Super Search

Submitted questions will be posted with my response by the following Tuesday or before.
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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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Dyes on Imported Fabric

Question from J.G.

I’ve been looking for flannel sheets but noticed that many are imported. Not real clear on this issue, so do I need to be concerned about the type of dye that is used in any imported fabric? Which would mean only made in U.S. cotton or organic would be safe. Thanks for any info.

Debra’s Answer

I’ve been sleeping on flannel sheets for over twenty years and have never noticed an ill effect from the dyes.

If a dye is “colorfast” — that is, that it stays in the fabric without coming out during use or washing, it is staying within the fabric. If, for example, you wore a red shirt, and ended up with red armpits, some of the dye may be absorbed through your skin and into your bloodstream. I am not aware of any reason to be concerned about dyes that are colorfast.

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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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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.

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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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Water Filter Basics

Question from J. L.

I just bought a water filter and I’m not sure I bought the right one. What should I be looking for in a water filter?

Debra’s Answer

This is a big question. There is a whole chapter on choosing water filters in Home Safe Home, and I’m also in the process of writing a how-to guide for the website.

Here’s a simple place to start.

Most water filter advertisements say they remove a whole long list of pollutants. But what is more important to know is what pollutants do you want to remove from your water?

The first thing to look at are two key pollutants: chlorine and fluoride.

In the past, the standard disinfectant was chlorine, but it is fast being replaced by chloramine. Chlorine combines with the natural organic matter in water such as dead leave and humus in soil, silt, and mud, to forms trihalomethanes, or THMs, the most common of which is chloroform. According to the EPA, trihalomethanes were present in virtually all chlorinated water supplies in the United States.

So chlorine is now being replaced by chloramines. If your water is not yet treated with chloramines, it probably soon will be. Chloramine is

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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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Is there formaldehyde in gelatin capsules?

Question from T. S.

I have recently heard that the capsules used to package vitamins and herbs are not good for you. Is this true? if so, what is a good alternative to getting the benefits of the these nutrients if not in pill form. It seems difficult when most of us have neither the time or resources for growing our own food.

Debra’s Answer

The capsules used to package vitamins and herbs come in different types.

A standard gelatin capsule is made from animal gelatin. This is a by-product of cooking the meat and bones. If you have ever made meat stock for soup, when you chill it, you will notice that it gels. Gelatin, whether sold plain, mixed with fruit flavoring and sugar to make a popular dessert, or made into gel caps is this same gelatin.

There are also vegetarian capsules with are made from plant based cellulose.

Both of these geletins are safe to eat.

The problem with gel caps is they may contain formaldehyde as a preservative.

The Organic Materials Review Institute–an organization that provides certifiers, growers, manufacturers and suppliers an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production, handling, and processing–has a whole twenty-five page review of gelatin that tells everything you would ever want to know about what gelatin and gel caps are made of and how they are made, written in 2002.

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Nontoxic garden hose

Question from R. G.

I was wondering if you know of a safe nontoxic garden hose, one that doesn’t leach any toxic chemicals or plasticizers into the water?

Debra’s Answer

All garden hoses are made from either polyvinyl chloride “PVC” or “vinyl”, rubber, or a combination of the two.

Vinyl hoses are the least expensive but also the most toxic, both in use and in manufacture. A number of environmental groups have called even for the banning of PVC because of the environmental effects of its manufacture. And PVC can leach vinyl chloride, which is carcinogenic. How much vinyl chloride ends up in the water as it is rushing through a hose? I don’t know. Probably more leaches into the water sitting in the hose in the hot sun. For that reason, it’s probably a good idea to empty the hose after you turn off the faucet.

As far as I can tell, rubber garden hoses are made from natural rubber, the milky latex of the Hevea tree more about obtaining latex from the tree Though it starts out from a renewable plant resource, by the time it is processed it is anything but natural.

Many chemicals are added to natural latex to improve performance, making natural rubber latex suitable for use in the manufacture of rubber products. Chief among them are chemical accelerators used to speed up the manufacturing process, vulcanizing agents, reinforcing agents, filler, pigments, blowing agents and more some exact chemical names In terms of toxicity, the most dangerous health effect I found was skin allergy.

Whether or not the chemicals in natural rubber hoses leach into the product water and what their toxicity may be, I don’t know. Though rubber hose is heavier and more bulky, it is your best buy for durability. Sears says their Craftsman Rubber Hose is the last garden hose you will ever need to buy. Rubber hose is also more pliable and coils more easily in cold weather than vinyl hose.

Rubber hoses are easily available. In addition to Sears, both Lowe’s and The Home Depot carry rubber garden hoses, and most good nurseries will as well. Rubber hoses say “rubber” on the label. If no material is specified, it’s probably vinyl.

Updated 2019: If you are still using a garden hose that may be made with PVC or have lead-containing metal fittings, check out this study by It’s a bit out of date but it still provides great guidance. Debra’s List recommends Water Right hoses and Terrain Heritage hoses.


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