Review: Raising Elijah

As co-founder and co-publisher of MotherTalkers.com, I receive many books and products to review. I recently received an advance copy of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children In An Age of Environmental Crisis, which is now available in hardcover on Amazon.com for $16.91.

First, a couple thoughts on environmental books in general: I wish the environment were already part of any book or discussion regarding health and parenting. Let’s take for instance, the hot topic of childhood obesity.  

I watch shows like NBC’s The Biggest Loser and devour lots of health and parenting articles, yet except for this one in Newsweek, I have never seen so much as a mention of how toxic synthetic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) may be contributing to our obesity epidemic. Anything having to do with the environment is often packaged as obscure information in books like Raising Elijah.  

Which is another problem with environmental books: I question if people other than scientists or those who already care about the environment are reading them. Considering that our children are now exposed to more than 200 industrial chemicals, most of which didn’t exist two generations ago and are not even tested prior to their release, it is important that parents receive this information.

Initially, I felt some mommy guilt upon reading biologist Sandra Steingraber’s Raising Elijah, in which she described her lifestyle as one in which she cans her own tomatoes, pushes a reel lawnmower to cut the grass, prepares all-organic meals for her family, and writes books while her children sleep. I wondered if I was “doing enough” to protect my children from environmental hazards.

Then the tone of her book changed to a more accessible and optimistic one as she offered solutions to the problems she laid out. One reason I sometimes avoid environmental books or discussions is because I don’t like feeling overwhelmed by catastrophic news and then offered no way to remedy the situation. It leaves me feeling helpless. But Steingraber offered these practical tips:

1.) She proposed a forum, in which parents, especially those whose children have asthma and allergies, “become conversant with the Clean Air Act and its National Ambient Air Quality Standards, whose various rules affect our children so intimately.” Thankfully, such a forum exists at Moms Clean Air Force, of which I am a proud member. Please sign up if you haven’t done so already! It’s a good way to keep tabs of proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act and environmental legislation in general.
2.) She offered entrepreneurs some invention ideas like incorporating a fitness monitor on a reel lawnmower. Think the jogging stroller, which helps moms complete two tasks at once.
3.) Plant a garden.
4.) Mow grass without burning fuel.
5.) Hang up clothes to dry as opposed to relying on a dryer.


The last three suggestions were lifestyle changes she said could help us wean ourselves from fossil fuels, which based on all the research she presented in her book is troubling. Our physical environment is not only paying an extraordinary cost due to an oil-extracting process called “fracking”, but our dependence on fossil fuels has been harmful to us as well in terms of our health and related medical bills. Steingraber said of her suggested lifestyle changes:

They are daily reminders that we urgently need new choices within new systems. They are harbingers. They signal our eagerness to embrace much bigger changes. They bear witness to our children that we are willing to exert agency, that we are not cynical, that we respect their right to inherit a habitable planet. And they put the neighbors on notice.

The acquisition of new personal habits and new skills can change our thinking. It compels us to ask new questions. If all food scraps in the United States were composted, how much natural gas could we save? (Natural gas is the raw material for synthetic fertilizer.) What if homeowners associations encouraged, rather than forbid, clotheslines? (Project Laundry List is working on this.) What if all family homes and apartments had clothes-drying closets that doubled as humidifiers? What if landscaping services offered carbon-neutral lawn care? What if student athletes mowed their own playing fields with fleets of reel mowers as part of warm-ups?

Another world is possible. Creating it requires courage.

Rather than take inventory of what I do to protect my children from toxic chemicals – okay, as an environmentally conscious mom, I did do that! — I was reminded of this Mahatma Gandhi quote: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.“

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Wednesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

RIP: R. Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps who has had a distinguished career in politics and is also father to former California First Lady Maria Shriver, died yesterday at the age of 95, according to CNN.

In education news: Nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college because it isn’t a priority on campus. Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research while younger students are in party mode, according to a report published in USA Today.

In other higher education news, the country’s most elite colleges are considering reinstating military recruitment on their campuses now that President Obama and the Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” according to California Watch.

In health news: Here is a disturbing story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the number of toxic chemicals, including banned flame retardants, found in pregnant U.S. women. Yikes!  

In related news, Disney-themed reusable shopping bags sold in Safeway grocery stores contain more than 15 times the legal limit for lead, according to a story in California Watch.

In entertainment news: Excuse my infantile indulgence here, but I am looking forward to seeing J-Lo as judge on American Idol tonight. Will you be watching with me? ;)

Happy hump day all! What else is in the news? What’s up with you?

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Beware of Certain Hair Products

The other day, I learned something alarming from a friend. I mentioned the battle that is combing Eli’s curls in the shower, when she inquired about the safety of the products that I use.

I told her that I didn’t know. “Why?”

She said she heard a news story about hormones in relaxers and other hair-straightening products that were causing early development in African-American girls. Her re-telling the story made me think of my own childhood.

It was true that the girls, largely Latinas and African-Americans, that I grew up with in Miami started their periods early (9 and 10 years old) and had breasts at a very young age. Meanwhile, when I moved up to New Hampshire, I was surprised to learn that the Caucasian women around me started their periods older (12 and 13). This is all anecdotal, of course, but I always assumed there was something in our diets that was causing our girls to develop young.

I never considered the products we were using in our hair, and needless to say, this conversation with my friend made me go home and look up some of these products — Eli’s conditioner! — in the cosmetics database of the Environmental Working Group.

Thankfully, Eli’s conditioner, a Walgreens-branded “moisturizing” conditioner, did not contain any chemicals on EWG’s harmful list. But pretty much all the products I used as a kid contained hormones and even cancer-causing agents. One example was Luster’s Pink Light Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion, which scored a 7 out of 10 in EWG’s hazardous index for “developmental/reproductive toxicity, violations, restrictions and warnings, and allergies/immunotoxicity.

“Other concerns for ingredients used in this product: Neurotoxicity, Endocrine disruption, Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), Miscellaneous, Multiple, additive exposure sources, Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), Enhanced skin absorption, Contamination concerns, Occupational hazards, Biochemical or cellular level changes.”

Yikes! I looked up another childhood favorite straightening hair product of mine, the Vo5 hot oil treatment. It scored a 6 out of 10 in terms of its hazards. Why is it bad?


“Ingredients in this product are linked to: cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, violations, restrictions and warnings, allergies/immunotoxicity.”

It also had that warning about neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption.

All the relaxers, even the “organic” and “natural” ones, scored an abysmal 8 or 9 in the EWG index.

I was surprised that I found so little information about relaxers, in general, even though so many women of color use them. I did spot this disturbing article in a journal about race and discrimination about the toxic chemicals in relaxers and the need for more research on their health effects.

I don’t mean to alarm those of you with little girls who have adorable curls. But as someone who saw so many little girls develop way before their time, it was important to me to protect Eli for as long as I could. At least there is a quick online resource to check out all products I use in her hair.

What do you all use in your children’s hair?  

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A Shout Out to Enviro-Friendly Electronics Companies

Here is some good news all eco-conscientious parents can bask in. Seven major electronics companies, including Apple and Sony-Ericsson, are actively eliminating toxic brominated flame retardants (BFR) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from their products.

Two non-profit environmental organizations, ChemSec and Clean Production Action, just released a report detailing their efforts. From Clean Production Action’s press release:

“These seven companies demonstrate that there are less toxic and still cost effective alternatives to substances of high concern that do not compromise performance or reliability,” said CPA Project Director Alexandra McPherson. “They are well positioned to gain competitive advantage in a marketplace and regulatory environment increasingly sensitive to the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products.”

High volume uses of bromine and chlorine in flame retardant and plastic resin applications such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) gained worldwide attention when scientific studies demonstrated their link to the formation of highly toxic dioxin compounds. Dioxin, a potent human carcinogen that is toxic in very low amounts, along with other problematic compounds, are unintentionally released into the environment during the burning and smelting of electronic waste.  

The current recycling and waste infrastructure to safely reuse and recycle obsolete equipment is insufficient for the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Furthermore, much of the waste is increasingly shipped to developing countries with even less capacity for appropriate waste management.  Many studies document the accumulation of these widespread pollutants in air, water, soil, and sediment, where they are increasingly ingested by humans and animals.

Apple sells a host of popular PVC and BFR-free products, including its iPhones and iPods. Sony-Ericsson is not only eliminating these toxic chemicals from their products but also undergoing the complicated task of taking inventory of all chemicals in its products.

Seagate, the largest disk drive manufacturer in the world, is now making disk drives without chlorine and bromine-based chemicals.

Other companies focused on eliminating these toxins in their products are the Netherlands-based DSM Engineering Plastics, Nan Ya of Taiwan, Indium of the United States and the U.S.-based Silicon Storage Technology.

Here is a shout out to these companies for helping protect our children from the toxic effects of BFR and PVC. Very cool.

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Photos from BPA-Free Rally

Sacramento, CA — Yesterday’s BPA-free rally went well. It was attended by at least 125 people — the 125 Kleen Kanteen kids’ water bottles were quickly gone! — and was very diverse with mostly mothers and kids of every hue and ethnic background. Anti-BPA signs were in Spanish and in English.

The speakers on stage ranged from actress Amy Smart (Varsity Blues) and legislators to a prominent doctor named Dr. Greene and an advocate for low-income mothers who asked that BPA-free products be made available at the “99-cent store.”

In case you missed my previous posts, I was in Sacramento yesterday morning joining families and activists to ask the California Assembly to pass a bill that would rid plastic baby products — like bottles — of toxic bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA is a synthetic and estrogenic substance that has been linked to a host of health problems, including early onset of puberty and breast cancer. It has already been banned in children’s products in Connecticut, Minnesota and Canada. Could California be next? Those of us who attended the rally certainly hope so!

Check out some memorable moments:

Afterwards, the kids delivered BPA-free bottles — with messages in them — to Assemblymembers’ offices. If you haven’t already, please call your Assemblymember in support of Sen. Fran Pavley’s bill, SB 797! If you know your Assemblymember’s name and just need the number, call the Capitol Switchboard: 916-322-9900.

Too pressed for time to call? You can sign this letter to your Assemblymember. Thank you all for your commitment to protecting our children from toxic products!

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Formula Companies Fight California BPA Bill

Fran Pavley, the California senator who is sponsoring a bill to remove toxic bisphenol A (BPA) from children’s products like baby bottles and sippy cups, says her bill faces stiff opposition from — the formula companies.

They are even embarking on a scare campaign, telling parents there will be formula shortages if they are forced to remove BPA — which is an estrogenic chemical in plastics and the inside lining of cans that have been linked to everything from early onset puberty to breast cancer.

Pavley wrote about the industry’s opposition in a blog post for the Environmental Working Group magazine:

The powerful chemical industry has mounted an all out assault against my bill to protect our children. Highly paid lobbyists for popular formula companies are trying to kill SB 797 by telling my colleagues that alternative products aren’t available and a ban on BPA would cause a formula shortage. Yet, at the same time these companies are marketing a variety of formula and food containers to parents as “BPA free.“

California has always been a leader on environmental and health issues, but we are already behind other states and countries, which have already banned BPA from children’s products.

Please contact your representative in the Assembly and urge him/her to protect our children from harm by voting for SB 797. Let’s get this dangerous chemical out of our children’s food and drink.

Pavley includes a link to let Californians urge their Assemblymembers to support her bill. The state Assembly is expected to vote on the bill in the next two or three weeks.

For my part, I am helping MomsRising.org spread the word on two rallies for Pavley’s bill. Here are two things you can do: You can attend this rally in Los Angeles on Wednesday, August 19. Check out the Facebook page on it and pass along to all your family and friends in SoCal!

The other rally is so very important as all state Assemblymembers will be there to see it. One of our policy partners, the Breast Cancer Fund, is hosting a rally in front of the state capitol building in Sacramento on Wednesday, August 26. Again, please see the Facebook page here and forward to all your family and friends in northern California. It is so important we get people to this rally to show the state Assembly there is widespread support for this bill as they will be hearing from the chemical industry and formula companies.

Thanks all for your commitment to protecting our children from toxic chemicals!

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BPA Panel Chair Admits She Would Buy Glass Baby Bottles

Last week I testified before a panel of doctors in favor of identifying the chemical bisphenol A as a neurological and reproductive toxin under California’s Proposition 65.

BPAs, found in many plastics like baby bottles and sippy cups, have been linked by various studies to everything from cancer to reproductive problems. If the panel of eight doctors that comprised the state’s “science advisory board’s developmental and reproductive toxicant identification committee” had voted to identify BPA under Proposition 65, the governor would have been required to publish the information.

However, the committee of doctors felt that the studies were not compelling enough to warrant a listing. You could say I was puzzled to learn that the panel’s chair, Dorothy Burk, admitted if she had a baby she would purchase glass baby bottles to avoid BPAs. From the Los Angeles Times:

Following the panel’s decision, the Natural Resources Defense Council presented a petition demanding that BPA be listed because a study by the National Toxicology Program — a state-recognized authoritative body — had found “some concern” about the chemical’s impact on the brains, behaviors, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children.

Meanwhile, some retailers have pulled products containing the chemical and many consumers have stopped buying plastic baby bottles.

The state Senate voted in June to ban BPA in food and drink containers for children under the age of 3.

The Assembly is expected to vote on the ban later this summer.

Although the panel may not have found the scientific evidence strong enough to warn the public, the panel’s chairwoman said she abides by the “precautionary principle.”

“I think if I had a baby I probably would try to use glass,” Burk said.

Too bad Burk denied this information to everyone else.

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Wednesday Morning Open Thread

Yesterday I was in Sacramento testifying in support of a bill that would help eliminate flame retardants from baby and toddler products.

The good news is the bill survived the business and professions committee and will be heard by the Assembly appropriations committee. The bad news is it was watered down a bit. The bill passed with two amendments. One amendment restricts the bill’s coverage to only four baby products: strollers, high chairs, nursing pillows and bassinets. The other called for labels on flame retardant-free products, which I support but am not thrilled with the wording.

The Assemblyman who proposed the amendment, John Pérez, wants it to say (paraphrased), “These items do not meet California’s fire guideline TB117.” While I cannot speak for all advocates of this bill, I would like the labels to read, “This item contains no flame retardants.”

Passions ran high on both sides. Those of us who supported the bill largely hailed from environmental organizations and activist groups. The opposition was largely comprised of industry lobbyists and members of the Black Chamber of Commerce who were very well represented. They had African American doctors, teachers and even children testify against the bill because the victims of fires tend to disproportionately be African American.

While I do not doubt their sincerity on this issue, I wish someone had pointed out that these deaths are occurring even with flame retardants in everything in our homes. Statistically, the six-to-12-second resistance offered by flame retardants have had no measurable benefit in preventing fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

But the science on flame retardants is mixed at best. Those of us who are uncomfortable with these toxins in our homes should have the right to purchase toxic-free products without breaking the bank. At least give us the option. I do believe the door was cracked open to that possibility.

This is of course an open thread. Chat away!

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USA Today Reports:  Toxic Air and America’s Schools

(cross posted on Non-Toxic Kids)

Recently USA Today issued an eye opening special report on the toxicity of the air in schools across the country. The results should be read by every parent in America, as well as politicians.

The series shares which schools are toxic hot spots, making children at those school particularly vulnerable to air borne toxic chemicals.

A database of nearly 128,000 schools featured online at smokestack.usatoday.com how schools rank in their exposure to cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals. According to a USA Today press release, “The database is modeled on information reported to the government by 20,000 industrial plants. The series also offers information on how Americans can learn more about the air outside their schools and do something about it.”

This is critical. Thankfully this report caught the eye of Barbara Boxer, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who pledged to “do what I have to do” to ensure monitoring across the U.S. Boxer calls lack of monitoring a “shocking story of child neglect.”


The site put together by USA Today shares many stories related to this, video clips, and a searchable map and database. This is an invaluable resource for parents, school officials, and politicians.

In one of the first report, USA TODAY compares its data to what the State of Ohio found after it monitored the air outside Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, a Cincinnati suburb. According to USA Today, “In 2005, Hitchens was closed after the Ohio EPA found levels of carcinogens 50 times higher than what the state considers acceptable. The chemicals were emitted from a plastics plant across the street from the school. USA TODAY found that the air outside 435 schools nationwide may be even worse than the air was outside Hitchens when it closed. Those schools, identified by the government’s own data and model, extended from East Coast to West, in 170 cities across 34 states.” (bold added by me-)

The site also features an extensive question and answer section. You can also cut to the chase and look at this map of the schools with the highest rates of toxic chemicals in the air.

Check out your state’s results. I was surprised to find results for even my small school in rural Vermont (ranked in the 98th percentiles, which is very good). What was surprising, though, was how even some schools in Vermont, which are pretty removed from direct industrial pollution (not so for acid rain from the midwest), ranked in the top third for the most polluted air, with a concentration found in the Rutland area. Shockingly, one school in Rutland (Mount Saint Joseph Academy) rated in the 14th percentile, meaning the air is worse at 17,430 schools across the nation out of 130,000.

Here are some of the problems that USA discovered in schools with the most toxic air:
(from the USA Today report)

“Among the hot spots that might justify monitoring, the government’s model identified:

• Deer Park, Texas, near Houston, where students at elementary, middle and high schools faced dangerously high levels of butadiene, a carcinogen, and other gases from petrochemical plants on the Houston Ship Channel.

• Lucedale, Miss., where kids at five schools faced air with high levels of chromium, a metal that, in one form, has been linked to cancer.

• Oro Grande Elementary in California’s Mojave Desert, where students breathed a variety of metals, including chromium, manganese and lead.”

And right now there isn’t that much we can do about it. According to USA Today, ‘”There are health and safety standards for adults in the workplace, but there are no standards for children at schools,” says Ramona Trovato, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, who has since retired from the agency. “If a parent complains, there’s no law that requires anybody to do anything. It’s beyond belief.”‘

This report is a call to action to improve the air quality for our children everywhere. The effects of many of these chemicals are unknown on our most vulnerable population. I’ll be on the lookout for ways to support legislation to require that manufacturers clean the air outside our nation’s schools and everywhere else.

In the closing paragraphs, the article gives some advice from an expert about what to do. ‘”At Meredith Hitchens, the Ohio EPA concluded the risk of getting cancer was 50 times what the state considers acceptable. If a school is one of the 435 where the model indicates air worse than at Hitchens, what should parents do?

If it were me, I would be going to the school board. I would be going to my legislators and raising Cain,” says Marty, the California toxicologist.’

That is exactly what we should do. There is no reason that children should be getting cancer at younger and younger ages, and that the very act of going to school should be threatening their health.

MomsRising has taken on this issue, and provided a way for parents to write a letter to President Obama and Congress to strengthen the EPA and protect our kids.  

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What To Do About Toxic Chemicals in Babies

Katy Farber over at Non-Toxic Kids posted a recap of an environmental forum in Boston. A researcher at Environmental Working Group noted that babies today are born with as many as 200 industrial chemicals in their systems. She suggested these tips to parents:

*Eat Organic
*Eat Safer (or no) Fish to reduce mercury exposure
*Filter Tap Water
*Use Cast Iron Cookware
*Avoid Fragrance

Farber also noted that we can’t simply “shop our way out of” environmental hazards and must rely on federal legislation to combat the problem.

Now that we have a new president elect, a congress that will hopefully take these issues seriously, and with public support we can get this bill passed! I’ll keep you posted about how to support this bill as we learn more about its progress.

Sounds good. Two hundred toxins in babies? Yikes!

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