly, our chemical regulation system is broken.

The EWG has some useful resources for limited your own exposure to PFCs:

I’ve been trying to remove sources of exposure to PFCs by buying untreated clothing (Bluesign certified for workout gear), avoiding stain and waterproofing treatments, and phasing out my nonstick cookware. Unfortunately, it’s harder than I thought because even some of my most trusted companies (Patagonia, looking at you) still use fluorinated chemicals for waterproofing.

 

Update on Flame Retardants in Furniture

A lot has changed since I bought my flame retardant free couch two years ago. (Policy-wise, that is. My couch is still awesome.) America has made unprecedented improvements in embracing science over the garbage spewed by the $-motivated chemical industry, both via policy and changes made by manufacturers. I think it is safe to say that chemical flame retardants in upholstered furniture are on their way out. 

First, California recently passed a law that requires furniture makers to indicate on the label whether chemical flame retardants are added as of Jan 1, 2015. You might remember that California started the whole chemical flame retardants in furniture trend with the TB 117 regulation, and that it became a national de facto standard because manufacturers didn’t want to make a separate product for California. Hopefully, this labeling requirement, which will make your couch shopping so much easier, will also effectively become a national standard. TB 117 was also modified in 2013 (label will read TB 117-2013) to allow foam furniture to pass the flammability standard without added chemicals; the presence of this label on furniture does not guarantee the absence of chemical flame retardants, but the new yes/no label will. 

Additionally, many big name furniture manufacturers have announced that they are phasing out chemical flame retardants in some or all of their products:

  • Room and Board : All sofas free of chemical flame retardants as of July, 2014 
  • Ikea : No chemical flame retardants used in manufacturing as of Jan. 1, 2015. 2014 stock will still contain FRs.
  • Crate and Barrel : As of Jan. 1, 2015  
  • West Elm : As of Jan. 1, 2015 
  • Pottery Bard : As of Jan. 1, 2015 
  • Design Within Reach : select models
  • Lay-Z-Boy 
  • The Futon Shop 
  • Dania 
  • Scandinavian designs 
  • Wal-Mart
  • Ashley Furniture 
  • Ethan Allen 
  • Restoration Hardware
  • Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams 

Sources for this store list: here and here. There may be more companies; if you come across any, let me know!

Lastly, here you can find a list of companies selling flame retardant free office furniture.

When shopping for a new sofa or other upholstered furniture, don’t forget to check the labels and call the company to make sure no chemical flame retardants are present. 

You can read more about chemical flame retardants and how to avoid ingesting them if you aren’t shopping for new furniture at the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group

 

How to: Reduce your paper towel usage by 99%

Peeps, listen up. Eliminating (well, almost) paper towels from your house is one of the easiest things you can do to reduce your waste and wastefulness. You do not need paper towels to dry produce, to wipe down kitchen counters, or to wipe up anything. Yes, they are convenient and compostable, but why not use something reusable instead?

Here’s how I did it. I replaced paper towels with a combination of dish towels, bar towels, and rags cut from old shirts. They don’t get gross and smelly because I treat them just like single use paper towels; once they’re dirty, I put them in a mesh laundry bag in the pantry and wash them weekly separately from clothes in hot water. That’s it. 

I have only one roll of paper towels that my parents left behind and the only time I use them is for draining grease off fried food. This occurrence is rare because we kicked the bacon habit, but I did recently discover that cauliflower Parmesan is even better than chicken parm, and yes, I fry it like Cook’s Illustrated recommends. 

Last week's laundry: cloth napkins, cute dish towels, tshirt rags, bar towels, and a washable dust cloth.   

Last week’s laundry: cloth napkins, cute dish towels, tshirt rags, bar towels, and a washable dust cloth.   

Please give it a shot. Next time you want to wipe off the counter or do whatever else people do with paper towels (I don’t even remember anymore!), grab a dish towel rather than a paper towel. Let me know how it goes!

Long Reads for the Weekend

Happy Pi day, friends. I’m probably not going to bake a pie this weekend, but I can still remember 31 digits from back in the day when I thought memorizing pi was cool.

Here are two articles worth a little piece of your weekend:

Also on my radar: Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA 

And lastly, a follow up on last month’s arsenic post: An Unlikely Driver of Evolution: Arsenic In a new study in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, researchers report that over the years the Atacameños of Argentina became more resistant to arsenic, thanks to natural selection. It is the first documented case of natural selection in humans for a defense against an environmental poison.

Toxic Elements from “Chemistry and Sustainability”

This morning, I taught my advisor’s undergrad/grad class on sustainability. They’re currently studying “toxic elements,” so I introduced the lesson and showed a few videos on lead, arsenic, and selenium poisoning. In the last 15 minutes I discussed with the students if the class is impacting their daily lives and why it should, which of course reminded me of why I blog. 

I’ve linked to the videos we watched today in class. We learned first about lead poisoning in children in Nigeria due to contaminated dust from illegal gold mines. Human Rights Watch named it one of the worst lead poisoning epidemics in modern history. Bangladesh is also experiencing “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history” from naturally-occurring arsenic in groundwater. 

These are extreme and geographically and socioeconomically distant examples, but lead and arsenic poisoning can and do occur to us, too. Lead, which I’ve written about before, was used heavily in paint and gasoline until it was banned in the 1970s and 80s, respectively. Lead is a persistent toxic pollutant and continues to contaminate soil and our homes. Most homes built before the lead paint ban (including mine) still have leaded paint underneath the top layers, which poses a threat to children who may eat the paint chips and to anybody who breathes lead dust. Lead use in paint and gasoline has also been epidemiologically correlated to a decrease in IQ and increase in violence in the 20th century. Low dose exposure of children to lead manifests itself in lowered IQ scores.

There are two main sources of arsenic poisoning that you should worry about as well: groundwater contamination and rice. Arsenic deposits in soil are naturally occurring (see below for major pockets), and can contaminate well water. Researchers recently measured the (low) levels of arsenic in well water in Maine and correlated it to a decrease in IQ in children. Takeaway: if you drink from a well, always have it tested for heavy metal contamination. 

Arsenic poisoning can also occur through rice consumption. The rice plant absorbs arsenic and other heavy metals including cadmium, mercury, and tungsten and stores them in the grain. For cultures who eat rice most frequently, this has lead to diseases such as the painful “ouch-ouch” in Japan. Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice because it accumulates in the bran, but is less healthy. The highest levels of arsenic have been found in rice grown in the southern United States; imported rice from Asia is mixed in arsenic levels. See Consumer Reports full rice test results hereConsumer Reports and the EWG recommend buying rice from California and limiting rice consumption for babies. Those on a gluten-free diet should also be mindful of rice intake. 

Scary, yes, but manageable. If you made it this far and are feeling pretty down, watch this funny John Stewart video on selenium that I am not skilled enough to figure out how to embed.

Simple Homemade Lotion

Apologies for not sharing this recipe until now. It’s great on dry winter hands.

A few notes:

  • Every time I’ve made this, I’ve changed the proportions of the ingredients to try to optimize it, but it always comes out good. It’s very forgiving. 
  • This lotion is made of oil. It is going to feel oily. It will soak in, just don’t expect it to feel like store bought lotion. 
  • Because it is made of just oils, no water, it is safe to keep at room temperature without preservatives. I guess this makes it technically a “cream,” but it is thin enough to use as a body lotion (and you can make it thinner by decreasing the beeswax or increasing the liquid oil).
  • You can turn this lotion into a lip balm by increasing the beeswax and decreasing the oil. If you mess up and make it too think or thin, just remelt and adjust.
  • You can buy all of these ingredients at Whole Foods or online. 

Recipe: Easy Homemade Body Lotion

adapted from A Sonoma Garden

Ingredients & Materials: 

  • 1.2 oz unrefined coconut oil
  • 2.0 oz raw unrefined shea butter
  • 0.4 oz beeswax
  • 2.0 oz almond oil (can sub extra virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, etc. See here for information on the specific properties of these oils)
  • a few drops of essential oil of your choice (I use peppermint)
  • 8+ oz glass jar
  • immersion blender (optional)

Directions:

  1. Combine the first four ingredients in the jar. If you are using solid beeswax, use a box grater to measure it and help it melt faster.
  2. Place the jar in a pan with 1″ of water to simulate a double boiler and turn the heat on low. Stir together until melted and uniform. 
  3. Remove the jar from the water bath and let cool, stirring occasionally. Stir in essential oil to taste.
  4. Optional: Once at room temperature, you can whip the mixture with an immersion blender. You may need to make a double batch to do this effectively. I don’t usually bother. 
  5. Store in jar or other screw top container. 
  6. Clean up: Hot soapy water will removed all beeswax residue. 

 

Feasible Methods of Change: Who should lead the transition to renewable energy?

The question of how we are going to transition to renewable energy has been on my mind lately. It’s clear that America has to do something about its carbon footprint, to move away from fossil fuels, but it’s not clear how we are going to achieve this with the current entanglement of the US government and gas and oil companies. Obviously it’s not going to happen overnight, but when someday the US comes to its senses, who will lead? Who should lead?
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In the news: The Chemical Industry is the New Tobacco

Tyrone Hayes, professor of biology at UC Berkeley.

I’d like to bring to your attention two recent news articles on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) with a disturbing connection. They’re both great reads, so I’ll try not to spoil them for you.

Endocrine disruptors seem to be in the news every day. (So does reducing our intake of animal products- is this just because I am more conscious of it now?) The USDA released the results of a BPA study last month that led to the headline “Maybe That BPA In Your Canned Food Isn’t So Bad After All” (on NPR, no less, and it’s a terrible article so I won’t even bother to link to it). The flawed study used a species of rat known to be insensitive to estrogen, and on top of that had contaminated controls. You have to have an unexposed population to compare to or else the results are worthless!

Ok, enough rant. The fact I want to make you aware of is that the chemical industry is the new tobacco industry; they’re employing not only the same tactics but also the same people to preserve their economics interests, no matter what the science says. Sounds an awful lot like the history of lead to me. Continue reading

Meatonomics & Sometimes Vegan

When I was a freshman in high school, I read Fast Food Nation in English class and I didn’t eat a hamburger again for years. I went for hotdogs and chicken fingers instead, which aren’t exactly the greatest alternatives, but everything about a burger was wrong to me. I don’t even remember anymore what part of the beef story convinced me to quit burgers cold turkey (hah), but that book certainly did it. I still sort of feel weird when I eat one, even when I make it myself from grassfed beef.

I just finished reading another book that is going to change my diet a lot more than Fast Food Nation ever did, and it’s called Meatonomics. Written by lawyer David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics explores the “rigged economics” of the meat and dairy industries.  It hits hard in all the areas that get to me; sustainability, humane treatment of animals, and corporate control of consumption.

I really enjoyed reading Meatonomics because it is well researched and clearly written. Each chapter has a thesis sentence, subtitles on almost every page, and a bulleted summary of important points at the end. Everything is described in economic terms, which usually means unfathomably large sums of money, but the quantification is powerful. Simon also devotes a significant portion of the book to outlining solutions to the problems he describes, and they’re not absurd. And finally, of course, I learned a ton reading this book. I’m going to recommend it to my vegetarian economics-major sister, to my sometimes-vegan other sister, and to my parents: read it, because our family has fallen for a lot of the problems described in Meatonomics. Continue reading

Environmental Book Review: Toms River by Dan Fagin

I’m usually skeptical of pop science journalism, but I decided to give Dan Fagin’s Toms River a go after coming across a grumpy amazon review complaining that it was too scientific.

Toms River is about chemical pollution and its consequences in the coastal New Jersey community of the same name, focusing on a childhood cancer cluster that made big headlines around 2000.  However, this isn’t just the story of evil chemicals that hurt innocent people; Fagin’s narrative, punctuated with historical background on chemical manufacturing, toxicology, epidemiology, and molecular genetics, is organized like a mystery novel but with an unsatisfying, anticlimactic ending.  It’s a true story after all, and the intricacies, flaws, and knowledge gaps in law and science make it almost impossible bring the responsible parties to justice.

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