Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Be choosey about the toothpaste you use

Have you ever read the warning label on a tube of toothpaste? Are you alarmed that toothpaste even has a warning label? I’ll guess that few people have bothered to read the safe use instructions on the package, including not swallowing the toothpaste and, on some popular brands, “Recommended for adults and children over 12 years.”

Why should we all be concerned about this? Because most people haven’t a clue what’s in toothpaste and digging up a list of ingredients takes more than a little effort.

You might be surprised to discover that conventional toothpaste contains the artificial sweetener Saccharin. Health Canada banned the use of Saccharin in food 30 years ago due to animal studies that linked consumption to an increased risk of bladder cancer. (They are currently rethinking that ban, due to heavy lobbying from the diet-food industry, but many scientists continue to recommend against lifting the ban.)

Most brands also contain Triclosan as an antibacterial agent. The EPA considers Triclosan a pesticide and part of a class of chemicals that is thought to cause cancer in humans. Most whitening toothpaste also contains lye, considered a poison by the FDA

Then there is the controversy around fluoride. It’s not that fluoride is bad it’s just that we may be getting too much of it. When you combine toothpaste, fluoridated drinking water in some communities (not Rothesay or Quispamsis) and the consumption of all sorts of processed foods that are made with municipal water that is fluoridated, some health experts are worried that we’re ingesting too much fluoride. It builds up in our bones and among other things is linked to increasing rates of bone cancer in young boys.

Children under the age of two shouldn’t use toothpaste with fluoride and all children should be supervised while brushing to prevent swallowing. Not that it helps. The commercial brands for kids are formulated to taste just like candy and putting a toothbrush spread with children’s toothpaste in a child’s mouth is like giving them a lollypop and telling them not to swallow.

Now that you know some ingredients you might like to avoid, there are several alternatives to conventional drug store toothpaste, including options for children.

Tom’s of Maine gets a good rating since it’s saccharin-free, Triclosan-free and offers several options without fluoride, as do Natures Gate, Jason and Green Beaver (made in Canada). All carry a great variety of flavours. My children won’t budge from Tom’s of Maine Apricot and I prefer Nature’s Gate Fennel.

These brands are more expensive than convention brands but keep in mind you only need a small amount to do the job. For a little extra whitening power (minus the lye) keep a little pot of baking soda by the sink and brush with that a few times a week. Combined with proper flossing you won’t be compromising your dental health for the sake of overall wellness.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Do you colour your hair? Switch to eco-friendly (and less toxic) alternatives

In my life, the last thing to go green was my hair. Chemically-speaking I was taking much better care of my lawn than I was my own hair…which probably sounds ridiculous but the truth is that for the longest time I ignored the fact that covering up my grey hair was a toxic habit.

I doubt anyone would be truly surprised that hair colour is toxic, considering the eye-watering smell. Almost all hair colourant (temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent), contains a laundry list of petrochemicals and other toxins. In particular hair dye contains ammonia and p-Phenylenediamine (PPD for short) and although there are concerns associated with both of these chemicals it appears that PPD is the most worrisome. PPD is on Health Canada’s “Hot List” (Health Canada’s term, not mine) a list of prohibited and restricted cosmetic ingredients and as such manufacturers are required to list warnings on both the inside and the outside of the packaging.

There is a lot of research to back up worries about hair dye. A number of studies link higher instances of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to prolonged use of hair dye, particularly deeper colours. According to another study, those who use permanent hair dye are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who don’t and yet another study links long-term use of hair dye with ovarian cancer. Allergic reactions to PPD are also well documented.

Permanent dye is more toxic than semi-permanent and darker tints are more toxic than lighter tints. If you’re someone who lightens their hair you still need to worry, just not as much.

The truly green thing to do would be to let my hair go grey at its own pace. But since I’m not ready for that I went looking for a less toxic dye that wouldn’t keep me up at night with worry and would keep my hair its previously natural colour.

I have found two salon brands that are ammonia-free with lower concentrations of PPD. So far I have tried a Schwarkopf product called Essensity that has no odor and covers my grey just fine. Next I’ll try Aveda hair colour. They offer a range of products that are 93% to 99% plant-based.

If you prefer the do-it-yourself kits, experiment with some alternatives to mainstream brands that contain lower concentration of the worst chemicals. Try a less-toxic brand like Herbatint permanent or semi-permanent hair dye. Both are ammonia-free, the permanent has low concentrations of PPD and the semi-permanent is PPD-free. Naturcolor is another brand to look for.

Then there is always henna. Made from the leaves of a desert shrub you can’t get more natural and non-toxic than that.

If you’re going to stick with your regular brand be sure to heed the warning label, including the safe-use instructions, don’t leave the hair dye on any longer than directed by the package, always wear gloves when you apply hair dye, rinse your scalp well (and cross your fingers).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Eco-friendly furniture

Who among us doesn’t have a favourite chair to lounge in at home? I know I do. Mine is a comfy red armchair that came from my mom and dad’s house, and my great aunt’s before that. It’s sturdy and elegant and just the place I like to sit with my coffee each morning.

It’s hard to believe that something as simple as a stuffed chair or couch could be rife with environmental issues. Here’s the problem: Since the late 1980’s the foam and fabric in furniture has been treated with flame retardants, which is a great concept except that they’re highly toxic and have been linked to liver and thyroid problems. Flame retardants build up in our fatty tissue and stay there forever. Even Environment Canada considers them toxic but the government has only phased out two of the tree most worrisome ones.

So what can you do about your existing furniture or what if you’re shopping for new?

If the foam in your existing furniture is showing wear then consider having it replaced with eco-friendly foam (soy-based foam is becoming more common). Worn out foam creates nasty dust that you don’t want to be breathing. It’s good to be in the habit of dusting and vacuuming often too (note to self). If you’re having furniture reupholstered choose natural fabrics (they don’t need to be treated) or inquire if your fabric of choice has been treated.

If you want something brand new there are eco-friendly options available. IKEA is a good choice since they banned the flame retardants in question in 2000. La-Z-Boy has a new line of environmentally conscious furniture that has soy-based cushions and fabrics made from recycled water bottles (although they don’t say how the fabric is treated). DeBoer’s everGreen line is healthy choice with eco-friendly fabric like wool, organic cotton, hemp, flax, and linen and natural latex foam cushions. If these don’t appeal to you ask for foam and fabric options when you’re buying new, so you can avoid the worst flame retardants. (The polybrominated family, also know as PBDE, is what you want to steer clear of).

There are many more ways to green your furniture. Before you buy anything brand new think about other options. My favourite way to revive tired furniture is to have it slip covered or reupholstered (and re-stuffed if necessary). That avoids the chain reaction of having something end up in the landfill. I also love secondhand furniture. If it’s solidly constructed (and the old stuff usually is) and has great lines then it’s worthwhile to have a piece refurbished. Check kijiji or local second hand stores for bargain finds and then put your money into buying just the fabric you want.

One more thing you need to know, stain guard fabric treatments do not offer peace of mind. They’re formaldehyde or Teflon-based so highly toxic and prone to off-gassing. To avoid stain guards (and hopefully stains too) try to keep food and drink away from your furniture and treat spills and splotches immediately.