Answers to Your Questions About Toxic-Free Living

VOCs from Consumer Products Now Produce more Smog Than Cars


For decades, the focus on the source of outdoor air pollution has been on emissions from burning fuel from automobiles and factories.

But a new study shows “In urban areas, emissions from consumer goods such as paint, cleaning supplies and personal care products now contribute as much to ozone and fine particulate matter in the atmosphere as do emissions from burning gasoline or diesel fuel.”

Apparently programs to reduce pollution from car exhaust has been so successful that researchers are now able to see the impacts of other sources.

The study focused on VOCs that are derived from petroleum. Some VOCs can be harmful when directly inhaled, but they can also react with other molecules in the air to create ozone and other components of smog.

“15 times as much oil and natural gas is used as fuel than ends up in consumer products ranging from soaps, shampoos and deodorants to air fresheners, glues and cleaning sprays. And yet these everyday products were responsible for 38 percent of the VOC emissions, the researchers found, while gasoline and diesel emissions accounted for only 33 percent.”

SCIENCE NEWS: Household products make surprisingly large contributions to outdoor air pollution

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Mango Wood


Question from Bonnie Johnson

Hi Debra,

I have been shopping for a new coffee table for my living room. I have noticed a lot of furniture made with mango woods. They are sold at Pier 1 and Cost Plus etc. Are they safe?

Debra’s Answer

Mango woods a new “sustainable” choice for furniture, as an alternative to traditional woods like oak and maple.

Mango trees are abundant in India, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Brazil and Australia, where mango is a popular fruit. In fact, mangoes are actually the most popular fruit in the world. I love them and often eat them myself.

Mango wood is the byproduct of an already thriving industry,

Once the trees get too tall to easily harvest the fruit, or stop bearing fruit altogether, they are harvested for timber and a new generation of trees is planted.

Harvesting wood that was previously burnt or left to break down naturally provides extra income to mango farmers, and gives furniture manufacturers an affordable hardwood that has the strength to bear weight needed for tables and chairs, yet is soft enough to work with easily.

Mango wood also happens to be water resistant.

It requires monthly polishing to avoid cracking due to dehydration.

Some natural ways to protect your mango wood.

Apparently mango wood is other [chemically treated before furniture manufacturing to prevent fungus attack]. Chromiated Copper Arsenate (CCA) and Copper Come Boron (CCB) wood preservatives are used, CB being less toxic.

It’s likely virtually all mango wood is treated and unlikely that they will tell you this at the point of sale.

However, these preservatives are not volatile and the particles could be contained with several coats of a toxic-free wood finish.

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Chair Pads with Natural Fill

Buy 100% cotton chair and bench pads at


Question from Stacey

Hi Debra,

I am trying to find affordable chairs for my kitchen table. I have uncomfortable metal chairs now and would like to at least add chair pads. I found some cotton-covered pads, however, the batting is a polyester fill. I cannot find any chair pads with a cotton batting. Would you recommend not using anything with a polyester fill?


Debra’s Answer

I know something about this. I have a metal desk chair and have the same problem.

Before that I had a wood desk chair with the same problem.

Unfortunately you can’t yet go into a store and purchase pillows with natural fill. All they sell is polyester. But online you can get pillows with cotton or wool or kapok fill that are quite comfortable.

I just bought the pillows and then wrapped cotton fabric around them with a design I liked. I didn’t even sew covers.

However, now—and I know this is going to sound funny, but it works—I sit on a folded plush cotton bath rug. It stays in place on the chair better. I just got it at Bed Bath & Beyond.

You want to look for a “cotton chenille” rug WITHOUT a non-skid backing. Reversable rugs have no backing, just 100% cotton.

Here’s one:

You can also just toss them in the washer and wash them and fluff them up in the dryer.

And if you want more plush, just pile them up on your chair until it is “just right.

Now that I said all that, I actually found some seat cushions on amazon with cotton fabric and cotton fill.

“Cotton chair and bench cushions stand out with their impressively soft cotton cover, extra-comfy cotton filling, and great support. Upgrade your chairs with cotton chair cushions that will feel great years down the line”

The brand is Cottone; Here’s the link to all their colors and styles:

Shepherd’s Dream makes an organic wool and cotton Chair Pillow.

White Lotus Home makes their own pillows in many sizes with different organic filling.

And if you don’t find the size you are looking for, the would probably custom make it for you.

So see, there are lots of options.

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Consumer Product Safety Commission Bans 5 More Phthalates in Toys and Child Care Products

Effective April 26, a new ruling with ban the use of five more phthalates in toys and child care products. This is in addition to the three phthalates in 2009, bringing to eight the total number of phthalates restricted from use in children’s toys and child care articles in concentrations exceeding 0.1 percent.

Phthalates are a common ingredient in soft vinyl and easily outgassed.

But watch out. Even if you see “phthalate-free” on a children’s product label, that doesn’t mean they contain zero phthalate. This refers only to the eight banned phthalates. There are still at least 18 other phthalates that could be present that have not been banned. All phthalates easily outgas from any plastics that contain them.
Research links phthalates with problems with the endocrine system and the liver, as well as cancer.

Numerous U.S. government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The U.S. Department of Health, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed concern about phthalates.

In February 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) permanently banned three types of phthalates from crib mattresses, children’s toys, and other child care articles, specifically:

  • di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)

At the same time, they placed a ban on an interim basis on three more types of phthalates, specifically:

  • diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP)
  • Di-n-octylphthalate (DnOP).

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 also required the CPSC to appoint a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) to “review the potential effects on children’s health of all phthalates and phthalate alternatives in children’s toys and childcare articles.” This review included the cumulative effects of exposure to multiple phthalates from all sources.

After nine years of review, the CPSC issued a final rule, effective April 25, 2018, prohibiting children’s toys and child care articles that contain concentrations of more than 0.1 percent on five additional phthalated, specifically:

  • diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP)
  • di-n-pentyl phthalate (DPENP)
  • di-n-hexyl phthalate (DHEXP)
  • dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP).

The Congressional prohibition on three phthalate chemicals under the CPSIA remains in full force and effect.

This seems to be the end of the investigation by the CPSC into phthalates. But there are other phthalates that may have similar health effects.

In 2014 the CHAP released “Report to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives.”

After assessing the risks of 14 phthalates (a list of “the most common phthalates” numbers 25 and there are certainly more) the CHAP found, “Although phthalates cause a wide range of toxicities, the most extensively studied is male developmental toxicity in the rat…specifically referred to as the ‘phthalate syndrome.’” And this “bears a resemblance to the “testicular dysgenesis syndrome” (TDS) in humans, which includes poor semen quality, testis cancer, cryptorchidism {the absence of one or both testes from the scrotum], and hypospadias {a congenital disorder of the urethra where the urinary opening is not at the usual location on the head of the penis], and which is hypothesized to have its origins during fetal life.”

Furthermore, exposure to multiple phthalates “act in an additive fashion in causing effects associated with the phthalate syndrome.”

The CHAP also repeatedly recommended that “the appropriate U.S. agencies obtain the necessary exposure and hazard data to estimate total exposure to the phthalate alternatives and assess the potential health risks.”

One more thing about phthalates: GREENGUARD certifies a number of crib mattresses with vinyl covers to meet their “low emissions” standards. These crib mattresses with vinyl covers pass the test because GREENGUARD does not test for phthalates.

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Choose Organic Ice Cream

This morning I received an email from the Organic Consumers Association about Ben & Jerry’s annual Free Cone Day.

“There’s only one problem,” they wrote. “Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is never free—because we all pay for the health and environmental damage caused by Ben & Jerry’s factory farm dairy practices.

Last summer OCA announced their testing of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream contained traces of glyphosate.

But there are other choices.

I know here is Northern California we have organic ice cream made by a local dairy. You may have local organic ice cream in your community as well. I can buy it at natural food stores and local independent supermarkets.

Straus Family Creamery has been organic for about 30 years now, maybe longer. I used to live literally, right down the road from them, less than 10 miles away. It’s a long-established family-owned dairy farm. You can go tour the farm if you are in the area. If I remember correctly, they were the first to offer organic milk and cream in stores here, and it came in glass bottles (and still does). They are a good neighbor to the community and ecosystem and their ice cream is super delicious.

Take a look around your community and see what organic ice cream you can find.

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Another Problem With Rugs: Shedding Particles

I received an email from Well + Good a few weeks ago asking for an expert quote.

They were doing a story about rugs shedding and wanted to know if particles from shedding rugs could affect your health.

This is something I hadn’t considered before because I’ve had my attention on rugs outgassing toxic chemicals, but apparently the shedding of particles from rugs is bad for your health too.

And apparently this is a big deal because there are A LOT of posts about it on the internet.

A few days ago I received a link to the finished post and learned a few things about rugs shedding and some tips on how to care for your natural fiber area rugs to reduce shedding.

WELL+GOOD: Why Your Rug is Shedding (and How It Could Be Bad for Your Health)

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Thoughts about health + illness while lying in bed with the flu

I’m not doing my regular newsletter today because I’ve literally been sick in bed with a flu since I sent the last newsletter.

I rarely get contagious illnesses, and this one was very unusual. It actually started at the beginning of February, but it was so subtle I didn’t recognize it as the flu. What I felt was exhaustion. So much exhaustion I couldn’t get up out of bed in the morning and couldn’t think enough to work unless I drank a cup of coffee (organic, of course!).

Then I started not thinking straight and just forgetting whole sections of time. Like forgetting to enter expenditures in my checking account register (something I routinely do every morning) and not noticing for four days.

And then I started to just feel unbalanced, like my body would just start tipping over when I was standing and I couldn’t walk a straight line.

I went to my Obamacare medical doctor and she just said I needed more sleep. So I slept more hours but the symptoms just kept getting worse and worse over two months until finally last Tuesday my body suddenly burst into aches and fever and coughing and runny nose and sleeping all day and night and can barely get out of bed or eat.

Yesterday was my first day out of bed where I could actually get up and do anything. And my body is no longer exhausted, I can think clearly and walk straight.

But I had some interesting insights.


I had the idea I should take a a lot of vitamin C, but I didn’t want to take industrial vitamin C. Instead I kept a big bowl of those baby mandarin oranges by my bed. You know, the kind that are so popular now that are easy to peel and eat, don’t drip and are very sweet. I had just purchased five pound of these, organic, at my local farmer’s market, so I had a great whole food source of vitamin C the was really easy to eat in bed.


Back in 1990, when I was was hired to do research and development for the founding of a green company, we had a formula we used for product development that we found to be true: first make the product work as well or better as the usual product, then make it green. And if you could also give it a competitive price, then it was a green product that would sell.

I also remembered a moment way back in the beginning when I was first coming to terms with the fact that I needed to now live without toxic chemicals to save my life. I didn’t want to give up my favorite things. Like my signature shade of red lipstick that took me so many years to find (ah, what was important to me then!) I made a decision right then that I not only needed to find things that were nontoxic, they also had to be beautiful and pleasurable. Little did I know at that moment that to open the door to the world of things nontoxic was also opening the door to the pleasures of natural fibers against my skin, the deliciousness of organic food and many other delightful experiences of life.

You may remember last week I wrote a post about The Best Toxic Free Toilet Paper. I went to my local independent supermarket and looked on the shelf and purchased two brands that looked similar because they were each made with what looked at first glance to be the same materials from a toxic viewpoint. So I bought a package of each one and brought it home. One turned out to be the best toilet paper I could find. The other turned out to have so many problems I didn’t even include it in the post.

But here’s the kicker for me. The best toilet paper turned out to be soft and lovely to use. The other one was rough and had no consideration of user experience at all.

For me, really, as I pick products I’m looking for products that meet my nontoxic criteria, but they also bring me into living in this whole different delightful world that I love and feel happy in every day. And I don’t tell you that enough.


In my work I write a lot about the association between symptoms and exposure to toxic chemicals. In this case symptoms are a signal from the body that something has entered the body that it doesn’t like and we need to stop doing that.

But this week in bed with the flue reminded me there are other reasons for symptoms.

The symptoms I was experiencing from the flu virus were actually indicators that my body was hard at work fighting the virus. Symptoms that remove body wastes quickly—like sneezing, coughing, runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, and the like—are trying to get foreign invaders out of your body so your body can heal. These are symptoms we want to have, which benefit us, and should not be suppressed.

Then there are allergic reactions, which operate in an entirely different way than toxic poisoning. And individual sensitivities.

And finally, symptoms may develop when your body is detoxing to remove toxic chemicals that your body has stored to keep them out of it’s bloodstream. Sleepiness and headaches are often indicators that detox is happening a little too fast.

As uncomfortable as I was, I just waited out my symptoms and let my body do it’s job. And while I could get out of bed today and write this, I’m going to take it easy for the rest of the week so I can full recover and get back to my regular schedule.


We tend to think of illness as “something wrong” with our bodies, but this past week, I’ve been realizing how right it has been to be sick right now.

For the past year I’ve been going and going and going from one thing to the next, making major life changes bac-to-back without slowing down for a second.

And my body finally said, “Enough! Rest! Let us heal and restore!”

Our bodies need a balance of activity and rest. It’s during sleep and rest that our bodies repair everything.


The truly amazing part of this experience was to observe that even though my body and mind were being ravaged by this virus, my creative side came out in full force.

I’ve been working on re-imagining my work and designing a new website and while my body was burning up with fever and my mind couldn’t put two sentences together, creative ideas and realizations were coming through just fine day and night. I’ve been keeping a pad of paper next to my bed and it’s full of scribbles and drawings.

It’s like having my body be sick right now is part of the greater creative process, so I can take my attention off everything else I usually do and just have creative time.

I am just getting so much clarity on everything. Wow! I really can’t wait to show this to you.


OK, OK, enough for now.

I expect to be back next Tuesday with my usual newsletter and MUCH more very soon.

How Long Does it Take for VOCs to Outgas From Paint?


I’ve been working with a client for more than a month on outgassing her apartment using a “bake-out”.

She now says that the paint smell has gone to a point where a normal person wouldn’t smell it, but she still reacts to the apartment after being there for an hour.

She sent me a great blog post I want to share with you INDOOR AIR NERD: How Long Does it take for VOCs to Dissipate?.

The writer of this post, who is a Professional Engineer who does air quality testing, notes that testing shows it can take 2-3 months for air quality to return to normal after painting.

But he also tells of a home where he measured the air quality and after almost seven months there were still VOCs present. His conclusion was that the VOCs still lingered because the house was built to be energy efficient and did not have mechanical ventilation.

To me, this really shows that the construction of the building can make a BIG difference in how long it takes for paint to outgas.

Things that can effect the rate of outgassing include:

  • insulation
  • “tight” construction (which decreases the natural air exchange found in older buildings)
  • mechanical ventilation (air exchanges from HVAC systems)
  • natural ventilation from the opening of doors and windows

Less ventilation means less reduction of VOCs. More ventilation means faster outgassing. Add heat, as in a “bake out” and it will go even faster.

But the thing to remember is that the outgassing will continue until the paint or finish is completely CURED.

Paints and finishes go through a process of three phases:

  • “liquid” is a mixture of solids and particles and VOCs (if present). This allows you to apply the paint or finish to the surface
  • “dry to touch” happens within hours of applying the paint. You can touch it and it won’t come off on your hands and you can apply the next coat. But it is not completely dry all the way through.
  • “cured” means that all the liquid and VOCs have volatilized and there is only the solids of the paint left. At this point there should be no more outgassing. During the curing process the solid components in the paint contact and adhere to each other creating a continuous coating. When fully cured, you can wipe or wash the painted surface withoutharm, and the paint is no longer vulnerable to damage by water or chemicals.

Different types of paints take different periods of time to cure. You should find out and consider the cure time for any paint before you apply it. By doing so you will know what to expect in terms of how long it will continue to outgas VOCs or other chemicals.

You can check with the manufacturer of any paint to get the cure time.

I see most latex paints say it takes “up to 30 days for a ‘full cure,’” depending on color choice, humidity, ventilation and temperature.

Here are some tips from ECOS Paints on How to Make Paint Dry Faster

  • Keep a fan on. Multiple fans oscillating in the room will speed up the dry time considerably. You want to have a good amount of air circulation, but don’t have the fans on high if the room is dusty because it will ruin your paint finish.
  • Apply light coats. If you’re using a thicker nap on your roller sleeve, it might cause you to apply far more paint than what you need, increasing your dry time substantially. Two uniform coats of paint will always look better than one really thick one, so it’s best to apply light coats. You should feel your roller sleeve starting to dry out as you apply light pressure towards the end of a few rolling patterns. If the paint is squishing out of the sleeve when you apply pressure, you still have too much paint in the sleeve and should continue rolling before getting more paint from the tray.
  • Keep the room warm. If it’s winter and you’re painting in a space that gets a bit drafty, using a space heater is a good idea. Also, if it’s cold and your windows are leaky, that could affect how long the paint takes to dry near them. Some older homes that aren’t that well insulated can have fairly cold exterior facing walls. It’s still fine to paint them in the winter, but they might dry slower.
  • Keep the humidity down. When it’s really muggy in the summer, paint dries more slowly. Actually, just painting in a closed room increases the humidity even on a normal day, so open the windows if you can and get some fresh air in the room.
  • Paint one wall at a time. We always recommend this but, it’s easy to forget when you’re cutting in. If you cut in one wall and then paint it before moving on to the next, then that first wall might be dry by the time you finished the other three, so you’ll have no downtime during the project.
  • Use a zero-VOC* paint like ECOS Paints. Zero-VOC* paints naturally dry faster. Also, our rich pigments and premium formula cover better, so there’s less tendency to apply coats that are too thick.

Of course the best thing is to choose a paint with the least VOCs you can in the first place.

My favorite wall paint is Old Fashioned Milk Paint, which is made from milk and other natural ingredients, and has no VOCs. It actually smells like a mug of warm milk as you are painting it on the walls. But there are many other low- and zero-VOC paints available now as well.

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The Best Toxic Free Toilet Paper

Question from Terry

Hi Debra,

What is the best chlorine and formaldyhide-free toilet paper?

Thought you might know off the top of your head!

Debra’s Answer

It’s been a while since we discussed toilet paper. And I’m glad you asked.

Actually I just had the need to purchase toilet paper over the weekend. I live in a household with other people and my rent covers household toilet paper. I got them to agree to unscented. But we ran out so I went and bought some, and had the opportunity to look at what’s new on the shelves. And then this question came in the next day…:-)

There actually is one brand that I think comes out on top and that is Green 2 by Tree Free (website | amazon).

Here’s why.

#1. It’s fragrance free.
For me this is the most important toxic criteria. There are many other fragrance-free toilet papers, but Green 2 goes above and beyond: no inks, dyes, lotions, wheat, corn or glue as well.

#2. It’s made from sugar cane and bamboo.
The toxics issue here is that more and more toilet papers are being made now from recycled paper. In addition to toxic exposures from chemicals in inks and anything else that may be on the paper being recycled, recycled paper also is known to contain BPA. So this toilet paper is BPA-free. Also GMO-free because sugar cane and bamboo are not genetically modified. Plus I like tree-free products because I’d like to leave the trees standing so they can clean the air.

#3. It’s bleached with hydrogen peroxide.
When paper is bleached with chlorine, the process creates dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals on earth. Hydrogen peroxide does not create harmful byproducts.

#4. It’s made without formaldehyde.
Formaladehyde is often used to give “wet strength” to paper. No formaldehyde used here.

They actually have a customer service phone number in the USA with a person who answers it and speaks English. Some of the other toilet papers I attempted to contact didn’t.

I actually found this toilet paper on the shelf at my favorite local independent market, which sells all kinds of cool stuff (such as whole heirloom chickens).

Oh, and the company is woman-owned as well, which is not a toxics consideration but good to know.

All things considered, I like this brand best.

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Buying A Home Near Train Tracks


Question from Madelyn

Hi Debra,

My husband and I have a toddler son and are expecting baby #2 in the fall.

We are very health conscious and try to live as non-toxic as we can.

We live in Colorado and are in the process of buying a home.

We have found a beautiful home, essentially our dream home in a great neighborhood near a lake right in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

However, there are train tracks behind the house, only visible if a train is passing. My husband would estimate the tracks to be from 600-900 feet away from the stone wall of the home’s backyard.

The trains pass through on these tracks several times a day, most are open air cars carrying coal. The town has set an ordinance so the trains are prohibited from blowing their horns and can only travel about 5mph. The longer trains can take several minutes to pass.

While we dont find the noise of the train to be much of an issue, we are concerned about fumes and air quality. These are diesel trains and I assume they release some amount of toxic fumes.

I have read studies that show an increased rate of asthma and cancer in people who live by rail yards where trains are constantly idling, or increased health issues in railroad workers who are constantly exposed, but would these risks carry over to a house near the tracks where trains pass by a few times a day but dont stop or idle?

We like to sleep with our windows open at night and want to spend a lot of time in the backyard so I’m wondering whether I should be concerned about poor air quality? Any thoughts?

Debra’s Answer

Well I went out and walked 100 feet to get an idea of the distance and I’m not concerned.

Yes it is producing some pollution, but so does car traffic.

When I lived in Florida I had train tracks on two sides and they were probably within 1000 feet now that I went and walked to get an idea of the distance, but I rarely noticed they were there and never noticed any pollution.

I would just observe some trains going by from your house and see what you think.

Now that said, I did some research online. I searched on “distance from train tracks air pollution” and a lot of studies came up. I didn’t read all of them because most were looking at like houses right on the edge of the train tracks.

I think your distance takes you out of the zone of concern. There’s a lot of air between you and the trains 600-900 feet away.

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