Today is the very first day of Hanukkah.  While we’ve spent a lot of time talking about ways in which to make the holiday a little more sustainable – by using recycled cardboard wreaths and trees, for instance – we should also remember that the candles we use in our homes for the holidays often contain particles that can be detrimental to our health and to the environment.

Candles are traditionally crafted from paraffin wax.  Paraffin wax is actually a heavy hydrocarbon, produced from crude oil – it is a petroleum product.  While burning paraffin wax is not especially terrible for the environment – the main byproducts are water vapor and carbon dioxide, neither of which are tremendously harmful to human health in the short term – it’s important to consider the entire lifecycle of a product when making purchasing decisions.  The amount of carbon that goes into extracting, refining, transporting, and converting oil into paraffin wax is substantially higher than “green” alternatives, like soy or beeswax.  Using soy or beeswax candles not only avoid the detrimental environmental impacts associated with paraffin wax, but support farmers instead of oil companies.

So consider for this Hannukah, using green tapers, instead of paraffin ones.


Big Dipper Beeswax Hannukah Tapers are made out of hand-dipped, and clean-burning, 100% beeswax.  Traditional paraffin tapers often have lead in their wicks, but the wicks used in this green product are 100% cotton, and are therefore much healthier for you and your family.  Plus, 10% of all net profits from the sale of these candles is donated to organizations dedicated to outreach, education, and efforts devoted to promoting sustainable beekeeping.  They come in boxes of 45, in natural and blue-and-white colors.

For these candles and many other environmentally-friend green products like Bonded Logic recycled denim green insulation, make sure to visit

indoor air fresheners include plugins and aerosol sprays

Indoor air fresheners were first introduced in 1948, and their popularity has grown substantially since then.  They are incredibly commonplace — according to a marketing report from the Global Cosmetic Industry, nearly 80% of global consumers reported buying an air freshening product in 2006, at a total value of more than $6 billion, and $979.1 million dollars in the U.S. alone.  Following these trends, it’s expected that global air freshener sales for 2010 will reach $7.3 billion.

That’s an enormous market, affecting more than three-quarters of all Americans.  Unfortunately, that also means that more than three-quarters of Ameriacns are voluntarily exposing themselves to extremely dangerous chemicals that can cause headaches, convulsions, and disruptions of the human reproductive system.  The dangers of these home air fresheners have been recording by numerous organizations – including the Sierra Club, the National Center for Healthy Housing, the Alliance for Healthy Homes, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the European Consumer’s Organization.

Indeed, a study by the University of Bristol followed the health and development of 14,000 children since before birth.  The study had some astonishing results: 32 percent more children suffered intestinal problems in homes where air fresheners were used, and a notably higher rate of earaches was recorded.  Air fresheners seem to affect parents, as well: people who use air fresheners daily – whether from a spray can or a wall socket – suffer from 10% more headaches, and women with air fresheners in their homes had a 26% greater occurrence of depression.

It’s important to note, though, that a higher occurrence of these symptoms in homes with air fresheners does not necessarily mean those symptoms were caused by the air fresheners.  But it certainly highlights important questions about the safety of air fresheners, and studies of air fresheners reveal numerous deadly chemicals that absolutely have an adverse effect on human health.

The California Air Resources Board published a study in 2006 entitled “Indoor Air Chemistry: Cleaning Agents, Ozone and Toxic Air Contaminants” that wound up underscoring the risks that home air fresheners pose (a full copy of the report can be found here).  The report found that some air fresheners produce toxic pollutants – including formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and other fine pollution particles.

In addition to carcinogenic formaldehyde and pollution particles, air fresheners produce a range of other dangerous chemicals, including acetaldehyde, organic acids, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxl radicals – all of which people should not be inhaling in their home environment. The European Consumers Organization also discovered, in a 2005 study, that air fresheners can produce allergens and other toxic air pollutants including benzene, terpenes, styrene, phthalates, and toluene in addition to formaldehyde.

It’s not tremendously surprising that these products produce such toxic chemicals when you consider what they contain – to begin with, over twenty different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure.  A study at the University of Bristol even found that VOCs in can lead to a higher rate of earaches and diarrhea in infants, and depression and headaches in their mothers – suggesting that air fresheners could, indeed, be causing the symptoms noted above.   Other basic ingredients in air fresheners include aerosol propellants, petroleum distallates, p-dichlorobenzene, phosphates, chlorine bleach, and ammonia.  Many of these chemicals can seriously aggravate asthma and affect reproductive development.


the chikuno charcoal cube

But don’t fret!  Despite all the dangers of air fresheners, there are green product alternatives available!

The Chikuno Charcoal Cube Air Freshener is the safest and most environmentally-friendly option presently on the market and represents design of an extremely high caliber.  It is a chemical-free air freshener made from ultra-fine bamboo charcoal powder and clay minerals.  According to the product’s webpage, Bamboo charcoal is activated at extremely high temperatures which produces an incredibly fine, or porous, interior – “like a micro sponge or honeycomb,” with an interior surface area of 7,500 square feet per gram of bamboo charcoal.  This powder is significantly more fine than wood charcoal (and is more sustainably-produced, as bamboo can mature to harvestable size in as little as six years), and because of its large surface area, has the ability to absorb order for up to a year.

The Chikuno Cube can be refreshed every month by exposing to sunlight for six hours, and it won the Japanese Good Design Award in 2008.

For this and other green products for a healthier and more environmentally-friendly home, you can always make sure to visit

courtesy flickr user amenagement_numerique

So many everyday items are made with type 3 – or PVC – plastic.  These are familiar products, including pipes, food wrap, plastic packaging, cosmetic bottles, vinyl siding, baby toys and teething rings, computer components, and credit cards.

Despite their ubiquity in the lives of the average consumer, PVC plastics are not recyclable, and are highly dangerous to our health and the environment.  They are products worth spending extra energy to avoid.

Plastics with a #3 stamp on them – the little recycling symbol found on the bottom of many bottles – are made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.  The production of PVC is significantly more harmful to the environment than any other plastic, and not only because they are not recyclable.  The process of making PVC plastics involves the fusing of chloride molecules – derived from petroleum – with heavy toxic metals like lead and cadmium.  These toxins stabilize and plasticize PVC, but because of their use and the chemical properties of chlorine, byproducts of PVC production tend to be significantly more toxic and persistent in the ecosystem, traveling up the food chain to people.  As the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice notes, PVC plastic is unique in its risks to health and environment.  No other plastic contains as harmful substances, or as hazardous byproducts, as PVC plastic.

Just like the more infamous toxin Bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical compounds used to produce PVC plastic are prone to leaching.  What this means is that the additives used to produce the plastic do not chemically bind to the plastic itself, and can release into the water or food the plastic holds, or can pass directly into the body if a child or animal chews on the product.  PVC plastics can also off-gas, meaning that those toxins can pass into the home environment to be inhaled.  One noted chemical that leaches from PVC plastic is DEHP, which the EPA has designated as a probable carcinogen.

Beyond the threat of leaching, PVC plastics are also not recyclable simply because they contain so many potentially hazardous byproducts. Mixed in with other recyclables, like type #1 PETE, a stray #3 PVC plastic container can ruin an entire batch of new plastic.  When melted during the recycling process, PVC plastic forms dioxins, one of the deadliest family of chemicals known to man.  Dioxins linger in the ecosystem for a very long time, and travel far up the food chain. Indeed, researchers have found trace amounts of dioxin in human breast milk, potentially threatening the health of human babies.

Multiple grassroots organizations of consumers have spoken out about the hazards of PVC plastic.  These organizations include the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, the Grassroots Recycling Network, Greenpeace, and even include a feature film on the dangers of PVC plastic, Blue Vinyl.  Each organization has a compendium of resources and information about PVC plastic, and events and actions organized to halt the use of PVC plastic in everyday consumer items.

It is not only environmental or activist groups that have noted the serious dangers of PVC plastic.  Companies and communities across the world have instituted bans and phase-outs of PVC.  Microsoft is phasing out PVC packaging; New York State has a PVC construction pipe restriction law; Johnson & Johnson has eliminated PVC packaging; several carpet companies have ceased the use of PVC in their products; Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works have phased out PVC.  The list of companies goes on, and includes companies are large and diverse as Wal-Mart, Adidas, Daimler Benz, IKEA, Honest Teas, Sony, Apple, and Mattel.  Opposition continues to grow to the use of this incredibly harmful material in our everyday lives.


Conventional shower curtains are often made of PVC vinyl plastic, and can off-gas into the bathroom environment.  Alternative green products are available, and made from other, much safer vinyl plastics including ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA).  These plastics do not contain chloride, and so do not pose the same risks to your health or the environment.

For the consumer looking for a green product to avoid vinyl plastic altogether, the Ty Shower Curtain is another option, produced from #2 HDPE plastic which is not only free of chloride and other PVC byproducts, but is one of the most commonly recycled plastics on the market.  Ty is also machine-washable and significantly more durable than PVC vinyl, meaning it will last longer in your home.

safecoat, a toxin-free caulk

A lot of the same harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that we’ve written about being present in paints and household cleaners, are also present in home caulking.

Weatherizing your home is an important way to conserve energy, reduce heating and cooling costs, and staying warm.  Using caulk to plug up cracks and holes is an important part of weatherizing – but using conventional caulk that contains VOCs can be harmful to your health.  Those chemicals offgas into the home environment, and have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure.

As an alternative, one can use green, or toxin-free, caulking.  But how do you caulk your home – where should you use caulking?

Most people are already aware of drafts under their doors, but there are less-obvious gaps that deserve attention.

Places where different building materials meet – like between brick and wood siding, between the concrete foundation of a home and its walls, and around chimneys and fireplaces – are good places to find drafts.

Also make sure to check for gaps and cracks around window frames, doorways, and mail chutes.  Check for places where utility lines come in – by the gas line, electricity lines, and cable TV and phone lines.  Often, utility companies leave large holes where these lines come in where enormous amounts of heated or cooled air can escape the home.  Outlet plates are good places to check as well.

Feel around window panes, which are spots that might seem sealed but could have significant gaps.  Vents of all kinds deserve special attention: dryer vents, air conditioner vents, and fan vents can lack a proper seal with the surrounding materials.  Window unit air conditioners are also a good place to find drafts,  although there are more green products than just caulk available to close these up.

For the very ambitious caulker, there are ways to check for gaps beyond feeling with the hand.  Depressurizing the home by turning off all heating and cooling, closing all windows and doors, and then moving an incense stick around common leak gaps can help determine where there are drafts getting in.

Shining a light from the inside of a house, and having a partner see if any light can get through is a good way to find leaks, too.  And, if you can pull a piece of paper out from between the seams of a closed door or window without it tearing, you are likely losing energy through that gap.

Weatherizing a home – toxin free – can be an incredibly useful way to reduce energy costs, especially as we move into cold winter months!

Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

As we try to travel in greener directions through the wild, wild west of the consumer market, there are plenty of markers along the way to guide us–in the form of eco-labels, those little green symbols printed and/or stuck on nearly everything you can buy these days. There are symbols indicating that a product is organic, chlorine-free or grown upside down without soil; that it was made by people paid a fair wage or by chickens allowed to go for walks in the sun. If there’s an environmental issue worth considering, there’s an eco-label related to it—which on one hand is fantastic, but on the other… Well, it gets to be a bit much. After a while, all the symbols seem to fade into a solicitous green haze with about as much meaning as the words “As seen on TV!” on the box of the latest trendy gadget. And what’s worse, some of the labels don’t even mean what they appear to. Who would guess that their “free range” chicken might have never even seen the open sky? And others don’t mean very much at all, like organic labels on fruits and vegetables that aren’t normally grown with pesticides to begin with.

But we’re not likely to see any fewer eco-labels anytime soon–we’ll probably only see more, and some of them are genuinely useful indicators of qualities you might actually care about. So with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down of a few of the most commonly seen eco-labels and what they mean, then a list of places where you can learn more about these online and look up the rest of them, too.

EnergyStar is probably the most often-seen eco-label. EnergyStar is a joint program of the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the U.S. Department of Energy, and it awards the EnergyStar label to household products, homes and nonresidential buildings that meet its energy efficiency requirements. Its standards are lower than those required for LEED certification, but it’s a decent start.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization with no government affiliation. LEED provides third-party verification that a building project followed green building procedures, meets energy efficient performance standards, and is a health place to live or work. The main criteria for evaluation are sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, the use of sustainable materials (e.g. low-VOC paint, green insulation) , and a healthy indoor environment. The program is based on a system that awards a silver, gold, or platinum certification level, based on the number of points a project was able to win by addressing the various criteria. Certification is entirely voluntary.

USDA Organic This label indicates that the product meets the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for using the word “organic” in its labeling. These standards vary for the different products that are eligible for the label, which include not only food but personal care products as well. But most require the absence of synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and sewage sludge in the production process. You can find a table outlining the different requirements for different products here.

Fair Trade This symbol indicates that the product has been certified by TransFair USA, which is the only U.S. member of FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, the Germany-based umbrella organization for a group of 20 international fair trade certifying nonprofits). Fair Trade Certification standards help farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and helping them developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The label signifies that the product was grown by small-scale farmers who are democratically organized, either in a co-ops or unions; that the buyer paid up to 60% of the cost of the raw materials in advance, that a fair wage was paid and no child labor was used in production, that none of the 10 worst pesticides were used in the growing process, and that the buyer paid additional premiums to go toward services to support and develop the farm community.

FSC The FSC label indicates, essentially, that a wood product was grown in a forest that is being managed responsibly and sustainably. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), certifies forest managers and manufacturers of wood products that it determines are managing forests and using forest products responsibly and sustainably. Among their major concerns are not allowing logging practices to destroy forests, protecting the habitats of endangered wildlife, and making sure the profits from commercial forest endeavors are shared fairly with communities living in the forests. The FSC is not affiliated with any government, is a nonprofit organization, and certification is entirely voluntary.

For more info on these and literally hundreds more eco-labels, see these links:

Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-Label page

The Global Ecolabel Index

Inhabititat’s Eco Labels 101

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock