Ever since reading The Canary's Tale and other books about enviro toxins and multiple chemical sensitivity, I have been concerned about solvents, flame retardant, and petrochemical based elements in carpet. How do I know what a safe carpet is—especially where infants are concerned? Can you give advice on where to shop for carpeting that is free of these toxins?
—Alison, San Francisco, California
The safest carpet for someone who has multiple chemical sensitivity may be no carpet at all, since synthetic carpets contain as many as 120 known toxins. Babies who spend a lot of time on the floor are particularly affected. Complaints associated with synthetic carpeting include dizziness, headaches, and respiratory problems. Chemicals such as formaldehyde, PVC, and styrene-butadiene found in carpet, rubber padding, and adhesives can take more than ten years to off-gas, so airing new carpet does not solve the bigger issue of long term exposure.
Any carpet, whether treated with chemicals or not, is a repository for dust, dirt and environmental toxins such as pesticides tracked in from outdoors. According to John Roberts, an environmental engineer who has studied the problem for nearly 20 years, on average a 10-year-old carpet contains two pounds of dust, including lead, pesticides, and mercury. These can affect a baby's development and contribute to childhood asthma.
Instead of carpet, consider washable organic cotton throw rugs. For other environmentally safe flooring ideas, such as bamboo, sustainably harvested wood, natural linoleum, or cork, check out Environmental Building News (www.buildinggreen.comor look for copies at your local library). On-line, visit the Environmental Home Center atwww.built-e.com. As green-building awareness grows, more and more suppliers are jumping on the green bandwagon. Tell your local lumberyard, contractors, architects, and flooring retailers that you want sustainable products, and ask for their recommendations.
If you still prefer carpet, I recommend biodegradable wool. Companies such as Nature's Carpet (www.naturescarpet.com) offer products free of moth repellents, chemical treatments and dyes.
I followed your recommendation and bought some Fresh Cab to put in my kitchen drawers to discourage the field mice in my little country cottage. They ate both the covering and the content of the pouches and weren't repelled at all.
I've plugged the holes, am using two Havahart traps, but after catching a few mice, the others seem to catch on and avoid the traps. The only thing that seems to work is the old style snap trap, which kills quickly. Even with these, the mice eat the bait about half the time without springing the trap. I'm also trying those electrical devices that emit high frequency sounds. It's too soon to tell if they are working.
Do you have other suggestions? —Janet Kalven, Loveland, Ohio
Fresh Cab worked for me but it sounds like you have a healthy, well-established mouse population. While I haven't tried (so can't endorse) any of their products, U-Spray, Inc. in Lilburn, GA (800/877-7290) has an exhaustive discussion on rodent control at www.bugspray.com/article/rats.html. In short, they note that once mice have made your home theirs, they are as averse to eviction as you would be. Removing food or water sources, sealing holes, and using repellents may keep new mice away but only forces the local residents to look harder for nearby alternatives.
If you can't live with them, you must remove your resident mice before implementing lesser controls. Live trapping is recommended because happily contained mice will invite, not scare away, their relatives. Be sure not to distress your captives: provide ample food and water and check traps daily. Relocate the critters or kill them as humanely as possible. Electrocution devices or expanded-trigger snap traps (that are harder for mice to circumvent) are available. Remove dead animals and clean traps quickly before other mice wise up to you. You must be diligent. One breeding pair can have ten litters of 4-16 children or 2000 multigenerational descendants in one year. One expert recommends using several types of traps in varying locations for at least 15 consecutive days.
Afterwards, be a fanatic about keeping food (including pet food and birdseed) in rodent-proof containers. Seal entryways but remember that mice can enter any hole larger than 1/4” wide and they can jump up a foot or down eight feet without injury.
I have some expired prescription drugs that I wish to dispose of. Any suggestions on how?
—Derry Malsch, Eugene, Oregon
A particularly apt question when the news is just breaking that our national waterways are turning into great slurries of antibiotics and hormones.
I asked a government official who said, “Flush em! Oh, unless you've got a septic tank – because that might kill the bacteria.” I gently inquired as to the possibility of taking them to a central hazardous waste disposal site. This person allowed as how you could do that, if you wanted to go to all that trouble. But as a YES!reader, you, of course, want to “go to all that trouble”.
And, of course, you don't have any leftover antibiotics, because you know that taking only part of your prescription is how we breed super bugs. In fact, you probably don't have any antibiotics at all unless you've had a bacterial infection, since you know that antibiotics don't do any good for a cold, flu, or other viral infection.
For other leftover but unexpired medications, check with your local free clinic. They may or may not be able to use them, but it costs nothing to ask, and that's a much better fate than any form of disposal.
I am looking for a windshield wash that I can put into the mechanism in my car. But all that I find on the market are marked “Poison.” I have recipes for nonpoisonous solutions but am told not to use them because they will freeze. What do you suggest? —H. E. Post, via e-mail
Vodka. My first thought was isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, but OSHA says that's a carcinogen. But not ethyl (drinking) alcohol. Just add the appropriate amount to your nontoxic recipe, substituting the liquor of your choice for about half the water.
Adapting a recipe fromwww.BetterBasics.com, this would be: 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap or detergent, one cup water and one cup of Vodka. Shake to blend. This should be good down to about minus 10 degrees F. Increase the vodka for more freeze protection. Try not to get stopped by the police immediately after you've cleaned your windshield.
VEGETARIAN: TO BE OR NOT TO BE
To live the fullest sustainable life, should one be a vegetarian? —Katie Williams, Michigan
In the best of all possible worlds, not necessarily. In this world, probably so. You at least should consume less meat than the average American, that is, less than 218 pounds per year. Incredibly, only about six billion people do that.
It's not hard to find good arguments for eating vegetarian. You can get 101 at www.vivavegie.org/vv101/101reas98.htmlor you can read the book 365 Good Reasons to Be a
Vegetarianby Victor Parachin.
There seems to be only one reason for eating meat American style: “We're Americans. We eat meat.” (Lest others be too smug, Germans, Italians, Argentinians, Britons, Brazilians and New Zealanders all eat between 1/2-2/3 as much meat per capita as we do.)
The simple reason that industrial-style carnivorism is not sustainable is this: Large animals are stunningly inefficient at converting input calories into output calories. They drink (and soil) a lot of water, too. It takes 16 pounds of grain and 2500 gallons of water to make one pound of beef. That's a half ton of grain and 173,000 gallons of water per American per year just for beef (2001 figures from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association), never mind pork and poultry.
There's a truism of savage capitalism: There are no food shortages, just localized money shortages. There's enough food produced in the world to feed everyone. It's just that the 40,000 or so who die each day of starvation can't bid enough to divert grain from cows' mouths to theirs.
Meat consumption is enormously wasteful, and the idea that with enough gumption everyone could eat like us is an absurd chimera. Full disclosure: Is this writer a vegetarian? Nope. But 218 pounds a year? Not even close.
I just figured out that I have candle soot damage throughout my home. I originally assumed that my air ducts must be dirty so I called a professional to clean them. That did not solve my problem and things seemed to be getting worse. I thought the appliances in my kitchen might be the problem but then I discovered soot everywhere, on computers, televisions, and medicine bottles. It has ruined pretty much everything in my home. No one I called could find the source of the problem. Out of desperation I looked up “black soot” on the Internet and found several articles describing candle soot damage that exactly matched what I was experiencing.
Do you have any additional information on candle soot? I am concerned about how my children's health is affected by breathing soot. I am also concerned about the property damage and would appreciate any help in aiding my homeowner's insurance claim. —A Reader, North Carolina
Candle soot is a growing but overlooked indoor air pollution issue that is worsened by today's airtight modern homes and the popularity of scented candles. According to Ron Bailey, a Florida testing engineer, just four candles burning for 15 hours caused significant soot deposits on walls, drapes, and appliances in a new model home. Soot can travel through ductwork then stick to surfaces throughout a home. University of Missouri experts concluded that calling in professional fire restorers may be the only way to eradicate soot damage. (See listings for ‘carpet and upholstery cleaners' or ‘fire and water damage restoration' in your telephone directory.)
All yellow (vs. blue) flames emit incompletely burned residue (soot) but some candles are worse than others. Heavily scented or soft-to-the-touch candles contain high amounts of oils that do not burn completely. Petroleum-based (paraffin) candles also emit volatile organic compounds (toluene, benzene, and naphthalene, among others). According to a study for the California Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, candle soot emissions were not measurably carcinogenic, however, benzene is a probable carcinogen. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) particles are emitted by candles (as well as wood fires). These can trigger respiratory ailments. Finally, some candles have wicks that contain lead, a heavy metal that can cause learning disability and behavioral disorders. After less than a year of burning fragrant candles, Cathy Flanders found that her Texas home had 27 times more than the Housing Urban Development permissible lead deposits and that her son's blood tests revealed elevated lead levels.
Choose 100% beeswax candles with all-cotton wicks or candles made of soy, bayberry, other vegetable waxes, or high quality paraffin that are advertised as “smokeless” to minimize your soot problem. Examine wicks and avoid those than appear to contain metal. Be sure to straighten and trim wicks to 1/4” and keep candles away from drafts to help them burn cleanly. For your aromatherapy sessions, put a few drops of the essential oil of your favorite scent into a small dish.
Insurance companies frequently exclude soot buildup from their “sudden and accidental occurrence” provisions. The website www.lead.org.au/lanv7n4/L74-4.htmlsuggests that before contacting your insurance agent, you identify the candle manufacturer and retailer and make notes of how and when you burned the candles and what damage resulted. In the interest of your fellow candle consumers, you may wish to file a report with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (www.cpsc.gov) Washington DC, 20207-0001.
Doug Pibel, Anna McClain, Pam Chang, and Annie Berthold-Bond contributed to this column.