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Tips for Non-Toxic Holiday Gatherings

Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash

One of the best things about the holidays is gathering together with family and friends for special meals and gift-giving.  Unfortunately, all of that cooking and decorating can add to indoor air pollution and toxic exposures.  Here are some easy tips to keep your gathering safe and healthy.


Avoid Candles and Scented Décor

Candles made of paraffin wax can emit benzene, toluene and other dangerous chemicals.  They also emit particulate matter that can get deep into your lungs.  Fragrance from scented candles and scented décor usually contain phthalates which are released into the air and can be inhaled or absorbed by the skin.


Ventilate While Cooking

Cooking is a major source of poor indoor air quality.  Proper ventilation is critical, particularly if you are cooking with gas.  If you don’t have a range hood that vents to the outside, open your windows while cooking.  If your range hood doesn’t extend over your front burners, make sure to cook on your back burners.  Also, clean up any food particles on the burners because as they burn, they can release toxic by-products into the air.


Skip the Fire

Wood smoke can emit particulate matter as well as harmful chemicals including formaldehyde, and benzene. Studies show that up to 70% of the smoke released from the chimney re-enters your home.  If you just can’t do without a fire, engineered logs, such as Duraflame, have been shown in third-party studies to burn cleaner than natural wood.


Skip the Gift Wrap

Some papers can be treated with inks, dyes and other chemicals.  Additionally, some foil and colored gift wraps can contain lead.  If you really want to wrap your gifts, IKEA has strict limits for lead and offers several unbleached wrapping paper styles. You could also try reusable fabric gift bags, which are better for the environment.


Choose Untreated Tablecloths

Wrinkle-free tablecloths can release formaldehyde and water-repellent cloths can contain perfluorinated chemicals, like Teflon.  Choose an untreated, natural material like cotton or linen.


Ask Guests to Leave Their Shoes at the Door

Shoes can track in toxins from the outdoors including coal-tar from driveway sealers, pesticides, and bacteria.  Keep a basket of slippers or socks at the door for guests to use.


Use Lead-Free Holiday Plates and Serving Pieces

Look for lead-free labels on holiday plates and serving pieces and don’t eat off of products labelled “Not for food use” or “For decorative use only”.


Be safe and enjoy the holidays!

Non-Toxic Furniture Store for Sofa

Question from Janine

I have been a long time “client/customer” of Debra’s. She has guided me through many projects and purchases.
I am trying to find information on stores that carry California compliant Sofas. Such as, Crate and Barrel. I do not want a custom sofa. I saw on your site a list of stores that were compliant and for some reason I cannot find that page again no matter how many times i try.
Please advise.
Again, my question is, where can I purchase a sofa that is safe and non-toxic and is polyester/acrylic safe? I am not chemical sensitive, I just want a clean, non-toxic home environment for my family.


Lisa’s Answer

I am not aware of Debra ever doing a list of stores that just meet California’s guidelines because they do not ensure that a sofa is non-toxic.
Are you referring to the 2014 revision to California standards that allows manufacturers to stop using flame retardants?  If so, EWG has a list of companies that do not use flame retardants in their sofas.  Here is that list.  A sofa without fame retardants is certainly safer that one with flame retardants but please understand that this does not mean that there are not other harmful chemicals used in these sofas.  Most, if not all of them use polyurethane foam which, even when it does not contain flame retardants, can contain formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and other harmful chemicals.  The fabric could be treated with perfluorinated chemicals for stain proofing.  The wood components of the frame could contain formaldehyde, though if there is a California (CARB Phase 2) certification the levels will minimized.  CARB only addresses the the wood components and it does not restrict VOCs from stains or paint on the wood.
I wish there was an easy, affordable place to buy a truly non-toxic sofa but I am not aware of one.

Fiberglass/Acrylic Shower

Question from Marie

I need to have a plumber replace the shower valve. Is it safer to cut a bigger hole in the fiberglass/acrylic shower wall to get into the plumbing, or safer to go through the drywall in the hallway to get into the plumbing?

The cut through the shower wall will just be covered with a bigger plate/fixture. The drywall we will have to fix and patch up on our own.  Which is more toxic – cutting through fiberglass and/or acrylic, or cutting through drywall and patching it up?  Are there nontoxic drywall options? I don’t like the idea of any particles and dust, but this needs to be fixed pretty soon.


Lisa’s Answer

Do you plan to do the cutting yourself?  The greatest exposure will be during the cutting and there are specific steps needed to minimize the dust in either scenario.  I suggest you have it done by a professional or make sure you very familiar with the necessary safety precautions.
As for which material is safer to cut, it’s important to know what type of drywall you have.  From 2001 to 2009, there was a lot of contaminated drywall from China.  If you suspect that this may have been used in your house, I would avoid cutting into it.  Aside from that, I think drywall is the safer option (assuming you take all precautions to minimize the dust).  Fiberglass dust is a possible carcinogen.
There are non-toxic drywall options to use for your patching. EWG has a helpful guide on drywall.  They recommend looking for Greenguard Gold certified products.  I used National Gypsum Company’s Gold Bond for my house.  We then safeguarded our air quality by following instillation guidelines from Prescriptions for a Healthy House (Baker-Laporte, Elliott, &, Banta, 2008).   I recommend this book as a great guide for very specific information on new building and renovations.

Proposition 65 Warning for Styrene and BPA in Toaster Oven

Question from Naomi

I recently purchased a Black and Decker Toaster oven, model TO3290XSD, online to replace our old one which is severely rusted and not functioning well. When the box was delivered I noticed a warning that read as follows: WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including Styrene, which known to the State of California to cause cancer, and Bisphenol-A, which is known to the State of California to casue birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information go to I went to the website and there is a list of chemical and their potential adverse effects but no explanation of how exactly the particular product in question would expose a person so such chemicals or how such chemicals are incorporated into the product. I feel as though I do not have enough information to make a decision about the safety of this toaster oven for preparing food. I am also concerned that if I return it I may not be able to find a chemical free alternative because it is likely that most new toaster ovens out on the market contain some sort of toxic chemical as well. Can you help me figure out how to better evaluate the safety of using such a toaster oven ? I have sent an email to the company inquiring further about the nature of how the chemicals are used in the product but I am not certain I will get a helpful response. I could not find a phone number for the company but will look again. Thanks so much for any insights you can provide

This is a follow up to my previous submission. I finally found a working phone number at which to speak to a live customer service representative at Black and Decker: 800-544-6986 and spoke to a representative named Debby. She said that the styrene and BPA are used to harden the plastic in the feet and some other small plastic pieces on the outside of the toaster oven and that there are no plastic parts inside the oven so there is no concern that the chemicals can come into contact with food. I asked her to email me some printed information explaining this so I could have something to refer to and pass on to others and if she does indeed send it, I will pass it on to you.


Lisa’s Answer

Thank you for passing on this very helpful information.  This is a good example of how misleading Prop 65 can be.  It would be better if none of the parts contained toxins like styrene and BPA but as ingredients in such small pieces on the outside of the toaster, it shouldn’t be a concerning exposure.

Oven Without Non-Stick Coatings

Question from Suzannah

I am trying to find a full sized range (I need 36 inches) that does not contain any non stick coatings of any kind on the inside or on the outside.  Do you know of any thing like this that is available in the USA?


Lisa’s Answer

I am not aware of any.  Readers, has anyone looked into this?

Sulphur Odor from Organic Thermal Fabric

Question from Lina

I recently purchased a fabric from a credible online store and have been ordering from them for years and years. This was a surprising experience so I am hoping maybe you may be familiar with how this could happen.

I purchased organic natural thermal fabric. It had a sulphur odor during the washing cycle and the drying process seemed to intensify it. I washed this fabric 3 times!

Is this a sign that they used pesticides or contaminated water during the process of the fabric? Are you in any way familiar with this type of odor emanating from organic cotton particularly un-dyed fabrics?


Lisa’s Answer

Readers, has anyone experienced this?

Bathtub and Tile Reglazing

Question from Abby

Do you have any advice for a non-toxic way to have a tub reglazed ? We live in a pre-war NYC apartment and don’t want to replace the whole tub/bathroom tiles, but can have them reglazed. We will vacate during the process and for 48 hours thereafter, but am concerned about toxicity thereafter, including when bathing our 3 year old.


Lisa’s Answer

I am not aware of any.  It is possible that there could be a product/process that is inert once it cures.  Readers, has anyone looked into this?

Non-Toxic Oven Brands

Question from Tony

I just had a question about non toxic oven brands, I had an old oven that seemed non toxic and didn’t seem like it was chemically altering my food, but it broke and now my current oven from Frigidaire seems very toxic and it seems like it’s chemically altering my non toxic food (Trader Joe’s), and I’ve been feeling very sick all the time ever since this new oven has been installed. I feel like I’m not getting the health benefits from the food. Do you have any suggestions on any non toxic oven brands or any non toxic baking options? It would really help me out it’s a huge problem.


Lisa’s Answer

You are not alone.  Read this thread, which dates back several years, and has readers posting about similar problems. Some have had success washing the entire interior to remove the manufacturing oil residue and then running the self-cleaning cycle several times with the windows open.  For many others, nothing reduced the odor.  Are you still able to return the oven?  GE seems to have the most reported issues but Frigidaire has also been mentioned.
Readers, has anyone found a new oven that does not have this issue?

Safe Shampoo and Conditioner

Question from Carole

I used the Janice Shampoo and conditioner for many many years from their catalogs or web page….now seeking more safe shampoo and conditioners…I’m 78 and have severe chemical allergies since 1942


Lisa’s Answer

You can look through several fragrance-free products on Debra’s List.  Many of these companies sell hair products.  Please note that not all of the products on this particular list are free of synthetic chemicals because it was developed by Debra for people who are sensitive to fragrance.  For a list of non-toxic hair care please use this list, but know that they are not all fragrance free.

Xtrema Cookware

Question from Jackie

I was very concerned to read that a lead-free advocate found that Xtrema cookware, highly regarded by many clean living advocates, tested positive for multiple metals. What are your thoughts on this?


Lisa’s Answer

You can read my opinion on this here.


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