Monday, December 23, 2013

Our Chemical Inheritance

In a half-hearted attempt to organize my internet bookmarks this morning I found, for some unexplainable reason, ten or so bookmarks for the same article. I don’t recall bookmarking the page more than once, but somehow it seems to be cloning itself. Since it’s trying so hard to get my attention, I think I’ll pay it some by summarizing it here, even though I’ve touched on the issues it discusses previously.

The article, entitled “The Toxins that Affected Your Great-Grandparents Could be in Your Genes," was published in Smithsonian magazine. It makes the following points:

  • In 2005, a researcher who worked with biologist Michael Skinner botched an experiment. The two were studying the effects of a fungicide on fetal development in rats and the researcher accidentally bred the grandchildren of the original subjects.

  • When the new rats (the fourth generation of the rats who were originally exposed to the chemical) were analyzed, it was discovered that the animals had sperm defects, but that this was not due to a change in their inherited DNA.

  • The experiment was repeated many times with different rats, different chemicals, and different health effects. The pattern held that diseases related to chemical exposures showed up in the fourth and fifth generations. One pattern found was that subsequent generations of rats exposed to DDT were more likely to be obese.

  • It has long been known that an altered DNA message can be passed on to future generations. In Skinner’s rats, however, the disease process was found to be related to altered patterns of molecules called methyl groups. The author notes, “like burrs stuck to a knit sweater, these methyl molecules interfered with the functioning of the DNA and rode it down through future generations, opening each new one to the same diseases.”

  • The discovery spawned a new field, which has come to be called transgenerational epigenetics.

  • The “burrs” apparently fasten themselves in a particular arrangement, so that the biological fingerprint of the chemical may be traceable. In the future, it may be possible for doctors to screen people for methylation patterns in order to determine the chemical exposures of previous generations.

  • Skinner’s findings have been opposed by “moneyed interests” and by those still attached to the old genetic paradigm. Skinner responds by saying that “the best way to handle these things is to let the science speak for itself."

The science is speaking. Are we listening?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Non-Toxic Oven Cleaning

Thanksgiving weekend has come to a close, and for those who hosted guests, it’s time to put things back in order. If this means cleaning an oven from the effects of cooking a Thanksgiving feast, there are some things to keep in mind, including the following:

  • Commercial oven cleaners are generally very toxic. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) rated 12 oven cleaners on their safety. Of the 12, one product received a “C” grade and 11 received an “F.” 

  • Self-cleaning ovens aren’t a non-toxic option, either. Self-cleaning ovens are generally coated with Teflon or similar chemicals. See the previous post titled “Sticky Chemicalsfor more information on the dangers of PFCs. The burning of food particles during the self-cleaning cycle may also release small amounts of carbon monoxide and there may be fumes released from the oven’s insulation, including formaldehyde. Most oven manufacturers recommend opening windows, running ventilation fans, and/or leaving the house while the self-cleaning function is operating. Many also recommend removing pets from the home. In a Healthy Home Tip article, the EWG noted that the flu-like symptoms that people often get from heated Teflon-like chemicals are so common that they have been given a name by scientists: “Polymer fume fever.”  

  • It’s possible to clean an oven safely. There are many “recipes” that have been used successfully. Some people just use baking soda and water. Others use baking soda and vinegar. One blogger posted her recipe for using baking soda and dish soap, which is similar to what I usually do, except that I use a fragrance-free dish soap made by Seventh Generation. Other methods that have been recommended are to  use a pumice stick or citrus peels.

Here's what works for me.  

In the evening I make a paste of baking soda, water, and fragrance-free dish soap. I apply this to the oven interior. I then boil a pot of water on the stove. When it’s boiling nicely, I remove it from the stove, stick it in the oven, and close the oven door. This allows the oven to fill with steam. I leave everything alone until morning, at which time I wipe away all the gunk. After everything looks clean, I go over everything again with water or vinegar just to make sure I’ve removed all the residue. That’s it. It almost always works. Occasionally there’s a stubborn spot that remains, but some combination of baking soda, water, and time always removes it.

The chemical industry wants us to believe that our choices are harsh chemicals, filth, or exhausting work. It isn’t true. Let’s show them we know better.

Friday, November 22, 2013

School Challenges and Victories

Avoiding chemical toxins is important for people of all ages, but may be especially crucial for children and teenagers, because their brains are still developing and because smaller bodies can detoxify less before becoming overwhelmed. For this reason, schools are an important focus in the battle for cleaner, healthier air.

This is a good news/bad news post focusing on two recent school stories. The first comes from Investigate West and addresses  the dangers of building schools near large roadways and their associated pollutants. The author notes that evidence links proximity to heavily-traveled roads to asthma, lung problems and higher absenteeism among students but that, despite the evidence, policymakers in many locations have ignored clearly-presented risks and continue to build schools where exposure to traffic fumes is high.

At least six states have addressed the placement of school buildings near major traffic sources. California prohibits their construction within 500 feet of freeways under most circumstances and five other states have some sort of similar guidelines. In eight states, building near a major roadway is not prohibited, but school districts are asked to consider the issue.

The article notes that 36 states have no restrictions on building schools near environmental hazards. It also notes that in 2008 and 2009, separate groups of officials meeting in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. considered restricting construction of schools near major roadways, but decided against taking action. An environmental health expert guessed at the reason. He noted, “They didn’t want to open that Pandora’s box. They knew that if they were to put exclusion criteria in there, it would raise these questions about schools already sitting in these hazardous zones, and reasonably so. Parents would say, ’My kids are at risk.’ And then what?”

The second story is a video that comes from a Fox affiliate station in Nashville and addresses cleaning products. The mother of a chemically sensitive child is interviewed and reports that, after four years of trying, she was able to convince her son’s school to replace toxic cleaning products with safer ones. A worker from Whole Foods Market is also interviewed and notes that the demand for safer cleaning products is growing. Finally, a specialist certified with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) talks about the cumulative effects of exposures and how the rates of learning disabilities, autism, asthma, and other conditions have skyrocketed.

Hurray for helpful news stories and for small victories with cleaning products. Boo for inaction on the part of policymakers. Hurray for mothers who work hard to protect their children. Boo for everything that makes it harder for them to do so. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Discovering a Little Respect

There’s so much bad news about everyday toxins and such a lack of understanding of chemical illness that I always like to celebrate the victories. This week, I’m happy to highlight an article published in Discover magazine which describes chemical illness (which they call Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance, or TILT) in a respectful and serious manner. It makes the following points:

  • Sometimes when people get sick after a toxic exposure, their neurological and immune systems remain damaged and they lose tolerance for a wide range of chemicals. People with TILT can become more reactive to chemicals over time.

  • Substances that trigger symptoms are often unrelated structurally and include things like airborn inhalants, foods, drugs, lotions, soaps, detergents, and newsprint. Symptoms can include cardiac and neurological problems, headaches, anxiety, gut issues, asthma, depression, sleep disturbance, and impaired cognitive ability.

  • The wide range of symptoms and triggering substances has often led patients to be labeled as mentally ill.

  • TILT may be driven by epigenetic changes, which occur when an environmental exposure changes genetic expression. “Surprisingly low” doses of certain chemicals can strongly affect gene activity. Once a gene has been switched on and a cell has been reprogrammed, it’s hard for it to go back to its original state.

  • TILT has been documented in many different countries, including nine in Europe, as well as Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.

  • Because there is no blood-brain barrier in the olfactory system, toxicants can travel straight into the brain from receptors in the nose. Even healthy people demonstrate changes in brain waves during brief exposure to olfactory stimuli that is too low to be consciously perceived.

  • Studies have shown that people with chemical intolerance have greater sensitization of their central nervous system. They also have a decrease in blood flow to specific brain areas when exposed to everyday chemical fumes. A study of Gulf War veterans suffering from TILT found decreased blood flow through the central artery in the brain when they were exposed to acetone.

  • Despite the research, controversy over the condition remains.

The article is definitely much better than most I’ve read about toxic illness. It provides some validation for those of us who suffer from it, and I hope it will also serve as a warning to those who are currently healthy. We aren’t making this stuff up. Chemical illness is a real condition and you really don’t want it. Be careful, friends.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Yellow Butterflies

There are many things on my mind that I could choose to write about this week. In the last month and a half our church split, I leaned some more things about my health, some of which are potentially quite serious, and we had a fire in the garage which filled the house with smoke and displaced me (yet again) from my home. My husband took off for a mission trip overseas and I hung out alone in a campground for five days. I’m now back to hanging out in my campervan in the driveway, while I air out the house and pray it will be habitable quickly. There are so many thoughts and feelings swirling about that it’s hard to know how to corral them into a coherent blog post. Instead of corralling them, I think I’ll ignore most of them and write about yellow butterflies.

The story of the yellow butterflies began in August two years ago. A basement flood and resulting mold growth had left me unable to be inside the house for any significant length of time. I was camped out on the back deck on my birthday, feeling somewhat sorry for myself, when a yellow butterfly landed on the rail beside me. It was just a butterfly, sitting on a deck rail, but because butterflies traditionally represent hope and new beginnings, its presence comforted me. I don’t generally keep a journal or prayer diary, but I do occasionally jot things down, and on that day I wrote the following: “While I was on the deck I first saw a butterfly that stayed a long time (sign of freedom and change?). Then I saw a praying mantis walking very slowly. Maybe change will come through prayer, but take a while?” 

A few months later, my sister’s life was hit with some significant and painful challenges. As we talked about them, she mentioned that God had spoken a message of hope and peace to her through the appearance of a yellow butterfly. I was fascinated that we had both had the same experience.

From that time on, we both began to notice yellow butterflies. They helped sustain my sister during her crisis. Once, we were talking on the phone (we live 700 miles apart) and she saw one in her yard. As soon as she mentioned it, one appeared in my yard, too. I’ve been to her house once since the first butterfly appearance, for just a few hours, but as we were sitting outside talking, a yellow butterfly flew past.

My friend Linda posts lovely pictures on Facebook and adds scripture verses to them. In July, she posted a picture of a yellow butterfly sitting among a patch of black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers. She used Ephesians 3:20, which is one of my favorite verses (“Now glory be to God, who by his mighty power at work in us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of – infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes.”)  I told Linda how much I loved the picture and I told my husband and father-in-law, who was visiting, a little about it and about why it was special to me.

The day after my friend posted the picture, my husband, father-in-law and I went out for a walk. (They walk and I roll in my wheelchair, but I’m not sure what to call that.) We rounded a corner and I was treated to a beautiful sight. A yellow butterfly, identical to the one in the picture, was sitting on identical flowers. We didn’t manage to snap a picture, but my husband and father-in-law both agreed that it was a perfect re-creation of the photo. It seemed that God was reinforcing the message.

I’m writing about yellow butterflies this week, because they keep appearing. Every day in the campground I was greeted by them and sometimes they flew very close to me. I’ve had more yellow butterfly visits since I’ve been home. I realize that they’re a part of nature and that it isn’t as if I’m seeing orange elephants. Whether I’ve seen more yellow butterflies than I should normally expect to see, I don’t really know, but I know they bring me peace.

I’m sure we’ve all heard illustrations of how caterpillars enter into a vulnerable, dark place before they emerge with wings and freedom. I don’t have anything especially insightful to add. I guess I just want to remind myself, and anyone who happens to read this, that things do change, that sometimes increased challenges are a preparation for greater victory, and that no matter how long we’ve crawled along the ground, a day may come when we can fly.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Last week, I wrote about “pinkwashing,” which is rampant in the month of October. The more common form of color deception, however, is greenwashing, which occurs all year long. Greenwashing is the practice of making misleading claims about a product’s environmental benefits.

A major problem with the term “green” as it is commonly used is that “the environment” is often narrowly defined. The focus tends to be on a handful of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the indoor environments in which people spend most of their time are often overlooked.

Even those products that take a wider view of the environment and claim to be non-toxic often aren’t. An article on “green” cleaning products notes that one of the most widely-used products in the category contains up to four percent of a chemical known as  2-butoxyethanol. The substance is a petrochemical solvent linked to a wide range of problems including cancer, osteoarthritis, reproductive problems, and birth defects. The article reported on a study that analyzed 25 cleaning products, half of which claimed to be green, organic, or natural. The products emitted a total of 133 different chemicals, about one fourth of which are classified as toxic or hazardous. Every product emitted at least one chemical known to be toxic.

A publication entitled "The Sins of Greenwashing" lists the following problems with “green” claims:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-off – Focusing on one set of attributes while ignoring other important factors

  • Sin of No Proof – Making unsubstantiated claims that aren’t verified by reliable third parties

  • Sin of Vagueness – Making claims that are broad or poorly defined

  • Sin of Irrelevance – Making claims that are true, but irrelevant, such as claiming to be free of chemicals that have already been banned

  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils – Making claims that are true, but distract from larger risks

  • Sin of Fibbing – Making claims that are simply false

  • Sin of Worshiping False Labels – Implying falsely, through words or images, that a product has been endorsed by a third party.

Although greenwashing is rampant, some labels and terms mean more than others do. As I wrote in a previous postConsumer Reports maintains a website with a label search function which can be helpful. Labeling can be misleading and inconsistent, but that doesn’t mean that all products are created equal. Some are definitely less problematic than others.

As in other areas of chemical toxicity, it’s important to work for change while simultaneously doing what we can now to protect ourselves and those around us. Truly “green” cleaning, for example, is really not hard to achieve. As I noted in a previous post on cleaning, water is the universal solvent. Vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda and castile soap can also clean many, many things. The internet is full of recipes, hints, and suggestions. There are a lot of things that are hard to control. It makes sense to control what we can.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Problem with Pink

It’s October, and that means a lot of things will be colored pink this month in support of breast cancer prevention and treatment. Breast cancer is a personal issue for my family. I lost my mother to the disease when I was a young teen and as I write this, my sister is fighting it. I grew up cancer's shadow, and I obviously support awareness and research. I get quite frustrated and angry at some aspects of the “turn everything pink” movement, though, especially the ridiculous practice of slapping a pink label on a product that contains ingredients actually known to cause cancer. This has come to be known as “pinkwashing.” 

Pinkwashing is an extremely common practice. The writer of the Mommy Greenest  website notes that the problem seems to be getting larger with every passing year. Some of the myriad of examples include the following:

  • Perfumes, which contain hormone disruptors and other possible carcinogens (In 2011, the Susan G. Komen Foundation commissioned a perfume which contained toluene, which is banned by the International Fragrance Association)

  • Bottled water and canned soup, both of which can leach BPA

  • Nail polish, which contains numerous known carcinogens, including formaldehyde and pthalates

  • Lipstick containing hormone disruptors and lead

It’s hard to justify selling a product with known carcinogens in the name of breast cancer prevention or treatment. It makes even less sense when you realize what a small amount of the purchase price often goes to the cause. (In some cases the amount is zero.) The Think Before You Pink campaign advises asking yourself some questions before buying a pink-labeled product. These include whether any money from the purchase goes to breast cancer programs, who will receive the donation and what will be done with it, whether or not a company caps the amount they donate, and whether the product itself raises the cancer risk.

We're surrounded by products that are known to contribute to cancer in general and breast cancer in particular. The Mommy Greenest article advises avoiding perfumes and other products with synthetic fragrances, canned foods, vinyl, many plastics, and personal care products which contain common preservatives known as parabens. An article in The Independent reported on a study finding that the products linked most strongly to breast cancer were air fresheners and mold and mildew removers. Association was also found with insect repellants.

For more information on environmental contributors to breast cancer, see the Breast Cancer Fund website. It isn’t wrong to continue to support research into treatment, but why not also act on what we already know? Knowledge isn't helpful unless we use it. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Gut Feeling about Pollution

I think most of us living in the U.S. today have some sort of idea that pollution is harming us. However, I think we tend to have a limited view of the possible health effects. We may think of pollutants causing cancer and respiratory distress, but fail to realize the systemic results of exposures and to consider environmental causes for a wide variety of health challenges.

A recent article from Environmental Health News makes the point. The author quotes a scientist from the University of Alberta  who states, “We tend to think about air pollution in terms of lung health, but the GI tract is also being bathed in it continuously. Fine pollution particles are cleared from the respiratory tract by mucous that makes its way to the gut.”

Studies are beginning to link air pollutants to inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease) and other gastrointestinal problems. The article notes the following:

  • A study found that children and young adults with higher exposure to a component of traffic exhaust (nitrogen dioxide) were more than twice as likely to develop Crohn’s disease.

  • Another study found that high air pollution was associated with a 40 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations for bowel disease. The pollution included carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic chemicals and fine particulates.

  • Fine particulates may make the gut more permeable, alter its normal bacteria, and trigger inflammation. Particulates primarily come from combustion, such as from car exhaust and heating fuel.

  • High levels of ozone have been linked to an increased risk of a burst appendix. Every weekly increase of 16 parts per billion of ozone increases the risk of a burst appendix by 11 to 22 percent.

Intestinal effects of various kinds can be caused by a wide variety of toxins. The Environmental Protection Agency lists several possibilities. They note that formaldehyde has been linked to inflammation and toxicity of the intestinal tract. Formaldehyde can be found in pressed wood products, carpet, foam insulation, cosmetics, cleaning products, and many other places. Chemicals known to cause abdominal pain include arsenic (found in water, soil and some wood preservatives) and nitrates and nitrites, which are common components of gasoline, shoe polish, spray paints, rat poison, food preservatives, and fertilizer.

It’s easy to think that what we breathe will affect our lungs and what we eat will affect our gastrointestinal tract, but it’s not quite that simple. However a toxin enters the body, it has the potential to affect the whole system. There’s no getting around it. For optimum health, we need to avoid toxins in every way we possibly can.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Revisiting the Book of Job

My read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan puts me in the book of Job in September. Last year I wrote a post about a particular verse that struck me. Maybe I’ll make it an annual tradition. This year, I was struck by a couple of verses in Chapter Six. Most of the book of Job relates a series of frustrating and nonproductive conversations between the deeply suffering Job and his friends. Chapter Six is part of the conversation, and a few of Job’s comments prompted thoughts about why it is that we humans seem to so often say unhelpful things to each other.

There are a wide variety of ways that our careless remarks can make the suffering of others worse instead of better. Those of us with chronic illnesses are often frustrated when people accuse us of sin (either of being sick because of sin or of lacking faith to be healed) or make statements that imply that we aren’t very bright or don’t really want to get well. (“Have you seen a doctor?”)  Often our pain is denied or minimized. People with chemical illness frequently hear “That can’t hurt you” or “I know someone else with your condition and he’s able to do a lot more than you can.”

Sometimes a statement that is absolutely true (“God is in control”) feels unhelpful when we have a fresh or still-tender wound and the remark isn’t paired with some expression of sympathy. Job touched on the problem in verse 26. Although he was referring to criticism rather than to pat responses, he said, “Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?” Pain begs to be acknowledged. A fairly neutral remark may also feel unhelpful if we’ve heard it so much that it feels like an attempt to avoid having a real conversation.

All of us fail to respond helpfully to the suffering of others sometimes. Why do we do that?  Here are some of the many possible reasons:

Fear – Job mentioned fear in verse 21. He remarked to his friends, “You, too, have given no help. You have seen my calamity, and you are afraid.”  What are we afraid of?  A basic fear when we encounter the pain of another is that a similar thing could happen to us. Accepting that good people sometimes suffer and that there aren’t always quick and easy ways to escape means that we, too, might someday find ourselves in a painful situation with no obvious way out. Those are scary thoughts and sometimes the response to that fear is to deny the pain exists or conclude that the sufferers are doing something wrong. Surely, we wouldn’t find ourselves in their position, but if we did, we would fix it.

Another fear is that if we acknowledge the suffering as legitimate, we may feel responsible to help alleviate it in some way. That seems to be what Job was implying. After remarking that his friend was frightened by Job’s situation, Job asked, “But why? Have I ever asked you for a gift?” 

Differences in theology  I absolutely believe that God can take the messes that humans make and the consequences of living in a fallen world and turn them into something beautiful and good. I believe God has a plan. I believe God is in control. I don’t believe, however, that those truths mean that God’s people won’t suffer on earth. There are people who believe the Bible teaches that true believers are exempt from pain. I personally don’t see how even a quick skimming of the Bible or a quick glance at the world can lead to that conclusion.

One of many, many scripture passages that address the point is the “roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11. The chapter gives a long list of people who were commended for their faith in God. Verses 32 through 38 tell us that some of these heroes overthrew kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, quenched fire and received loved ones back from the dead. That would be a handy place to stop the narrative, but it continues. We learn that others were tortured, jeered at, imprisoned, oppressed, stoned, and sawed in two. We are told that “they placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection.”  That’s the hope. That’s the ultimate plan. Maybe we’ll escape deep suffering on this earth and maybe we won’t.

Guilt – This can play a role in the minimizing of all kinds of suffering, but is often very obvious in the realm of chemical illness. If I suspect on some level, even though I try to deny it to myself, that my decisions or actions may have played a role in someone else’s pain, I can deal with that by telling myself that the other person isn’t really suffering the way they claim to be or that they shouldn’t be and could avoid it somehow.

Lack of empathy – Sometimes we’re just so focused on our own lives we fail to really see and empathize with the struggles of others. This is especially true of struggles that are very different from our own experiences. In verses 5 and 6, Job asked, “Don’t I have a right to complain? . . . Don’t people complain about unsalted food?”  Maybe Job was thinking something like, “If I complained about unsalted food you would understand because you can relate, but because my suffering is so far beyond anything you’ve experienced, you want to brush it away and are uncomfortable with me even expressing it.”

I find the lack of empathy for people in situations we can’t imagine often shows itself when people in developed countries talk about the suffering of those in developing ones. People sometimes say things like, “They’re used to it” or “It’s not so bad because everyone there is in the same boat.”  If friends or family members lose their jobs, we feel some of their pain because we relate to them and can imagine ourselves in their shoes.  On the other hand, we can’t imagine living on two dollars a day in a village with no electricity or running water, so we tell ourselves it can’t really be as hard as it sounds. If people who are “like us” lose a second child, we realize, to some extent, the depth of grief they must be feeling. We don’t generally say, “Well, at least they’re used to it.”  It’s hard for us to remember sometimes that people are people and suffering is suffering and that it’s no easier for others to go through painful situations than it would be for us to experience the same thing, even if it’s something beyond what we can really imagine.

Habit – I think sometimes we don’t give responses much thought, but simply answer out of habit. The response to “How are you?” is “I’m fine.”  The response to “I’m suffering” is “God has a plan.”  I recently corresponded with someone who told me that on one of the very worst days of her life, when her heart was broken into a million pieces, someone said, “I’m excited for you because I know God has a plan.”  Excited?  Really?  That wasn’t the most helpful thing to say on that day. A simple “I’m sorry” is generally helpful. “My heart breaks for you” is helpful. “I’m excited for you” – not so much. Surely that was a response made from habit rather than from thought about how it might be received or whether it was likely to help the situation in any way.

My husband recently introduced me to a song called “Broken Praise” that’s based on the book of Job. The “if” statements in the lyrics don’t resolve to a “then,” which bugs me a bit, but otherwise I think it’s a wonderful song. It captures well some of the frustrations of having pain deepened by the responses of others. It’s worth taking time to listen to.

We all have times when we feel like Job and times when, unfortunately, we act like Job’s friends. I hope we can all learn to do better. If you’re in pain, I’ll try not to tell you I’m excited for you. I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same for me.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Good News from Wal-Mart

I’m always glad when there’s good news to report. The current good news comes in the form of an announcement from retailer Wal-Mart. Last Thursday they announced that they would work toward requiring their suppliers to disclose and eventually phase out some chemicals of concern. Key components of the announcement include the following: 

  • The lack of specificity may come from the fact that Wal-Mart has declined at this point to disclose which chemicals it is targeting, preferring to wait until it has had time to communicate and collaborate with its suppliers.
  • The chemicals were said to be chosen based on the extent of their impact and the availability of alternatives.
  • Although they wouldn’t identify the chemicals, Wal-Mart did confirm that they all appear on the list of potentially problematic chemicals addressed in the Mind the Store campaign. (See this previous post for more info.
  • Beginning in January 2015, suppliers will be required to disclose ingredients in cleaners, personal care products, cosmetics and baby care items sold in Wal-Mart stores.
  • For many of its private label products, Wal-Mart will pursue the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment designation.

Reaction from environmental and public health leaders has been positive. The action has been called “substantive,” “significant,” and “meaningful.”  Some have pointed out that Wal-Mart is attempting to make sure that any chemicals that replace those removed are actually safer, which has not always been the case. Others note that Wal-Mart has indicated that this is just the beginning of their action on the chemical toxicity issue.

The problem of the toxicity of everyday chemicals is a huge one and won’t be solved overnight or by the actions of a single retailer. Still, every step forward should be celebrated. I pray that Wal-Mart’s announcement will spur its competitors to take similar steps.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Good News, Bad News, and a Small Way to Help

It was a "good news, bad news" week on the chemical toxicity front. Here's the synopsis.

Good news: The Campaign for SafeCosmetics reports that Procter and Gamble has announced plans to remove the chemicals triclosan and diethyl phthalate (DEP) from their products by 2014. As I remarked in a post about a year ago (when Johnson and Johnson made a similar move), I admit to being a bit of a cynic. I fear the chemicals will be replaced by equally problematic compounds, and I wonder if removing two of the many potentially harmful chemicals in the products will be enough to make much of a difference to public health. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it’s a sign that manufacturers are realizing that the public is starting to pay attention to toxicity issues. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has been pressuring companies to eliminate phthalates for more than a decade.

Bad news: The Huffington Post reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) withdrew two draft rules associated with regulating chemicals. The first would have added certain common chemicals (often found in plastic products and flame retardants) to a list of “chemicals of concern” which are subject to more thorough evaluation. The second would have required companies to disclose the chemicals used in their products and share the health and safety studies associated with them.

Clearly, the fight for freedom from toxins is a long way from over. This week, there’s a small and easy way we can each help the cause. In last week’s postI mentioned the new documentary “Unacceptable Levels.” The film will be screened in Washington, DC on September 19th. If we take the time this week to invite our congressional representatives to attend the showing, it might increase awareness and eventual action.

There are many ways to contact our representatives. The website Contacting the Congress enables users to search for their senators and representatives and then easily access contact forms. Another way is through social media. The filmmakers suggest posting the following to your representatives’ Facebook pages:

Citizens deserve to be protected from unregulated toxic chemicals. I urge you to attend the September 19th DC Premiere of Unacceptable Levels, a documentary film about the industrial chemicals in our bodies, how they got there and what we can do about it. The screening will take place at the Capitol Visitor Center Orientation Theater and is free to the public. RSVP here:

It’s easy to get discouraged by the slow pace of progress, but I do believe that the momentum is on the side of change. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Documentaries to Support

The issue of chemicals in the environment is a depressing one, but the good news is that the truth that common chemicals are unregulated and harming us all is slowly being understood, and understanding may lead to change. Two documentaries may help the cause.

The award-winning documentary "Unacceptable Levels" debuted in May. Screenings have been held throughout the summer and will continue through the fall, with September showings in Washington DC and Nashville, and October showings in San Diego. The website offers information for those who would like a screening held in their area. News reports from May indicated that the film would be available through video-on-demand outlets in July, but I've been unable to verify that it's currently available for viewing anywhere other than in selected theaters. If anyone knows otherwise, I would appreciate the information.

Living Green Magazine posted a trailer from the documentary and also listed some statistics cited in the film. These include the facts that in the last twenty years, there has been a 300% increase in the amount of asthma and a 400% increase in the rates of allergies and ADHD. Autism currently affects one in every 50 children, and in children younger than 15, cancer is the second-leading cause of death, second only to accidents.

Another documentary addressing the chemical problem is entitled "The Human Experiment" and is produced and narrated by actor Sean Penn. The documentary is set to debut at a film festival in October and the hope is that Penn's involvement will ensure the film wider distribution than it might otherwise have. Trailers for the documentary can be viewed on pages associated with the Hollywood Reporter and Safer Chemical/Healthy Familieswhich also features an interview with one of the directors.

Although I obviously haven't seen either documentary, I'm assuming that they'll both do a good job of explaining the problem. We can help the films spread the word about chemical dangers by spreading the word about the films. Facebook users might consider "liking" their pages (here for "Unacceptable Levels" and here for "The Human Experiment.") They can also be followed on Twitter. Three cheers for the people willing to put work into producing and promoting the documentaries. I pray they both do well and that the message they are trying to communicate will be received and understood. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dear Lord, We Give Ourselves to You

Dear Lord, we give ourselves to you
Please make us wise in all we do
May every choice, both large and small
Be made from love; be best for all

We choose to serve. We choose to yield
We choose to let our hearts be healed
We choose to walk the way of grace
With strength we draw from your embrace

We're both your children and your friends
You guide our steps. You mold and cleanse
Lord, make us holy. Make us pure
And fit for use; refined, mature

When we don't understand your ways
We choose to trust. We choose to praise
Our lives are clay in master hands
We trust your heart. We trust your plans


Monday, August 19, 2013

Safer Schools

 August is back-to-school time for many, and a good time to discuss safer schools and school supplies. Many "school supplies" are items commonly used by people of all ages, whether at home, school, or work, and the principles used to make a school healthy apply to all buildings. Being aware of less toxic options is important for everyone. Here's some help:

  • The Healthy Schools Network is a national environmental health organization focused on ensuring that every child has a healthy learning environment. Informational guides, posters and reports can be downloaded or ordered from their Healthy Schools/Healthy Kids Clearinghouse,

  • The Environmental Protection Agency provides information on creating healthy indoor environments in schools. They help schools connect through the National Schools Network and provide an “IAQ Tools for Schools” action kit which can be downloaded or ordered free of charge.

  • Schools wanting help designing  a non-toxic pest management program can find it on a page associated with The Best Control. The program is available to any school district.

  • A group called NonToxic Revolution, concerned primarily with stopping breast and other cancers, offers students help in starting campus clubs.

  • The Environmental Working Group  offers information on making healthier choices when purchasing a variety of products, including backpacks, lunch boxes, beverage bottles, markers, pencils, pens, notebooks, binders, paper products, and glue.

  • The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice focuses on products made with PVC (vinyl). Their back-to-school guide to  PVC-Free School Supplies lists less-toxic options for a wide range of common items, including binders, name badges, paper clips, pencil cases, glasses, sneakers, cellphones, computer monitors, flash drives, raincoats, and umbrellas.

  • MCS America provides a brief and simple-to-understand factsheet with 10 tips for keeping school environments and chemically sensitive students healthy.

Lowering the toxic load is important for people of all ages, but the younger the student, the more important it is to take the issue seriously. Seemingly small changes in an environment can sometimes make a big difference in the mental and physical state of those who inhabit it. Let’s keep our students healthy and give them the best chance possible to grow, thrive, and learn. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Musings from Outside the Walls

Like many of my fellow toxic illness sufferers, I'm unable to attend church because of the chemicals present in the buildings and on fellow worshipers. I'm very grateful that my church broadcasts the Sunday morning services online, so most of the time I'm able to feel like part of the church family even from my home. Periodically, however, there will be a stretch of months in which the webcast doesn't work, or only works sporadically. We're in one of those phases now, and it stirs up memories, both of my own experiences and of stories others have shared. These bring with them miscellaneous thoughts about needing help to access corporate worship.

These thoughts are in no particular order and are simply what is currently in my mind and on my heart. I've been part of the community of disabled Christians for long enough now that I think I speak for many and I hope my musings will be taken for what they are -- simply an attempt to shed light on things most people have never had reason to ponder. I pray they can somehow be helpful.

1. We greatly appreciate your efforts to include us. We know it's challenging, and we're extremely grateful for those who go the second mile. We pray that God will richly bless you for your actions and we believe that he will. Matthew 25 teaches that when you minister to those in need, it is as if you are ministering to Jesus.

2. Even when accommodations are made that allow us to participate in the life of the church, we feel tense and insecure, because we know that things can change at any moment. It only takes one perfume-wearer to make a previously safe Bible Study group unsafe for those with toxic illness. One added air freshener, one new cleaning product, one application of insecticide -- the list of possible problems is endless. The tenuous nature of accommodation is true for people with many types of disability. (And is true even when the "accommodation" is a webcast.)  A wheelchair-accessible church sanctuary is of limited benefit when the group meeting there decides to meet in a home instead.

3. We often feel unwanted. We don't know what's in your heart, but whether or not it's true, we frequently get the feeling that we're a burden and that our desire to be part of a church is a bother to you. Our natural inclination is to put our heads down and slink away, but we can't do that in this matter. God has told us that we're all part of his body and directed us not to give up meeting together. We must try to connect somehow. Besides, we know from experience how hard it is to maintain spiritual health alone, and we need every bit of spiritual strength available to make it through the challenges of our lives.

4. We feel invisible. At one point several years ago my church promoted fellowship groups with the slogan, "There's room in the group for you."  I found myself pondering the fact that the church leadership probably believed that to be true, because those of us who were unable to attend were largely invisible to them. There didn't, however, appear to be room in a group for me. Was there room for an autistic child, a deaf church member, someone with social anxiety disorder?  I don't know. My personal good news is that several years after I pondered the slogan, a friend did start a fellowship group I could attend, which meets outside on her porch. I can't possibly describe how much of a difference it makes in my life.

5. We aren't just spiritual takers. We have things to offer too, and with creativity we can often find a way to use our gifts within the context of the church. When we're shut out, the body is missing important parts.

6. We sometimes feel like the poor man in the story that Nathan told King David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 12. The rich man in the story had many sheep and cattle, but the poor man had only one pet lamb. When the rich man needed to prepare a meal for a guest, he took the poor man's lamb instead of one of his own. This scenario plays itself out in many ways. Sometimes a church will have a safe room designated for the chemically sensitive, but healthy church members, who can easily meet in any room in the building, will use the only one available to those with toxic illness, which sometimes makes it unsafe for those who need it most. Webcast problems may be caused by too many people in the congregation using their smartphones during the service they are easily able to attend, preventing those who can only access the service online from participating. Sometimes healthy church members will park in handicapped parking spaces, forcing those who truly need them to turn around and return home.

7. We understand that our lives are very different from yours and that it's hard for you to relate to us. Maybe we don't seem quite real to you, and for that reason it sometimes feels like our needs aren't seen as equal in importance to your own. As truly grateful as I am for the effort that goes into running our church's webcast, I can't quite forget how it got started. I had been unable to attend church and had almost no contact at all for several difficult, lonely years, but the webcast was started because someone who attended every week was going to miss one important Sunday and asked if the service could be broadcast for him. I'm grateful that it got started, for whatever reason, and that the ministry continues, primarily for me. I try not to dwell on the history, but when things malfunction, I remember it and become afraid of returning to exile.

8. We know that there are a lot of good people with a lot of good intentions, but that it isn't always easy for things in a church to change. The channels of communication and authority are not always clear, and how to address needs isn't always obvious. Sometimes we get frustrated with the church as a whole, but when we think of individual people, we think of them with love. If you're interested enough in this issue to have read this far, we think you're great. It would also be great if you could help us find a way to be connected to the church. God designed us for fellowship. We need each other.

Monday, August 5, 2013

If It’s Designed to Kill, Treat it with Caution

For the past couple of weeks, I've tried to make the point that all products designed to kill something should be treated with caution. This week's example of "we didn't know this particular type of pesticide could do that" comes from a study reported in the American Journal of EpidemiologyThe authors note that pesticide exposure has been linked to an increased risk of depression, but that most research has focused on insecticides. The recent study focused on herbicides (weedkillers) and found that farmers who used them were more than twice as likely to be treated for depression as those who didn't. The study's lead author, quoted in an article in Digital Journal makes the point that "we should not be ignoring herbicides just because they're targeting plants." 

Fortunately, the dangers of herbicides and other pesticides are becoming more widely understood. Recently, Takoma Park Maryland passed the Safe Grow Act of 2013, which restricts use of cosmetic lawn pesticides on both public and private property. Banning or restricting the use of lawn chemicals is common in Canada, with at least 80 percent of the population living in municipalities with restrictions. Takoma Park's new law is said to be the first local ban in the United States, although some jurisdictions have restricted use of the chemicals around schools or in other public places.

Enacting restrictions in the United States is more complicated than might be imagined because of lobbying efforts by the chemical industry. A fact sheet on state preemption laws explains some of the challenge. None of us need to wait for laws to change, however, before we make healthy choices ourselves. An article entitled Chemical-free Lawn Care notes that more pesticides are applied around homes than on agricultural fields. All of us with homes and lawns get to make a choice. Are we going to contribute to the chemical problem or take a stand for better health in our own little corner of the world?

Monday, July 29, 2013

It’s Complicated

In my last post I wrote about pesticides and I noted that certain types are considered especially dangerous, but that all types should be viewed with great caution. A few days ago, a small wave of articles about bee death reinforced that point. 

The bee population has been declining rapidly over the past years. An article in Science World Report notes that beekeepers lost 31 percent of their colonies in late 2012 and early 2013. Scientists have been working hard to understand what's causing the decline because bees are an integral part of the food production cycle and if they're not available in large enough numbers to pollinate crops, results could be disastrous. Currently, it takes 60% of the country's bee population to pollinate California's almond crop alone.

In the most recent studyresearchers fed pollen from seven types of crops to healthy bees, which caused them to experience a significant decline in their ability to fight off a particular parasite. The pollen was found to be highly contaminated with agricultural products, with 35 different pesticides detected. On average, the samples were found to contain nine different pesticides and fungicides each, with one sample containing 21.Scientists were able to identify eight chemicals that were associated with increased risk of parasite infection in the bees.

The research makes several significant points:

  • Fungicides, which are designed to kill fungus rather than insects, were thought to be harmless to bees. The study found, however, that bees fed pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times more likely to be infected by the parasite.

  • Weeds and wildflowers, from which some bees collect pollen, were found to be contaminated with pesticides despite the fact that they were not directly sprayed.

  • A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids has been linked to bee deaths, but the new research shows that banning those chemicals is unlikely to solve the problem without additional steps. In an article entitled Scientists Discover What's Killing the Bees and It's Worse Than You Thoughta researcher is quoted as saying that  “The pesticide issue in itself is much more complex than we have led to believe. It’s a lot more complicated than just one product, which means of course the solution does not lie in just banning one class of product.”

Hopefully, the study's results will lead to some significant changes in the types and amounts of pesticides currently used. As I've said many times, however, none of us must wait for government action before making changes in our own use of pesticide products. Seemingly small decisions really can make a difference to the health of those who apply the chemicals and all who come in contact with them, whether they be of the honeybee or human variety.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Protecting the Children

I'm returning to the blog world after a hiatus caused by a computer crash. I would love to celebrate my return with an upbeat, positive post, but I can't quite make myself write it. As much as I would prefer to put it far from my mind, I just can't ignore the story of what happened to 23 children in India last week. They went to school, ate lunch, and died. Their lives mattered and we owe it to them to learn what we can from their tragedy.

Although some initial reports on the story speculated that the children died from bacterial food poisoning, it didn't take long for officials to blame pesticide contamination for the deaths. Authorities have now confirmed that cooking oil used to prepare the lunch was contaminated with an agricultural pesticide. At this writing, it’s still unknown how the pesticide contaminated the oil, but one theory is that the container which held the oil may have been previously used for storing the dangerous chemical.

There are thousands of potentially harmful chemicals produced, but few are as potentially dangerous as pesticides, which are specifically designed to kill. As I noted in a previous blog postthe chemical used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz was a pesticide. Organophosphates (the type implicated in the India poisonings) are especially dangerous, but all commercial pesticides are capable of causing great harm.

Unfortunately, the incident in India is not unique. In 1999, children in Peru died in very similar circumstances. Schoolchildren between the ages of 3 and 14 ate a school-provided breakfast which was later determined to be contaminated with an organophosphate insecticide. Of the village's 48 children, 24 lost their lives to the chemical that day.

Pesticide-related deaths are not just a third-world problem, and the types of pesticides causing fatalities are not always what people might imagine. A report by The Center for Public Integrity notes that products (pesticides) used to treat head lice have been linked to "conditions ranging from headaches to death."  In an article entitled "The Hazards of Treating Head Lice"a mother shares the heartbreaking story of losing her son to leukemia and the association she believes exists between head lice treatment and his condition.

No, these are not pleasant stories. They are hard to think about and hard for me to write about. But surely these stories teach us something. They teach us that the issue of chemical toxicity is not just an academic one, but one with real-life consequences that can be larger than we might imagine. Most of us don't handle agricultural chemicals regularly, but it's common to use other types of pesticides without much thought. Do you immediately grab a can of bug spray when you see a bug in the house?  Do you use "weed and feed" type products on your lawn to discourage dandelions?  If so, I urge you to rethink those practices, if not for yourself, then for the children who might come in contact with the chemicals. A fact sheet on Weed and Feed notes that children are especially at risk from lawn chemical dangers because they play on lawns, put their hands into their mouths, and take in more chemicals in proportion to their body weight than adults do.

We can't change the tragic events that killed the children in India, Peru, and elsewhere, but we can do our part to make the world safer from chemical toxins. Let's not just read the headlines and move on. Let's pause, pray, and put into practice what we know.

Monday, June 24, 2013

To Compromise or Not to Compromise: That is the Question

Legislation introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg just weeks before he died continues to be the focus of much discussion and dissension. To recap, the Toxic Substances Control Act has been in effect since the 1970s. Under the TSCA, chemicals don’t have to be proven safe before they enter the market. The Environmental Protection Agency must prove a chemical to be unsafe before it can be banned, but there are challenges (such as the difficulty of acquiring needed information from manufacturers) that make that task difficult.

Senator Lautenberg addressed the problem by introducing the Safe Chemicals Act, but the bill failed to attract bipartisan support. Then, a bipartisan compromise bill (the Chemical Safety Improvement Act) was drafted by Lautenberg and Senator David Vitter. Environmental and public health advocacy groups are divided over the Lautenberg-Vitter bill; with some supporting it and some saying they can not endorse it until it is strengthened.

According to various news reports on the issue, here’s where things currently stand:

  • The compromise bill came as a surprise to many chemical safety advocates, including Senator Barbara Boxer, who has emerged as its strongest opponent.

  • Boxer is a friend of Lautenberg’s widow, who has urged her to support the bill.

  • Boxer has accused some of the bill’s supporters of not fully understanding it. They deny that charge and state that they support it because it has a better chance of passage.

The organization Safer Chemicals: Healthy Families urges people to ask lawmakers to strengthen the Lautenberg-Vitter bill. They provide an easy way to do that on their “Take Action” page.Taking a minute to visit the page and send an electronic message is another way to let our elected representatives know that the issue of chemical safety is important to us. This vital issue finally has a little bit of traction, and I pray that some sort of improvement to the TSCA will make it across the finish line.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Brain Atrophy in Gulf War Illness

Chemical injury goes by many names. Some believe that Gulf War Illness is one of those names and that the syndrome is related to the chemical exposures that veterans faced. In 2008, the author of a National Academy of Sciences study was quoted in an AFP article on the issue. She stated her belief that "enough studies have been conducted . . . to be able to say with considerable confidence that there is a link between chemical exposure and chronic, multi-symptom health problems.” She added that “the same chemicals affecting Gulf War veterans may be involved in similar cases of unexplained, multi-symptom health problems in the general population."

Last week, a study was published that sheds more light on Gulf War Illness. Articles published in USA Today and the LA Times note the following components of the study and its results:

  • Clinicians measured the blood pressure of 28 ill veterans and a healthy control group while they were lying down. When the subjects stood, readings were taken again. In the healthy subjects, blood pressure immediately rose to normal levels and no problems were reported. Among the ill veterans, 10 experienced an abnormally high jump in pressure and the other 18 reported an increased perception of pain.

  • Researchers then tested subjects using exercise stress tests and functional MRIs (brain scans that allow observers to determine which parts of the brain are being activated at a given time). Brain scans were administered while volunteers completed an exercise designed to test short-term memory. Two scans were administered: one after rest and the other after an exercise session.

  • Two subgroups of Gulf War Illness sufferers were identified. One group had elevated pain after exercise. The other group experienced heart racing when they stood up after lying down.

  • Two corresponding patterns of brain atrophy were discovered. In veterans who had elevated levels of pain, scans showed a loss of brain matter in areas associated with pain regulation. Scans of the veterans with heart racing issues showed atrophy in the brain stem, which is associated with control of heart rate and blood pressure.

A researcher explained that because of brain dysfunction, people suffering from Gulf War Illness compensate when doing cognitive tasks. Brain activity follows a circuitous path which can be described as a “crutch” which performs the task usually performed by a different brain region. He noted that after exercise "It was as if you took the crutches away.” 

The study is just another example of the very real problems that can be caused by toxins in the environment. Let’s take the issue seriously. Chemical injury is easier to prevent than to cure.