Answers to Your Questions About Toxic Free Living

Lessons from Irma

This large tree was blown over by Irma just one block from my house. The roots came up entirely and broke the sidewalk curb.

This past week I went through an experience with hurricane Irma that could be called a “disaster.” And I just want to tell you about it because I learned a few things.

We were not hit directly, but if you were watching Irma on TV you know that the storm was so big that the entire state of Florida was affected one way or another.

In Clearwater, where I live, there was no damage to houses and buildings from the wind, but there was a lot of tree damage. In our yard, the hurricane blew out many of the small branches from the trees so there is much more light coming through the canopy (not a bad thing) and some branches came down, but that was it. Others were not so fortunate. Just in my neighborhood several large trees came down entirely and if houses were under them, the house was damaged from the tree falling.

There was just A LOT of debris from overhead trees. The morning after we were all out raking up the twigs and spanish moss, which was all over everything. We all have piles of debris and branches at our curbside waiting for the city to pick it up. When we went out yesterday we passed a very large vacant lot that the city is using to dump all this tree waste. There is just piles and piles and piles of it, so much that ours is still not collected as I write this on day 6 after the hurricane.

We had power and water throughout the hurricane and after. The power flashed on and off all night during the hurricane, but we were able to watch all the hurricane news on TV until we fell asleep at about 5 am. When we woke up the TV was dead and there was no internet or phone. But that was all.

Some of our neighbors, however, are still waiting for their power and internet-tv-phone service to be turned back on. Many are staying in local hotels because the 90+ degree heat is unbearable without air conditioning.

Life as we knew it stopped with the hurricane. We didn’t drive around on Monday, but walked around our neighborhood carefully, watching for downed power lines. On Tuesday we ventured out in the car, but there were no traffic lights so we didn’t go far. The streets were deserted. All the stores were closed. One man with a BBQ business was cooking BBQ on the sidewalk.

Slowly this week, businesses are coming back. We can drive around now because the traffic lights are restored. But even as of yesterday some businesses were still down because they didn’t have power.

And frequently we see caravans of repair trucks driving from one destination to the next to restore power and communications services. It takes time.

And I’m sure it’s like this all over Florida, if not worse.

I wanted to tell you this because you may have watched TV and thought that the situation was far worse. I learned a long time ago that the “news” is sensational. They want readers or viewers or listeners so they can sell advertising. They present what is happening in a dramatic way.

Lesson 1: A Disaster Doesn’t Have to Be a Disaster

The main thing I want to say about natural disasters like this is that they don’t have to be a disaster. The word “disaster” means “opposite of the stars” or something that is out of harmony with life. In fact, hurricanes are not disasters in and of themselves. They perform a vital function of temperature regulation on the planet. They are moving heat from the equator up north where it dissipates. Hurricanes are part of the whole system of nature.

The out-of-harmony part has to do with humans living in a way that is not in harmony with the hurricanes. A hurricane is a disaster only if you are living in a mobile home that will be blown away for sure, or in a flood zone. But even in a flood zone humans can keep a hurricane from being a disaster. In South Florida, for example, they have established building codes so new construction is required to be hurricane-proof. On TV once I saw a man who owns a restaurant in the Caribbean simply lift the floorboard up and hang the chairs on pegs on the wall so the flood waters could come in and not cause damage. He knew there were hurricanes and planned for them. He expected them and figured out how how to live in harmony. Hurricanes were not disasters for him.

When I moved to Florida I knew there was a possibility of hurricanes. And so I purchased a house on the highest hill so I would be out of the storm surge area. The entire city of Clearwater would have to be under water before my house would flood. And it’s also three feet above street level. This was a wise choice for this area. As fun as it might be to live on the beach, the beach is the first area to flood in a hurricane.

I also have learned enough about hurricanes that I can now predict what they will do. I knew exactly what would happen with Irma. I knew we would not be hit directly and that she would be weaker by the time she got to us. So I didn’t panic or board up my windows.

If you live in an area like Florida, where there are predictable natural occurrences, learn something about them so you can control the outcome of what happens to you when they occur.

Lesson 2: Cell Phones Are Lifelines

When power and wired communication services go down, I found that my lifeline was my cellphone. The cellphone service stayed on all during and after the hurricane. While I don’t like the EMF exposure, I love having a cellphone. The industry needs to improve this product to make it safer. Because it really is a good product.

With my cellphone I was able to text my friends and neighbors. I was able to Skype my assistant in the Philippines so she could send the email telling my readers I was OK. I could view news on the internet from my cell phone. I received a warning on my cellphone just before the high winds arrived during the hurricane.

My cell phone was my ONLY line of communication into the outside world until I got my internet-phone-tv back four days later.

The most striking thing for me about the hurricane was how it blew away all the communication between myself and my community. There was just no way to communicate except by cell phone or in person. It was good to experience that simplicity and find out what we would do together when there is no TV. But all the exchanges I have between myself and businesses and community groups was just gone for a few days, and I could see how much I rely on others to provide goods and services in my daily life. We take them for granted until they are not there. And now I see their value and really appreciate them being there.

Lesson 3: Cash is Vital

When the power goes down in a community, it’s down for individuals and businesses. I was surprised to see how many days it took for local businesses to get power back. But even if they have power, the banks might not have power yet.

On Friday Larry and I heard one of our favorite restaurants had opened. Fortunately I had cash because they couldn’t take credit or debit cards yet.

If you have cash, you can get things you need faster than waiting for ATMs and credit cards to come online. We’re so accustomed to electronic money now, but I keep cash for emergencies. And I was very happy I had it.

Lesson 4: Have Food and Water on Hand

As it turned out, our local natural food store opened a few days after the hurricane and they were able to get new supplies of food. But we were ready with about a week’s supply of food on hand.

We don’t have “emergency” food supplies. We always have a week of food available ahead.

Here’s a post I wrote about emergency food: My Idea of 72-Hour Emergency Food

We didn’t buy water in plastic bottles. We filled every glass bottle and jar we had with our own [filtered water]=linke-to-pureeffect-on-debras-list. And in the end we didn’t need it because we had a continuous supply of water.

Lesson 5: Stay Home if You Can

A reader wrote to me a couple of weeks ago asking about staying in shelters in a nontoxic way.

My thought is that it’s best to not go to a shelter unless you absolutely have to.

We stayed home. If I thought it was necessary to board the windows I would have. But I thought it wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t.

If I thought I needed to evacuate, I would have. But I didn’t think it was necessary and it wasn’t.

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Starting a Toxic Free Journey


Question from Getting Started

Hi Debra,

I have three young children and I’m wondering. Where do I start? If you had to pick the top few items to start with what would it be? It’s an expensive journey to cut out toxins and I can’t really level my home and toss all we have so it’s about replacing for better as I can. What is your trip few picks? Mattresses? Pillows? Couch? Bras? Food?

Debra’s Answer

Many years ago I answered this question in a book called The Nontoxic Home. I set for myself the challenge of arranging the chapters in the order of putting that which is most important to change first in the beginning and going to least important. I found it was a very difficult task because you have to look at the relative toxicity of exposures from each product. It took me a while to figure this out, but I eventually came up with a sequence that made sense. This book is no longer in print but I pulled out an old copy.

Here’s what I recommended in The Nontoxic Home in 1986:

  • Cleaning Products
  • Household Pesticides
  • Tap Water
  • Drugs & Medications
  • Personal Care Products
  • Food
  • Beds
  • Clothing
  • Home Office

But now that I know more, there are four things to consider, in this order:

  1. How toxic is the chemical you are being exposed to
  2. What amount are you being exposed to
  3. What is the route of exposure into your body: breathing, eating or drinking, through the skin
  4. How often are you exposed to the chemical

And so, you see, as a writer I can order toxic exposures by relative toxicity, but I can’t predict how much you will be exposed to, the route of entry into your body, or how often you are exposed to it.

That’s the problem in a nutshell.

However I do have two references for you that will help you make decisions about where to start.

The first is my book Toxic Free. In my opinion, this is the best book I’ve ever written for a beginner. It starts by explaining the basics of the problem and then gives you 50 things you can do, in the order in which you should do them.

In this book from 2011, the list was a little different:

First I listed “The Big Five”: cigarette smoke, alcoholic beverages, drugs, household poisons and hazardous waste, toxics you track indoors on your shoes (leave them at the door, especially if you have babies or children playing on the floor). These exposures are so major there’s almost no point in doing anything else if you are still having these exposures (except for toxics tracked indoors on your shoes).

And then I listed

  • Indoor Air Pollution: carbon monoxide, plastics
  • Cleaning and Laundry Products
  • Household Pesticides
  • Tap Water
  • Beauty and Hygiene Products
  • Food
  • Textile Products including mattresses and furniture
  • Interior Decorating Products
  • Home Office

Toxic Free has basic instructions for making these changes, but you will find a lot more on this website.

The other reference is a free ebook I made for a summit called The Toxic Free Lifestyle Checklist. This is much more barebones than Toxic Free but it gives you a good overview, in my recommended order.



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Supreme Plastic for Sous Vide Cooking


Question from Alexis

Hi Debra,

First of all I just wanted to thank you for sharing all your knowledge to the public regarding the toxins out there. I just love your site and I read it all the time.

My question is I just bought a sous vide supreme and had been using the plastic that came with the sous vide. The company said they had a third party test the plastic to make sure that there is not toxins that leaches out of the plastic while cooking.

I wanted to know what your thought about cooking with sous vide and the plastic. And is it safer if I use the Lekue silicon bag for my sous vide supreme or it’s okay to use the plastic that came with the product.

Thank you very much in advance for your help.

Debra’s Answer

For those of you who are not familiar with sous vide, it is is the process of vacuum-sealing food in a bag, then cooking it to a very precise temperature in a water bath. This technique produces results that are impossible to achieve through any other cooking method.

First, I wouldn’t eat food that has been put in a plastic bag of any time and then heated.

Second I wouldn’t use a plastic around food where the type of plastic is not disclosed. If they have tests, ask them to show them to you.

Silicone would be better than plastic but it just doesn’t make sense to me from a toxics viewpoint to add manmade materials to the cooking process. We should be eliminating plastics, not adding them.

I don’t like plastic baking bags either.

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New Acrylic Bathtub


Question from Mike

Hi Debra,

I recently purchased a new acrylic bathtub.

When it was installed the smell was horrific. It filled the whole house and seemed to go into every fabric in the house, the drapes , carpet, clothes bedding towels etc. can anything be done to get rid of the smell other than getting rid of the bathtub.

should an acrylic bathtub smell this bad?

Debra’s Answer

That’s why I don’t recommend acrylic bathtubs.

I don’t know of anything that will stop the smell.

Readers? Anyone have any experience with this?

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Chemical free window curtains & cellular blinds


Question from Cathleen

Hi Debra,

I need help ASAP.

I recently took down several sets of curtains in my home, and they all are severely off-gassing for days, no matter how many times I have washed them in vinegar, baking soda, hung them on the wash line, etc.

I have to give up, and try to order new window curtains & blinds.

I have tried Country Curtains in the recent past, and found this same type of chemical off-gassing after washing their 100% cotton Made in USA curtains & had to return them.

Can anyone suggest who I can safely order from? Thanks so much.

Debra’s Answer

Readers? I can recommend websites, but this reader needs to know your personal experience.

I’ve purchased 100% cotton curtains at Target in the past and have had no problem with them after one wash.

I’ve also purchased cotton curtains from IKEA with no problem.

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Inspirational Story: Wheelys Cafe


I saw this on a news feed while waiting in an office the other day and couldn’t resist telling you about it.

This business is a human-powered bicycle-cart cafe that sells organic coffee.

What a great idea!

And it’s catching on.

“Wheelys is a chain of organic bicycle cafés, enabling people (ALL people) to start their own businesses. Since launching in 2014, Wheelys has exploded over the world and currently operates cafés in more than 45 countries.”

What other creative ideas for toxic free living will appear next? What can you think of?


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Haynes Fresh IQ

Question from Phil

Hi Debra,

I’ve noticed that Hanes underwear and socks all say FreshIQ on the packaging. It turns out that this a chemical applied to the fabric. I’m not sure what the chemical is, or if it’s even safe?

Debra’s Answer

I called Hanes and their customer service told me “there are no harmful chemicals, it’s just a mist that washes out after a few washings.”

So absolutely no information was forthcoming about what exactly this is, but according to Hanes it’s not even there any more after a few washings.

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What To Do When You’re Stuck With Treated Carpet

Question from Beth

Hi Debra,

I refer often to your book and website and am eager for your tips on an issue keeping me up at night!

We have two small children and are currently stuck in a house where one floor has newish (2009 install) Berber carpet that has been treated for stain/water resistance.

I don’t let the kids walk barefoot in one room, and have covered the floors in the others with small area rugs, but cleaning these regularly is impractical. We’re not in a position to replace with wood or other.

I’d be so grateful for any ideas to keep them safer.

Do we know how long carpets treated for stain/water resistance can continue to “rub off” on skin? I’m guessing it’s likely the life of the product.

Thank you!!

Debra’s Answer

Yes, for the life of the product.

Foil will block any chemical fumes. While you can’t lay foil on a carpet and walk on it, there are products available that is foil sandwiched between two layers of nontoxic polyethylene plastic.

Reflectix is the brand I have experience with. It’s made for insulation, but you could lay this over your carpet and it would 100% block any fumes. Then you could lay sheets or other fabric over the top to improve appearance.

Not the most beautiful solution, I know, but it will block any outgassing.

That said, a carpet from 2009 may have little outgassing. You may want to make pads of reflective for them to play on rather than doing the whole room. I would minimize skin contact.

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Toxic Chemicals Found in Tattoos


A comprehensive discussion of toxic ingredients found in tattoo inks was recently published in GreenMedInfo.

It’s very technical, written in scientific language and well-documented, but full of information on the possible health effects of injecting colored inks into your skin.

Henna tattoos were not mentioned as a safer alternative method for body art.

GREENMEDINFO: Toxic Chemicals Found in Tattoos: Links to Autoimmune and Inflammatory Diseases

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Pesticide Exposure at the Pumpkin Patch?


Question from Jo

Hi Debra,

Can I get your advice on this? You’re the only one on the web, that I actually feel that is so knowledgeable and honest!!

So daughter just turned 4 years old, and her teacher has planned a trip to the farm that has a pumpkin patch and petting zoo. I called the farm and they use an IPM program, but say they will use pesticide spray when needed. So they aren’t fully organic, but they call themselves sustainable.

I worry that my daughter can touch the pumpkins or anything with residue and they will be eating lunch there, so that’s hand to mouth.

Would you recommend me sending her or maybe keeping her home. I’ve had 2 aunts pass away from childhood leukemia, and I know there’s a link with pesticide.

I worry so much, but I really don’t want to bother the teacher. I’ve already haggled her about shutting their ionic (Plasma) air conditioner off and just running the air conditioner without using the ionic function. (She’s probably so annoyed with me by now) hahaha

Any assistance would be WARMLY appreciated! 🙂

Debra’s Answer

You actually don’t need to worry about this. One exposure to pesticides doesn’t make that much of a difference. Since they are IPM they may not even have sprayed. Let her go and have fun.

There was actually a study that showed if children ate 100% organic for only three days, all the pesticide residues were gone from their bodies. The problem is eating non-organic food every day. Then your child’s body is full of pesticides on an ongoing basis. But it takes only three days to clear.

I eat almost 100% organic at home, but I also travel and then I eat as much organic as I can, but 100% is difficult. I’m about to drive cross country for 9 days from Florida to California and I’m already scoping out restaurants that serve organic food and places where I can buy organic food enroute. We’re going to bring some food with us too.

While certainly there are what are called “acute” exposures that could kill you immediately (this is why we have poison control centers), but for what are called “cumulative” exposures, such as pesticide residues, it’s what you do most of the time that counts. Feed your daughter organic at home and what pesticide residues she may encounter elsewhere will leave her body quickly.

All that said, please don’t misunderstand me. Pesticides ARE toxic. Don’t spray your daughter with pesticides thinking they are safe. But occasional RESIDUES…I’m of the opinion that pleasure in life contributes to health and sometimes we need to weigh the benefit with the risk.

I’ve been to pumpkin farms and I haven’t experienced them to be a place I need to avoid.

I’m flying on an airplane this week. That’s a lot more toxic. And at the other end I’ll eat in an organic restaurant.

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