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

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DIY Pottery Barn Style Sheer Curtains

I have been sitting on this post for over a month now. Seriously. Bad Genoa. I made curtains for our new apartment right after moving in, but I have had an unusually tricky time writing about it. Curtains aren’t a difficult DIY in the cutting and sewing sense, but they are harder on the wallet than you might expect.  Two apartments in a row now I have made my own curtains, and both times I spent way more than I intended to.

So here it goes. I would like to begin this post with a disclaimer: DIY curtains are rarely economical.  They’re the sort of project for somebody who knows exactly what they want, but can’t find it in a store.  If you’re planning on saving a bunch of money by making your own curtains, hopefully my Monday morning quarterbacking of this project will help. Either plan carefully, or make a trip to Ikea.

The new place has west-facing wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling windows in both the bedroom and living room, and we are only a stone’s throw away from the next building over.  I found the ease with which I could watch my neighbors eat dinner to be a little creepy, so curtains were a priority.

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Before curtains. Hi neighbors!

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The Tomato Project: An Introduction

We are in the midst of tomato season right now, which means I am busy stockpiling oven roasted tomatoes in my freezer to use as sauce base for the rest of the year, but my sister told me yesterday that even during the summer she only buys canned tomatoes.  In bulk, she says, they are the cheapest option, and they taste pretty darn good.  I was aghast at the idea of consuming so much BPA, but Mark Bittman made the same point in the Times this past weekend in his piece “Not All Industrial Food is Evil.”  Bittman doesn’t even mention BPA! Canned tomatoes do taste better than the hydroponically farmed ones in supermarkets in the winter, but this is August.

My sister is stubborn, and we argued for a while about the cost of canned tomatoes vs. the risk of BPA exposure.  She is committed to living on the cheap, and will probably never switch away from canned food, no matter how toxic, unless a cheaper option is presented.  And as Bittman points out, canned tomatoes are dirt cheap thanks to the international market.

Home canned tomato sauce, yum! I wish the lids of Ball jars weren’t also lined with BPA/BPS.

My mind is blown by how difficult it is to avoid foods packaged with BPA. You have to really TRY, and in my experience, you pretty much have to spend either a lot of money or a lot of time (i.e. buy organic tomatoes in fancy jars or can your own).  I don’t think that this doesn’t have to be the case, though.  Living in a city, I have a lot of options for buying food, and I bet that I can find cheap, non-BPA tomatoes in bulk for at least a reasonable price.

…and so the tomato project was born.  I am going to be living in this city for a while, and I certainly buy lots of groceries, so I think it will be worth the time to study sources of tomatoes and other major foodstuffs in the city of Pittsburgh. Plus, I need to prove to my sister that it is possible to live cheaply and avoid major, um, not-so-beneficial food additives.

Here’s how this is going to work: I am going to visit all of the places in the city I can think of from which I can buy tomatoes (fresh, canned, jarred, or otherwise) and document them with my camera. I don’t have a car, so everywhere I go will be accessible by public transportation. I plan to check out:

  • Giant Eagle Market District (standard grocery store chain)
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s
  • East End Food Co-op
  • various farmer’s markets
  • Pennsylvania Macaroni Co (huge Italian specialty store)
  • Costco

In my assessment, I will be considering:

  • Price (by weight)
  • Packaging*
  • Source (domestic or international)
  • Organic (or not)
  • Additives (sugar and other unnecessary additives are a no go)

*Note: I do not consider cans designated “BPA free” to be ok if they don’t say what replaced it.  Most BPA free plastics use BPS instead, which is a structurally similar molecule with similar endocrine disrupting properties.  It just hasn’t gotten as much publicity yet. 

While I am investigating tomatoes, I am going to research a few other major foods as well. I most often shop around for dairy and nuts because they are expensive.  Because of the high fat content in dairy products, it is important to me to buy organic (and hormone free) because many toxins, especially pesticides, partition into fat rather than water. Nuts I would prefer to buy in bulk because it is usually cheaper and saves packaging, but I have found that the nuts in the bulk bins at Whole Foods are much more expensive per pound than the packaged ones because the bulk bins are stocked with “fancy organic pecan halves” whereas the packaged ones are just pieces and almost half the price. (Whole Foods is probably set up like this just to trick conscientious shoppers.) Finally, I’d like to find the cheapest and least packaged way to buy unbrominated unbleached and preferably organic flour.

The project will start this weekend, and probably will take a while.  In the meantime, the next post in the tomato project series will be an exposé on the threat of BPA with the purpose of convincing you that you should want to pay more to avoid it. Hopefully I will soon be able to prove that you don’t have to.

 Any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for other foods I should look into? Leave a comment!

My Organic Urban “Guerrilla” Container Garden

Living in a rented apartment with only north facing windows has made gardening a little difficult, but my plant babies are off to a good start for the summer.

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I’ve tried to start simply, but it’s hard not to try to grow everything.  I’ve got a variety of herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, green chile, and cucumber started, as well as a spider plant and a small sick avocado tree. (Help, anybody?) They’re all growing in pots on the cement back patio of my apartment building.  When we move to our new condo in July, I intend to put the tomatoes and other sun loving plants on the rooftop deck, where they will hopefully get full sun and not bother anybody (this is the guerrilla part). The rest will go on our little west-facing balcony.

Tomato baby!

Tomato baby!

We started our seedlings indoors with a grow light, which we still use to grow lettuce. We chose a fluorescent T5 lamp with a reflective housing. Fluorescent lights do contain mercury, but they are the most affordable, and the T5 is the most efficient of them all.

We used Burpee’s Growing Pellets for our seedlings, and we hated them because they dried out and compacted easily, harming the roots of the plants.  They’re ok for very young seedlings started in eggshells or other similarly small containers, but growing herbs or anything in them for more than a few weeks is bad news.

To keep my plants happy in their big containers, I mixed my own soil using a combination of organic potting soil from Home Depot, worm castings from Whole Foods (will hopefully be able to use my own soon!), and perlite.  I tailored the contents of the soil to the preference of the plants.

My go-to guide for container gardening has been Gayla Trail’s Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces, which I have had checked out from the library for at least three months. It’s an amazing book. I love that it tells you which kinds of plants grow best in containers, and which you can plant together.

Creeping Red Thyme from a local garden market

Creeping red thyme from a local garden market

I think my two favorite aspects of container gardening are that I can move my plants around easily and that there is no weeding.  We had a late frost last weekend and just moved the plants indoors for two nights.  It’s also pretty easy to repurpose containers as pots, such as our lettuce growing in Earthbound Farms Organic salads greens bins (first picture, on the left).  10-12″ plastic pots are only a few bucks at Home Depot, but I’ve found quite a few discarded by the side of the road.

Any advice for my first urban container garden?

Our First Pittsburgh Sustainability Salon

Two weekends ago, we attended a “sustainability salon” hosted by local green advocate/gardener extraordinare Dr. Maren Cooke.  On her blog, Maren describes sustainability salons as “basically a house party with an environmental theme,” including guest speakers, a potluck meal, interesting conversation, and a little music making.  The theme for this one, the fourteenth, was food: growing, sourcing, local, organic, etc.

I first heard about the sustainability salons through a lab-mate of mine.  I asked for information from Maren’s husband, a professor in the chemistry department here, and he put me in touch.

The salons are held in their house, an interesting and very green building.  Although the front looks like a normal house with an overgrown winterized garden, the main living area is a wide open space constructed from local wood.  The roof of the house is covered in both solar panels and raised-bed vegetable gardens.  We didn’t get to tour the roof because it was snowy, but I hope to see it soon.

Maren’s rooftop garden! Image from marenslist.blogspot.com

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The Little Things

Lately, I’ve been feeling frustrated in my quest to “green” my life, and I realized today it’s because the desire to green me has turned into a desire to green the whole world. I want so badly to convince others to believe in what I doing, to understand that we’re destroying our bodies and the environment without even knowing it.  In my attempts to thoroughly research everything I want to blog about, I get distracted by trying to find a perfect solution. I need to remind myself that the little things do make a difference even though they can never be perfect and that eventually I will figure out what to do with all of this knowledge.

In the spirit of making the little things count, here are some of the ways Taylor and I have greened our lives recently:

  • This past weekend, I roasted a whole chicken. A two and half lb. free range organic chicken cost about the same as buying just one lb. of chicken breasts, and we got a fancy dinner out of it, sandwiches the next day, and about 2 quarts of stock to make soup. Buying a whole bird is more sustainable because processing and packaging are minimized. Plus, it was local!

 chicken Continue reading