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


Twelve Endocrine Disruptors to Avoid

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a “dirty dozen” list of endocrine disruptors to avoid, similar to their dirty dozen list of produce to buy organic.

Endocrine disruptors, quite simply, are chemicals that interfere with hormones in the body. They’re particularly scary because very small amounts can have very big effects, particularly during development.  

You and I don’t have unlimited time to investigate every single ingredient in our shampoo, so it is great to have a list like this to know what to look for, just like we know to buy strawberries and apples organic but not worry too much about avocados.

Most of the endocrine disruptors on the list are names you will recognize, big baddies like lead and dioxin, but some you may not recognize by name.  The list describes in plain English what is so bad about these chemicals and gives suggestions for avoiding them; most enter our body either through food or water.  It’s definitely worth taking a look at. Continue reading

A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong. Continue reading

Non-toxic Shower Curtain

I’ve decided it’s time for a new shower curtain, and I definitely want a nontoxic one.  I don’t even know what my old one is made out of because it was in my apartment when I moved in, but my new one will definitely not be made out of PVC.

PVC, often called “vinyl” in shower curtains, is bad for both you and the environment in so many ways:

  • PVC is made from the highly toxic vinyl chloride monomer.  To learn more about the shocking history of vinyl chloride, check out the film “Trade Secrets.”
  • It is softened with the use of phthalates, known endocrine disruptors, which are not chemically bonded to the polymer and can leech out.
  • Burning PVC generates dioxins, a carcinogen and one of the most toxic synthetic chemicals out there.
  • “New shower curtain smell” is actually a mixture of VOCs, organotins, and phthalates, all of which are toxic and will make you sick.

The good news is that there are many alternatives to PVC shower curtains. Continue reading

Safer Cosmetics (Product Review)

I have never worn much makeup compared to most American women, but in January I quit cosmetics almost completely (for a few weeks).  The number of known carcinogens in mainstream makeup is shocking.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering that cosmetics aren’t regulated by the FDA.

I used to wear Clinique. Then I discovered the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and started to read about the ingredients in my favorite mascara, which has a high hazard rating.  Ugh.

Most of the toxic chemicals in cosmetics are found in many other body products, which I discussed here.  If you’d like to read more about which ingredients to avoid first, check out this list from The Daily Green.

My makeup free weeks in January were a great detox, but I do enjoy funky colored eyeliners, so I decided to hunt for some new makeup and settled on Coastal Classic Creations, touted as the lowest (safest) rated cosmetic company on Skin Deep.   Continue reading

Step 1: Detoxing our Bodies [Affordably]

After watching “The Story of Stuff” and a few of the other videos on the same site, we were dazed by the toxicity of our everyday body products. We researched them extensively, and put together a few lists.  The first was of the chemical ingredients to avoid, and the second included what products we wanted to replace first.  Our main priority here is to stop poisoning (yes, I really do mean poisoning) ourselves, but we still tried to keep eco friendly aspects in mind, especially in terms of waste and packaging.  As much as I would have liked to buy the certified organic totally nontoxic amazing Australian $25/8.5oz Miessence shampoo, we started at Giant Eagle and Whole Foods with the goal of buying as safe but affordable products as possible.

We learned quickly that it’s difficult to sift through labels and ingredients to decipher how “natural” a product really is.  The Environmental Working Group’s Safe Cosmetics Database was helpful.  Check out some of your favorite products to see just how toxic they are. I discovered that my poor Chapstick Moisturizer contains three high hazard chemicals, the former two already on our first list (fragrance, propylparabens, and oxybenzone).

Here’s our first list of chemicals to avoid (and why):

Petroleum products. This is a big group of chemicals, including parabens, phthalates, and solvents.  Besides the fact that they are derived from a non renewable polluting resource, most petrochemicals are either endocrine disruptors, which mess with your hormone systems and reproduction, brain disrupting neurotoxins, cancer causing carcinogens, or finally skin penetration enhancers to help you absorb the chemicals.  Some petroleum products also have high contamination concerns with an assortment of incredibly toxic chemicals, including carcinogenic nitrosamines and dioxins. For the latter the EPA concluded in 1994 that there is NO “safe dose” level.  That means any consumption of dioxins may give you cancer.

Ingredients to avoid:

  • Phthalates
  • Parabens
  • Solvents (acetone, benzene, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, toluene, xylenes)
  • Glycols (polyethylene glycol or PEG, ethylene glycol or ED, glycol ethers)
  • ethlene/ethene, ethylene oxide
  • ethanolamine (MEA, DEA, TEA)

For more information on petrochemicals and a longer list of ingredients to avoid from the author of the book “Toxic Beauty” click HERE.

Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS).  Sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate are two different chemicals but are often interchangeable abbreviated SLS.  Both are surfactants and emulsifiers found in liquid soaps.  According to the Environmental Working Group, sodium laureth sulfate is a skin irritant and also may be contaminated with ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen) or 1,4 dioxane (a dioxin) in the manufacturing process. Sodium lauryl sulfate does not have the same contamination concern but it is still a skin irritant. The internet is full of people with different opinions on SLS.  For our first body product purge, Taylor and I tried to avoid all SLS’s as much as possible (who wants a toothpaste that will give you canker sores?), but we will definitely be doing more research on this family of chemicals.

Fragrance/Parfum.  According to the EWG, fragrance is one of the worst ingredients out there, and it’s in almost all of our products.  Fragrance should be avoided because by law manufacturers are not required to disclose the components. Fragrance usually includes petroleum products such as phthalates (bad!!!!) but could contain anything.  That’s right, ANYTHING.  How would you like to be putting a solvent such as methylene chloride, which is on the EPA’s hazardous waste list, into your body? I work with methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane or DMC and possibly know to you as paint stripper, in the lab and take extra safety precautions to avoid skin contact or inhalation. I don’t want to be putting that on my body daily!

Freaked out by this and want to know more? Check out the book What’s in This Stuff? by Patricia Thomas

A side note on DCM and coffee (mother, this is for you): DCM is used to extract caffeine from coffee and tea to make it decaf.  If you drink a lot of decaf and care enough about sustainability to be reading this blog, you may want to investigate how your drink of choice is decaffeinated. Besides the chance that you may be ingesting minute amounts of DCM, you should consider the impact of purchasing this product on the environment and the workers who perform this job. I don’t have evidence to back up these ideas, but the point of this side note is to show you how a sustainably minded person thinks.

Triclosan.  Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent found in soaps (including toothpaste). Although triclosan is suspect for a variety of reasons, I am choosing to avoid it principally because it is an endocrine disruptor.

Other chemicals that we have read somewhere to avoid but aren’t going to address now: phenoxyethanol (a preservative), aluminum (in deodorant), and F&DC or D&C dyes.

Here’s a photo of our old products, the bad ones.  The new products are not perfect but they are significantly less toxic than these.  The plan is to replace our new ones as they run out with products that are not only nontoxic but also environmentally friendly over their entire lifetime.


And here are some of our new products.  They came from Giant Eagle, Whole Foods, and our local co-op and they didn’t break the bank. Missing is Taylor’s Burt’s Bees shampoo and deodorant and our Seventh Generation 4x concentrated unscented laundry detergent.


Intro: How Chapstick turned us green

Taylor and I are green scientists, and we’re starting a new experiment.  But this isn’t a typical project because we intend for it never to end…

As chemistry PhD students we have recently learned just how awful some of the synthetic chemicals that we voluntarily expose ourselves to everyday are.  We’ve made a pact to cut toxins our of our lives, and we’re starting here and now. Curiously, it was my beloved chapstick (ingredients: bioaccumulative reproductive toxins and not much else) that convinced us to really do this.

The purpose of our experiment is to live healthier, greener lives that impact the environment as little as possible. We’re going to be patient, we’re going to be thrify, and we’re going to be green.  My advisor Terry always lectures that sustainability is a vector. It’s about commitment and direction, not the place you are in right now. It will take some time, but we are determined to get there. In the mean time, we invite you to follow our scientific but lighthearted approach to sharing our story.

So here we go: We decided the first things that needed to go were the products that touched our bodies every day.  Lip balm, shampoo, conditioner, body soap, deodorant, toothpaste, hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent, lotion, etc. After some extensive internet research and too much time spent in Whole Foods googling ingredients, we’ve started our detox.

To get an idea about what we are doing, give this video called the “The Story of Stuff” a shot. Maybe it will encourage you to leave a greener wake too!