If finding products that are organic and eco-friendly is important to you, then shopping for a baby shifts this impulse into high gear.  One of your most important searches will be for a high quality, organic crib mattress and a safe, healthy crib constructed from good materials.  After considerable searching my wife and I chose these:

Oeuf Sparrow Crib
NaturalMat Coco Mat Mattress
giggle Better Basics Organic Cotton Flannel Mattress Pad

If you found this page through a random search for the best organic crib mattress or crib, then please know that I personally put in at least 10 hours researching these products! Although they are expensive, when you consider the amount of time babies and toddlers spend in their cribs, it is important to choose materials that are not cheap, hazardous, and off-gassing chemicals directly into the nursery air.

Why the Oeuf Sparrow Crib?
ecofriendly crib
I liked this crib because of the solid wood construction. Pressed wood is made with glues and often puts out formaldehyde. There is a solid birch option which is not painted, but we went with the white color. The paint used by Oeuf is water-based and free of harmful VOC’s. The cribs are made in Europe under the strictest environmental standards, not in China. Aesthetically the Oeuf Sparrow crib is very attractive and in my opinion appears mid-century modern. One downside for me was that the base of the crib was some sort of plywood, not solid wood. I suppose this makes sense because solid wood can crack and warp, and the base needs to be sturdy. Oeuf provides reassurance thusly: “Engineered hardboard panels are made from recovered wood fibers, meeting European E1 emissions standards as well as California’s CARB 1 and 2 emissions standards.” In my paranoia I actually painted the base anyway, using a zero VOC Mythic Non-Toxic Paint, let it dry outside for a day, and plywood smell problem solved. The eco-friendly crib is made from sustainably sourced wood in a Forest Stewardship Council certified facility.

Why the Coco Mat Organic Crib Mattress?

organic crib mattressWe chose NaturalMat’s mattress over Ouef’s crib mattress. Either would have been excellent choices, but NaturalMat’s organic crib mattress won us over for these reasons: there is no latex, it is made from organic coir (coconut husks) and organic wool (thermally insulating), yet it is very breathable. Lavender, eucalyptus, and lemon extracts help make it dust-mite resistant in a natural way, and from experience lend no detectable smell. The Cocomat is naturally fire retardant without any harmful PBDE retardants.  It is made in England and seems completely non toxic with no polyethylene or synthetics.

Why the Organic Cotton Flannel Mattress Pad?

It looked cozy, and the material is made of two layers of 100% Egyptian Certified Organic Cotton Flannel with ultra-thin waterproof membrane in center. No vinyl/PVC, phthalates or latex are used. You could go without the mattress pad but chances are your baby will have some accidents, snotty nights, etc…

Are Organic and Green Materials Worth It?

Is this level of concern about materials excessive? Perhaps. With all the other crap in our daily environments, choosing the best organic crib mattress and eco friendly crib might seem absurdly reductionist. Your baby will be exposed to countless chemicals regardless, right? But once again, the amount of time spent in the crib, and the intimate proximity of the materials to the baby’s skin and respiratory system compelled us to fork over some big bucks on a green, high-quality crib and mattress. If it is only for peace of mind, and less than scientifically proven to keep your child healthier, then so be it. That mid-century modern crib aesthetic in the age of Mad Men is valuable, too.


Which Plastic Numbers Are Safe? Zero, maybe 2, 4, 5.

by drcharles on February 23, 2014

When it comes to choosing which plastics are the best or most safe, remember this:

Zero is best. 2, 4, 5 if you must.

And of course you must.

plasticfaceBesides homesteading in Maine, off the grid, recreating life from the 1880’s, it is nearly impossible to avoid plastics. But we should try to minimize their use, for our own health and for the greater health of the planet.

The damage already done by plastics will be apparent for millennia, as plastics do not readily degrade. They are microscopically choking our waterways and oceans, and macroscopically filling our landfills and environment. A full accounting is outside the scope of this post, but besides choosing alternatives to plastic in our everyday lives, how can we differentiate among the various types of plastic in terms of potential harm? One way is to consider the recycling number assigned to many plastic containers.

What do the plastic numbers mean?

A classification system was developed in 1988 to differentiate between the various types of plastic in order to facilitate recycling. Plastic manufacturers are not required by law to imprint the classification number on their products, but many do. A convenient outcome of this system is that we can be selective in terms of what we bring into our homes, how we prepare and eat food, etc.

Here are the numbers:

#1 PET or PETE – polyethylene terephthalate. Used in many juice, soda, water, nut butter, salad dressing, and detergent containers. May leach antimony trioxide, which in higher doses causes respiratory and skin irritation, menstrual problems, higher risk of miscarriage, and slower growth of newborns in the first year of life.

#2 HDPE – high-density polyethylene. Used in opaque milk, water, juice, bleach, shampoo, yogurt, margarine, cereal box liners. Considered fairly safe.

#3 PVC – polyvinyl chloride. Used in toys, cling wrap, clear food packaging such as cling-wrapped meats and cheeses, shampoo bottles, cooking oil, nut butter containers, shower curtains, window blinds, pipes and siding. PVC is definitely bad. It leaches phthalates (DEHP or BBzP) which are used as softeners. Phthalates mimic estrogen in the human body and are endocrine system disruptors. They have been linked to asthma, allergies, certain types of cancer, and have negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone, and body weight. The manufacturing of PVC is also quite toxic to the environment.

#4 LDPE – low-density polyethylene. Used in shopping bags, dry cleaning, bread and frozen food bags, plastic wraps, and squeeze bottles such as for condiments. Considered fairly safe.

#5 PP – Polypropylene. Used in food containers such as yogurt, butter, ketchup, straws, Rubbermaid and opaque plastic containers, baby bottles. Considered fairly safe.

#6 PS – polystyrene. Used in Styrofoam, egg cartons, disposable cups, bowls, take out restaurant containers, plastic cutlery, CD cases. Leaches styrene which mimics estrogen and can disrupt the endocrine system. Can cause reproductive and developmental problems, brain and nervous system effects, and adverse effects on red blood cells, liver, kidneys, and stomach. This is also present in secondhand smoke, off gassing building materials, car exhaust and even drinking water. Benzene, a known human carcinogen, is used in the production of most styrene. This type of plastic is difficult to recycle and so mostly finds its way into the earth’s dumps and oceans.

#7 other. Other types of plastic are lumped together in this less specific category. Some like polycarbonate may be harmful, while others may be safer including newer biodegradable, plant-derived plastics made from corn/potato starch or sugar cane. Avoid polycarbonate, which is found in some plastic baby bottles, sippy cups, sports water bottles, large water storage containers, metal food can liners, and some juice and condiment containers. It leaches BPA, a harmful endocrine disrupter.
Two other plastics under #7 include acrylonitrile styrene AS, and styrene acrylonitrile SAN, which are higher quality plastics with increased strength, rigidity, and temperature and chemical resistance. Another type of #7 plastic is copolyester, which is under the trade name Tritan and the ingredients used to manufacture have not been publicized.

If you have to use plastic, which plastic numbers are considered safer?

#2, #4, #5  (and maybe #7 if not polycarbonate?)

Which plastics are potentially the worst?

#1, #3, #6, #7 polycarbonate

Eat fresh. Seek out glass containers. And remember the code: Zero, 2, 4, 5.

But to undermine the whole system just noted above, at least one study found that almost all plastics #1-7 exposed to common-use stresses release chemicals with estrogenic activity anyway.

Avoiding plastic is nearly impossible if you live in civilization. Hopefully the dose makes the poison, and so doing what you can to reduce plastic in your life seems prudent for your health, and the sad state of our plasticized planet. And when science fails to inspire, read the poetry of Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees.

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There are three forecasts I check with some regularity. Of course the weather forecast is the most important and needs no introduction… and still represents a miracle of modern technology and science. Another forecast I enjoy is the night sky constellations and astronomical objects on display in the sky above. But recently I’ve begun checking the daily reporting of the quality of the air we breathe.

Bad air qualityIn the short term such forecasts may help those at risk of asthma attacks or respiratory problems better plan their outdoor activities, and those at high risk of cardiovascular events can better prepare for days full of high particulates which can trigger heart attacks, strokes, and arrhythmia. And in the long term perhaps awareness of when our air is the most unhealthy might lead to incremental benefits in terms of longevity. One only need consider the high rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses in China’s polluted cities to extrapolate back to the U.S. on a smaller, but significant scale of potential harm.

If the air quality is expected to be bad, there are several things one can do to reduce the risks of adverse health effects. Essentially, consider when and where your activities are planned. Limiting outdoor exertion on these bad days is the gist of it.

The EPA calculates an Air Quality Index (AQI) based on 5 major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particulate pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Of these problems, ozone and particulates pose the most significant threats.

The AQI scale runs from 0 to 500, with a score of 500 indicating we might as well wear scuba gear to get groceries. Above 300 is considered hazardous, while below 50 is good. A level of 100 corresponds with the EPA’s national air quality standard for that particular pollutant.

The AQI partners with a host of local, national, and international partners including NASA, NOAA, CDC, National Park Service, and various state departments of Environmental Management and Conservation… so this should not be considered a political tool of propaganda by anyone suspicious of the EPA, or who is prone to undermining their own economic and social self interest by mindlessly extolling the virtues of unregulated energy industries… but I digress.

But perhaps the most important function of instruments such as the Air Quality Index is to promote a greater awareness of the many harmful, polluting inputs into the air we breathe. We should all be working towards cleaner technologies, incorporating small individual measures of conservation into our own little lives, and supporting industries and legislation that promote a broader green ideal.


Eating Nuts Found to Decrease Risk of Dying

by drcharles on November 22, 2013

bowl of nutsAccording to an industry-funded, observational study in the New England Journal of Medicine, consuming either tree nuts or peanuts regularly is associated with at least a 10% lower risk of dying.

A second look was taken at the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, and over 100,000 patients’ food frequency questionnaires were pooled for analysis.  The participants were followed for up to 30 years in these studies, which is quite rare data to find.

People who reported eating nuts at least once a week cut their risk of dying, with a statistically significant hazard ratio of 0.89.  Increasing nut consumption further reduced the risk of dying from conditions like heart disease and cancer.

Interestingly, peanuts and tree nuts were found to be protective in this way.  In general tree nuts are credited with having a more beneficial profile of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils than peanuts, but in real life this may not be so important after all according to this study.  This is also encouraging to many people who are allergic to tree nuts but not peanuts.

One of the most important considerations about a medication is whether or not it reduces mortality rates.  Unfortunately most pharmaceutical companies do not look at this ultimate endpoint when trying to get their medications approved by the FDA.  For example, many medications have been proven to lower diabetics’ blood sugars when compared to placebo, and do not carry any major excess risk… but few have been proven to extend life span.  The same can be said for medications like Zetia, which lower cholesterol but have not been found to help prevent death.

Although caution must be applied to observational studies that are not controlled, randomized clinical trials, and that are funded by the relevant industries such as the Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation, it is still rare to find such a powerful study numbers showing mortality benefits to an intervention as simple and natural as eating nuts.

I prescribe myself a handful a few times a week with confidence. In the past I ate the low fat, high carbohydrate diet of a young man cooking spaghetti – and saw my HDL cholesterol hover around 38… but since cutting down on carbs, increasing tree nuts and healthy fats in my diet such as from olive oil, avocados, and even eggs, my HDL now exceeds 60. Of course my total cholesterol and even LDL have increased as well, but not to actionable levels.

This study further supports the notion that healthy fats in the diet are just that.


What are the Health Risks of Burning Candles?

by drcharles on October 13, 2013

candle healthWith colder weather and fewer hours of light I have been increasingly lighting candles in my home. I enjoy the meditative, calming moment that a flickering flame instantly conjures. Humans have an innate affinity for fire light. Perhaps that attraction has been wired into our DNA, providing a survival benefit for those ancestors who did not run from the fire into a dark, cold night of predators. But is this cozy habit an overall detriment to our health now that we live in enclosed houses? I think the answer is far from clear, but there are some issues to consider that have given me pause in lighting another candle tonight.

The combustion of any product releases a multitude of chemical byproducts. It would seem that candles made of paraffin, which is derived from petroleum, would release many potentially harmful volatile organic compounds. Some studies have born this out, although concentrations seem small in relation to what is generally considered toxic.

For example, a study out of the University of South Carolina evaluated both paraffin (petroleum-based) and soy (vegetable-based) candles, none of which contained any scents, pigments, or dyes. The author noted that burning paraffin candles released alkans, alkenes, and even toluene, chemicals that in high enough concentrations can cause respiratory tract irritation and even cancer. This study was part of a research grant, however, and I could not find it published by any peer-reviewed journal. It’s author, Dr. Ruhullah Massoudi, has made blanket statements that soy-based waxes did not release any harmful substances when burned. His work was funded by the Dept. of Agriculture, which heavily subsidizes the soybean industry.

The EPA has commented on the burning of candles, and added in a 2001 report that burning candles can lead to variable concentrations of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein, and plain old soot which penetrates deep into lung tissue. There have been other studies showing essentially no difference in the emissions from paraffin, beeswax, and vegetable-based candle wax, and that burning all types releases hundreds of chemicals, not all of which are considered harmful of course.

Scented candles, especially those with artificial scents instead of essentials oils, may also produce a wide variety of potentially harmful by-products when burned, including phthalates.

But the direct evidence that burning candles may cause harm is really lacking, at least in terms of my search tonight. There are very few studies, and the quality of these studies is generally poor. It is really hard to find good advice on this subject, but in general these principles seem intuitive:

Candles may be therapeutic in terms of relaxation for some people.

Vegetable and beeswax candles may emit less potentially harmful chemicals, but even these are creating numerous byproducts of combustion.

Scented candles, especially synthetic fragrances,  add another layer of nebulous complexity to the emissions profile of burning.

Limiting the burning of candles, and ensuring good home ventilation, seem prudent ideas given the lack of hard science on this whole topic.

It is likely that more harm is done to people by direct thermal injury from flames than chemicals released during candle burning.

The bottom line is that you are burning something when you light a candle of any kind.

Living plants, on the other hand, take in carbon dioxide and are dutiful bio-accumulators of airborne toxins, and I also find that they resonate with the primal human need for elemental, earth-bound comfort.

And as for alternatives, flickering LED candles actually depress me, so there may be negative psychiatric effects of sallow, artificial replacements, too.



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Natural Face Scrubs That Avoid Harming You and the Environment

October 6, 2013

Perhaps you’ve used exfoliating soaps before, and felt their gentle grit scrubbing away your dead epithelial cells. But did you know that unless you are conscientiously reading the ingredients and selecting natural soaps and face scrubs, you are likely scouring your face with hundreds of tiny plastic beads that do damage to the environment, accumulate […]

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3 Simple Rules for Healthy Food Shopping

September 23, 2013

Recently a patient asked me for some very basic advice about food shopping.  A recent widower with no experience cooking for himself, his diet centered around eating one meal a day at a local diner, with cereal or canned spaghetti representing a special effort at home. Listen Doc, I’m not looking for a cooking class, […]

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Diluting Honey with High Fructose Corn Syrup, Feeding Bees HFC Syrup, and other Atrocities

July 11, 2013

High fructose corn syrup, that sweet over-produced commodity of agribusinesses everywhere, has been linked in two miserable ways to bees and honey. The first discovery was made almost two years ago, and the second only 2 months ago. First, most of the “honey” available for purchase in supermarkets is not really honey, but instead an […]

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New Miracle Whip Ad Campaign is Offensive

June 24, 2013

I happened to see this Miracle Whip advertisement in a magazine left open by a patient in our waiting room, and I really found it offensive.  Let’s dissect the ways in which this advertisement sullies the notion of food, and examine how far the concept of Miracle Whip strays from real food that should be […]

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Walking for 15 Minutes After Meals Effective for Lowering Blood Sugar

June 13, 2013

It is well-known that exercise, even leisurely walking, improves blood sugar levels.  This is true for those with type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes (also known as impaired fasting glucose), and for those whose blood sugars are in the normal range.  A recent small study suggests that 15 minutes of walking after meals may be superior to […]

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