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Update: BPA-free Cans

January 30, 2011

Today I checked ConAgra’s website (maker of Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn) to see if there was any news that they had removed PFCs from their microwave popcorn bags (in 2006 the company promised it would make studies concerning that a high priority.)  There was no mention of perfluorinated compounds, however, I did discover that they have begun packaging their tomato products in BPA-free cans.  This includes Hunt’s and Rotel brand tomatoes.  That’s good to hear!

Out of the Frying Pan and Into Your Body: PFCs

January 30, 2011

PFCs are  perfluorinated compounds, and diving into the literature of PFCs I came across a confusing array of acronyms– PFOA, PFOS, PTFE, PFCAs,  PAPs… Ugh.  Don’t stop reading now, though– I promise I won’t bore  you with too many details.

Based on the title, you might have an idea that I may be talking about Teflon.  Bingo– that’s PTFE.  And PFOA is used in the Teflon manufacturing process.   PFOA has been found in the bloodstream of about 98% of Americans and in wildlife such as polar bears and ringed seals.  It has also been linked to cancer, hypothyroidism, immune system problems, reproductive problems (infertility), and birth defects (read this  Environmental Working Group article for the details.)

Although DuPont (the manufacturer of Teflon) has insisted otherwise, it is very likely when you heat up your non-stick pan it is going to reach temperatures that cause it to release toxic and carcinogenic compounds.  There are many documented cases of birds dying from being in the kitchen while non-stick cookware was in use, and although humans rarely show immediate effects (there are cases of something called “polymer fume fever” related to overheated Teflon) why expose yourself to another potential source of cancer on a regular basis?   For years I’ve been living in field houses and not in control of my cookware choices– I have very clear memories making stir-fry in a very scratched up non-stick frying pan in Florida and of serving marshmallow squares with flakes of Teflon embedded in the bottom in Arizona.  But apparently I wasn’t overly concerned, as when I moved into my own apartment I had several Teflon-coated frying pans and a wok.   But finally spurred out of complacency by a chapter in Slow Death by Rubber Duck, I recently have replaced them all with new “green” ceramic-coated non-stick frying pans that contain no PFCs.  There are other more traditional options available, such as cast-iron.  If you are interested in detailed information on your PFC-free choices,  Adria Vasil’s Ecoholic Home is an excellent resource.  I feel more  comfortable now that everytime that I saute some mushrooms I’m not reducing my chances of becoming a mother.

Cookware isn’t your only source of exposure.  More of those acronyms, PFCAs and PAPs need to be addressed.  The short version of the story is that those have to do with the grease-proof coatings used on things such as fast-food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags.  When you heat one of those bags of popcorn in the microwave, the chemicals migrate into the oil.  Those chemicals then are metabolized into PFOA in your bloodstream.  This is thought to be one of the most significant sources of PFOA contamination.  So please, stop buying microwave popcorn! I don’t recommend the “pop it in a brown bag” method commonly detailed in numerous places on the internet– that paper bag likely contains things you don’t want to be heating up, either.    If you must microwave, try a glass microwave corn popper.  Or just pop it on the stove.  Either method will reduce packaging waste at the same time as keeping you healthier.

I’m really just skimming the surface here– I won’t start talking about Gore-Tex, Stainmaster, or a host of other products made with PFCs– you can see a sampling of products courtesy of the EWG.  For more reading on the dangers of PFCs, there are chapters in the aforementioned Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, as well as in The Body Toxic by Nena Baker.    There is also a good online article by Dr. Joseph Mercola that contains links to a lot of studies.

Do you use Teflon-coated pans?  Do you eat microwave popcorn? What are your plans now?

Reduce & Reuse: Cloth Bags

January 6, 2011

First of all, I apologise for the lack of new posts.  My original intention was to blog at least once a week, and it is a New Year’s resolution to do so this year.

Speaking of resolutions, resolving to be more eco-friendly is always a good one!  And one way you can make a difference is through reducing your use of plastic bags.  I don’t think I need to go into an in-depth discussion of the negative impacts of plastic bags on the environment.  And no, asking for paper bags isn’t the answer.   It takes more energy to both produce and recycle a paper bag than a plastic one.  Yes, it definitely does take more energy to produce a reusable shopping bag, but they can replace thousands of single-use bags.

I have been using reusable shopping bags since I got my first one while travelling in New Zealand in 2006.  And now it has become second nature to me to take them while shopping.   If you have cloth bags but have a hard time remembering ot use them, don’t give up!  Eventually you will get in the habit.  A big help for me has been the two easily-compacted Randy Bags that I always have in my purse.  A similar bag is available from Flip & Tumble (which has better shipping rates when ordering online– but you should also be able to find that type of bag at a local store.)  The many colours available lead me to think one could colour-code what each bag is used for– green for produce, red for meat, etc– in order to reduce the chances of cross-contamination.

Speaking of contamination, you may recall hearing about a  study that came out in June 2010 about bacterial contamination in reusable shopping bags.    However, 97% of people interviewed for the study didn’t wash their bags! Think of all the surfaces those bags (and your groceries before they are put inside them) touch– your shopping cart or bin, the check-out area, your hands that have just handled money (which, in an unrelated but interesting aside, likely has cocaine residue on it), the trunk or seat of your car, the floor or table in your kitchen… of course they are filthy!  Personally, I’m curious about how clean a plastic grocery bag is by the time you get it home.  The study concluded that washing your reusable bags is the effective solution to significantly reduce bacterial contamination.   I do wash my bags, although definitely not in between each use.  However, as NPR’s health blog, Shots, pointed out, it is still unlikely that I will become sick from them.  For more food safety tips when using reusable bags, you can visit Health Canada.

Another place where plastic bag use is rampant is in the produce section.  Sure, if you are buying two tomatoes and a zucchini you can just eschew the bags, but things get trickier when you want seven oranges or a head of broccoli.  That is where reusable produce bags come in.  At a fair-trade sale I recently bought some Carebags which are made right here in Canada.  Another Canadian-based company is Credobags (they also make reusable shopping bags.)  The above-mentioned American Flip & Tumble also sells produce bags ( according their FAQs all their bags are “ethically made in China.”)  Of course, if you are crafty, you can make your own bags like my friend Katie did.  Or you can support someone else’s craftiness, by buying them on Etsy—  I think the organic cotton ones by Oh, Little Rabbit are especially cute.)  I admit I have a harder time remember to take my produce bags with me, and I don’t have enough to use them all the time, but it’s a start.

Do you use reusable shopping bags?  If you don’t– why not?  What about produce bags?  Do you have any eco-friendly New Year’s resolutions?

What’s the deal with BPA?

November 22, 2010

I bought my first Nalgene water bottle in 2004, a red narrow-mouth 1 litre.  However, it wasn’t until I got my purple narrow-mouth 500 mL in 2005 that I fell in love.  The big one was good for hiking, but the little one was perfect for taking everywhere (I tend to get headaches if I don’t drink frequently enough.) But then sometime in 2007 or 2008 bisphenol A (also known as BPA) started making news headlines.  It was in my Nalgene, it was bad for me, and I should replace my bottle.  But I chose to believe Nalgene and their statement that their bottles were safe, delaying replacing them until 2009, and even then I wasn’t entirely convinced that I needed to.

So what the heck is BPA and why was it in my water bottles, anyway?

I was under the impression that BPA was something in the plastic of the bottle. But as it turns out, the bottle is BPA.  Polycarbonate, the hard, shatter-resistant, heat-resistant and see-through plastic those bottles are made of is almost 100% BPA.  Polycarbonate is found in many other applications as well– those big blue water-cooler water bottles, the reusable plastic cutlery I take on camping trips, eyeglass lenses, CDs and DVDs, cell phones, computer screens, car headlights …

And so what’s the problem with BPA?

Bisphenol A was discovered to have estrogen-mimicking properties way back in the 1930s.  Yet manufacturers ignored this.   Perhaps it was assumed that BPA would stay bound in the plastic, or that low level-transfer of it wouldn’t be a problem.  However, the thing about hormones such as estrogen is that our bodies react to them at extremely low levels.   And reactions to extremely low levels of BPA has been show in studies involving mice (many of which started by accident when BPA started leaching out of the mice’s water bottles.)  Industry and governments continue to downplay these studies, however, and continue to insist that it is safe in most uses.  Yet scientists have discovered links between BPA and breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility, learning disabilities, and type-2 diabetes– scary stuff!

And yes, BPA does leach out of your water bottle.  Although Nalgene claims otherwise, a Harvard study showed a clear increase in urinary BPA concentrations in college studies drinking cold beverages out of a polycarbonate bottle.  A 2007-2009 Canadian Health Measures survey found bisphenol A in 91% of Canadians tested.

However, polycarbonate is not your only source of BPA pollution.  A second use of BPA is in epoxy resins, which are used to line food and beverage containers.  Open a can of beans or tomato paste and you’ll notice the inside of the can has a white coating.  It’s meant to prevent substances from migrating from the metal can to your food, but a study led by the Environmental Working Group found that the BPA migrates into the food.   Beverage cans are also lined with BPA-containing resin, and a Health Canada study found BPA in 69 of 72 varieties of soft drinks tested.

Other sources of BPA include the ink used in newsprint (and since newspaper is recycled, BPA is also present in recycled paper products– such as pizza boxes), the thermal paper used for receipts, and dental fillings.

So what should you do?

  • If you haven’t already done so, replace any polycarbonate food and beverage containers and utensils.  Polycarbonate falls under plastic number 7, however, not all number 7 plastics are polycarbonate– it’s a catch-all grouping for any plastics that don’t fit into the other 6 plastic categories.  If the 7 has “PC” underneath, that’s a dead giveaway.  If it has any other letters, or specifically says “BPA free,” then you should be safe.
  • Eat fewer canned foods and drink fewer canned beverages.  I’ve switched to using frozen corn, dried beans, and jarred spaghetti sauce.  However, since I know it is impossible to avoid all sources of BPA entirely (it’s even found its way into water),  I still have a can of black beans in the cupboard in case I just don’t have time, and still use canned tomatoes and paste on occasion, and still eat canned salmon.  No one’s perfect.  Jar lids do contain BPA, but it has less contact with the food.
  • If you drink alcohol, choose bottles over cans– and be aware that wine is often aged in BPA-resin-lined casks.
  • If you don’t need your receipt, don’t take it.
  • If you are getting dental work, ask about BPA-free alternatives– they are available.
  • Don’t lick your headlights.  Or your computer screen. ;) Or perhaps wash your hands between reading the newspaper and eating a sandwich.

Despite all the denial, progress is being made.    Just last month Canada was the first country to declare BPA toxic. Some companies, like Eden Foods, have used BPA-free resins to line their cans for many years and now others are moving to follow suite.  Contact companies about the brands that you use and ask about their BPA-usage.  Unfortunately, not all BPA-containing linings are detectable just by looking in the can, but the more concerned consumers that contact them, the more likely a company is to make a change.

My main source of information for this article was the excellent book, Slow Death By Rubber Duck: How The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, which I highly recommend.  I will be drawing on it frequently in future posts.

Are you concerned about BPA?  Have you taken steps to reduce your exposure?

Becoming Mindful

November 11, 2010
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When I was in junior high I read, on average, a book a day.  Those were mainly fiction.  Nowadays I very rarely read novels, nor can I make it through books at such a rate.  However, I am probably one of the local library’s most active patrons– I currently have 29 items checked out!   As an adult I’ve become an avid reader of non-fiction, but recently I’ve noticed a shift from reading travel memoirs and arctic history to delving into books on various topics that could be tied together under the idea of rethinking everyday choices.  How can the decisions I make about the things I eat, buy, or do be more environmentally friendly, healthy, and/or  ethical? A lot of this information has been floating around for years, but for the most part I didn’t really try to do anything about it.  But now  I’ve realised that making changes, some simple, some requiring a lot more effort and commitment, can make my life kinder to myself, others, and the planet.  And that is the way I want to live.

This blog was born out of the desire to communicate the things that I’m learning, because anytime I try to talk about what I am reading I always forget important details!  The aim of Becoming Mindful is to give an introduction to a topic and discuss the ways I am trying to personally address the issue. When relevant I will be doing product reviews and book reviews. I also want to provide you with resources to further educate yourself through print and online sources.

I encourage my readers to comment!  Let me know what you think about the issues raised—do you agree that we should be concerned?  Is there something more about a certain topic that you want to know?  Will you be making changes based on this knowledge or have you already made changes in the past?   Or, am I, as my mum suggested, getting carried away? ;)

Some examples of future topics are:

BPA

Fair trade

Genetically modified food

Green cleaning

Localvorism

Organics

Phthalates

Processed food

Reducing, reusing, recycling

Vegetarianism/veganism/selective omnivorism

Etc.

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