Friday, October 31, 2008

REACH SIN List of Chemicals

REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) was created in June 2007 by E.U. to make chemicals safer for human health and the environment and to stimulate innovation in the sector. These days, together with ChemSec they came out with the first-ever list of chemicals called REACH SIN list which is roughly comprised of 270 chemicals that need to be submitted for EU regulatory approval. The first list of hazardous chemicals to be submitted contains only 15 chemicals; all the other chemicals will be submitted in their order of hazardousness.

Among the 15 chemicals that are on the list, brominated flame retardant HBCDD is a common environmental contaminant used in plastics, textiles, electronic goods and three plastic softeners (the phthalates DEHP, DBP and BBP). These plastic softeners are suspected to seriously affect human fertility and are present in glues, inks, cosmetics and toiletries, and in many products made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Many companies have already started to phase them out, including major companies in the electronics sector that have eliminated the uses of brominated flame retardants and PVC.

These substances are used heavily in American industry as well and none of them is regulated. I hope that this E.U. initiative to regulate the chemical substances in consumer products will set in motion the U.S. government institutions to do the same. I hope so much for that day!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

How Natural Is The Bamboo Fiber Anyway?

I keep hearing these days that I should use textiles made of bamboo fibers because is environmental friendly and the bamboo is a natural fiber. “Made of bamboo” is a mainstream buzz-word these days as is preferred among fashion designers in the race of becoming greener. For me - truly natural fibers are cotton, wool, hemp and linen. (and they are the most used as well, for now).

Well… I am tempted to call this another green-washing trend. Environmentally friendly on one segment of the crop-to-store does not mean that is healthy for people as well. Of course the bamboo itself is natural, is renewable, but the natural part of it is destroyed by the caustic soda and other chemicals used in the process of transformation from wood to fiber. (Before you jump in defense of all things natural, consider this: the asbestos fiber is natural as well and it is already proven that it produces cancer; naturally occurring is not the litmus test for healthy.) . So, not everything that is natural is good for our health.

The argument of “natural” fiber should not fool us. The bamboo is environmentally friendly because is growing fast and therefore, it can be produced on a large scale which reduces the cutting number of other trees. Also, does not require pesticides and fertilizers. The wood is beautiful, and they make lots of uses from it - hardwood floor, plywood for various uses (some processes may use the chemical known as formaldehyde but they make it without too). There are voices that even criticize the bamboo farms: there are few examples of sustainable bamboo farming, because bamboo farms are mono-cultures and do not maintain biodiversity.

But when it comes to clothes the bamboo fibers are becoming rayon – which is very similar to the synthetic fiber except the cellulose is extracted from bamboo. There are too many chemicals involved in the process and they pose health risks. And this should be the most important issue when choosing clothes or other textiles made from bamboo fibers.

The fiber is well known for its soft feel and natural antibacterial properties. It looks to me like other synthetic fibers rather than natural. Searching on the web, I found a very detailed description of the process of transforming the bamboo into the so-claimed “natural fiber” and I think is worth reading it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Humidifiers - A Short Review

I always felt the climate in the winter as being dryer than in the summer. And the ventilated warm air coming through the heating system makes it even dryer. I use the humidifiers more often in the winter that I do in the summer. The National Institutes of Health recommends the use of humidifiers to help relieve congestion from the flu, common cold, and sinus infections. However, the humidifiers can also help alleviate the symptoms of dry and itchy skin, dry eyes, eczema, dry nasal passages, cracked lips and nosebleeds due to dry air, allergies or even asthma. I made a search thinking that maybe I need to change the humidifiers I have and although I decided that what I already have works very well for my family I will still make a short review of what I found.
Either you chose a portable or a whole-house humidifier, the main difference comes truly when choosing between a warm air and a cool air humidifier.

Warm Air Humidifiers
Cool Air Humidifiers
The water is boiled before it enters the air.
Advantages: the boiling kills the bacteria and the mold from the water.
Disadvantages: they present a burn risk and fire hazard issues.
Don’t boil the water (they just vaporize it),
Advantages: they are more
energy efficient;
they don’t have the burn risk and fire hazard issues
like the warm mist models so they can safely be used around children.
Disadvantages: they make more noise;
sometimes require changing the filter.
Warm mist
- creates steam that cools before leaving the machine. This may reduce the risk of burns.
Vaporizer/Steam - the water is boiled and sent out as a steam.

Ultrasonic humidifiers- use the ultrasonic sound waves to vibrate the water and produce the moisture. They are probably the most efficient ones.
Impeller humidifiers - use high-speed rotating disk to produce the moisture.
Evaporative humidifiers - use a fan to blow air through a wet wick. It is the most noisy because of the sound of the fan.

Based on the advantages and disadvantages of each combined with your needs, it is probably a good idea to get an humidifier. There are many descriptions coming with the humidifiers like "germ free operation", "Cleans as it Humidifies", etc, but I think they are not worth the money unless someone has respiratory problems and the doctor recommended it. The prices vary considerably based on such characteristics. The main thing is to clean it often to impede the forming of mold and the spreading of bacteria.

In my house we use cool air ultrasonic personal humidifier in each bedroom and it works perfect; however, at night I turn off the air heating system and I use electric oil heater which does not make the air so dry as the air heating system does.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to Avoid Greenwashing

The urge of people to become green brought, of course, lots of marketers “going green” in the other sense of word and mislead the consumers while the regulations are still waiting to be defined and clarified. Greenwashing is the word for these types of scams ("marketing techniques" :) , that is). Many products are claimed to be “all natural”, or “environmental friendly”, or “non-toxic”, etc while there is no standard established. Luckily, the ingredients on the cosmetic products and on food have to be listed now so people can decide for themselves whether to use that product.

Here are some tips on how to avoid greenwashing:
  • Always read the labels and try to draw the meaning from them. For lists of meaningful labels you can go here.

  • Read carefully the ingredients on the cleaningproducts and cosmetic products. I know that you feel like reading foreign language sometimes – but in time you learn them, at least you will know which ones are good and which ones are bad. From my experience, if there are ingredients hard to read – it means that they are chemicals in general, so I avoid them.
  • Read reviews on the internet; I tried many products based on consumer’s reviews (not company reviews!) and I was satisfied most of the time.
  • ALWAYS look for certification. Many products have the “certified” word on them, but they do not display the name of the certifying organization. Personally, I am skeptic about that and I talked about this many times in my posts. If companies have a certification for something they should be proud of that and display it on the product. If you can't verify that the product is certified it probably isn't.
  • NEVER rely on the sincerity of the manufacturer or the seller. Be aware on what are you spending your money.

Friday, October 17, 2008

EPA Sets U.S. Air Quality Standards for Lead 10 Times Stronger

Not a moment too soon: after 30 years of (lobby induced) silence, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets new limits for lead in the air in an attempt to improve public health protection, especially for children.The previous standards, set in 1978, were 1.5 ug/m3; the new standards are 0.15 ug/m3 - 10 times stronger. To read the entire article go here .
This NY Times article has the digest (and a little whine from the lead recycle industry that may have to move away from kindergardens).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

38 Pollutants Found in 10 Brands of Bottled Water

One more study came out to prove that bottled water is not as good as people may believe. The study, released by the EWG, tested 10 brands of bottled water and found that Wal-Mart's Sam's Choice contained chemical levels that exceeded legal limits in California and the voluntary standards adopted by the industry. The names of the other 8 brands were not released by EWG. In the EWG study, the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory screened for 170 possible contaminants and found 38 pollutants in 24 samples from 10 major brands purchased in California, Washington, D.C., and eight other states (an average of 8 contaminants in each brand).

It was found that the levels of disinfection byproducts exceeded safety standards established by the state of California and the bottled water industry:

  • Walmart’s Sam’s Choice bottled water purchased at several locations in the San Francisco Bay Area was polluted with disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes at levels that exceed the state’s legal limit for bottled water (CDPR 2008). These byproducts are linked to cancer and reproductive problems and form when disinfectant react with residual pollution in the water
  • Also in Walmart’s Sam’s Choice brand, lab tests found a cancer-causing chemical called bromodichloromethane at levels that exceed safety standards for cancer-causing chemicals under California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65, OEHHA 2008). EWG is filing suit under this act to ensure that Walmart posts a warning on bottles as required by law: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer."
  • These same chemicals also polluted Giant's Acadia brand at levels in excess of California’s safety standards, but this brand is sold only in Mid-Atlantic states where California’s health-based limits do not apply. Nevertheless, disinfection byproducts in both Acadia and Sam’s Choice bottled water exceeded the industry trade association’s voluntary safety standards (IBWA 2008a), for samples purchased in Washington DC an 5 states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and California). The bottled water industry boasts that its internal regulations are stricter than the FDA bottled water regulations(IBWA 2008b), but voluntary standards that companies are failing to meet are of little use in protecting public health.

Other contaminants found include fluoride, fertilizers, drugs (e.g., acetaminophen and caffeine), synthetic chemicals (e.g., acetaldehyde, hexane, toluene, etc.), bacteria, arsenic, and radioactive pollutants.

What to do?

The EWG recommends:

  • Drink filtered tap water. Carbon filters (pitcher or tap-mounted) are affordable and reduce many common water contaminants, like lead and byproducts of the disinfection process used to treat municipal tap water. Install a reverse osmosis filter if you can afford it, to remove contaminants that carbon filters can’t eliminate, like arsenic and perchlorate (rocket fuel).
  • Change your water filters on time. Old filters aren’t safe – they harbor bacteria and let contaminants through.
  • Forgo the plastic bottles
  • Use safe water for formula. Use filtered tap water for your baby’s formula. If your water is not fluoridated, you can use a carbon filter. If it is, use a reverse osmosis filter to remove the fluoride, because fluoridated water can damage an infant’s developing teeth.
  • Consumers can urge policymakers to improve and adequately fund source water protection programs

In my house, we use filtered water and occasionally buy (sparkling) mineral water in glass bottle which can be found at Costco, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods.

For more information you can read my previous posts about tap water and bottled water.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Pixel Organics Scam: Mattress Bait and Switch

So, we've been had: we did buy the mattress that Pixel Organics advertises, but we got something completely different that's not even close. This is bait and switch, not green-washing or other light stuff.
Take a look at the picture above, that shows on the left what's advertised and on the right what we got in the box: the mattress comes in without any certification or warranty, we read the compulsory labels to find that it's made by a company that's 35 years old and makes truck mattresses; not 90 years old and they don't claim to make any organic mattress. It is labeled as an Ecobaby or Pure Rest mattress. In summary: not certified, no manufacturer's warranty and not 90 year old tradition. A mattress manufacturer that matches that description is Vivetique, meets all the claims but Pixel Organics is not even listed as a dealer.

We contacted CSN Baby (where we bought it) and told them about the scam; they fixed their page to a certain extent (see picture to the right), and offered a full refund for return; we did return the mattress and we're looking for one with less "creative" salesmanship...

But it bugged me that such a blatant bait and switch scam is possible: you advertise a nice product, with fine craftsmanship and you swap it with something with much lower quality. I googled left and right and found no-one that complained about it. Then I wrote to the owner of Pixel Organics (which contacted us for the original post to tell that we got the manufacturer wrong...) Here's his response:

"The mattress you received was from a manufacturer Pure-Rest uses
(Flexus). I purchased the mattress from them because my supplier was
out of stock. It is a very very very similar mattress. We are trying
not to do this but supply is not meeting our demand from our preferred

Does this sound like "We're trying not to deceive people, but we do"? I wonder if anyone ever got the real thing, because in my 2 experiences the mattresses were Pure Rest and not the advertised one (remember the store where we kept on saying Pixel and they kept on saying Pure Rest? that's the 2nd one.). So I did write to Chris about it, here's the whole, unedited thread:

ABunchOfGreens: "No matter the explanation, it's still bait and switch and deception;
Vivetique has indeed 90 years of experience and certifications, and...
and... (all the good things that make customers buy their mattress),
and they do buy, but they get instead a mattress made by a fine
establishment that makes truck mattresses. I can go around town in the
stores that distribute pixel mattresses and see how many are
knock-downs and how many the original.

Here's an analogy: you go and choose a BMW X5, you're charged $80,000
for it and you get this in return:;
the CEO of BMW assures you it's a very very very similar car and he
tries his best, but the Munich plant was busy for you.

Hope you see my point; when can I get my BMW mattress? (The clone is
still in the box, you can make still it right). The mattress I've
selected and I've already paid full price for it was not delivered.
Getting anything less is deception and maybe even fraud.

Regards, etc..."

Chris: "Of coarse I see your point. We should be able to replace your mattress
next week with as you call it" BMW Mattress"."

So I contemplated the idea of arguing about shipping, replacements, the possibility that I'll get yet another deceiving product (what's the probability that someone that lied twice will lie again? Huge, I'd say.) So I decided I don't even want to do business at all with Pixel Organics. We returned the mattress and we're looking for a "real" one in store, any other brand. I'm no Erin Brockovich to dig the fraud and save the world, I just hate being lied to.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Californians Are the Leaders in Flame Retardants Contamination

A new study, published in the Environmental Science and Technology today, shows higher levels of flame retardants in California residents when compared to other U.S. states and Europe. The study compared dust samples of PBDE from 49 homes in two California communities (Richmond and Bolinas – for the Californians interested in the subject) with 120 Massachusetts homes and with other published studies. It also compared regional PBDE serum levels across the NHANES sample.

The dust concentration of PBDE in the California homes were 4-10 times higher than levels in Ottawa, Canada, Cape Cod, MA, Boston, MA, Washington, DC, and Texas and were 200 times higher than those reported from Germany. The dust concentrations were higher for Richmond - predominantly a low-income, urban community with oil refineries as the main city industry and frequently in the local news with pollution stories.

The BPDE serum levels were higher for the Western region (including California) compared to Eastern region. Interestingly, the U.S. residents born in other countries had lower levels compared to U.S. born residents.

Although the study needs a larger sample size distributed across various California communities in order to generalize the results – it still raise a flag about California flammability standards that requires furniture to be fire resistant to an open flame for 12 seconds. The California agency that promulgated the TB117 is now planning to extend the flammability requirements to the bed clothing.

Although penta-PBDE has been phased out, deca-PBDE is still on the market and the new chemicals have not been studied for safety.

What to do to minimize this contamination:

  • avoid PBDE's in electronics; next time when you need to purchase new electronics look for companies that ban brominated flame retardants in their products.
  • avoid PBDE's in foam; all furniture that has foam in it has also flame retardants. Vacuum your furniture and carpet often; be careful when removing old carpet (ventilate well). When purchasing new products, ask the manufacturer what flame retardants are they using. Ikea is always a good place to shop, since they phased out all PBDE's many years ago.
  • do not reupholster your old furniture.
  • the alternatives of PBDE's are not fully tested for their health effects so try to buy products made from natural fibers (wool and cotton) because they are naturally flame resistant. However, be careful when purchasing organic furniture; it still can have flame retardants.
  • wash your hand often and make a habit for the kids as well; their hands seem to be more full of dust since they spend more time playing on the floor.
I'd say that the main think the study shows is that you should consider Hanover Germany over Richmond, CA; true geographical comparisons need much larger study samples collected and analyzed in the same way to provide accurate comparisons.