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There are so many “non-toxic” certifications in the marketplace today. It can be confusing trying to figure out what they mean and, importantly, what they don’t mean.
The problem with most of these certifications is:
- They are only testing a limited number of chemicals and
- They are only testing the chemicals to an accepted level
In most cases, certifications show that a product may have a lower toxicity than a non-certified product but not that it is completely non-toxic.
Let’s take a look at two common certifications, GREENGUARD and GREENGUARD Gold.
GREENGUARD is a third party certification, which means it is an independent testing company that evaluates products for a fee. The company is transparent about its testing methodology and criteria.
What it Tests
- It tests for volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and their impact on air quality. See the complete list of criteria here.
- Formaldehyde must be below .05 parts per million (ppm).
- Individual VOCs must fall below 1/10th TLV. The threshold limit value (TLV) of a chemical substanceis believed to be a level to which a worker can be exposed day after day for a working lifetime without adverse health effects.
What it Does NOT Test
- This is only a test for chemical impact on air quality. It does not test for chemicals that do not significantly impact air quality but may be harmful to ingest or absorb through the skin such as lead or phthalates.
Overall, this a reputable organization with some of the strictest criteria in the world. You can be assured that certified products have relatively low toxicity, meaning that if you are faced with buying a certified product or a product with no certification it may be a safer bet. It does not mean that it is non-toxic. It is possible that it contains formaldehyde at levels that, when combined with other formaldehyde-containing items in your home, could cause a reaction in sensitive individuals. While there are no standards for formaldehyde levels in homes, according to the American Cancer Society, some people experience health effects when formaldehyde is present in the air at levels higher than 0.1ppm. If GREENGUARD certified products can contain .05ppm and you have any other items in your home that are emitting formaldehyde you could easily reach an unacceptable level.
If you are buying engineered flooring, be sure to ask if it contains phthalates because the GREENGUARD does not test for it.
GREENGUARD GOLD is a stricter certification than GREENGUARD and is designed for sensitive individuals, such as students and the elderly, and is intended for environments such as schools and health care facilities.
What it Tests
- Limits emissions of more than 360 chemicals
- Limits total VOC emission of a product
- Formaldehyde must be below .0073 ppm.
- Individual VOCs must fall below 1/100thTLV
What it Does NOT Test
- Similar to the standard GREENGUARD certification, it only test for chemical impact on air quality. It does not test for chemicals that do not significantly impact air quality but may be harmful to ingest or absorb through the skin such as lead or phthalates.
As you can see, GREENGUARD GOLD limits chemical emissions to a much lower level that the standard GREENGUARD certification. It does, however, have the same limitations because it only measures for the impact of chemicals on air quality.
Question from Joe
I was wondering what your opinion of these shoes im planning to purchase https://wills-vegan-store.com/vegan-dock-boots-mens-tan-vegan-suede.html. When i messaged the company it said the vegan suede was created with polyurethane based materials that are similar to polyester? Are these safe to wear?
Polyurethane is a safe plastic but it can have additives that are not safe. The company specifies that the suede (but not the entire shoe!) is Oeko Tex 100 certified, so the suede itself is probably fine. The TR outsole, which is synthetic rubber is made from petroleum and can offgass. However, most shoes have this type of sole. I have never seen a work boot with an outsole made of a natural material. The most concerning component is the insole, which is made from recycled rubber. Studies show that recycled rubber, likely from recycled tires, can offgas harmful chemicals. The company is not able to tell the source of the recycled rubber. If the insole can be removed, you could replace it will a natural material. Overall, these boots are probably better than a standard pair of leather workbooks. The company seems very ethically conscious and is trying to be transparent.
Question from Donna
We are replacing the carpet in all of our bedrooms, which adds up to over 1200 sq. ft. We’ve priced out wool carpet and padding, and it is very expensive. (I don’t want hardwood flooring upstairs in the bedrooms for several reasons.) A vendor is recommending Air.O carpet by Mohawk, which is supposed to be VOC and odor free and is carpet and padding in one. It’s also supposed to be hypoallergenic and made of 100% PET. They have stated there are no flame retardants in the backing. Have you heard of this carpet and what would you think of it as a more economical option? Thank you!
This is a great example of a product with a second-party certification, which means it is certified by an industry association affiliated with the products it tests. In this case, the The Carpet and Rug Institute, a carpet industry association has come up with its own certification called the Green Label Plus Indoor Air Quality Standard. Keep in minded, it has a vested interest in certifying as many rugs and carpets as possible to earn revenue and sell more products. On its website it actually states that, “the carpet industry has a long history of creating products that provide numerous benefits, especially for indoor air quality.” In fact, carpets are a know source of VOC emissions.
It is difficult to understand the criteria for certification based on the information provided on the website, however, it does comply with California’s Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) low-emitting materials criteria, which are fairly rigorous. The claim that it is VOC free most likely means that it has VOC emission, but the levels fall below a certain standardl.
Without more specific information, I would assume that this is a better choice than other synthetic wall-to-wall carpets but not as safe as one made of natural materials. Understanding cost is an issue, I would ask the company these additional questions.
What is the level ( in parts per million) of formaldehyde emissions?
Is the entire product free of flame retardants or just the backing?
Are chromium dyes used in the carpeting?
Question from Catherine
After sanitizing the moldy basement in the house we just bought, remediators want to apply a protectant/encapsulant to seal the surfaces. The two possibilities are Bac-Shield (http://chemtexlaboratories.com/bacshield/) and Caliwel (https://www.caliwel.com/CaliwelIndustrial.aspx). I’m terribly sensitive. What do you think?
Caliwel claims no VOCs and uses Calcium Hydroxide (lime) as an active ingredient, which is an irritant but not particularly toxic in this application. Here is an older thread that discussing some companies using hydrogen peroxide for remediation. Cailwel does not seem particularly toxic but hydrogen peroxide is safer. As for your personal sensitivity, every individual is different so its impossible to tell what you might cause you to react.
I was not able to find information about Bac-Shield’s VOC content so I would go with Caliwel due to the lack of information.
Question from Catherine
Looking for shoes, sneakers not made with thuiram mix.
We use toilet paper multiple times a day in our most personal of areas. Yet, we hear about scary stuff that could be hiding in each roll. With so many options on the shelves it’s difficult to figure what to use and what to avoid. Here are the toxins to be wary of and a guide to help you choose the right brand for you.
Toilet paper brands made from virgin pulp (not recycled paper) are usually bleached with chlorine dioxide. When you hear or read about chlorine in toilet paper it’s misleading because chlorine dioxide is different from chlorine. Until the late 1990s, pure chlorine, or elemental chlorine, was used for paper bleaching and was a significant source of dioxin. Dioxins, which are persistent environmental pollutants and accumulate in the food chain, are among the most toxic chemicals on earth. The EPA began regulating the paper industry which led North American paper mills to convert from elemental chlorine to chlorine derivatives, such as chlorine dioxide, which are significantly less toxic and reduce the potential for dioxins by 90%. So, today’s toilet paper bleached with chlorine dioxide is safer than the paper produced decades ago with elemental chlorine. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean chlorine dioxide is safe. It’s strictly regulated by the EPA as a hazardous chemical. And it still releases dioxins into the environment which is detrimental at any level.
This background is important to understand when reading marketing claims on toilet paper packaging. The following acronyms are used by the U.S. Pulp and Paper Industry to describe “safer” bleaching processes. Here’s what they really mean:
(ECF) Elemental Chlorine Free: Paper bleached with chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine.
As we know, elemental chlorine is no longer used in the U.S. to bleach paper products, so this does not mean that products with this label are any safer than others. In fact, we know that chlorine dioxide is still a danger to humans and to the environment. Some brands also claim “Chlorine-Free”. Be wary of this as it can simply mean that they use a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide.
(PCF) Process Chlorine Free: This is used for recycled paper. It means no chlorine or chlorine derivative was added during the production process. Ozone, oxygen or hydrogen peroxide are used for bleaching.
(TCF) Totally Chlorine Free: This is used for virgin paper. Ozone, oxygen or hydrogen peroxide are used for bleaching.
Some brands of toilet paper use formaldehyde to make the paper stronger when it is wet.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen as well as an irritant. One study linked toilet paper to chronic irritation in women. If a brand claims that it is particularly thick, strong, or absorbent, suspect that it contains formaldehyde.
Recycled toilet paper is made from paper scraps. Thermal paper, such as cash register receipts are a known source of BPA. When they get processes to make recycled paper, trace amounts of BPA can end up in the finished product. A 2011 study found that 80 of 94 toilet paper brands contained BPA. However, for perspective, BPA in toilet paper was detected in microgram-per-gram concentrations while thermal paper receipts were measured in milligram-per-gram concentrations. That’s 1000 times more exposure from receipts than toilet paper!
It’s difficult to get companies to disclose all of the chemical additives used for fragrance or added features like lotion. We know that fragrances are often a cocktail of chemicals and sometimes include phthalates, a known endocrine disrupter. Lotions can include parabens, which are linked to hormone disruption and breast cancer, as well as other harmful ingredients. It’s best to avoid any products boasting these features.
Avoid: Toilet Paper made with Virgin Pulp
Sadly, this is the fluffy, white stuff that most people prefer. If chlorine dioxide, dioxins and the possibility of formaldehyde are not enough to deter you, think of the fact that 54 million trees are harvested per year for toilet paper production.
Better: Recycled Toilet Paper
These brands will likely contain trace amounts of BPA. While it is best to avoid all exposures to BPA, humans are at far greater risk of exposure from food and beverage containers and cash register receipts than from toilet paper. If you choose this option, look for brands that contain 100% recycled content and are bleached with PCF. Some brands do use ECF so look carefully.
It’s worth noting that Seventh Generation openly addresses the BPA problem on their website and are actively working toward solutions. They should be commended for their transparency. Plus, they use hydrogen peroxide for bleaching (which is PCF)!
Best: 100% Bamboo or Bamboo & Sugar Cane Toilet Paper
These brands do not contain BPA because there is no recycled content. They do not need formaldehyde for strengthening because bamboo fibers are naturally strong. Most of them use hydrogen peroxide for bleaching, although some use a combination of hydrogen peroxide and ECF. An added benefit is that bamboo and sugar cane are grasses, not trees, which are naturally renewable.
Do they work?
None of these bamboo and sugar cane brands compare in softness or strength to traditional, virgin pulp brands. However, if you are used to using recycled brands you will probably find these less-toxic alternatives to be good options. Like the recycled brands, they vary widely in appearance and functionality. My family found 2 of the 5 brands we tried acceptable.
This was my favorite in the category. The 3-ply sheets are the strongest of the five tested and did not break down during tough cleaning jobs. It is relatively soft and thick and looks the most like traditional toilet paper.
Also 3-ply, this is soft and strong but not quite as thick as NooTrees.
This is not as soft as NooTrees or Wholeroll but it holds up and does an acceptable job.
This did not work for me. It is thin and rough and sometimes crumbles.
This did not work for me. It is thin and sometimes crumbles.
Question from Phoebe
I saw an older post about hangers, and I was wondering if anyone has any updated information. I am trying to fin non toxic hangers that will last that are preferably eco friendly as well. I cannot find the Ditto hangers for sale anywhere besides one sketchy seeming ebay seller. Did the whole non toxic, eco friendly hanger movement die? Any recommendations?
Question from Kathryn
Hello! Curious if you’ve seen the LifeStraw glass water filter and think it could be valuable if not currently able to install a full filtration system… thanks!
It’s good to see a countertop filter with a glass jug and an activated carbon filter. Without doing a full analysis of other pitcher filters in the price range ($55), I can only give you a cursory assessment. It doesn’t seem to filter harmful chemicals such as chlorine and lead as well as mainstream brands like Brita. For example, Brita filters out 99% of lead and chlorine while LifeStraw filters 97% and 95.4%, respectively. You are making a tradeoff of a glass pitcher for less effective filtering.
If you can afford a bit more, Pure Effect, which is what I have in my house, offers a counter top model for $170. It does need to be hooked up to your faucet and does have plastic housing but it does the most comprehensive job of filtering chemicals and contaminants that I have found.
Question from Lanette
Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the dangers of nano-particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in products, particularly in sunscreen. I know Debra was a big fan of Enviroklenz (air cleaners and related air purifying products), as am I. They all contain titanium dioxide. Is theirs the nano type or the non-nano type? Also would you give more information on what this is?
I confirmed with EnviroKlenz that the titanium dioxide is much larger than nano-particles and poses no health risk.
Question from Liz
We have very hard water and I am SO SICK of the scum that builds up on everything that goes into the dishwasher I’m ready to trash the beast and do dishes by hand. But there are three in our house and we always cook meals at home, so that would be quite a chore so I’m looking for a different solution.
A friend recommended adding Lemi Shine Dish Detergent Booster when running the dishwasher, but I can’t find much about its toxicity. The package says it’s “Natural, Safe, Biodegradable, Phosphate Free, Non-Toxic, Septic system safe” but who knows if that means anything?
Any thoughts on this product? Or is there another you would recommend for very hard water? I’ve been using Biokleen dishwasher detergent, but it really doesn’t work here.
The website lists citric acid and fragrance as ingredients. Citric acid is not a concern. Fragrance, as you probably know, can be a mix of many potentially harmful chemicals. The website’s Q&A section claims that only a small fraction of the fragrance is synthetic and most is essential oils. It doesn’t sound terrible but there may be non-toxic alternatives. Readers, any recommendations?