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Submitted questions will be posted with my response by the following Tuesday or before.
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Dangers of Synthetic Scents and Safe Alternatives

Question from Jill Sverdlove

I wanted to share an article I just wrote for Alternative Medicine magazine (April issue) about the hidden dangers of synthetic scents, safe alternatives, and the chemicals in fragrances. I’m hoping it will help educate people. The magazine is available nationwide, and also feel free to share these links:

Stop Making Scents

Sidebars at the below links:

Avoid These Fragrance Chemicals

Debra’s Answer

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Question from R Zamastil

Our household seems to go through a staggering amount of batteries. These can only be recycled at our county’s household hazardous waste day. Can you tell me about the newer rechargable batteries? It used to be that you couldn’t use them in everything and they didn’t hold a charge for long. We tried them in our kids’ baby swings/bouncers, but that was ten yrs ago. I’ve now started seeing batteries similar to those in cell phones. Any suggestions/reviews would be appreciated. Thanks.

Debra’s Answer

I found some rechargable batteries called E-Cells which are literally miniature versions of the same hydrogen fuel cells that power today’s hybrid cars. They are scientifically engineered to work harder than traditional rechargeables. Each battery runs 10 times longer than alkalines and can be charged in excess of 1000 times. This will save you thousands of dollars. You can use these like alkaline batteries in any device.

I have to admit I bought a battery recharger a few years ago along with some rechargable NiCads. It was a good idea, but didn’t actually get used. The problem was we never set up a “battery station” where we could “drop off” batteries to be recharged and pick up the recharged batteries for use. Because we didn’t have that process set up somewhere, when we needed to recharge, we couldn’t find the recharger, there were no recharged batteries to use, etc. So it’s important to have everything set up for easy use to make this work.

Readers, what are your experiences with rechargable batteries?

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power companies marking utilities

Question from Fran

Does anyone know if cities have started using non-toxic or biodegradable paint when power companies mark underground utilities? Our yard and mulch heap got marked, so I removed every scrap of mulch, every clump of painted dirt, every red, yellow or orange blade of grass! (It took over three days! Thankfully there was no rain at all!) I even dug out vegetables that had been painted! I filled more than 3 garbage bags of dirt and mulch due to having to get under the paint, which would have later caused me reactions every time I gardened and also ate the vegetables!!!!! What an invasion. Are there ways to prevent this, and are there cities NOT doing this to their customers? (Mine is a little behind the times…)

Debra’s Answer


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Food-Grade Rain Barrels & alternative to Teflon Tape

Question from Fran

My husband and I are looking for rainbarrels. We notice that very few of the good-looking ones are “food-grade plastic.” Two sites do (& both seem decently priced): sites for the grey-black “Urban” rain barrel ( about $80 each, $100 counting shipping; and also some sold by “Midwest sales” on a few sites including – a dark green, 60-gallon, on sale for about $100 free shipping.

I am not sure if “teflon tape” is involved for the first one, although “plastic” is mentioned; but “Teflon tape” is definitely installed on the threads of the second (the green) one, much to my disappointment. My husband was sure it was not the same Teflon, but online sources cited that it is PTFE. Is the amount in this case negligable, and also do you know if any alternative exists to ensure a tighter fit on threads at connections? (There is one more choice I liked from the gardening sites you list – a terra cotta that seems very orange-red; but the color is wrong for us.)

By the way, a woman in a city near me is going to try painting her rainbarrels with ivy designs (they are selling for $60 so far unpainted). I emailed her that I worry about the UV paints and hope she uses non-toxic. What are your thought on this, if any opinion? Thanks!

Debra’s Answer

I’m not concerned about Teflon tape used on the connections leaching into the water into the barrel. If you want to, you can check the connections to make sure no tape is entering the barrel, or you could remove it entirely. We have Teflon tape on the fittings in our bathroom. It’s pretty standard now to prevent drips. Does anyone know of an alternative?

Regarding the painted rain barrels…I don’t think the paint would permeate the rain barrel and infiltrate the water. It would be best to use a nontoxic paint, but I don’t know if any are available that will adhere to plastic and stand up to weather. Cute idea though.

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Door & window seals, alternative to vinyl stripping?

Question from DB

Does anyone have experience replacing the vinyl stripping around windows & sliding doors? If so, what did you replace it with, how expensive was the job, & how much difference did it make in your ability to live in the dwelling? Thanks so much for any info. DB, MA

Debra’s Answer


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Safe proximity of residence to distribution power lines & transformer

Question from mimi

I live on a narrow lane where distribution power lines are very close to homes. One side of my house is located only 5 feet from such power lines (that run parallel to the back of the house); & a corner of my carport is just 5 ft from a transformer mounted on a power pole. All members of my family are at least 22 years old. Our sleeping areas are on the opposite side of the home from the power lines. The carport is attached to the residence. If we physically separated the car port from the residence, & removed all electric wiring from the now-freestanding carport, would that reduce ELF exposure inside the house?

Debra’s Answer

Info about safe distances from power lines is at Q&A: Safe Distance From Electrical Transformer. Since you’re only 5 feet away–I think that’s too close–I suggest hiring an EMF professional to work this out with you.

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Washing Soda Same as Baking Soda?

Question from Barbara

Is Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda the same as Arm and Hammmer Baking Soda just in a bigger box ?

Debra’s Answer

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate and washing soda is sodium carbonate. They are very similar, but different.

Sodium carbonate (also known as washing soda or soda ash) has the chemical formula Na2CO3. It most commonly occurs as a crystalline substance, which can be extracted from the ashes of many plants. It is synthetically produced in large quantities from table salt in a process known as the Solvay process.

Sodium bicarbonate has the formula NaHCO3. It is commonly called sodium hydrogencarbonate, sodium bicarb, baking soda, bread soda, cooking soda, bicarb soda, saleratus or bicarbonate of soda. It is a component of the mineral natron and is found dissolved in many mineral springs. The natural mineral form is known as nahcolite.

Read more at Q&A: Baking Soda vs Washing Soda for Laundry.

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Pet urine killing grass

Question from Susan W

Any suggestions on what to apply on grass to prevent our dog’s urine killing the grass? I have yellow spots on my front yard (and he has to start using the back yard!) and I’d like to get them cleared up.



Debra’s Answer


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Green Bed & Breakfast

Question from Katie Gwinn

I am looking for resources to advertise my new Bed and Breakfast, which I call “A Victorian Retreat”. Because I don’t service coffee, alcohol or other toxic drinks, nor allow smoking, I must create a niche for my products and services.

I serve organic and natural foods, gourmet full breakfast, herbal and fruit teas, hand squeezed juices, and organic soy, rice and cow’s milks. I use only cotton sheets and towels, use natural cleaning products (primarily vinegar and soda), offer natural/organic homemade body care products (hot tonic bath, face clay, tooth powder, foot spa) and create a hypo-allergenic environment as well as a beautiful, peaceful and restful one.

I grow an organic garden in the back yard, including veges and fruits which I serve in my Bed & Breakfast. I am converting half of my environmentally uncool lawn to orchard, berry patch and vege garden and the rest to bird and butterfly garden, with only a small patch of grass for outdoor weddings and receptions. I just purchased an electric lawnmower for mowing what’s left of the lawn.

I teach workshops at my B&B on sustainable living, organic gardening and personal effectiveness. I am located in Monterey, Virginia, and if anyone can help me with advertising and networking ideas, please let me know.

It’s an uphill climb in a lodging industry that emphasizes coffee and alcohol and cheap foods and a population that is addicted to these very toxic substances. I’m committed to good health and want to serve my guests only the best but need to learn ways to get the word out to those who will really appreciate my efforts.Thanks for any tips you can give me.

Katie Gwinn,

Debra’s Answer

Well, we can start a directory right here. I’m going to go stay at another green bed and breakfast in Asheville North Carolina in a couple of weeks, so will let you know about that.

I found a website but it wasn’t working well when I visited it today. They have a book, and you can also submit a listing.

Interestingly, when I searched on “organic bed and breakfast” all kinds of things came up. One place (an organic farm) advertised their synthetic Tempur-Pedic beds as being safe for the chemically sensitive (they’re not!). So if we can come up with a good list here, that would be great.

Readers, any ideas for places to get the word out? These places need our support so they can thrive as a business.

And any B&B’s you’ve stayed in you’d like to recommend?

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Urethane Foam In Upholstered Furniture

Question from Laura Sharp

We recently built a new house and have killed ourselves trying to make it healthy for our 2 young daughters with all kinds of health issues. We did as much as we knew to do, including solid wood cabinets, healthy paint, hardwood and ceramic tile floors, etc. We also bought completely solid wood furniture. However, I somehow missed the health concerns about upholstered furniture. Since our upholstered furniture has been delivered, our 3-year old has been stuffy with a runny nose, and her excema has flared up. I’m afraid it’s the furniture. The cushions are 85% urethane foam and 15% resin treated polyester. How unhealthy is it, and what do I do now???

Debra’s Answer

It’s probably the furniture. There’s a simple answer to your question at which outlines the dangers of PBDEs found in all synthetic foam products (such as yours).

I don’t know how many pieces you have that need to be replaced, but you’ll need to either remove and replace the foam with natural latex foam or old-fashioned box springs (I have box springs in my sofa), or stuff it with wool batting. You may also need to reupholster.

It might be easier to sell what you have and start over with some nontoxic furniture from one of the websites on Debra’s List: Interior Decorating: Furniture.

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