Archives for November 2011

Choose Organic Cotton!


The Perils of Conventional Cotton

Cotton seems like such an innocent material. As “the fabric of our lives” the cotton industry led me to believe it was good for the environment and for my family.  When I saw something was 100% cotton, I felt good purchasing it.  That is until I began reading about cotton production and found that conventional cotton is a poison laden crop.

It does matter where our cotton comes from and how it is grown.  We cannot continue to pollute our world and feel there will be no repercussions!  I live in a state, California, where a significant amount of cotton is grown (second only to Texas).  Frightening to me is that the amount of pesticides used for cotton production is more than any other crop.  With cotton only growing on 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, it utilizes 16% of the insecticides.1

The United States Department of Agriculture reported fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the United States in 2003 (4.3 pounds/acre).  In California, the 2002 Census of Agriculture noted that there were 1,393 cotton farms with an average of 500 acres each (~700,000 acres).  That is over 3 million pounds of pesticide in California alone, if all those cotton producers used an average amount of pesticides.

Approximately a bale of cotton is produced per acre, that’s 500 pounds of cotton.  In addition to pesticides, other environmentally harmful practices, such as synthetic fertilizers are used, increasing the nitrogen levels of our soil.  Estimates are it takes about 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow a pound of cotton and takes just about a pound of cotton to make a t-shirt..2

A 2004 study at the Technical University of Lodz, in Poland, demonstrated hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production remained in clothing.  With clothing accounting for 60% of total cotton production and home furnishings another 20% you are likely to be wearing and sleeping with these pesticides.

The secondary production of cottonseed hull also can contain pesticides and are another way the poisons may end up in our food chain, in the form of oils or in the milk and meat of animals we consume.  In California, this ‘gin trash’, as it’s been called, has become an illegal form of feed for livestock because of the pesticide residues, which may not be the case in all states.  It’s now being diverted to make furniture, mattresses, tampons, cotton swabs and balls.  I’m not sure how feel making any item placed directly on individual’s skin from this pesticide-laden material.

The World Health Organization ranks the top three pesticides used in cotton production as detrimental to human health.  A powerful nerve agent, aldicarb, is one of the most toxic pesticides dominating United States cotton production.  It’s now been found in the drinking water of 16 states.1  In fact, the Environmental Protection Agent in August 2010 concluded that the aggregate dietary intake (between food and water) of aldicarb exceeds the level of concern, particularly for infants and toddlers.  Bayer CropScience, the manufacturer of aldicarb, has agreed to phase out its use, but not until August 2018.

If we know there is concern, why are we waiting?  My two year old will still be exposed to high levels for another 7 years, during a peak developmental period of his life.  Additionally, during the phase-out, it will still be used on many food products he may use or eat, including beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugar beets, and sweet potatoes.

Because children are particularly susceptible to the poisons used in cotton production, both directly from contamination in communities where these toxins are used and with these toxins also being found in fabrics, we need to consider where these items come from.  For their direct health and the health of the planet they will inherit from us, it is important to consider where their clothing and bedding come from. Of the estimated 85 million bales of cotton grown this year worldwide, it is estimated a mere 20,000 bales will be organic.3

I found an interesting story of a local California organic cotton farmer, Roger Sanders, who is making organic work and seemingly making economic sense. Sanders family has figured out a way to produce organic cotton that has allowed him to eliminate costs. “After five or six seasons you really figure this organic thing out,” he says. “You put one-third of your land in grain, one-third in cotton, and the other third in beans. With rotations you have a diversified crop strategy and ground that is naturally pumped up to grow a heavy feeder like cotton.” The Sanders are still financing their crops with less than a third of the funds that a conventional grower with loans requiring chemical use as a guarantee of production. “Most bankers show you the door when you mention the O-word,” says Mrs. Sanders. Sometimes yields aren’t as high due to environment but quality is what is important for organic products.3

California organic growers will fetch a minimum of $1.15 for each pound of cotton. Conventional growers earn approximately $0.72 per pound, including a 23¢ government subsidy.2  It may cost a little more, but the overall cost of standard cotton production is much greater.  If consumers speak with their pocketbooks, more cotton will be produced organically.  In 2006, there were 5,971 acres of certified organic cotton planted in the United States, increasing to 7,473 acres the following year.4

So, first and foremost speak with your pocketbook.  Look at the tags of items you are purchasing and only purchase those made of organic cotton.  Otherwise, buy used clothing and utilize hand-me-downs.  This is where most of my little one’s clothing has come from, with 12 other cousins it can easily be done.

Since these items are more expensive, in my own life the place I am starting is with my child’s clothing and furnishings. I most often utilize hand me downs and thrift store finds but if I buy anything new now, it will only be organic cotton. There are some companies that make an effort to provide 100% organic cotton children’s clothing.  Not only are these companies using organic cotton but are what I consider environmentally conscious companies in other ways, such as fair trade, local manufacturingUnder the Nile - Organic Plush Vegetables, community involvement, and sustainable practices in their facilities.

Under the Nile joined with an organic cotton farm in India and makes a wide range of clothing items but my favorite items from them are their stuffed vegetables since they are probably going in a little one’s mouth.

Coyuchi has many different types of products but for babies I particularly like the cute baby jumpers with embroidered animals.

Coyuchi - Baby Jumper

A company I like with really cute fairy girl’s clothing made from organic cotton is Happygreenbee.  It was started by the partner of “Burts Bees”.  Not only is she a woman with a purpose of conservation she created a cute, unique line of clothes.

Positively organic is a NY company where I love the yoga pants and printed tees.  A mommy run company with great graphic designs, modern prints and colors utilizes 100% organic cotton.

Tomat, another mommy run company in Los Angeles, has particularly cute modern prints.

These are companies providing clothing made from organic cotton and in many ways deserve cosmic karma to support them in their further endeavors.

Why organic cotton isn’t more prominent is a complicated question.  What lies at the root of conventional cotton lies as much with the power of pesticide corporations, the banking industry, and conventional agribusiness as it does with manufacturers and consumers.  Consumers, however, are a powerful force and the “fabric of our lives” should only apply to ‘organic cotton’ when we shop.

  • Share this knowledge with others.
  • Buy organic.
  • Write your representatives!

 

References:

  1. 1) EJF. (2007). The deadly chemicals in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK: London, UK. ISBN No. 1-904523-10-2
  2. National Cotton Council.  Accessed: November 25, 2011.  Last updated: March 2009.  Website-http://www.cotton.org/edu/faq/
  3. Sustainable Cotton Project Website.  Accessed: November 25, 2011.  http://www.sustainablecotton.org/html/cotton_country.html
  4. Organic Trade Association.  Accessed: November 18, 2011.  http://www.ota.com/organic/environment/cotton_environment.html

A Question of Thanks.

“What are you grateful for?”

I’m going to start my patient visits this next week with that one question.

At each patient visit I often ask them what they do, who they live with, do they feel safe and, as an obstetrician/gynecologist, any number of other lifestyle questions about smoking, drinking, drug use, and sexual partners.

Since it is that time of year to ponder those things that we are thankful for, I thought a simple question like this might be a good way to get to know the patient a little better as an individual and what’s important to them.  It may just make those patients who are having a rough time in some area of their lives recognize the positives.

The more I am simply grateful for the little things in my life, the happier and healthier I feel and I plan to see how this reflects on my patients these next few days before Thanksgiving.

Each day, think about the simple things that you are grateful for…not just this time of year but all year.

Christmas Cards vs. Environment

vs. Tradition

My annual tradition is to write my Holiday card and family letter updates the day after Thanksgiving.  In addition to the timing of my writing, I have been choosing a ‘Peace’ theme for the past 7 years on my cards and the last couple years purchasing my cards from UNICEF.  While this year I don’t have the day after Thanksgiving off work, I was still planning to compose that annual letter and write my cards.

With Facebook, Twitter, and E-mail people are more connected now than ever. However, I still find joy in receiving that card from a friend I haven’t heard from in awhile and sitting down to write my letter and cards allows me to reflect on the year, more than I may have otherwise.

With regular questioning and conscious living, I am working to rectify the feeling of constantly producing more waste than is necessary.  I’ve also decided I can’t stop living and doing things that bring joy.

Sure you can e-mail cards but I enjoy using the cards for decorations above my mantle and admit that we receive so few letters via mail anymore, there is something special about opening up that handwritten card and letter.  Not to mention e-mail still requires energy to produce.

In trying to find a reliable statistic for the amount of trees actually destroyed to produce annual Christmas Cards, the numbers are fuzzy.  Hallmark reports that 1.5 billion Christmas cards are sent annually, what that equals in trees I can’t be sure, but it sounds like a lot.  So, now I’m considering my options this year.

The first thing I am going to do is pull my Christmas box out of our shed this weekend and see what old cards and wrapping paper I have and try to re-use them creatively to make my cards this year.  I’ll probably need some suggestions from sites like craftstylish.com.  I’ll have to find envelopes, but I’m sure I can find recycled one’s.  Given my significant lack of time I think I found a version I am going to try and recreate in some way (http://www.homemade-gifts-made-easy.com/handmade-christmas-card-ideas.html).

If my stash of old cards or those sent last year from friends and family aren’t enough to make cards, then I’ll resort to purchasing preferably recycled cards and hopefully, find one that is “green” and supports a good cause.

According to the Greeting Card Association (2011), Americans spend 2 billion annually on Christmas cards.  Imagine what good could be done if a portion of that went to charitable organizations.  The website cardsthatgive.org provides information regarding organizations that sell cards to support a cause.

Plus, I’ll be including a little note at the bottom of my cards that reminds my friends and families to recycle, not just my card but everyday!

Parabens in my child’s toothpaste!

Should I be worried?

On my way home there was a physician speaking about environmental health and the topic of potential dangers of parabens arose, in my Time Magazine there was a blurb about the fact that Denmark banned parabens in products for children under 3, and finally, as I was reading about breast cancer the study that found parabens in cancerous breast tissue was mentioned.

Since parabens seemed to be at the forefront of my mind lately, I thought I’d focus on these specifically to educate myself.  As I work to “green” my household I wanted to know if I needed to rid my home of these chemicals.

What do parabens do anyway?  Essentially, they function as preservatives to prevent bacteria and fungi from growing in many of your healthcare products.  Without going into organic chemistry, the main paraben structure is altered by adding different chemical groups, varied chain lengths give them their names and chemical activity – methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isobutyl, isopropyl, benzyl etc.

I decided to go through my own medicine cabinet and just about everything had some type of paraben.  Various paraben structures were found in my makeup, face wash, lotion, conditioner, my husband’s hair gel as well as my child’s lotion and toothpaste.

Since Denmark banned parabens in children’s lotions, should I be concerned that they are in my child’s lotion and what about his toothpaste?  What should I tell my patients if they ask me about the risk of breast cancer or what’s the risk for women with a history of breast cancer?

Around 1998 studies began to indicate that parabens had estrogenic activity. Since most breast cancers respond to estrogen, the theoretical link between deodorants and breast cancer surfaced.  In 2004, a study by Philippa Dabre at the University of Reading, Edinborough, found parabens in tissue samples of breast cancer tumors.  However, no control tissue was reviewed, therefore normal breast tissue may be found to have comparable levels of parabens.  The data hasn’t concluded that parabens cause breast tumors, just that they have been found there.

More recently, Denmark banned parabens in children’s products after producing their scientific report.  This review was conducted by The European Union and published in 2010 and is where the following studies were cited from.   They concluded that there wasn’t convincing data to prove parabens cause breast cancer but they were concerned enough about unknown effects in developing children.

They found that parabens are both estrogenic and anti-androgenic.  The longer the chain, it appears the higher the potency.  However, all were still well below positive controls receiving 17 Beta-estradiol, a potent estrogen. In addition to the estrogenic activity, adverse effects were noted on sperm production and testosterone levels in male rats (a cited study by Oishi).  The review also concluded that dermal absorption and metabolism between rodents and humans likely differ (Fasano 2004).  Seemingly, parabens are safer to eat.  When they are eaten they degrade and their estrogenic properties decrease.  That makes my child’s toothpaste less concerning than his lotion.

They deemed simpler groups such as Methylparabens (they are found in blueberries) and Ethylparabens as effectively harmless.  This report concluded the use of Butylparaben and Propylparaben as preservatives in finished cosmetic products as safe as long as the sum of their individual concentrations does not exceed an allotted amount.  Limited to no information was available to evaluate Isopropyl-, Isobutyl-, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben and Pentylparaben. Therefore, human risk couldn’t be determined.  Given, the lack of scientifically sound data on the link between dermal absorption in different species, final conclusions are difficult.  Additional data and studies are required regarding metabolism of the compounds in human skin.  Another problem is the “sum” of the concentrations, since so many products contain parabens, what is the “sum” that we absorb?

So, to my patients who ask about parabens and their breast cancer risk I’d say there are other, more concerning estrogenic contributors to breast cancer risk.  Being overweight or taking hormone therapy is more likely to increase estrogenic influence on breast cancer risk.  However, because of the apparent estrogenic activity, even weak, it is possible that the cumulative exposure to estrogenic chemicals in our environment, of which parabens are only a few, may contribute to one’s cumulative risk.

Because of the limited data on the more complex parabens and complex endocrine issues that may arise from exposure for younger children, Denmark made the choice to ban them for children under 3.  For myself, I am also choosing to ban them from our home any products with parabens.  Given that it is so prominent in healthcare products, it is the “sum” effect of using a variety of products with these chemical substances that I am concerned about.  As the European Union’s review determined, “as long as their individual concentrations do not exceed an allotted amount” they are permitted in final products.  Because they are so pervasive it seems that use in our daily lives could exceed that allotted amount.

“Made in China”

Is everything?

Picking up my child’s toys in his room the other day I realized that the majority had the words “Made in China” embossed on it’s surface.  The reaction I had was actually sadness.  Admittedly, I also felt a twinge of guilt for the toys we had accrued over the past 2 years having to travel so far, sad for the jobs that potentially were lost over seas, I worried about how the workers in China that made these products may have been treated, and wondered how safe they were since pretty much every toy has been in my son’s mouth, well, multiple times.

It’s not just toys that are being made overseas.  Our government is shipping the infrastructure jobs, rebuilding and remembering our country with the “Made in China” imprint.  My beloved, well-traveled powerhouse, the currently being reconstructed Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge was essentially built in China.  Although US workers are putting it together, more jobs could’ve been created had the bridge been, from the ground up, American made.  I even read that the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC was sculpted in China, using Chinese granite, by a Chinese sculptor.  Were there no African-American sculptors available?

With three years of unemployment rates in this nation over 9%1, over 14 million Americans without work2 and no sign of any rapid turn around, we should be paying more attention to where the products we purchase are produced.  A product manufactured outside the United States, means potentially another American without a job.  I’m one of those people who argued with my husband about not using the self-check out lane at the grocery store.  Of course, I enjoy human interaction and my husband prefers the company of computers to people (at least most people).  However, my argument was that the one checker manning 4 machines meant 3 people out of work.  Do you really think the grocery store will pass the savings on?  Doubtful!  Besides I’m willing to pay extra to help keep more people employed.

On a grander scale, what if companies did the ‘right’ thing and were willing to pay a little more to keep people employed here instead of moving their manufacturing abroad? Who will buy their products anyway if people don’t have adequate wages to purchase them?  It certainly won’t be the Chinese workers making at most $1.36/hour3 but in poorer areas earning potentially less.  Even if they move the manufacturing abroad, spending extra to ensure the workers health and safety is of utmost importance should be a pre-requisite, but who is going to enforce this?  Restrictions on these facilities in other countries are fewer; there aren’t any requirements about providing health care, or regulations about other benefits.

On NPR they were telling a story about Econolux refrigerators moving away from a small community in the Midwest to Mexico.  It’s not China but its move basically crushed this small town.  It mentioned that the state had offered to build them a new facility and allow them to pay no taxes to stay.  The Board of Directors for Econolux, the story went, took 7 minutes of private discussion to reject the deal because the cost of wages and essentially, the significantly reduced worker’s rights in Mexico made the move the economic choice.  Nothing the state offered could offset that financial benefit to the company, even if it meant the community that had been supported by that manufacturing industry collapsed.  U.S. citizens should ask companies to pay a moral price, by not purchasing from them.

While I am for a global economy I also believe in less use of fossil fuels to ship these products, Fair Trade, and Worker’s rights in all countries.  I personally want to support companies that are built on a strong foundation aimed at supporting the communities in which they establish, not at their expense.

References:

  1. Hatfield, D.  (2011) Contra Costa Times Editorial.  Hats off to U.S. Labor, Page A14.
  2. Joseph, J (2011) USA Today. America shouldn’t be ‘made in China’, page 9A.
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “International comparisons of hourly compensation costs in manufacturing, 2008,” August 26, 2010, available at www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ichcc.pdf.