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EarthTalk®

by Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer


Dear EarthTalk: Just when I finally purged my kitchen of non-stick cookware due to the risks posed by Teflon, I now learn that my rain jacket and waterproof boots are also putting my health at risk from exposure to similar “hydrophobic” chemicals. What’s a concerned outdoors person to do about staying dry and comfortable on a rainy hike? -- Alex Walker, Philadelphia, PA

Most of us remember when GORE-Tex first appeared and revolutionized outdoor clothing and gear by infusing products with a waterproof treatment that could also “breathe” so we wouldn’t get clammy on the inside as our outerwear repelled the elements. Since then, this synthetic chemical-based weatherproofing has become ubiquitous throughout the outdoor industry, not only in jackets, but also in boots and shoes, backpacks, tents, swimsuits and just about everything else that gets exposed to the wet and wild.

And while we’ve all been happily making our way through the rain and snow, we might not have realized that there is a dark underbelly to all of this weatherproof outdoor gear: perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). These synthetic chemicals are related to the “hydrophobic” PFOA formulations that make non-stick cookware easy to clean by encouraging liquids to bead up and roll away. And like their chemical cousins on cookware, the PFCs in your jacket could be making you sick and polluting the environment.

“PFCs are environmentally hazardous substances, which are persistent in the environment,” reports Greenpeace, which launched its Detox Outdoor campaign in 2012 to convince outdoor gear makers to stop using toxic chemicals in their products. “Studies show that some PFCs can accumulate in living organisms such as the livers of polar bears in the Arctic and are also detected in human blood.” Meanwhile, animal studies indicate that PFCs can harm reproductive processes, negatively impact hormonal balances and promote the growth of tumors.

Once released into the environment PFCs break down very slowly. They remain in the environment for several hundred years and are dispersed over the entire globe. Some are found in secluded mountain lakes or accumulated in wildlife. Some are also found in human blood.

If you have waterproof shoes or a rain jacket that is more than a year or two old, chances are it was treated with a PFC-laced Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish before it left the factory—and could be leaching trace amounts of these toxic carcinogenic chemicals into your body and the environment. And PFCs never break down entirely, so they can continue to cause harm indefinitely.

Luckily, given Greenpeace’s advocacy and resulting consumer awareness, the majority of gear makers have started to phase out PFCs. Smaller brands including Paramo, Pyua, Rotauf, Fjällräven, R’ADYS and Dannah were the first to commit to PFC-free product lines, but the bigger players are coming around, too. W.L. Gore, Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, Columbia and others have voluntarily committed to phasing out PFC-based DWR formulations by 2020 per Greenpeace’s original ask.

But getting there depends on finding suitable alternatives. Many companies have temporarily switched to less toxic while still fluorocarbon-based DWR formulations while they look for greener formulations. For its part, Patagonia is betting big through its corporate investment fund Tin Shed Ventures on Switzerland-based start-up Beyond Surface Technologies, a company founded in 2008 by scientists who left careers at big chemical companies to make DWR-like textile treatments using natural raw materials.

CONTACTS: Greenpeace Detox Outdoor Campaign, detox-outdoor.org; Tin Shed Ventures, tinshedventures.com; Beyond Surface Technologies, www.beyondst.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for a new mattress after two decades on “old faithful” and I figure it’s a good time to go green. What are the options out there these days for eco-friendly mattresses? -- Betsy Langdon, Chicago, IL

Who would have thought that the comfy mattress you’ve been sleeping of for years contains dozens of potentially harmful substances and materials, from petrochemicals to adhesives to dyes to flame retardants, among other toxins and carcinogens. Luckily for green-minded consumers, though, there’s never been a better time to find a truly “green” mattress.

“Green technology and innovation have impacted a wide range of industries in recent years…and this growing demand has led many mattress manufacturers to offer sustainable products as well,” reports Tuck, a website dedicated to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free resources. “However, terms like ‘green,’ ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are often misused or exaggerated within the mattress industry.” Further complicating matters, there is no regulatory body fact-checking green claims within the mattress industry, although certifications are available for certain mattress materials like foam, latex, and fabrics.

So, what’s a green-minded, health-conscious mattress shopper to do? First and foremost, know what to look for. According to Tuck, a true green mattress features natural and/or organic materials (natural latex, plant-based polyfoam or memory foam, cotton, wool, etc.). Tuck says that any mattress that contains less than 60 percent natural or organic material has no right to market itself as “green.”

There is no overall certification for green mattresses overall per se, but there are certifications that apply to certain types of mattresses and their materials. To wit, if a mattress meets the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), at least 95 percent of its materials are certified organic, while certain noxious chemicals (chemical flame retardants, polyurethane) can’t be present at all. Meanwhile, the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) certifies that a latex mattress is made from 95 percent organic latex, with similarly stringent restrictions on what can be in the remaining five percent of the mattress.

Another certification to look for is OEKO-TEX, which sets limits on how much a given mattress can off-gas potentially harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other so-called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) linked to respiratory illness, memory impairment and other human health issues.

Foam mattress buyers should keep an eye out for the CertiPUR-US label, which certifies polyfoams and memory foams as made without ozone depleters, chemical flame retardants, heavy metals, formaldehyde and phthalates—and emit little if any volatile organic compounds that can compromise indoor air quality.

Some of the leading green mattress brands out there, as vetted by Tuck and other experts, include Avocado, Bear, Essentia, Happsy, Keetsa, Live & Sleep, LifeKind/OMI, Loom & Leaf, Luxi, My Green Mattress, Naturepedic, Nest Bedding, Organic Mattresses, Plushbeds, Saatva, Sleep On Latex, Soaring Heart, Spindle, Tuft & Needle and Zenhaven.

To learn more, peruse Tuck.com. The freely accessible database contains information on 125,000 different customer experiences from nearly 1,000 individual sources.

CONTACTS: Tuck, tuck.com; GOTS, global-standard.org; GOLS, https://goo.gl/THzRCp; OEKO-TEX, oeko-tex.com; CertiPUR-US, certipur.us.

Dear EarthTalk: I recently read about the toxic dangers of particle board. I still am using the same laminate on particle board bedroom furniture that I bought new 30 years ago. Do you think it’s still harmful to my health after all this time, and is there any way to make it less unhealthy?

— Jane Woodard, via e-mail

Sadly, much of the furniture we enjoy every day is “off-gassing” toxins into the air, especially if it’s made out of particle board, which traditionally relies on formaldehyde—a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical and known respiratory irritant and carcinogen—to bond the wood chips and other filler together. If you’ve had the furniture for many years, the good news is that most or all of the formaldehyde fumes have long off-gassed out. Of course, the bad news is that you’ve likely been breathing it in for years.

“New particleboard presents the biggest health concern, making installation of new materials the most dangerous,” reports DoItYourself.com. “As the material ages, any formaldehyde gas emissions are reduced, but cutting it can release toxic dust into the air.”

Formaldehyde isn’t something to mess with. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), its exposure can make you sick, with symptoms including sore throat, cough, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds. And it’s been linked to an increased risk of allergies and asthma in children.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) adds thatchronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general damage to the central nervous system, such as increased prevalence of headache, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory and equilibrium.”

Furthermore, the American Cancer Society reports that exposure to formaldehyde—classified by the federal government as a “known human carcinogen” since 2011—has caused cancer in laboratory test animals, and that humans exposed to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings are at greater risk for cancers of the nose and throat, among others.

“Scientific research has not yet shown that a certain level of formaldehyde exposure causes cancer,” reports CDC. “However, the higher the level and the longer the exposure, the greater the chance of getting cancer.” CDC researchers also worry that exposure to formaldehyde “might increase the chance of getting cancer even at levels too low to cause symptoms.”

One precaution is to apply sealant designed to lock in potentially harmful fumes (AFM Safecoat’s Safe Seal is one). Or to just make the problem go away, maybe it’s time for new, greener furniture anyway. Avoid the formaldehyde trap and look for products made out of solid wood, no resin required.

Keep an eye out for products made with sustainable alternatives to particle board, like Uniboard’s woodchip-based NU Green Zero, Environ’s newsprint and soy waste Biocomposite, and Pfleiderer’s renewable wheat straw PrimeBoard. These greener choices are bound with a polyurethane base free of formaldehyde and are popping up increasingly in the Targets and Walmarts of the world for those willing to read labels and ask questions in the quest to find the greenest versions of what’s available.

CONTACTS: Safe Seal, goo.gl/2oWodG; CDC’s “What You Should Know About Formaldehyde,” www.cdc.gov/nceh/drywall/docs/whatyoushouldknowaboutformaldehyde.pdf; Uniboard, www.uniboard.com; PrimeBoard, www.pfleiderer.com/row/PrimeBoard/PrimeBoard.

Dear EarthTalk: Why on earth would cans and other food storage containers contain toxic BPA that can make us sick? Is there any way to avoid it? – Melinda Billings, Hixson, TN

If you like the occasional can of tomato soup or diced pears, chances are you’re walking around with trace amounts of bisphenol A (BPA) in your bloodstream. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90 percent of us are walking around with trace amounts of this toxic synthetic chemical—commonly used as a constituent component in the epoxy resins lining the inside of cans, boxes and other food storage containers to prevent corrosion and breakages—in our bloodstreams.

One of a class of so-called “hormone disrupting” or “endocrine mimicking” chemicals, BPA fools the body into thinking it’s the naturally occurring hormone estrogen. The result can be negative effects on brain development, metabolism and the reproductive system. BPA exposure has also been linked to cancer, heart disease and other serious health disorders.

“Evidence suggests the developing fetus and young child are most at risk, but adolescents also appear uniquely vulnerable,” reports the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a leading non-profit research and advocacy group. Of course, the harm isn’t limited to children and teens; adults can suffer the ill effects of a lifetime of bio-accumulated BPA coursing through their veins as well.

According to EWG, we can cut down on the amount of BPA we ingest by steering clear of canned and processed foods and replacing them with fresh, frozen and dried options. Get your tomato soup from the hot prepared foods section of your local natural foods market or, better yet, make it yourself from scratch from organic ingredients. And instead of buying diced pears in a can, buy a real pear and dice it up yourself.

“For those who cannot avoid foods in BPA-lined cans, rinsing the food in water may help lower the level of BPA in the food,” reports EWG, adding that rinsing cuts back on other unhealthy additives—such as sodium on beans or sweet syrup on fruit—as well. EWG also warns never to heat up food directly in a can: “Transfer it to a stainless-steel pot or pan for stovetop cooking, or microwave in glass – not plastic.”

If you’re not sure whether your favorite foods are at risk of containing BPA, you can search EWG’s Food Scores database to find out, and also to look for safer alternatives that don’t contain hormone disruptors.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging, but the vast majority of us are still at risk. Environmental and health advocates are calling on the agency to ban BPA outright from any packaging materials that come into contact with foods, drinks or water, but so far officials don’t seem inclined to take the now ubiquitous chemical off the market completely. In 2014 and again in 2016, Democrats in Congress floated legislation that would have banned BPA and other potentially dangerous food additives in all food storage containers, but neither bill ever made it out of committee.

Without any help from the government, then, it’s up to us to wean ourselves off of BPA by making smart choices about what we buy and what we eat.

CONTACTS: CDC Bisphenol A Fact Sheet, www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/BisphenolA_FactSheet.html; EWG’s Food Scores, www.ewg.org/foodscores.

Dear EarthTalk: What are suitable materials for making biodegradable plastic besides corn and sugarcane? Is pineapple or peanut suitable? -- Yu Hong Yap, Malaysia

Biodegradable plastic is defined as any form of plastic that can break down into its constituent components in the environment within days, weeks or months without leaving behind potentially toxic residue. The term bioplastic refers to any form of plastic derived from organic or plant-based materials rather than petroleum, regardless of whether it can break down (biodegrade) easily in the environment. Thus, the two terms are not necessarily the same, although many use the terms interchangeably.

The most common iteration of bioplastic, so-called PLA (polylactic acid) plastic, is typically derived from corn or sugarcane—and is biodegradable. Since we know how to grow these food crops so well, using the minimal amount of land for the highest yield, we can create bioplastic pretty efficiently. But given still exploding global human population numbers and more hungry mouths to feed, many wonder if it makes sense to take away land that could be used to grow food to make more plastic, even if it is biodegradable.

To avoid wasting food crops to make plastic, researchers have pioneered new formulations of biodegradable plastic derived from feedstock not suitable for food or feed, such as wood, wheat straw, bagasse, corn cobs, palm fruit bunches, switch grass and waste vegetable oil. In Europe, the Mars candy company is using potato waste in its biodegradable wrappers for Snickers bars. Likewise, there’s no reason why pineapple or peanut couldn’t work as a feedstock—though market conditions usually dictate that such products fetch a higher price as food, especially since they don’t have to be processed as they would if they become bioplastic.

Yet another even more futuristic category of bioplastic feedstock uses algae or even carbon dioxide or methane waste to produce biodegradable plastic. These so-called “third generation” or “nextgen” feedstocks do double duty by both creating biodegradable plastic and removing pollutants that would otherwise contribute to climate change or eutrophication (an excessive buildup of nutrients in waterways that causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen).

While biodegradable plastic is hardly commonplace yet on store shelves, there are actions consumers can take to move things along. Encourage manufacturers to switch to biodegradable plastics and stop buying products made with conventional plastic. Sign the Earth Day Network’s petition to end plastic pollution.

While no one can reasonably argue against replacing conventional plastics with biodegradable ones, researchers from the UK’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory accidentally developed an enzyme that breaks down conventional plastic into its constituent parts. This discovery could revolutionize recycling and be a Godsend for marine and terrestrial ecosystems beset by plastic waste.

“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem,” says the University of Portsmouth’s John McGeehan. “But the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’, must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.”

CONTACTS: Earth Day Network’s “Help End Plastic Pollution” Petition, www.earthday.org/end-plastic-pollution-petition/; Mars, www.mars.com;

University of Portsmouth, www.port.ac.uk/school-of-biological-sciences/staff/john-mcgeehan.html.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


 


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