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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Certified Sustainable Seafood is a Little Fishy

After reading my piece this morning on sustainable seafood, my mother happened to hear on the radio part of an NPR investigative series on just that topic.  She sent me the link to the piece, entitled “Under the Label: Sustainable Seafood” and after listening to part one of three I realized that my own research had not been thorough enough.

What NPR questioned that I hadn’t was the Marine Stewardship Council‘s (MSC) sustainability certification. When I first saw it, I thought oh awesome, a third party certification that will make it much easier for me to grocery shop. What I should have been thinking about was who the MSC is, their standards, and their track record.  As it turns out, a quick trip to wikipedia shows that I missed an awful lot. 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.