Switching to Healthier Baby Bottles & Kids Tableware

When switching out plastic in the kitchen, if it’s not in the budget to replace everything at once, approaching the change-over in stages is a great option. A few places to start are tableware, water bottles, containers for school lunches, and baby bottles, too:

Dishes: For a busy home, we need sturdy dishes that can go from dishwasher to oven to table. Most of the china in the stores is just that…made in China. In addition to supporting Made in the USA, I also wanted something that’s lead-free. Fiesta Ware is affordable, domestically made, and lead-free. HF Coors is another lead-free option, made right in Arizona.

Cups/Glassware: In a family kitchen, glasses can break from time to time, so stocking up at a thrift store is an option. And if the kids break one, no problem. (Note: a tile kitchen floor may not be kind to glassware. The more forgiving the floor, the easier it is to keep breakables around). Recycled options are available online at VivaTerra, Bambeco, and at big box retailers such as Pottery Barn. If you’re going for a special occasion, Fire and Light is gift-worthy and made in the USA.

Food Storage: For keeping bulk items such as rice, oatmeal and snacks, glass storage containers are readily available everywhere from the grocery store to mass retailers. For storing leftovers in the fridge, Pyrex works, as does Fiesta Ware (the plates fit as lids for the bowls).

School Lunches: Stainless steel lunch containers are a staple, as are glass “cubes” with spill-proof lids. I have one set for each child and can vouch that they’re quick to clean and easy to pack in minutes. Purchasing them is an investment over plastic, but without having to buy any disposable zip-top bags, this route saves money. Our favorites are ECOLunchbox stainless steel containers (from The Container Store) and WeanGreen spill-proof glass cube containers (from Whole Foods). Other options include LunchBots and Planet Box. Bamboo forks and spoons come in kid-friendly sizes but a word of warning: these need to be hand-washed and dried well or they can get moldy from moisture. I keep stainless steel teaspoons on hand and find this a great option, too, instead of plastic spoons.

Water Bottles: With sports and scout camping trips, there can never be enough of these. It can definitely be an investment when buying enough to keep the kitchen stocked. I’ve found them on sale at outdoor stores and big box retailers. This is another purchase that pays off, because there’s no need to buy juice boxes or bottled water. The stainless steel should be marked 18/8 or 18/10, indicating a good quality bottle. Glass bottles from companies such as LifeFactory are increasingly easy to find, and are practical with a silicone-sleeve.

Baby Bottles: Nursing is a very healthy option (and ultra-convenient, with nothing to sterilize, mix or buy). When bottles are needed, those labeled BPA-free aren’t necessarily safe. As explained in the last post, bisphenol-A, BPA substitutes, and other chemicals in plastic can all cause endocrine (hormone) disruption and other unhealthy effects.

Glass bottles are free of BPA, BPA-substitutes and other leachable chemicals. There are a range of price-points, starting at about $10 for a 3-pack. National baby retailers sell glass bottles from Avent, Evenflo, and Gerber, along with options that include a silicone sleeve from companies such as Dr. Brown’s, LifeFactory and Green Sprouts. Some larger grocery stores also sell glass bottles in the baby isle.

Sippy Cups: Stainless steel versions are available from companies such as Thermos and Klean Kanteen. Glass options are available from LifeFactory, too.

Labeling lunch containers and water bottles with your child’s name can go a long way towards making sure these re-usables find their way home.

How to have an (almost) plastic-free kitchen

With all the buzz about going “plastic-free” I decided to give it a try for The Healthy Home Project. This goes fairly quick and is a great step in detoxing the home by starting with one of the most-used rooms. There are three easy steps to ridding plastic from the kitchen:

1. Get rid of BPA and other polycarbonate plastics. What’s polycarbonate?  It’s clear, hard plastic (that can also be tinted, but still transparent). Think baby bottles, water bottles, disposable party cuttlery. An item marked “BPA-free” doesn’t mean it’s safe! In order to produce polycarbonate plastics without BPA, another chemical has to be substituted in. That “other chemical”, such as BPS, usually looks and acts much like BPA, and is just as toxic, if not more so. According to Environmental Working Group, BPA has been linked to a wide variety of health effects, including infertility, breast and reproductive cancer, obesity, early puberty, diabetes, behavioral changes in kids and resistance to chemo treatments. Thankfully, reducing exposure is something everyone can do. (Also look out for BPA in thermal paper receipts and the linings of food and soda cans).

2. PVC plastics are some of the most toxic around. According to the Healthy Building Network, chlorine is needed to manufacture PVC, and burning this plastic at the end of its life cycle creates carcinogenic dioxin. Some PVC plastics contain phthalates to “soften” the product, making it more pliable. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which disturb the body’s hormone system. PVC plastics are labeled with a #3. I was surprised to find a water bottle made of PVC that was given away at a kids birthday party.

3. Say good-bye to any scratched, worn or old plastic. Plastic does break down over time. The older and more worn it is, the greater the chance of toxic chemicals leaching into food.

What to do with all this plastic? Check to see which are recyclable locally. Good Housekeeping has an easy guide to numbered plastics that can also help sort it all out. And just in case there’s still some plastic lurking around, avoid heating it as that’s when more toxins are released. Avoid putting any plastic in a microwave (which isn’t healthy in itself) or dishwasher. Even the top rack gets hot.

With all or most of the plastic gone, there’s more space in the kitchen for healthy alternatives. More on that in the next post!

Getting Winter-Ready: Denim Insulation

By Erin S. Ihde, MA, CCRP

With winter here and many parts of the country already in blizzard mode, it’s been time to get the Healthy Home Project ready, too. Houses a century ago weren’t built with insulation, so there were a few places where it was needed. The question is, what type of insulation is good for the planet and good for us?

Home insulation has long been associated with health hazards, from the asbestos insulation popular decades ago, to the fiberglass insulation stocked in home centers now, which still requires protective gear during installation. (The EPA has a great resource for protecting your family from asbestos insulation if that’s an issue in your home).

After reading up on it, it seemed like recycled blue jean insulation from Bonded Logic was the #1 choice for this project. However, the big box stores don’t stock it in-store, though some have it online. Wait times can be an issue when ordering and my contractor needed it…yesterday. When work crews are being held up because they don’t have materials, that botches up the budget, too, and makes “green” items impractical. So I tried to find the insulation locally, which led to a bit of an adventure.

Green Depot sells Bonded Logic, so I went to their NYC showroom (which is beautiful and just makes me dream of every possible green project imaginable), to place my order. (Note: the store does have a drop-ship program for some states and calling to order is also an option). One thing to keep in mind is unlike the insulation at big box stores, Bonded Logic doesn’t come with the option of an attached vapor barrier. So, if a vapor barrier is needed, it’s also necessary to buy a separate plastic sheeting product called MemBrain from CertainTeed, a permeable moisture barrier. The permeable part might seem insignificant, but it keeps the insulation “vented” so that it can breathe, meaning it will help protect it from ever getting moldy if it happens to get wet.

Easy enough, right? Green Depot placed the order, which I was then to pick up at a distributor about 20 minutes from home. The logistics of picking up product from a large distributor was new for me…first I went to the front office, waited in line and showed my paid receipt, then drove back through a huge lumberyard, had the receipt stamped when the insulation arrived from the warehouse, and was on my way. Insulation being very bulky, not much fit into my car…which meant multiple trips. It also meant different pickup times as the distributor only stocks certain R-values, and one had to be ordered as there wasn’t enough in stock. The R-value means the insulation value of the product. The higher the R-value, the better it will protect against the cold. Different applications require different R-values, depending on where it’s being placed.

Things got sticky when it was time to order the vapor barrier, as it wasn’t in stock. The rep started to get plastic poly sheeting, which wasn’t what the manufacturer recommended. Once I explained, it turned out to be not in stock at any distributor on the East Coast…super stressful when the project is being held up and supplies are needed.

Having gone this far, it was hard to turn back, and I really wanted to see how easy or hard it was going to be to get the rest of the supplies. Was I the only one ordering this stuff?  I decided to just ask. Apparently, yes… Due to the downturn of the economy, the rep explained, his customers just stopped ordering it a couple years ago. Bonded Logic is several times more expensive than conventional insulation, so I could definitely understand. Going “green and healthy” isn’t always easy or convenient, but the bottom line is, I can’t ask a contractor to work with a material that I wouldn’t want to work with myself. And if I was doing the installation, I’d want to work with the safest product possible.

So, I called Bonded Logic customer service, and they were amazingly helpful. The issue got sorted out and a few days later, the insulation was in!  Maybe having gone through that, the next person who orders will have it that much easier.

Playing It Safe: Grass V. Turf

By Erin S. Ihde, MA, CCRP

Communities across the country are facing the decision of whether to install artificial turf in parks, playing fields and even private yards. Toxicity in the materials used is a major concern for many involved in the decision process. Even if one’s own yard is maintained organically, kids still may spend countless hours playing on town or school fields for organized sports, or at the local playground.

The topic of risk assessment in children’s health ties into everything from what playing field surface is best, to what paint to use for a home renovation. Because children are exposed to multiple toxins every day, no one can know for sure which exposure will trigger an adverse health outcome, but lists of potentially harmful chemicals do help. Some of those chemicals are in crumb rubber infill used on synthetic playing fields. Others are in pesticides used on grass fields and home lawns. These chemicals have known health effects from neurological impairments to endocrine (hormone) disruption to cancer.

The goal for many communities is to find a balance between the fiscal health of the community and the potential health effects to children. On first glance, some studies on conventional turf playing fields appear promising, with reduced injuries and minimal adverse health outcomes reported. However, the studies are short-term and don’t measure the long-term health effects of children playing on these fields day after day, week after week, year after year. No study has followed adults who played on these fields as kids, to determine any long-term outcomes. We need to know our kids will be healthy 30 years from now, not just 30 minutes from now. With this in mind, two more benign options are maintaining a grass field using organic methods or choosing a synthetic field with toxin-free grass blades and organic infill, though this technology is used more often in Europe and has more recently been introduced in the U.S.

Exposure assessment in kids is a unique proces. Children are not little adults. Pound for pound of body weight, they take in more air, water and food.  Rapid cell division, both in the prenatal/infant period and during adolescence, means greater opportunity for cells to mutate, and in some cases for cancer cells to proliferate, due to exposures to environmental triggers. Frequent hand-to-mouth activity also increases the number of exposure pathways. Additionally, children have a longer latency period for which diseases can manifest. Some diseases take decades, so exposures during childhood play a critical role.

Artificiall turf fields are rife with toxins, particularly chemicals in crumb (vulcanized) rubber infill, including SBR – styrene-butadiene-rubber (recycled tires), EPDM – ethylene propylene diene monomer (M-class) rubber (usually new), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrocarbons. There are multiple carcinogens according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization.

The VOCs alone are apparent when sitting in the stands near a turf field on a warm day. These chemicals can offgas into the air and waft from the field to the stands, and the teams are the first ones to breathe them in.

The World Health Organization states that environmental risk factors play a role in more than 80% of major diseases. With the stage “set” in the body, one or more environmental exposures can trigger disease onset. Will enough crumb rubber from a synthetic playing field enter a child’s airways or be absorbed dermally to cause short or long-term damage? Each child is different, but the toxin – the trigger – exists.

What’s more, toxins rarely, if ever, exist alone. Children are exposed to a “chemical soup” on a daily basis. For that reason, it’s critical to avoid exposures whenever possible, including pesticides currently sprayed on the fields, and the toxins in conventional turf fields. Synthetic playing surfaces produced with only organic fill such as coconut husks don’t present these same hazards.

Every day, kids are exposed to toxins in everything from food to personal care products, to where they play sports, and materials used to remodel homes, and all of these can affect children via multiple exposure pathways. Every exposure contributes to a child’s “total load.” Exposure thresholds set by government agencies don’t take multiple exposures, or “total load” into account.

What one child’s system can handle, another’s may not. Kids need either a natural grass field not coated in toxic pesticides, or a synthetic field with grass blades free of heavy metals, and all-organic infill. The Northern NJ Safe Yards Alliance and Beyond Pesticides have practical resources for maintaining grass organically. Kids deserve healthy play on a healthy surface.

Finding a Dream Team: Hiring Contractors

It takes an army to make a home, and every member of the army counts. We’ve all heard horror stories of contractors and reno projects gone haywire.  Years ago, as a new 20-something mom, I learned from a few stories of my own.

Our first apartment, in Jersey City, was an eyesore in the middle of a renovation when I saw it, but as a circa 1890s brownstone, it still had exquisite bones and soaring ceilings. Once my daughter arrived, taking laundry down flights of stairs became a workout, as did balancing the huge bag of clothes on top of the stroller to get to the laundromat.  So, we did what many others do:  got a house in the suburbs.

Enter one of our first contractors, a kitchen tiler who ended up knocking down a load-bearing wall and running off with the rest of his deposit. Thankfully, the bathtub above the load-bearing wall didn’t end up in the kitchen. Around the same time, another contractor did some damage as well.

That was the beginning of forming a “dream team” of reliable contractors. I still hire the same people who have proven trustworthy over time. This checklist helps things go smoothly:

1) He’s certified and/or licensed in the field he’s working.  If he’s a painter or carpenter, he’s EPA lead paint certified, if he’s an electrician, he’s licensed, and so on. I don’t hire a contractor for work for which he isn’t licensed or trained (back to the tiler who took down the load-bearing wall).
2) He’s busy, but not too busy to communicate about the project. Phone calls, emails and texts are returned.
3) He’s flexible and goes with the flow if a project’s parameters change.
4) He’s meticulous about his work and appreciates that small details are big details.
5) He’s competitively priced compared to other quotes for the same job (“too good to be true” low bids and very high bids are both red flags).
6) His estimates are always written, specify the timeframe for the project, materials to be used and processes for completion.
7) He’s open to incorporating sustainable/green materials that he may be using for the first time.

PBS’s This Old House website covers some of this in 8 Pro Tips for How to Hire a Contractor as well as for How to Spot a Crooked Contractor. Many of these are echoed (yet can bear repeating) in Popular Mechanics’ Ten Tips for Hiring a Contractor.

That said, there are times when it’s best not to outsource.  I recently got an estimate for some work to help tame the back yard “jungle.”  The man insisted the job was huge; he explained it would take two men, with power equipment, and would cost more than I budgeted. When I paused to think this all over, he said, “You can’t possibly do this on your own.”  Well, I didn’t. My ten-year-old helped me. And we don’t have power equipment.

For the members of the Dream Team, including my helpful tweens, this project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without you.