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Gently green conversations with Trudy Dujardin, FASID, LEED AP

Clean Slate

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My commitment to living sustainably is a 365 day a year endeavor, and I know that’s true for many of you, too. Earth Day, though, provides us an annual opportunity to reflect on our connection to to the earth, and to make a fresh start with a clean slate. Andy Goldsworthy, a British sculptor and environmentalist, says, “We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say we’ve lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”

Silhouette of Man Raising His Hands or Open arms when sun rising up

One of the ways we lose that connection is through the use of pesticides and dangerous chemicals. Warning people about the dangers of these toxic materials has been a large part of my life’s work; you can read some of what I’ve written before here, and here. My book, Comfort Zone: Creating the Eco-Elegant Interior, offers several helpful resources, from a guide to green products, to a recommended reading list, to my own personal stories of being exposed to pesticides and other chemicals, beginning as a small child. We have options rather than resorting to dangerous and toxic products. Learning more is the first step.

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The half life of some pesticides is over 500 years, and the drift when sprayed can be over a mile. There are surprising ways to be exposed to pesticides, for instance, an alarming number of pesticide ingredients can be found in ordinary house dust.

Pesticides and fertilizers can also find their way into groundwater over time, in one of two ways. Chemicals can enter groundwater through a stream after a rainstorm as runoff. Or they can reach groundwater by leaching, which is the downward movement of a substance through soil. Not only does this result in algae bloom, which removes oxygen from the water and results in “dead zones,” but the 75 million pounds of pesticides Americans spray on their gardens each year can be ingested by fish, who become diseased. Once we eat those fish, the cycle of pollution has come full circle.

Beautiful child with sunflower

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), pesticide use has increased over 50% in the past three decades, and today totals 8 pounds for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. Approximately 875 pesticide ingredients are formulated into 21,000 different products. Our children are most at risk, according to the The National Academy of Sciences, due to their immature systems and a more rapid metabolic rate. In addition, children frequently consume fewer different types of food, possibly leading to higher exposure through their diets.

strawberry girl

Good news! A highly toxic pesticide and known carcinogen used primarily in strawberry fields, methyl iodide, has been withdrawn from the market by its manufacturer.

If that isn’t enough to concern us, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has identified at least ninety six different pesticide ingredients registered for use that are potential human carcinogens. The link above will take you to a page where you can order the booklet that lists them.

cosmetic factory

We also know more today about products that include parabens, known to be endocrine disruptors, that are commonly used as preservatives in many popular cosmetics. They are also used as food additives. Dr. Frank Lipman, a leading holistic physician, offers an overview of dangers and tips on how to avoid them here. We all need to read labels. Whole Foods has wonderful, safe, clean products for your hair, skin and face. I also like Nurture My Body products, available online.

I have been stirred to action by leading environmentalists, scientists and authors who have spoken out about the dangers we face. One of the books I often recommend is Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, published in 1962, said, “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides,’ but biocides.”

 

She went on to explain that the pesticide industry grew out of World War II with chemical testing. Once scientists realized they had the ability to kill insects, they envisioned a new and better world for people.

 

A book titled Our Daily Poison: From Pesticides to Packaging, How Chemicals Have Contaminated Our Food Chain and Are Making Us Sick, by Marie-Monique Robin, is also a film by the same name, a documentary that reveals a broken safety system. You can watch a three minute video about the film here.

Being aware of the dangers of pesticide use is not enough to protect us. Unfortunately, we can be exposed to very toxic chemicals without our knowledge or permission. Several years ago, I lived in a beautiful apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut with stunning views of Manhattan and Long Island Sound. My apartment was pristine and clean and chemical free, so at first I was puzzled about my dizzy spells.

When I spoke to other tenants in the building, they affirmed that many residents were being made sick by something in the air. I hired an Industrial Hygienist to investigate, and found that the building management was using a rodenticide that had been banned from use for over fifteen years, since it had been linked to kidney cancer. The force of air from the elevators was pushing the vapors of this toxic chemical from the basement onto each floor.

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On April 9th of this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an account of a Wilmington, Delaware family that was poisoned after being exposed to a banned pesticide at a vacation condo in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A couple and their two teenage sons were hospitalized after occupying a condo one floor above a space that was sprayed with an odorless pesticide called methyl bromide, that can cause convulsions and coma. It was banned for us in residential settings in 1984, but it is still marketed for some agricultural uses.

methyl bromide

Two weeks later, the EPA reported that there is evidence that methyl bromide has been used improperly at locations in Puerto Rico. In addition, Virgin Islands newspapers have reported that companies on two other islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix, had stocks of the pesticides.

It’s easy to become frightened and even overwhelmed by what’s happening on our planet, but knowledge is power. I have always believed in the Power of One, the ability each of us has to make a difference. By being informed, and by informing others, we can protect ourselves and our planet. Let’s start today!

 

 

 

 

Don’t Just Sit There

seat

Whenever we sit down, to work, to eat, to meet with others, or to relax, we don’t tend to think much about what we’re sitting on. A sofa or a chair or an ottoman all have been engineered for our comfort over the years, with fabric, foam filling, and a sturdy structure to support our bodies as we rest. And since 1975, according to the Green Science Policy Institute, upholstered furniture has been designed for our (supposed) safety as well, with the introduction of flame retardant chemicals.

flame

The chemicals intended to keep our homes from going up in flames have been linked to cancer, neurological defects, developmental problems, and impaired fertility. Manufacturers first began adding fire retardants to furniture due to a California law that required foam cushions to withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds. A now defunct group known as Citizens for Fire Safety, led by chemical manufacturers, was instrumental in getting the law passed, according to a Chicago Tribune article. (Read it here.)

Broom, Dust & Fur Ball on Parquet Floor

In 2004, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) warned of high levels of toxic fire retardants found in house dust, in every single home sampled. The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb). Like PCBS, the fire retardants known as PBDEs (polybrominated biphenyl ethers) are persistent in the environment and build up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. In minute doses they impair attention, learning, memory and behavior in animals.

baby

Recently the EWG released a new study done with Duke University, where they found evidence of exposure to a cancer-causing fire retardant, TDCIPP, in the bodies of all 22 mothers and 26 children tested. The children had an average of nearly five times as much as the mothers of a chemical formed when TDCIPP breaks down in the body.

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I’ve shared my concerns about chemically laden upholstered furniture before. In addition to PBDEs, your furniture likely contains formaldehyde, polyurethane and dioxins. All of these toxins infiltrate your home and the air you breathe through “offgassing,” the release of chemicals into the air through evaporation.

Today, we can choose soy-based versus foam cushions, recycled filling for pillows, water based stains and organic upholstery fabric.

In addition, the EWG shares these tips:

  • Do your homework before buying baby products. Many kinds of baby products still use harmful chemicals. Find out before you buy.
  • When buying a new sofa, choose one made without fire retardants. New regulations make it much easier for furniture manufacturers to sell products that have not been saturated with chemicals. Contact the manufacturer to ask if fire retardants are in its furniture.
  • Want to reupholster your sofa? Replace the foam, too. The old foam likely contains fire retardants. Ask your upholstery shop to find retardant free foam, or choose an organic filling.
  • Inspect foam cushioning for damage. Exposed foam can cause fire retardant chemicals to leach out more quickly. Items such as car seats and mattress pads should always be completely encased in protective fabric.
  • Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums will remove more contaminants and allergens from your home.
  • Be careful when removing old carpeting. The padding is typically made of scrap foam that contains fire retardants. Old carpet padding can become somewhat pulverized by the time it is exposed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.

There’s a petition to the Consumer Product Safety Commission asking for national furniture flammability standards that do not encourage or require fire retardants. Find it here, and get toxic chemicals out of our couches!

Pets and Pesticides

Dog Scratching Flea

Spring brings warmer weather, and with it, the re-emergence of our pets’ worst tormentors: fleas and ticks. Pet owners can spend more than $200 per year per pet on flea shampoos, flea collars, and topical flea and tick controls. The hidden cost isn’t in the damage to your bank account, however, but the potential damage to your pet’s health.

The Humane Society of the United States has added its voice to the The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in warning that some flea and tick products contain chemicals, specifically permethrins, that not only can cause the death of your dog or cat, but are likely to be carcinogenic to humans.

At least 1,600 pet deaths related to spot on treatments with pyrethroids were reported to the EPA over the last five years. They account for more than half of major pesticide pet reactions, including brain damage, heart attacks and violent seizures.

Little sad dog

The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has a report entitled Poisons on Pets that details the risks to both pets and children. Because children’s bodies are still developing, they are more sensitive to the effects of toxic chemicals than adults. Toddlers’ hand to mouth behavior makes it easy for toxins to be ingested, for example, and children spend time where toxins from pet products tend to accumulate: crawling on rugs, playing with pet toys and holding their much loved pet dog or cat.

As bad as the products are for people, they’re worse for pets. The NRDC says that based on the available data, hundreds and probably thousands of pets have been injured or killed through exposure to pesticides. Just like small children, pets can’t tell us when they’re being poisoned at low doses.

Sleepy kitten

Flea control products on the market include seven specific organophosphate insecticides (OPs). OPs work by blocking the breakdown of the body’s messenger chemical, acetylcholine, and interfering with the transmission of nerve signals in the brains and nervous systems of insects, pets and humans. In the presence of OPs, acetylcholine builds up in the body. The resulting interference with nerve transmissions is of such a magnitude that it actually kills insects. But even at normal doses, it can also harm pets and children (from the NRDC’s Poisons on Pets.)

The seven OPs are chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos, phosmet, naled, tetrachlorvinphos, diazinon and malathion. Another commonly used pesticide in a popular topically applied product is fipronil. According to Virginia Dobozy, a veterinarian at the EPA, fipronil products are classified as carcinogens, producing malignant as well as benign tumors in laboratory tests. Exposure to these insecticides can more than double the risk of Parkinson’s later in life. For pregnant women exposed to pesticides, their children were 250% more likely to be diagnosed with brain cancer before their fifth birthday.

children and pets

We want to believe that all of the products available for sale have been tested and proven safe. But that’s just not so. According to the CPI, “The EPA cannot make its own assessment because unlike the regulations directing the FDA’s approval of human products, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act does not require pet products to undergo field trials prior to approval.”

What should you do instead? There is no question that ticks carry dangerous diseases that are transmitted to humans, including Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, and Tickborne relapsing fever (TBRF), among others.Some of these are transmitted by ticks in their nymph stage, or even at full grown size, but are no larger than a poppy seed. Here are some of the non-toxic alternatives available:

  • Earth Animal, a holistic pet care retail store and website begun by a veterinarian and his wife, offers a natural flea and tick prevention program that is based on adding powder and drops to your animal’s daily diet. A combination of vitamins, minerals and herbs helps to change the odor of the pet’s blood chemistry, so fleas, ticks, mosquitos and black flies do not like either the odor or taste of the blood. The odor is undetectable by humans. During the flea and tick season, you can mist your dog’s belly, paws and coat daily with an organic bug spray to help repel insects.
  • Another safe, environmentally friendly product I use is Damminix Tick Tubes.  Since Lyme Disease begins with mice, not deer, Tick Tubes rely on the natural nesting instincts of mice to fight the battle. Placed on your property in areas where mice frolic, the biodegradable, cardboard tubes are filled with permethrin treated cotton balls. Mice collect the cotton to build nests in their burrows. Young ticks feeding on the mice are killed by the mild insecticide before they can spread Lyme Disease to you and your family. It is important to use this only on the perimeter of your property, in safe places that are not accessible to pets or children. Even mild insecticides are poisons, and must be used carefully and responsibly.
  • I use organic cedar mulch as another layer of protection in my garden beds. It’s a natural pest repellent, but does not harm beneficial insects such as butterflies and bees. You can even place a small amount in an open container in your pantry or closets for a pleasant cedar aroma that will deter indoor pests.
  • Buck Mountain Parasite Dust, available only through veterinarians and pet stores, can be used to rid animals, gardens and buildings of flies, fleas, ticks, mites, ants and more. Its active insecticide is a chemical derived from the Neem tree, which is both a repellant and provides disinfectant and healing properties. You can sprinkle the dust on your pet’s back from head to tail, and brush against the hair to bring the dust into contact with the skin. A teaspoon of the dust can also be placed on a window sill to eliminate fleas, flies and other bugs in your home. It is safe for use in your garden as well.
  • Essentria IC3 Insecticide Concentrate (formerly labeled as Eco Exempt) is USDA National Organic Program (NOP) compliant, so it can be used in restaurants , schools, animal clinics and healthcare facilities without danger. Recommended by Chris Baliko, Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (AOLCP) of Growing Solutions LLC, Its active botanical ingredients include rosemary oil, peppermint oil and geraniol (found in many essential oils). These act as octopamine blockers, disrupting insects’ central nervous systems. Because mammals, birds and fish do not have receptors for octopamine, botanical oils are very safe to use.

I’ve written extensively about non toxic flea and tick control:  read more here. 

In addition, follow these steps:

  • Wash your pet with a pesticide-free shampoo, and brush or comb frequently.
  • Vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture on a regular basis. Dispose of the bags immediately after use.
  • Keep your lawn mowed.
  • Cats should be kept indoors at all times.
  • The NRDC has reviewed the ingredients of more than 100 products and published a guide called Greenpaws Flea and Tick Products Directory.  Make informed choices, and keep your pets, your family and the earth safe from harm.

dogs and the sea

 

Gardening with Nature

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Someone once said that a garden (and lawn, for that matter) has very little to do with nature.  A walk through the woods is proof that wild vegetation is opportunistic and provides only the toughest competitors with space, sunlight and nutrients.  By contrast, we fill our garden with tender annuals and plants that have gone through multiple hybridizations until they bear little resemblance to their original form. Add to that that we prefer our lawns and gardens weed free, carefully edged and mulched, and there’s a sharp divide between a wild meadow and suburban landscaping.

 

The real difference, however, is our dependence on chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to keep our properties looking as nature never intended.  The best way to create a garden fit for children and pets is to make it a sanctuary for life:  bees buzzing through the flowers, trees brimming with nests and berries, and soft grass that’s safe for bare feet.

 

Lawn and garden chemicals are poisons to living things.  They pollute our water, harm wildlife and interrupt the delicate balance of our eco-system.  100 million pounds of lawn care chemicals are used by homeowners on their lawns every year.  These include chemicals that kill weeds, insects and a variety of plant diseases.  Many of these chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects, and liver or kidney damage.  There is a way to have a healthy lawn and garden without resorting to chemicals, however.  Here are three simple steps you can take right away:

  • Healthy soil = healthy plants.  Good soil is alive, teeming with bacteria and organic content that is naturally resistant to pests and disease.  You can boost your soil’s health by spreading organic compost or alfa meal.
  • Use corn gluten as an organic fertilizer.  Organic fertilizers feed your lawn slowly; quick release chemical fertilizers encourage rapid growth that weakens the grass, promotes disease and leaches into nearby surface waters.
  • Tolerate a few weeds.  You can dig them out by hand if they bother you, or you can adopt the philosophy of “live and let live.”  A few weeds in the garden can also provide a home for beneficial insects, which keep the overall landscape in good health.

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Worried about fleas and ticks?  Here are four ways to combat these pests without toxic chemicals:

  • Use Natural Flea and Tick Controls on Your Companion Animals: Look for Buck Mountain Parasite Dust, available only through veterinarians and pet stores.  Its active insecticide is a chemical derived from the Neem tree, which is both a repellant and provides disinfectant and healing properties.  A favorite pet store is Earth Animal, which offers a three step process for natural flea and tick control.  Learn more here.
  • Reduce the tick habitat naturally:  Ticks like moist and shady areas, so let in more sunlight.  If there are many trees, it’s possible to thin their crowns to let more sunlight reach the ground.  Clearing away leaf debris (a favorite tick home) is important, as is cleaning up along stone walls and keeping them free of branches, weeds and other plant debris.
  • Establish a Tick Border: A Tick Border is a three to four foot wide woodchip border that is established between the woody edges of your property and your lawn.  Ticks are loath to cross the sunny, plant free zone.
  • Put up Deer Fencing to stop “tick buses:”  A single deer can be host to more than 200 ticks, so by removing their hosts, you reduce the number of ticks.

Here’s Where to Learn More

Earth

We’re all connected to each other and to every living thing.  The earth is one planet, with air and ocean currents that ignore international boundaries and continents that are impervious to lines drawn on a map.  On a much smaller level, the chemicals you use on your lawn and garden do not stay on your property.  It’s up to each one of us to research and find less-toxic solutions to our pest problems.  You can start here:

  • Integrated Pest Management:  IPM is an environmentally sensitive approach that suppresses pest populations and reduces use of pesticides.  It’s a safer means of controlling pests, with an emphasis on control, not eradication.  IPM holds that wiping out an entire pest population is impossible and environmentally unsafe.  Natural biological processes provide control with minimal environmental impact.  That may mean using beneficial insects that eat target pests, or biological insecticides, derived from nature. The EPA has more information:  read it here.
  • Bio-Integral Resource Center:  BIRC is a nonprofit organization that offers leadership in the development of IPM methods.  BIRC works with homeowners, farmers, cities, park and water districts, schools and pest control professionals in pesticide use reduction.  Visit their website here. 
  • Two books to add to your library:  Common Sense Pest Control, by William Olkowski and Sheila Daar, and Less Toxic Alternatives, by Carolyn Gorman.

book Common Sense Pest Controlbook Less Toxic Alternatives

 

Connecting the Dots

There’s so much information about health risks bombarding us every day, warning us to avoid things or add things, do this and don’t do that.  It can make your head spin.  Scientists and environmental physicians agree that exposure to chemicals can be dangerous for your long term health.  The problem is that illnesses, including cancer and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, can take decades to develop.  We’re all exposed to thousands of toxins both inside and outside our homes:  how do we connect the dots and protect ourselves and our families from harmful chemicals?

You wouldn’t take a bath in paint thinner or breathe gas fumes for fun, as Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D. said in a recent article they wrote for Real Age.  But little risks, such as breathing paint fumes one day and cleaning with ammonia another, may add up.  Melanie Haiken wrote a wonderful informative piece on how to cancer proof your home, including how to replace seven carcinogens you may not have recognized for Yahoo Health.

To keep it simple, here are my top five things I believe everyone should do.  Remember that a healthy home is the ultimate luxury!

1. Make your bedroom the cleanest room in the house.

During sleep, your body works to remove any toxins you were exposed to during the day, and to restore energy and health for body and mind.  Replace your mattress and bedding with an organic mattress, made with natural latex, wool or organic cotton.  Be sure your pillows are all natural as well.  Non-organic cotton is grown in fields soaked in insecticides; dyes and color fixers use heavy metals such as chromium, copper and zink.  You can request “no fire retardant chemicals” be used on your mattress; this requires a prescription from your doctor.

2. Keep the air in your house pure.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America rates indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental health risks.  Clear and purify your air by adding a room air-purifier, or go further and install a central filtration system.  Models are available that can remove particulates such as dust and pet dander, along with molds, spores, pollen and chemical gases such as sulfuric acid, ammonia and formaldehyde.  Commercial cleansers are often overlooked culprits in polluting indoor air; some of their ingredients are carcinogenic and toxic to the lungs, liver and kidneys.

3.  Reduce or Eliminate VOCs with Water-Based Paints.

That just-painted smell is actually the off-gassing of chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and zylene.  The Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from paints last far longer than the odor does, as can vapors from floor stains, finishes, sealants and caulks. According to the EPA, some of these VOCs are known to cause cancer.  Low- or No-VOC products use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents, reducing the levels of heavy metals and formaldehyde. Even low VOC paints, though, can contain fungicides and biocides, used to prevent mildew growth and extend shelf life.  A product I use and recommend is EnviroSafe Paints, which uses no fungicides or biocides at all.

4. Be Clean and Green with Non-Toxic Cleansers
Many conventional cleaning products, rather than cleaning your home, actually pollute it with a toxic mixture of petrochemicals. Experts say chemicals inside our homes may have concentrations of up to 100 times higher than outdoor air. Synthetic fragrances are added to mask the odor of chemical vapors, implicated in headaches, dizziness, skin rashes and respiratory problems, as well as deadly diseases.  There are many good green cleaning products on the market made from natural ingredients, such as Seventh Generation:  look for products containing citrus oils and enzymes.  You can also make your own from items you have in your pantryI’ve given instructions on an earlier post.  Read it here.


5.  Protect your lawn and garden from contaminants.

Once you’ve made your home a safe-haven from fumes and toxic chemicals, you won’t want to live surrounded by pesticides and harsh fertilizers.  Lawn and garden chemicals are poisons to things that live, including you and your pets.  The residue from these products are too easily tracked into your house, polluting your pristine space.  A study from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) found pesticides in 100% of the people who had both blood and urine tested.  Many of these chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects, and liver or kidney damage.  Learn to tolerate a few weeds, or get the family outside in the fresh air to dig them out by hand.  Healthy soil is “alive,” so boost your soil’s health by spreading organic compost or alfa meal.

To do even more for your health, be vigilant about BPA in plastic bottles and pitchers, and in canned goods.  Cook with glass, cast iron or porcelain or ceramic-coated pans rather than old nonstick cookware.  And choose skincare products made from natural and organic ingredients.  Doing just these few things will help to minimize the effects of unavoidable exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes.

Finally, believe, like I do, in the Power of One:  the power each of us has to make an impact, create change, and help heal the earth.