Ask Your Questions About Toxic Free Living
and Get Answers From Me and My Readers

I’ve been doing this Q&A blog for about ten years, so there are literally thousands of questions and answers here. If you’ve got a question, there’s probably an answer, and if there isn’t post a question of your own. It’s free.

Giving Thanks to Beatrice Trum Hunter

When I first started doing my toxics work—more than 30 years ago—one of the only authors writing about things natural was Beatrice Trum Hunter.

She was the author of the first natural foods cookbook in the United States and has published more than 30 books on food, the environment, toxins, and nutrition. Her most recent book, Our Toxic Legacy: How Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium Harm Us, was published in 2011, when she was 93. She provided Rachel Carson with research and sources that helped her to write Silent Spring. And she updated a chapter in Adelle Davis’s Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit book.

She is now 96 years old, still teaches nutrition classes, and lives alone at the end of a gravel road in a small town in New Hampshire.

What a testament to natural living!

Thank you Beatrice, for all you have done to make the world less toxic.

Read about Beatrice in this article from Yankee Magazine


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Are Computer Printers Toxic?

Question from Sttlove

Hi Debra,

I just bought a MacBook Pro for my son, and I am very happy with it. We had previously purchased a Lenovo laptop, but returned because it was full of awful toxins. So now we need a printer, and I am not sure what to get. Do printers contain fire retardants and lead, and all that lovely stuff too? If so, is there a particular brand that is less toxic?

Debra’s Answer

This is a great question, which prompted me to do more research on the subject.

I did some research in the past on toxics in inkjet printer ink but I hadn’t researched the printers themselves.

But there is some research available.

There is a great article at Indoor Pollutant Emissions from Electronic Office Equipment which was funded by the California Air Resources Board.

They tested for toxics emitting from computers and printers. Interestingly, they studied a number of laser printers and only one inkjet printer, so right off it appears there is greater concern with laser printers. Laser printers used to be very expensive but are now in the same price range as inkjets, so the first thing would be to choose an inkjet over a laser. “Laser printers emit large number counts of ultrarfine particles to fine particles—these emissions occur during printing but are often elevated further during initial cold start prints.”

There’s an interesting slide called “Decline of VOC Emissions after “Aging” that showed a steep reduction in toxic emissions from out-o-f-box to 100 hours, but even at 400 hours about 15% of the original emissions still remained. So that would indicate buying used equipment if you can.

Operating printers emit VOCs, SVOCs and siloxanes during operation, I think because of the ink coming out of the case and onto the page. This is true for any printer.

I won’t go into listing all the VOCs that are emitted, but they are listed in the report.

Here is a summary of the chemicals found:

ranking office equipments

They also said “Formaldehyde emissions from computers and dibutylphthalate emissions from printers are possible exceptions—emission are estimated to come close to or exceed the guideline limits.”

Unfortunately, this study did not test emissions from all computers and printers and so there were no recommendations of safer products.

If you need to use a computer and printer, my recommendation is to get a good air purifier to handle these chemicals in your home office or workplace.

And place your computer in a room other than your bedroom, so you aren’t breathing these chemicals all night.

More references to explore:

Related Posts from Toxic Free Q&A:

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Dining stools – Metal vs Wood

Question from Stacey

Hi Debra,

I am trying to decide which counter stools to purchase and basically want the style that is safest/least toxic for my children. I saw some stools at Crate and Barrel which I liked. One stool style is made of “anodized aluminum” and the price is right, while the other stool is a swivel stool and is made out of beechwood (supposedly solid wood according to a customer service rep). The beechwood stool has a polyurethane base finish in black with a nitrocellulose topcoat. I did research “nitrocellulose” on your site, and it seemed to be okay. So would you recommend one over the other, or does it come down to personal preference and not toxicity?

Thanks so much!

Debra’s Answer

The anodized aluminum would be totally safe as it does not outgas. The problem with aluminum is leaching into food during cooking, and spraying tiny particles of it under your arms, which can absorb through the skin.

Once cured, the beechwood would be fine as well, but all finishes outgas some type of solvent until they are completely cured.

Once the finish is completely cured, the toxicity of both would be about the same: very low.

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Eye Drops And Eyelid Cleaners

Question from Bri

Hi Debra,

Hi – do you know of any safe, non-toxic eye drops or eyelid cleansers? According to Good Guide the name brands contain ‘banned’ ingredients! Is there a safe way to clean eyelids and eyelashes (even baby shampoo was found to have formaldehyde years ago!)? Thanks very much, Debra – don’t know how these products can claim to give you healthy eyelids, etc. using toxic ingredients; sigh. Thanks for all you do.

Debra’s Answer

I’ve never researched a safe alternative to those products because I don’t use them at all.

I don’t think you need to use a cleanser for eyelashes or eyelids. Just plain water is fine for me.

Readers, any suggestions?

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Patent Leather

Question from Stacey

Hi Debra,

Is patent leather the same as regular leather in terms of toxicity? I saw a pair of black patent leather shoes and regular leather shoes that I liked and wondered if the leather is the same in terms of treatment/toxicity. Does it matter which I wear?

Thank you!

Debra’s Answer

First, “patent leather” is a type of later that is coated with a very glossy, shiny finish.

The original patent leather created in the 1800s used a linseed-oil based lacquer coating that both protected the leather and made it more durable. But today, the shiny coating is usually plastic and may not even be real leather below.

It seems though, that most patent leather is leather, but check to be sure. I couldn’t find any information on what type of plastic is used for the finish or may be used for artificial leather.

I would say that patent leather may be more toxic, but what really matters is what was used to process the leather.

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Mercury Glass

Question from Stacey

Hi Debra,

I was shopping at Pottery Barn and noticed that they have many decorative items made of “mercury glass.” One mercury glass item has an “antiqued silver finish,” and another item states that it is made with a “silver nitrate finish.” Would you say these items are safe?

Thank you!

Debra’s Answer

This brings up something we always need to keep in mind when evaluating toxics: exposure.

I don’t know which items you are considering purchasing, but I took a look and chose a few to analyze.

mercury glass globeMercury Glass Globe

The description says “blown-glass shapes with antique mercury finish. The mercury glass trees say “Hollow glass tree is mouth blown and has a mercury-glass finish on its interior.”

So it appears that the finish, whatever it is, is on the inside and you would be exposed to the outside glass, so even if it was toxic mercury, you wouldn’t be exposed to it.

However, mercury glass isn’t mercury at all, it’s simply silver applied to glass, in the same way that mirrors are made. At one time in the very distant past, mercury was used for this purpose, hence the name “mercury glass.” But today silver is used instead. You would have to search for an antique piece for it to be mercury.

I don’t see any harm in these decorations, and they would not outgas anything harmful into the air.

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De-Cat Apartment

Question from Corrina

Hi Debra,

We have tenants who are the most wonderful people and would be so disappointed if they had to move. One of them has a cat allergy. The previous tenant had a cat and we have a cat in our apartment dowstairs. All summer he had no symptoms even when the AC was on and windows were closed. Once the heat came up he had significant sneezing, congestion, wheezing, and headaches. Each apartmentapartment has it’s own hot water heat system however they connect to the same furnace in the basement. What can we do to decrease his symptoms and why are they coming out now?

Debra’s Answer

If you have hot water heat then the furnace should only be producing hot water to send up to the radiators. There shouldn’t be any transfer of air between units because of that. It would be more likely with the AC.

I don’t know why they are coming out now.

Readers, any suggestions for how he can control his cat allergy?

One thing I can tell you is if he is being exposed to any toxic chemicals, they can be overwhelming his immune system, making his allergies worse. Over and over I’ve seen allergies disappear when people remove toxic chemicals from their homes.

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New Study Finds Toxic Ingredients in Nail Polish Can Leach Through Your Nails and Into Your Bloodstream

I’ve been saying for years that there are no safe nail polishes. And yet, still I find nail polishes that say they “don’t contain the big 5 toxic chemicals so they are OK.” I just heard this again over the weekend from a woman selling nail polish at a street fair.

But less toxic isn’t enough. A new study done by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group has found that not only is nail polish dangerous to breathe when you are applying it, but the toxic chemicals leach through your nails into your bloodstream.

The chemical found in the blood of women wearing nail polish was TPHP, known to cause changes in hormone regulation, metabolism, and reproductive systems.

Read more at:


Here are some links to posts claiming to have “natural and nontoxic” nail polishes. I’m just putting these here for future reference when I want a list of these brands and their ingredients for when I have time to write about how the ingredients are toxic.

Even though EWG wrote about only one endocrine disruptor, that it can move through the nail into the blood stream means that other toxic chemicals can move through the nail as well. In my opinion, this is evidence that NO NAIL POLISHES ARE SAFE.

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Long-banned Chemicals Still in Paint, Contaminating Chicago’s Air

chicago's air

Hundreds of pounds of toxic PCBs, banned in the ’70s, taint Chicago’s air each year; sources include paints still sold on the market  

October 21, 2015

By: Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

More than 400 pounds of toxic PCBs are emitted to Chicago’s air each year and researchers warn that some of this load comes via a chemical reaction in paint still sold in hardware stores.

Kerri HombuckleNew research designed to inventory the chemicals in Chicago finds soils, sewage sludge and paint are major sources and current cleanup strategies may not be the most effective for protecting people’s health.

The chemicals were once widely used as electrical insulators and industrial lubricants but were banned in the late 1970s when researchers found them building up in people and linked them to health effects such as cancer, heart problems and impacts to brain development.

PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls, now seem to be a byproduct of certain pigment production. In recent years researchers have found that some paints, clothing, newspapers and magazines contain forms of the chemicals, usually a specific compound called PCB-11.

“Architectural paint that we buy at hardware stores contributes to a significant amount of PCBs people are exposed to every day. That’s just crazy,” said Keri Hornbuckle, a professor at the University of Iowa’s department of civil and environmental engineering, who previously found more than 50 PCB compounds in 33 commercial paint pigments purchased from U.S. stores.

PCBs build up in the fat tissues of fish and some animals and eating such foods has long been considered the major exposure route for humans. But there is increasing evidence that inhaling airborne PCBs also plays a role in people’s toxic load and such exposures—small as they are—can result in disease.

“PCBs are dangerous chemicals … even low concentrations of PCBs in air constitute an important route of exposure and disease, especially if the exposure is prolonged,” wrote Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany-SUNY, in a report this year on airborne PCBs.

In the first comprehensive inventory of PCBs for a city, Hornbuckle and colleagues examined where the chemicals are and where airborne emissions come from in Chicago.

Paints—both on the exterior and interior of buildings—were just a sliver of the city’s PCBs load, but contributed 7 percent of total emissions.

They calculated paint emissions by looking at the annual volume of paint sold in the city estimated to have PCB-containing pigments, and past studies of how the chemicals are emitted from paint.

Some of the larger emissions sources were drying sewage sludge and contaminated soils.

City soils—which accounted for 31 percent of emissions—did not include Superfund sites or other areas know to be contaminated, said co-author Scott Spak, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and engineering at the University of Iowa.

“These are soils across the city—parks, backyards, highway medians,” Spak said.

pigment“This makes cleaning up urban soils across cities one of the harder sources to mitigate,” he said.

While all PCBs can escape from soils, PCB-11 is one of the most volatile forms of the chemical, the authors warn, saying it may be emitted to air within hours to days of applying the paint.

Sixty percent of 85 women from East Chicago, Indiana, and Columbus Junction, Iowa, had traces of PCB-11 in their blood, according to a 2013 study from Hornbuckle and colleagues.

Steve Sides—vice president of the American Coatings Association, which represents paint manufacturers—said in an email that they are aware of studies finding low levels of contaminants in paint materials but had “nothing to add” in regards to the Chicago study.

PCBs as a byproduct of pigment manufacturing remain exempt from the Toxic Control Substances Act, the federal law regulating chemicals because the amounts aren’t large enough to be significant.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces chemical regulation, has requested that federal scientists from the National Toxicology Program investigate PCB-11’s potential to harm people, said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn in an email.

In addition, there are limits on the concentrations of such “inadvertently generated PCBs”, Milbourn said.

“Specifically an annual average of no more than 25 [parts per million] and a 50 [parts per million] maximum” in products manufactured or imported into the United States, she said.

Hornbuckle and Spak argue that, while the concentrations of PCBs in paint may be small, the EPA should consider that the chemicals are easily released into air.

creative commonsThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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