Super Search

Submitted questions will be posted with my response by the following Tuesday or before.
Submitted comments will be moderated and approved within 24 hours.

Is silicone cookware safe?

Question from L. G.

I am looking for materials that works well as a non-stick baking and stir-frying surface and that will not harm my family. What do you think about silicone bakeware for environmental and health issues? I know Teflon is dangerous but what about silicone?

Debra’s Answer

Silcone bakeware and other kitchen utensils are safe to use. Silicones are made chemically by creating a “backbone” of silicon from common sand and oxygen molecules, a combination that does not occur in nature. Then various other synthetic molecules are added branching off of the main silicon-oxygen line to create hundreds of different silicones that range from liquids to rubbery solids. Though this is a completely manmade product, it is completely inert and will not transfer to foods.

I tried to find some information on the health effects of silicone rubber, but it was not listed in any of the toxic chemical databases I use.

I went to the Dow Corning website who makes over 700 different silicone rubbers and looked at a random sample of their MSDSs. The ones I read listed no hazardous materials or health effects, or needed first aid measures. All descriptions I read of silicone rubber describe it as chemically inert and stable, so it is unlikely to react with or leach into food, nor outgas vapors. MSDSs also note that silicone is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms, it is not hazardous waste, and while it is not biodegradable, it can be recycled after a lifetime of use.

Some years back there was a question about the safety of silicone used in breast implants. Whether or not the health problems experienced by some women with breast implants were associated with the implants has been very controversial. I found an article from the year 2000 on a leading website on breast cancer and related women’s issues that states “A large study conducted by researchers from the National Cancer Institute NCI finds no correlation between silicone-filled breast implants and breast cancer risk.”

The prolonged inhalation of crystalline silica dust is associated with silicosis, but there is no silica dust exposure from the use of silicone kitchenware.

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Cotton Lunch Bags

Question from M. B.

Love the newsletter. I cannot wait to buy the revised edition of your book!

I have a quick question – are there alternatives to vinyl lunch bags? My nine year old son has a vinyl lunch bag the cooler type that really needs to be replaced and we hate the smell of new vinyl. Paper bags won’t do, he really needs a lunch bag that stays cold for 4+ hours. No school lunch program yet, either. Help!

Thank you so much for all the GREAT info!!

Debra’s Answer

I don’t know of any natural fiber lunch bags that are insulated, but there are a number of nice cotton lunch-bag size bags available online–some are even made with organically-grown cotton and reasonably priced too. What I would do is get a cotton bag and then insert one of those cold packs that you can refreeze. See if that works well enough for you.

Browse the cotton lunch bags on Debra’s List

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Inexpensive Water Filters

Question from S. M.

I read your tip about avoiding water stored in plastic containers. We’ve been using a Brita pitcher as an inexpensive solution for the water we drink at home. The problem is that the Brita pitchers are plastic. Is there an alternative that is comparable in cost?

Debra’s Answer

I think the answer to this question is no.

I looked at the price of Brita pitchers and they range in price from $10-$35. There just aren’t water filters in that price range that are very effective.

There are really two major concerns about Brita pitchers. I’m going to give you the data I was able to get so you can make your own decision.

First, you were concerned about the plastic. In answer to another question about Toxic Plastic Water Bottles, the plastic in question was polycarbonate. I called Brita and they told me that the plastic used to make Brita pitchers is either styrene acrilonytrile or styrene methyl metacrylate. These plastics are entirely different, and I don’t think they are safer. I’ve included some links at the end of this answer that talk about the health effects of styrene, but what I’ve learned over the years is that when you combine chemicals, their health effects change–for better or worse. I wasn’t able to find anything on the health effects of these specific chemicals. And the form of the plastic also affects how much it will leach. We know styrene leaches from styrene foam cups and fast food containers. Does it leach from a hard plastic water pitcher? I don’t know. Tests probably have never been done. My educated guess is that some kind of plastic is leaching from the container.

My other concern about these pitchers is whether or not they are removing pollutants from the water. They remove chlorine, but do not remove chloramine. So you need to find out if you have chlorine or chloramine in your water. If it’s chloramine, it’s not removing it. Most communities now have chloramine, so check and find out.

Brita filters are designed to remove lead, chlorine, mercury, and sediment. That’s it. If you don’t have these in your water, there’s no point in using one.

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Natural Black-out Curtains

Question from T. A.

We need black-out curtains for our baby’s room, but I can’t find all natural material. All have some polyester, or vinyl, in them.

Debra’s Answer

Readers ~

I tried to find all-cotton black-out curtains or even black-out fabric, to no avail. All contained polyester.

When I couldn’t find an all-natural solution for her, T wrote to me and said, “I suppose i’ll just leave the piece of black wool material that i taped to the window in place.”

I suggested that she have that black wool sewn into her curtain as a liner, and that’s just what she’s going to do.

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The Safety of Pewter (Old and New)

Question from M. C.

I have an antique pewter salt shaker I bought it at an antiques store in Boston in the 1950s, and gave it to my parents then–it is old, old. I use it at the stove when I add salt rarely to food I’m cooking. Is it safe? It seems to me it has a kind of sharp smell, and I don’t know if that is lead, or tin, or the salt. Any ideas?

Debra’s Answer

Old pewter is made from tin and lead, so I would assume yours contains lead. Since there is no safe level for lead exposure, I wouldn’t use it. Even though you use it only occasionally, in a way that is worse, for the salt has contact with the pewter for a longer period, giving it more opportunity to absorb any lead that may be leaching.

Modern pewter is lead-free and safe to use. It is made from 95% tin, plus copper and antimony. According to one manufacturer, “The products are guaranteed lead-free and quite safe to be used for all kinds of food and drink.”

I noticed that most pewter websites give no information on the pewter or its contents. Warnings are still given to watch out for pewter items which may contain lead. So if you are considering a purchase of pewter, ask if it contains lead.

There is a way to tell if the pewter in question contains lead. Leaded pewter will get darker with age, and will be difficult to buff to its original shine and color. The more lead the pewter contains, the more it darkens and tarnishes with age.

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What Pillow Do You Sleep On?

Question from S. M.

We are curious – what pillows do you sleep on?

Debra’s Answer

Organic wool pillows from Shepherd’s Dream. I have slept on cotton and feather/down pillows, but when I tried wool, I fell in love with them. :- We have the standard size bed pillows and also the wool neck rolls. I love my neck roll so much I carry it with me when I travel. Even though I don’t have back or neck problems, I just sleep better with that extra support.

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Sofa Cushions

Question from M. G.

I purchased a used sofa and would like to replace the seat cushions. What can I use instead of foam?

Debra’s Answer

You could use natural latex foam like the kind used in beds or cotton or wool batting.

Many years ago, I replaced the foam cushions on a sofa with big pillows I made from cotton canvas stuffed with organic cotton batting. It worked just fine.

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Floor Wax Stripper

Question from S. P.

I own a small janitorial company. My mother and my wife both experience symptoms of chemical sensitivity and over the past year I have been converting to all green products. I enjoyed your book on the non-toxic home and office. I liked the fact that instead of dwelling on negatives until the end of the book, you offer solutions right away to each issue.

In my business I have to strip and wax large floor areas, I have found some “green” products for this but many still contain up to 6% VOCs. Do you know of any truly natural alternatives for this?

Here are a couple of the companies I have found so far:

If you would like more info on the company I am working on please visit our site: All Green Cleaning.

Debra’s Answer

I took a look at the products you mentioned.

Coastwide Labs has a Sustainable Earth® Wax Stripper #83 that lists some hazardous ingredients on the MSDS, but then says that skin irritation is the only health hazard, which is minor. This product looks relatively safe for a wax stripper, but, as you say, has limited availability.

National Chemical Labs makes some interesting statements about how they are envrionmentally-friendly–fortunately they also give the Material Safety Data Sheets right on line for all of their products. They have a number of floor stripper products. All the MSDSs I looked at for them contained hazardous ingredients. Some of their other products, however, contain no hazardous ingredients. So it’s a matter of checking all the MSDSs to find the products with no hazardous ingredients.

There’s a company called Safe Source that makes a commercial-strength VOC-free floor finish and stripper. There are no MSDSs on the site, but it states, “The developer submitted its formulas to the relevant federal agencies, which determined on the basis of independent chemical evaluations that their cleaning products are not hazardous and therefore do not require [hazardous] labeling.” The site says the stripper is designed to work with their VOC-free finish. Contact them to see if it can be used with other waxes. You may need to use a more toxic stripper to remove existing wax, then you can use this finish and stripper.

You might also take a look at Green Seal Environmental Standard for Floor Care Products. Though there are no products listed, they do give guidelines for floor care products and a list of ingredients they do not approve, which would be easy to identify if they appeared on an MSDS.

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Controlling Ants With Kindness

Question from L. S.

I would like to share an update on dealing with the annual ant visitation which seems to coincide with the winter rainy season.

As you discovered, they can be washed away with a sponge [I wrote this in Home Safe Home – DLD]. However, mine come back, and keep coming back until the rainy season ends.

As a now long time composter, my appreciation and even reverence for life forms has increased; I no longer wanted to kill these little fellows; they are just seeking to survive, and hungry, therefore, how could we both get our needs met?

The solution popped out at me. I set out a very small saucer with about a tablespoon of honey in it. Being hungry, that’s where they went, and that’s ONLY where they went. After a bit, I moved it from the counter top to a place not visible to unsympathetic guests. Voila! Happy ants; happy me.

A mildly amusing side note was, though they came in a steady stream, they hadn’t eaten it all by the time Spring arrived! How cool! All that happiness for us both created by a very small offering.

Yours in a chemical-free and love-filled life,

Debra’s Answer

What a lovely solution! Thanks for sharing it.

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Natural and Synthetic Latex Pillows

Question from M. K.

I am thinking of buying some latex bed pillows but I know some have a mixture of natural and synthetic latex. Since you would be breathing so close to the pillow for 8 hours a day, does synthetic latex outgas?

Debra’s Answer

Home Environmental Consultant and Certified Bau-Biologist Mary Cordaro says “Yes, synthetic latex can outgass. Depending on how much synthetic latex is present, the level of outgassing will vary a great deal. If you’re sleeping directly on a synthetic latex pillow, you may be inhaling chemicals from the synthetic latex, which is not advisable, especially since the proximity of the materials and the exposure time is so lengthy. Synthetic latex is formulated with raw materials from petroleum products, which can be harmful to human health. In the United States, it is legal to claim that latex is natural even if it also contains some synthetic latex, so it’s important that you purchase your pillow from a reputable company.”

I agree with Mary’s evaluation. However, my actual personal experience with the 40% natural/60% synthetic latex strips on the wood slats under my mattress has been that I have noticed no petrochemical odor, nor have I experienced any negative health effects.

Eliana Jantz, Founder of Shepherd’s Dream, where I purchased the strips, responded to your questions with this answer: “I haven’t heard any complaints of outgassing from people who use our 40% natural/60% synthetic latex. And by now we probably have at least a hundred folks out there using it. I sleep on a bed without the latex but the guest bed has latex and I’ve never noticed any latex smell in the room where this bed is.

“We decided to use the blend because the Connecticut manufacturer the only one in United States manufacturing latex offered a 25 year warranty on the blend and only a 5 year warranty on the 100% natural latex. Besides that, there was no detectable difference in smell when we tested both samples side by side. Now, we are offering cotton covers for the latex slats so there doesn’t need to be any direct contact with the latex. The covers slip over each individual slat and makes a very nice finish.”

When I first received the strips, they had a very strong odor of the natural latex itself and no petrochemical smell. The natural odor did diminish over time. It took about six weeks before I could even have the latex in my house. Now it is fine. Occasionally I will notice a slight odor in warm weather. For this reason, I personally wouldn’t have a whole latex mattress or a latex pillow–but that’s just me personally! I see no reason why others shouldn’t use these products if they are OK with the latex.

My recommendation would be to choose natural latex if you want a latex pillow, just to be on the safe side. Or, buy a cotton or wool pillow.

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