Green and (almost) free: Living without toxic chemicals

Think it's not easy being green? Think again. As the understanding of how pervasive phthalates and other toxic chemicals are in our children's everyday products grows, the urge to chuck it all in favor of glass bottles and wooden toys grows as well. But that's an expensive undertaking, isn't it? Not necessarily. I've learned a few tricks as the mom of three boys. Read on.

I was almost shaking as I listened to the piece on NPR in which the authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck explored the book's subtitle, "The Secret Dangers of Everyday Things." Rick Smith, who along with co-author Bruce Lourie exposed themselves as part of an "adult science fair project" to the things most adults, and kids, do in their (yes) everyday lives. BPA in microwavable plastics; phthalates in shampoos, soaps, pajamas, rubber duckies; Teflon in cooking pans. The results were sobering: the levels of these synthetic chemicals in their bodies rose, sometimes 10 or more times the baseline.

After two days of eating food from microwaved plastic and drinking from one of his son's old baby bottles, Smith saw his body's BPA levels shoot up eight times. "You can only imagine what the levels in an infant would look like if after two or three years of their sole source of nutrition being a BPA baby bottle. Their levels would just be through the roof," he said.

Why should we care? This stuff is terrible, contributing to a number of serious diseases and messing with our bodies' hormonal levels. NPR's Guy Raz asks, "but isn't the science still out on some of this?"

"The science is in," says Smith. The good news according to Smith: once he stopped exposing himself, his body's synthetic chemical levels dropped quickly. More good news: fixing this is super cheap, green and (almost) free.

First, throw away the rubber duckies.

The biggest culprits for phthalates, according to Smith's comments on NPR and my own research and experience, are children's sleepwear and bedding (especially those bright "character" bedspreads and such you can buy at Target, Wal-Mart, and the like), shampoos and soaps of nearly all sorts, bubble bath, and anything that's been treated with a flame retardant. Most mattresses, for instance, are treated with flame retardants containing phthalates.

Great, you're thinking, now I have to go out and buy all-cotton, natural rubber mattresses. And glass bottles. And all new bath toys. "Simple" green shampoos for $10 a bottle. This is going to cost a fortune!

While the all-cotton mattress would be nice -- and FYI, you'll have to get a doctor's prescription if you want to buy one without flame retardant -- actually, cutting out many of these toxic chemicals can be so cheap it's close to free. It depends, partially, on the contents of your kitchen (I've talked about this before); do you have large quantities of a plain white or apple cider vinegar? a very big bottle of olive oil? a big box of baking soda? For you, this will be a snap.

First, let go of the shampoo. Toss it all. I write about going shampoo-free here; I use occasional rinses with apple cider vinegar for my hair and baking soda rinses (again, very occasional) for my kids. We've switched to Dr. Bronner's bar soap, which is free of any synthetic chemicals. It's a bit more expensive than Ivory but lasts a long time. In my family, with three boys, my husband, and me, we barely need a bar a month. You can cut out the face "product" too; this oil cleansing method is fantastic. You can clean everything in your house -- from the bathroom surfaces and toilet to the kitchen floor -- with white vinegar.

I've even been considering the final step in my chemical-addled personal care product cleanse, deodorant, this week. A fine substitute (if a bit more crumbly than the commercial alternative) can evidently be made with coconut oil, baking soda and cornstarch.

You'll have to toss the flame-retardant-laced jammies and probably some of that superhero/princess bedding. I'd look for substitutes in thrift stores (my kids wear cotton clothes labeled "not suitable for sleepwear") and garage sales. Wool has natural flame retarding properties; it's also a great choice for kids' bedding and you may have a few wool blankets in your house somewhere.

Avoiding toxic chemicals isn't that hard; you may just have to stop buying things. It's green. It's really great for your budget. And it might just save your kids' skin (literally).


See how another woman does the toxic-free living, on the cheap at Lemondrop.

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