YES! But How? :: Toxins and Pregnancy, Composting in the Cold


Dear Doug & Annie,

I saw on the news that the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility said in a report that everyday household chemicals may harm unborn children's brain development, and that they may be a major contributing factor to the epidemic of developmental, learning, and behavioral disabilities.

Help! I am pregnant. What do I do? —Beth M

Dear Beth,

Yes, the report "In Harm's Way" is one of the most urgent wake-up calls I've ever read by a body of scientists. I recommend reading the eight-page executive summary.

The report notes that of the 15,000 chemicals on the market, only 12 have been analyzed for their effects on children's brain development. It goes on to note how many neurotoxic and potentially hormone-disrupting chemicals pregnant women and children can be exposed to, chemicals such as lead and other heavy metals including mercury, nicotine, dioxins and PCBs, pesticides, and solvents.

Animal and human studies demonstrate, according to the physicians, that such chemicals contribute to a wide range of problems, including autism (cases have increased 210 percent in California between 1987 and 1998), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD (estimates are that between 6 and 17 percent of children are affected), learning disabilities (17 percent of all children under age 18), and mental retardation (1 percent of all children).

It's hard not to weep when you read this report! And there is nothing we or you can do about exposure to a number of the neurotoxins, because they are now in the air, water, and food everywhere on Earth.

But there are things you can do to significantly reduce your exposure level, particularly since so much exposure occurs inside our homes and workplaces. I promise you that you don't need chemicals to lead a relatively normal life!

To choose safe materials, follow the GRAS rule: Use only materials that have been around for so long that they're generally regarded as safe (GRAS for short).

Using only GRAS substances will take us back before plastics and forward to new technology using old and safe materials. GRAS materials include baking soda, vinegar, milk, lemons, garlic, apples, raspberry juice, wood, and walnut hulls.

For household chores I rely heavily on tried-and-true folk recipes that call for GRAS ingredients. Most of the old recipes for everything from silver polish to milk paint were based on good science. (Just because a recipe is old, or its ingredients natural, doesn't mean it's safe. For example, some old paint recipes call for white lead! We must look at the old recipes with a discerning eye.)

Health food stores offer a number of safer products for most household chores. I mix and match a few good, safe commercial products with homemade recipes where safe products don't yet exist. But I never, ever use a pesticide (see below for alternative resources).

It's also important to pay some very focused attention to the chemicals in your home, yard, and workplace that you can control and eliminate. Read labels and use your common sense. If the choice for polishing furniture is between polish in a bottle that reads "fatal if swallowed" or a simple but effective recipe of lemon juice and raw linseed oil, common sense and the GRAS rule guide you to the lemon and linseed oil.

Check all the bottles of pesticides and cleaning agents in your home, and take any with a label stronger than CAUTION to a household hazardous waste pickup center. It could be well worth the expense to hire an indoor air quality expert to test your house for a range of hazards and your neighborhood for possible wind-borne exposures. Here's an online resource for indoor air quality experts:

How does living without chemicals translate to everyday life? Here's how I translate the GRAS guidelines for cleaning.

You can clean everything in the house with four basic ingredients: baking soda, washing soda (in the laundry section of the supermarket), vinegar, and liquid soap. (I often add a fifth ingredient, tea tree oil, to kill mold, but let's skip that since you are pregnant.)

Use vinegar as an antibacterial agent. Use baking soda mixed with soap as a great soft scrubber. Use washing soda as a solvent alternative (but wear gloves).

Most people have practical concerns about living without standard commercial products. Does living this way take more time? (No.) Is it more expensive? (It's cheaper.) Does it work? (Yes!) These are all legitimate concerns, but basically, I suggest you just jump in and try it. I've never once had a person tell me they've regretted it.

Mostly, people tell me that living in a less toxic home improves their sleep, makes their babies less fussy, improves their children's concentration, and improves their sense of well-being. There are a number of recipes at my website,, to get you started.

Until a precautionary principle is implemented by all of industry, and products are never put on the market until they are really, truly proven safe, we have no choice but to take charge of our own families' health. Step-by-step, by implementing the GRAS principle, all of us can live in healthier homes.

Some of my favorite publications for hands-on-help:

· ABDC E-News, by the Association of Birth Defect Children ([email protected])

· Alternatives, by the Washington Toxics Coalition ([email protected]

· ACTS FACTS, by Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety ([email protected]

· The Green Guide, by Mothers & Others ([email protected]

· Journal of Pesticide Reform,by the Northwest Coalition Against Pesticides ([email protected])

· Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, by Peter Montague ([email protected])

Physician's for Social Responsibility's Environment and Health Program


Dear Doug & Annie:

I try to compost our kitchen waste, but during the winter here in Minnesota, the compost pile pretty much freezes solid. What are my options? —Chilling in Duluth

 Dear Chilling:

Even south of Minnesota, outdoor composting doesn't get far in winter. My advice: worms. The big advantage of keeping a bin of pet worms to compost your kitchen waste is that they work all year.

Worms aren't too particular about housing, either. Almost any container will work, as long as it provides what worms like best: a bit of ventilation, a bit of moisture, and a bunch of juicy garbage. They do like it dark.

Your worm bin should be 8 to 12 inches deep. For the other dimensions, figure a square foot of surface area per weekly pound of worm food.

You'll want a cover with ventilation holes, and you'll need to provide drainage. You can drill holes in the bottom of the container, but if you do, you'll need a tray underneath to catch excess moisture (which you can use as liquid fertilizer). Or you can use a grid, covered with screen, in the bottom of the bin. If you do the latter, check for excess moisture when you add garbage.

Once you've got your worm bin set up, the rest is easy. Add bedding shredded newspaper, dry grass clippings, straw moistened to the consistency of a damp sponge. Add worms. Add food. Your fertilizer factory is under way.

An amazingly large amount of information on vermicomposting is available on the Web. A search using "worm bins" will get you started. For the land-based, try your library for Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof.

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