Posts Tagged ‘green living’

Can Hanukkah Candles Poison You?

A Hanukkah Menorah

Silver Menorah by Ladislav Faigl used under CC license Wikimedia Commons.

Petroleum paraffin wax candles, of which most Hanukkah and Christmas candles are made, contain a slew of chemicals not meant for human inhalation–especially not inhalation by small children or those of us with sensitive respiratory systems such as expectant mothers, the elderly, those with asthma and allergies, and pets.

Paraffin wax, aka petroleum paraffin, emit toluenebenzeneformaldehyde and soot. The first three chemicals are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins while soot acts as a respiratory irritant and contains suspected carcinogens.

Furthermore, many candles, especially those made outside the United States though also including some made within the U.S., have metal core wicks made of pure lead or lead-containing alloys such as commercial-grade zinc (the same alloy recommended as a lead wick replacement by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission).

Each of these substances release into the air when such candles burn.

Luckily, plenty of safer Hanukkah and Christmas candle alternatives exist which reduce or eliminate these harmful air pollutants including vegetable wax, beeswax, and olive oil lamps.


To learn more about the harm of petroleum-based chemicals and to find vegetable wax (including soy) and beeswax Hanukkah candles and olive oil lamp menorah cups, visit my more in-depth Squidoo page:

Keep Your Family Safe This December With Healthier Hanukkah Candles


Remember: Science is now finding that many man-made chemicals we’ve used for years is harmful to our health. We can’t eliminate everything all at once and will live in fear if we try to do so. I suggest taking things with stride and replacing one thing as a time as we buy new things and replace the old. Make your next candle purchase your next step.

Healthy Child Tip 62: Not All Candles Are Created Equal
Quick Tips: Enjoy Healthy Holidays


Energy Audit & Efficient-izing My Home: TO DOs

Visit Home Green Home's Website

Two weeks ago I invited Joe Page, Home Performance Specialist from Home Green Home, into my home to take a look around and tell me what I could do to make my home more energy-efficient. According to the company, our homes consume 60% of the energy that people consume and 20-40% of that energy is wasted; I wanted to fix these problems as soon as possible and especially before our first St. Louis winter in our new home. The energy audit took about an hour and a half and included a blower door test, thermal photography, visual and smoke inspections, and combustion safety analyses.

I knew my new home wasn’t efficient—it’s rarely comfortable in every room at the same time—but I laughed a little after the blower door test when Joe told me how much our house leaked air. An efficient home replaces about 25-30% of its air an hour, he said. Mine? 104%. Not the worst Joe had seen, but not good.

We couldn’t get into the attic (no entryway—I know; our new house is strange in other ways, too), but he showed me thermal images showing that there was, in fact, insulation in the slanted ceiling walls, though he couldn’t be for certain whether anyone installed insulation in the top of the roof.

Part of the air problem, he told me, lies with a lack of insulation between the lower portion of the gable roof and the inside of our home. We’d need to either attempt to create a block, seal it, and spray paper insulation around it—a challenging and probably messy but not impossible DIY task—or let a professional handle that one.

Things we could do ourselves:

  • Seal the leaks in our HVAC duct system (okay, technically he didn’t suggest this because I knew it needed doing  and so took care of this a week before he came by)
  • Install an insulation blanket around our gas water heater and add pipe insulation to the first five feet of hot and cold water lines (check!)
  • expanding foam sealant around a hose

    I sprayed expanding foam sealant in a large gap in the wood paneling around a hose in my utility room. After it dried I used my fingers to break off the pieces that stuck out. Not the prettiest job, I know, but it was quick...and it's in my utility room anyway.

    Caulk gaps in window and door trim and sills and spray and expanding foam sealant in larger gaps such as in the hole made in the wood paneling for our dryer (check!)

  • Install a carbon monoxide alarm on the second floor (check! we already had one on the first floor)
  • Have a qualified HVAC contractor install a return register on the second floor
  • Insulate around the outlets and switches on outside walls and the switch in our stairway (optional) (check! This is nitpicking, he said, but I did it anyway)

Other things I’m taking into account: the safety of the foam crack and gap sealant. The foam Joe recommended, Great Stuff, had danger warning all over it, and one thing I know about those warnings is that companies don’t want to put them on there unless they have too, and governmental regulatory agencies, affected by politics, tells a company when they must put a label in a product. If a warning says “use gloves” or “use in a well ventilated area,” take heed. I looked for a safer, more environmentally sound foam sealant and I found a foam at sears called Max Fill. It had fewer warnings, made with renewable resources and less petroleum, and claimed to be an eco-friendly air sealing foam. I don’t know if I’d call it eco-friendly, but I would call it a better option than my alternative. As the can prescribed, I wore gloves and safety glasses. (If you know of a better expanding foam sealant, please let me know in the comments.)

Up For Discussion

Does a safe, eco-friendly expanding foam sealant exist? How about joint compound? What other home improvement products have a safe, safer, or eco-friendly equivalent?

The Whole LIFE

The Whole LIFE details my attempts at living intentionally for excellence in WHOLE ways, including how I’ve learned to go against the grain to live more sustainably, what greener products work and which don’t, and how I’m working to protect my family from the toxic hazards of modern-day living.

Home Sweet New Home: Can You Move GREEN?

It’s been a while since I last wrote. Why? My husband and I bought a house, decorated the entire thing, and moved! What a stressful and exciting month and a half for us.

Which has made me think. What should and can we do to limit our negative environmental impact during our move? It isn’t just the environment I want to protect; I want to protect our family’s health. I don’t want to inhale unnecessary chemicals or accidentally allow toxins to absorb into our skin. But how much money can I spend to take these precautions, and what precautions do I need, anyway?

We had some tough decisions.

For example, I wanted to paint our home with an environmentally safe, no VOC paint such as Mythic Paint (recommended by Practically Green), and we needed quite a bit to paint all but 3 walls in our new home. We could get conventional paint for free from my husband’s work, though. Which do we choose? In this particular case we chose to use a low-VOC conventional paint and leave the house open for several days before we moved in (we had two weeks before we needed to move out of our apartment). We did not have access to good respirators while painting but we did make sure to buy reusable latex paint and odor respirator masks, paint with all the windows open, and break frequently to fresh air. We made sure to wear these masks when doing other mudding and sanding work, too. Not perfect, of course, but better than doing nothing.

Next, how to get rid of the weeds and grasses that reclaimed about 40 percent of our stone driveway? My mother-in-law wanted to use a conventional weed killer, of course, but that was out of the question; I wasn’t about to spray poison on the driveway, walk on it, and then bring it into our home on my shoes. I knew I could use a safer and all-natural week spray but, let’s face it, it’s still a poison meant to kill. We decided instead to use a rake to pull out the nuisance plants by the roots. It’s tough work and time consuming but it doesn’t require a single chemical. As the plants whose roots remain in the ground grow back I’ll use boiling water to spot-kill weeds and grass. Boiling water kills the plant at its roots, Healthy Child Healthy World says, though it doesn’t discriminate from wanted and unwanted plants. In this case, that’s irrelevant, as the nuisance plants are surrounded by rock. Boiling water also kills weed seeds.

We planted four fruit trees, two apple species and two peach species, so we can have nearly organic fresh fruit in the future. We’ll be able to control the substances used on our trees and can control the methods used to deter pests. After our trees were in the ground we applied a layer of worm castings around the base. of each tree. Using compost also helps build the soil for a healthier lawn and garden, including supporting the good organisms that allow your space to flourish. Compost is almost always safer for your family, of course, but it’s also better for your plants. Chemical fertilizer is fast releasing and much of it seeps past the roots and into underground water supplies, never being absorbed by the plants you want to nurture. Compost is slow-releasing; nutrients enter the soil gradually, meaning you don’t get the immediate turbo charge like chemical fertilizers but you will see prettier plants over a bit more time.

Your plants will be healthier, too. Chemical fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the three main nutrients needed by plants. However, plants need other nutrients, too, found in compost but not in most fertilizers including natural fertilizers. Compost delivers these other essential nutrients. Think of it like this: we used to think that all humans needed for a healthy diet was the right proportion of macronutrients: carbs, fats, and proteins. Then we realized that vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients, play an important and essential role in keeping us healthy and feeling good. In the same way, plants need more than just the right proportion of N-P-K. They need nutrients found only in decomposing matter.


Did you move or make improvements to your home? What steps did you take to keep your family safe?


Healthy Child Healthy World: Kill Weeds Without Herbicides

Healthy Child Healthy World: Natural Garden Care

Eco Tweet Tuesday – Top Whole Living Tweets from the Last Week

You can learn a lot of great information and find great resources transmitted in 140 characters or less. Here are a few of my favorite Whole Living Tweets from the last week.

Do you tweet about environmental, natural health, or other whole living topics? Leave your Twitter address in the comments below and I may add you to my Twitter list.

What the DEET? Natural Alternatives That Work : Safely Repelling Mosquitoes (Part II)

Effective Alternatives to DEET

citronella plant - by jenniferworthen on FlickrSo, if DEET can cause neurological damage, especially in children and the developing unborn, are we to go unprotected as mosquito fodder, exposed to mosquito-born illnesses such as malaria and West Nile and made to suffer the torment of the itching bites and bumps?

With whole living and natural pest control on the rise, more and more people are turning to natural mosquito and tick repellents. And guess what? They’re effective!

Lemon Eucalyptus Oil

There are four chemicals registered with the EPA and determined by the CDC to effectively repel biting bugs. Of these, the EPA considers two conventional repellents, DEET and picaridin, and two biopesticide repellents, that is, made from natural materials:  IR3535 (Chemical Name: 3-[N-Butyl-N-acetyl]-aminopropionic acid, ethyl ester) Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (or the synthetic version PMD, Chemical Name: para-Menthane-3,8-diol).

Lemon eucalyptus oil, which contains the compound Citriodiol (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) is as or more effective than DEET (in fact, Consumer Reports said it was more effective than DEET formulas) without the worries of nervous system and birth defects. In fact, in laboratory studies the animal subjects showed no sign of any adverse affects except for eye irritation, although, I presume for this same reason, lemon eucalyptus oil is not recommended for children under age three.

Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect RepellentConsumers online near unanimously said Repel Plant Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent, one lemon eucalyptus-based repellant that claims to repel mosquitoes and deer ticks for six hours, worked as or more effectively than DEET, although some disliked its strong lemony smell (which dissipates within 10 minutes or so).

Other Effective Natural-Ingredient Formulas

Several other products contain a mix of natural oils, often including soybean, citronella, lemongrass, and geranium oils. Consumers find them very effective, as well, though it must be re-applied as often as every two hours—a small inconvenience for safety, however.

Badger Anti-Bug BalmThe one I use, certified USDA organic Badger brand Anti-Bug Balm, contains Castor Oil and the essential oils of citronella, cedar, lemongrass, rosemary, and geranium (inactive ingredients: olive oil and beeswax). I tested it first sitting in the middle of a grassy field during an outdoor evening production of Taming of the Shrew and second sitting on a grassy hill while my husband ran an 8 a.m. 5k. Anti-Bug Balm came in the form of a very convenient deodorant-like stick, works better when rubbed around for complete coverage. (It also comes in a tin.)

Though mosquitoes still got quite close to me they did not bite except in areas I didn’t apply the balm. In fact, the second time I used it (after I read to rub it around) I didn’t get a single bite even though I watched mosquitoes flying around there, too. Plus, it made my skin nice and soft, which I’m attributing to the olive oil.

Verdict: I loved it! (though my husband did not; he did not like that mosquitoes still swarmed nearby, unlike with strong concentrations of DEET).

Other Natural Bug-Repelling Products:

Bumble & Bee Organic brand 100% Organic Bug Spray contains soybean oil and eucalyptus and lemongrass essential oils—that’s it. It gets great reviews, and though I haven’t tried it myself I do know that soybean oil is used as active ingredients in products such as Ortho Eco Sense brand Indoor Insect Killer.

California Baby brand Bug Repellant Spray rely on citronella, lemongrass, and cedar oils to keep away insects, and the company is known for its baby-safe products.

What This Tells Me:

If I’m in the woods or in the yard and I won’t be holding a baby I’ll probably use a lemon eucalyptus oil based product such as Repel Plant Based Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent which I purchased from REI. However, anywhere else—and always on and around children under three—I’ll use my very convenient Badger Anti-Bug Balm or another gentle, natural formula.

Next article: What the DEET? Safely Repelling Mosquitos (Part III) – Part III will focus on disposal of unused DEET repellents

Works Cited

Environmental Protection Agency. (2000, April). d-Menthane-3,8-diol (011550) Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 12, 2011, from Pesticides: Regulating Pesticides:

Fassa, L. (2008). Green Babies, Sage Moms: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Your Organic Baby. New York: New American Library.

Serafini, M. (2002, May 16). Letter from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Retrieved June 12, 2011, from Cornell University Pesticide Management Education Program:

Stephens, S. H. (2011, June 3). How To Find Effective, Safe Bug Spray. Practically Green Newsletter .

What the DEET? : Safely Repelling Mosquitos (Part I)

DEET or West Nile: Is There a Safe Option?

My husband and I met a couple of friends at the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Forest Park. It was a lovely summer evening, perfect temperatures, slight breeze, colorful characters, fresh lemonade, and Taming of the Shrew. I especially enjoyed the part when our friends’ dog, otherwise quiet and docile, suddenly rushed after two ducks waddling nearby, sending the ducks low-flying across the audience mid-play. It was almost perfect—if only the mosquitoes would leave us alone!

As I readied for the evening pre-play I knew the mosquitoes in the lake-laden Forest Park would be a challenge to the point of disrupting our enjoyment of Taming of the Shrew, but I had already promised myself I wouldn’t use DEET. This was the first time this season I would need to consider using bug repellant. What was in my closet?


DEET bug repellantsThe first bottle I pulled was an orange aerosol can of unscented OFF! brand Insect Repellant, 14.25% N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, aka DEET. I quickly recognized the can as several years old and unused since; I long ago realized the obvious dangers of haphazardly spraying pesticides, which are usually poisons, into the air.

The second bottle I pulled was a blue pump bottle of Deep Woods Sportsmen OFF! I had purchased for our honeymoon to the rainforests of Costa Rica. I remember I didn’t want to buy more DEET but I felt I didn’t have enough time to research alternative options before venturing in the rainforest, so I purchased a pump which I felt would have a more direct application than an aerosol and put less of the poison into the air. But, since I was planning to venture deep into the rainforest, I purchased Deep Woods Sportsman, 25% DEET.

The third bottle I pulled was a friendly looking clear bottle with an orange lid and a family on the front: OFF! Brand Skintastic Family Unscented insect repellant. This one targeted families so it must be safer, right? DEET content: 7%.

The last thing I pulled from our closet was a small stick of Badger Anti-Bug Balm which I had purchased last fall from the nearby Green Earth Grocery. The Badger Balm contained no DEET; instead it used castor oil, citronella, cedar, lemongrass, rosemary, and geranium oils in a carrier of extra virgin olive oil and beeswax to repel bugs. It was also USDA Certified Organic. I had used this balm a couple of times last fall with inconclusive results. Was I willing to test the effectiveness of this natural repellant while sitting in the nesting zone of mosquitoes for two and a half hours? Is DEET such a big deal, anyway?

DEET: The Skinny

DEET, chemical name N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, is used in many insect repellents to help consumers avoid biting bugs such as mosquitoes (carriers of malaria and West Nile virus) and ticks (carriers of Lyme Disease-causing bacteria). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army developed DEET in 1946, and the chemical is currently approved (after a re-assessment in 1998) for skin application by consumers in formulations containing 4-100% DEET. The EPA says that, as human exposure is expected to be brief and long-term exposure is not expected and as long as consumers follow label directions and take proper precautions, they believe DEET does not present a health concern to the general population.

Of course, it’s up to the consumer to figure out who is and isn’t part of the “general population” and what actions and timeframes include “proper precautions” and “brief exposure.”

Interesting, because the EPA also tells us, “There is no safe level of pesticides,” merely acceptable risk.

According to Lynda Fassa, author of Green Babies, Sage Moms, lab tests on animals at Duke University revealed “frequent and prolonged exposure to DEET causes serious brain-cell death and behavioral changes,” and, according to the study researchers, consumers should “use DEET with caution, especially [on] children who are more vulnerable to brain defects that prolonged exposure to DEET causes.”

Furthermore, The Pesticide Information Project  (of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis) says, “(DEET is) beneficial as insect repellents, but have also been associated with dermal and neurological reactions in humans.” Furthermore, in addition to serious skin irritations, “Everglades National Park employees having extensive DEET exposure were more likely to have insomnia, mood disturbances and impaired cognitive function than were lesser exposed co-workers.”

The Pesticide Information Project also cites several cases of toxic encephalopathy associated with DEET use on children, the first involving a 3 and a half year-old girl “whose body, bedclothes and bedding were sprayed each night for two weeks with an insect repellent containing 15% DEET.” This and other cited cases of toxic encephalopathy “was characterized by agitation, weakness, disorientation, ataxia, seizures, coma and in three cases resulted in death.” Two of the deaths included autopsies showing edema of the brain, with one case presenting necrotic lesions in the cerebellum and spinal cord and an enlarged liver with “microscopic changes.”

What does this tell me?

I may choose, on rare occasions, to use very low levels of DEET (5% or less, as suggested by the Pesticide Information Project) if I have to—and if there is absolutely no chance I am pregnant—but I would never use DEET on my children or while expecting or trying to conceive. The risk to the brain development of the fetus or my child is not worth the convenience of readily available DEET, especially when other options are available, as I’ll discuss in my next post.

Next article: What the DEET? Safely Repelling Mosquitos (Part II) – Part II will focus on safe and effective DEET alternatives 

Works Cited

Environmental Protection Agency. (2007, March 23). The Insect Repellant DEET. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from Pesticides: Topical and Chemical Fact Sheets:

Fassa, L. (2008). Green Babies, Sage Moms: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Your Organic Baby. New York: New American Library.

Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis. (1997, October). Pesticide Information Profile: DEET. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from E X T O X N E T:


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