Thursday, July 3, 2008

Heavy Metals at Home: Part 1: Lead Contamination

Heavy metals are naturally-occurring substances that have been known to cause health-related problems. When absorbed, it can accumulate in the body, displacing minerals that the body would need to continue biological functions. Heavy metals like lead displaces calcium which is important in building strong bones and teeth. Heavy metals can accumulate in vital organs and glands such as the heart, brain, kidneys, liver and bone; increasing one's risk of developing cancer.

There are six elements in the family of heavy metals that are federally-regulated: Lead (Pb), Mercury (Hg), Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd), Chromium (Cr), and Antimony (Si). Each article within this series describes a heavy metal, its' sources of contamination and acute and chronic effects on humans. The ways to prevent contamination are also indicated. Scientific terminologies are used to identify substances with heavy metals so that one can search for these terms within the ingredients list of cosmetics, packaged foods and household cleaners.

Lead (Pb) and the compounds resulting from its' combination with other chemicals are regulated or banned at certain quantities due to the effects of acute or chronic exposure. Symptoms of acute poisoning are: loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, constipation, difficulty in sleeping, fatigue, moodiness, headache, joint or muscular aches, anemia and decreased sexual drive. Chronic or long-term exposure causes severe damage to the blood-forming nervous, urinary and reproductive systems.

Lead poisoning in children must be prevented as accumulated lead disrupts a child's mental development, leading to lower intelligence later in adulthood.

Lead has been suspected to cause cancers in the lungs, stomach and bladder of rats though the same effects on humans have been non-conclusive. Routes of exposure are oral or respiratory. Babies have been known to absorb lead via the placenta or through lactation. Lead absorption is greater in children than in adults. Once absorbed, it is distributed to blood plasma, the nervous system and soft tissues in organs. It is subsequently redistributed and acumulates in bones and teeth. Approximately 70-90% of the lead that accumulates in humans are found in bones and teeth. Lead can cause genetic damage at it inhibits DNA synthesis and repair, when it interacts with DNA-binding and tumor-suppressing proteins.

Lead (Pb) is a chemical that is refined from mined ore. In its pure form, it is odorless, soft, highly maleable, conductive and yet insoluble in water. When combined with other elements to form lead compounds, it can be relatively soluble in water. Such compounds that are soluble in water are lead acetate, lead acetate trihydrate, lead chloride, lead nitrate and lead subacetate. It's the solubility of these compounds that make it easy to contaminate solids, water and air. Such compounds can also be soluble in alcohol and in nitric or hydrochloric acid.

Most lead is used in batteries for motor vehicles. Lead metals are in ammunition, cable coverings, piping, brass and bronze. Lead acetate is in water repellents that are applied to prevent mildew or mold formation. It is also used as a mordant for cotton dyes. Lead acetate trihydrate can be in varnishes and chrome pigments while lead chloride is a flame retardant. Lead nitrate is a heat stabilizer in nylon and used as a coating on paper for photo thermography.

Lead compounds that are insoluble in water such as lead phosphate and lead stearate are used as stabilizers in the plastic industry. Ceramics can contain lead oxide. Pigments in paints, rubber and plastics can contain lead chromate; a hexavalent chromium known to be carcinogenic. Lead tetraoxide are in plastics, ointments, glazes and varnishes.

Lead can be found in solids (food), air (cigarette smoke), and water (alcoholic beverages). Lead solder used in canned foods were eliminated in 1979, resulting in a marked decrease in lead-contaminated foods. Lead-free gasoline for motor vehicles was also banned in the 70s and therefore airborne lead has been greatly diminished. A 2004 study of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) revealed that drinking water in the US contains less than 5 micrograms per liter of lead. But, the most common source of exposure is by direct ingestion of paint chips and lead-laden dust that are present in old homes. Lead in paints was not restricted until 1978. Lead in plumbing of homes built in the 1930s can also be a source of contamination. Young children are therefore at high risk for lead contamination due to high hand to mouth activity particularly from the infant to toddler years.

The United States government and its related agencies have enacted and implemented regulations to control exposure to lead. These are:

  1. Painted furniture cannot contain lead that is greater than 0.6% of the product's total weight of solid or dried paint film. A similar regulation applies to paints and any other surface coating.
  2. Candles cannot contain more than 0.6% of lead by weight in the metal core and candle wicks.
  3. Toys and other items for children that are painted cannot contain more than 0.06% of total weight of solid or dried paint.
  4. The Toxic Substances Control Act and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires sellers of homes to disclose their knowledge of lead in their homes as there are allowable limits set for floors, interiors window sills, and soil in play areas which is separate from the maximum limit for bare soil in the yard.
  5. The Lead-Based Poisoning Prevention Regulation stipulates that paint used in home renovations not contain more than 1.0 mg/sq. cm of lead or 0.5% by weight.
  6. The Food and Drug Administration requires that the amount of lead that leaches off ceramic tableware (cups, mugs, holloware, flatware) not exceed values that range from 0.5-3.0 micrograms/milliliter of leachable lead.
  7. Lead in food ingredients should not exceed 0.1 to 10 parts per million of lead.
  8. Lead acetate in hair coloring and makeup cannot exceed 0.6% weight to volume of lead. Such cosmetics also need to be labelled such that it warns consumers that the product contains lead.
  9. Lead in coloring additives can be present in 5-70 parts per million.
  10. The maximum permissible level of lead in bottled water is 0.005 mg/liter.
  11. Certain drugs can contain lead from 10-20 ppm.

For more information on lead in paint, dust and soil, and the prevention of contamination; one can contact the National Lead Information Center Hotline at 1-800-424-LEAD or through the EPA's website

Lead contamination can be minimized by:

  1. Washing hands to eliminate accumulated lead dust. Stained glass hobbyists are subjected to lead than most.
  2. Flush cold pipes that have been left unused for 6 hours by allowing water to run for 5 seconds to 2 minutes. Lead dissolves easier in warm water than in cold.
  3. If you own or are planning to live in a home built before 1978, check paints for lead. Old paint dusts off in time and can be ingested or inhaled. Homes built prior to 1930 can have lead in pipes so ask when pipes were last replaced.
  4. Inexpensive jewelry and those containing rhinestones or crystal can contain lead. Wear karat gold or buy jewelry from reputable retailers who are likely to test for lead prior to selling their intended products to the general public.
  5. Wash vegetables and produce before consuming. Old orchards may have been sprayed with pesticides containing lead arsenate. These can be absorbed by plants or dust from the soil can land on produce.
  6. Check the water quality from your source of drinking water or irrigation. Lead compounds are soluble in water or acidic water sources.
  7. Avoid living close to mining areas, landfills and other hazardous waste sites as lead can enter the water stream or its dust can contaminate the air.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Planning your Escape from an Abusive Relationship

Why do women not leave or put an end to an abusive relationship?
  1. Because of fear: Reduced self esteem resulting from repeated emotional abuse makes the abused fearful of what lies ahead. The abused feels that she may be better off staying with the abusive partner than to face the consequences from an angry partner. The abused believes that "doing nothing is better than doing something" so that the abuser stops a feared behavior.

  2. Lack of resources: These may be financial or the assured emotional support from family and friends. Women and children in abusive relationships have been known to be kept apart or distanced from their friends and family members.

  3. Presence of children and guilt: Women are responsible for "keeping a home." Shame and guilt associated with separation or divorce may be a result of cultural or religious beliefs. A woman's sense of "selflessness" makes her stay in an abusive relationship, thinking that it is better to keep the marriage or it damages her children's image or worth within society.

If you are contemplating on leaving an abusive relationship, you must have an escape plan.

The most dangerous time for an abused person is to be accessible to an abuser who knows that he's losing control. 40% of female homicides occur when a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship. The abuser "ups the tactics" he uses to maintain control of the victim. It is therefore important to have an escape plan. It will provide you with the ability to make the transitory state for you and your children safe and as short as possible.

  1. Seek professional help. Avail of counseling benefits that may be available through your employer. Counselors and social workers can advise of sources for medical, legal and social services.

  2. Secure or plan a place for your pet

  3. Keep a packed bag at a neighbor's house or another safe place. The bag should have:
  • A change of clothing for you and your children.

  • Important documents such as:

  • Birth certificates

  • Passports

  • Permanent residency cards or proof of residency

  • Social Security cards

  • Health insurance information and medical records

  • Bank account numbers

  • Extra cash and checks

  • Extra set of keys to your house and car

  • Paystubs from your abuser's paycheck

  • Familiar toy or book for each child

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Unsafe Toys: Why are these recalled? What can we do?

During the last quarter of 2007, parents, educators and retailers had a rude awakening when toys brought in from China by major toy importers like Mattel and Fisher-Price were found to contain high levels of lead. Such toys were recalled from store shelves and were ordered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to be destroyed. The chemical lead (Pb) is a regulated substance, particularly in articles intended for children; as these can dust off. Lead dust, when ingested; accumulates in the body to cause irreversible, neurological damage. Many parents were angry and found wanting for more information as to how these could have happened and how else they may be able to protect their children from the harmful effects of lead exposure. The US Senate and House of Representatives have introduced bills with the intention of reforming the Consumer Product Safety Commisssion (CPSC) so that the entry of products in the marketplace could be better monitored for safety. Many friends have asked me, "what can we do"? I assume this to mean what can we do to make sure these banned and recalled products are destroyed and not sold to anyone.

We in the United States can be assured that these products will not be sold in the usual merchandising channels (chain stores) because merchants will be penalized with fines and/or imprisonment if found selling these after a recall had been announced. Their future actions will also be under the microscope of Regulatory agencies. Where it gets alarming is when these products might be sold in small outlets, dollar stores, Mom and Pops or thrift shops as such establishments don't necessarily have Regulatory Compliance capabilities. What we can do is to prevent re-occurrences. If you access, you'll be able to check on how your Senators and Representatives have been working for you. In addition to their bios, you'll see their voting records, the bills they've authored and sponsored including their attendance whenever Congress is in session. You'll be able to identify those who would likely champion consumer rights and you want to bring your concerns to their attention.

Those who are not residing in the United States can check out for announcements of products that have been recalled. The announcements are quite descriptive with stock numbers and photos included. These announcements make it easy to spot recalled products in stores. Warnings can be delivered by word of mouth among social circles, churches, schools and the media. I'm sure there's at least one journalist who might find this topic worth reporting even if it piggybacks on an environmental cause. And then there are government agencies and probably a non-governmental agency (NGO) supporting children's and women's issues.

In our own personal ways, we can encourage our children to create their own toys. I remember my childhood, playing with the neighborhood kids; creating toys from objects we found within our immediate sourroundings. But adult supervision should be mandatory. We also competed in sports. These not only develop creativity and physical strength in kids but also boosts their social skills.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Are you wearing formaldehyde? Part 2: Preservatives in Cosmetics

In order for cosmetic formulations to be safe and stable (assured "shelf life"), preservatives need to be added. Preservatives act as antimicrobials as these prohibit or retard the growth of microbes. Preservatives can also function as antioxidants as it protects formulations against damage and degradation caused by exposure to oxygen. Antioxidants prevents browning or black spots from forming. However, preservatives are in the science community's watchlist for containing or having the tendency to release formaldehyde.

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced formaldehyde as a chemical currently considered a probable human carcinogen (Class 3) by the World Heath Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) but, classified as a carcinogen by California Proposition 65. According to the California Proposition, formaldehyde starts to become a health risk at 40 micrograms/day of release. When available in low doses as a preservative for fabrics, leather and food; it can cause irritation of the eyes, skin and throat.

Formaldehyde mixes easily with water but not with oil nor grease. It is commonly used as a preservative in aqueous cosmetic formulations such as shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, liquid handwash and bubble bath. Like certain fragrances, it can irritate sensitive skin. It can destroy the skin's natural protective oils, causing dryness, flaking, cracking and dermatitis (skin rash). Furthermore, persons who are dermally sensitive to formaldehyde can have allergic reactions such redness, itching, hives or blisters. It is therefore one of the chemicals used in an allergy patch test.

Formaldehyde has been banned in Europe and Japan. The European Union's EU Cosmetic Directive (76/768/EC) currently restricts the presence of formaldehyde in aerosol sprays. Oral hygiene products such as mouthwashes must not contain 0.1% of formaldehyde while externally applied cosmetics and toiletries must not contain more than 0.2%. In nail hardeners, the restriction is more lenient as the EU permits up to 5.0% of formaldehyde . But products that contain more than 0.05% of formaldehyde in the finished state must carry a label that states that the product "contains formaldehyde."

The Cosmetic Industry in the United Sates reports that their resulting formulations comply with the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) requirements with regards to labeling, in cases where safety of the product has not been determined. In 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) established the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR) with support of the US Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America. The CIR's laboratory studies ingredients used in cosmetic formulations and issues safety assessments of these ingredients as either:
S: Safe in present practice of use and concentration
SQ: Safe with Qualifications
I: Insufficient data
U: Unsafe
Formaldehyde is rated "Safe with qualifications" by the CIR.

The following compounds in cosmetic formulations have been the subject of debates due to it's ability to function as preservatives while having the ability to release formaldehyde in very small amounts over time: Quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea. The cosmetic industry claims that low levels of these compounds are sufficient to retard micorbial growth while ensuring that the actual level of free formaldehyde released does not exceed the permissible maximum level of 0.2%. According to the CIR, Quaternium-15, a preservative and an antistatic agent; can be dermally absorbed but there are no known developmental effects that can occur when applied dermally. It is reported to be a dermal irritant only when present in more than 5.0% of the product's total composition. The allowable maximum concentration of this quaternary ammonium salt is 0.2% when used in cosmetics and personal care products. The maximum allowable concentration for diazolidinyl urea is 0.5% while the most commonly used preservative, imidazolidinyl urea can be used to a maximum concentration of 0.6%.

Should one choose to be cautious with cosmetics used for personal cleanliness or physical enhancements, the Cosmetic Ingredients Review presents a list of commonly used ingredients, its functions and their respective safety assessment ratings. Read labels in cosmetic packaging and identify the preservatives. Should the label indicate "contains formaldehyde," this means that the free formaldehyde released from the product exceeds 0.05%. Though this is not an exact indication of the potential for total free formaldehyde to exceed 0.2% during normal use of the product, stop using the product should dermal irritation occur.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Straight to the mouth...

There's a good reason why toys, garments and other childcare articles are labeled with a specific age range of a child. "Age-grading" is intended to guide consumers to select products that are appropriate for the child's stage of mental development.

The psychologist Jean Piaget developed his Theory of Cognitive Development to describe the stages in which children are able to develop awareness of their environment. Piaget's theory of Cognitive Thinking describes a child's ability to make decisions as these relate to persons and objects within their field of vision. The development of cognitive thinking occurs in stages and the first stage which starts from birth through the age of two is called the Sensorimotor period.

An infant's first 6 weeks (Reflexive stage) is a period of "sensing." An infant learns of his environment by sucking almost everything within his reach or upon discovery, his own hand. As the infant becomes aware of people and nearby objects, he reaches, grabs and sucks on these as part of his "learning process." Such actions are repetitive ("Circular reactions") in infants between 2 and 4 months old. It is therefore extremely important that objects within an infant's field of vision are made larger than an infant's mouth or the diameter of it's throat to avoid the potential for swallowing and/or choking on found objects. For the same reason, such objects cannot have sharp edges and points.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission advises that objects more than 2 inches in diameter are less likely to be swallowed. The Commission developed a "small parts cylinder" or "choke tube" which has an opening similar to the diameter of a 2-year old's throat. Objects that fit within the tube's opening would be considered a "small part" and therefore should not be given to infants.

It should also be noted that when an infant discovers an object that it cannot readily suck, it will continually touch and rotate the object within it's hand. This finger-twirling action, common among those betwen the ages of 4 through 8 months; suggests that the infant has found a toy. Such small parts which now have "play value" need to be firmly attached to it's larger part or else it can detach and potentially becomes a choking hazard. Should it be necessary for large toys or garments to contain "small parts" like buttons, bows and zipper pulls for functional reasons; such "small parts" need to withstand at least 15 pounds of pulling force held for at least 10 seconds. This is the pulling strength of a toddler.

The period that children place objects in their mouth extends through the age of 3 years then gradually diminishes and ends at about the age of 5. It is very important that small parts are either avoided or firmly attached to larger objects because infants and young children have not developed a level of cognitive thinking that allows them to reverse a harmful situation. According to Piaget, the ability to reverse an action is not possible until the child reaches the age of seven.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Are you wearing formaldehyde? Part 1

Formaldehyde, a preservative one may remember from high school chemistry class. It is a naturally occurring substance that's also produced by our bodies. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that everyone is exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in air and some foods and products. Low levels can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat while high levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers. Workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have been known to develop nose and throat cancers. It has been known to trigger asthma attacks in children. Furthermore, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found a link between formaldehyde exposure and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas that has a distinct pungent odor. It dissolves in water but easily dissipates. Airborne formaldehyde can break down to form formic acid and carbon monoxide and therefore smog is a major source of formaldehyde exposure. It is used in the production of fertilizers, paper, plywood , particle board and foam insulation. It is a preservative for some foods, antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics and leather. It is also applied to fabrics so that it shrinks less, prevents staining and resists wrinkling. Free or unreacted, excess formaldehyde can be inhaled, ingested or dermally absorbed to cause the health hazards that agencies report.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that adults not drink water containing more than 1 milligram of formaldehyde per liter of water (1 mg/L) for a lifetime exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure level of 0.75 parts per million for an 8-hour workday, within a 40-hour work week.

Worldwide efforts to set limits on free formaldehyde have been made to avoid hazardous exposure. Various countries in Europe have regulations limiting free formaldehyde in clothing as follows:

  • In babies clothing (for children less than 24 months old) no more than 20 mg/kg.
  • Textiles that are in direct contact with skin during use cannot contain more than 100 mg/kg.
  • Textiles that are not directly in contact with skin have a limit of 300 mg/kg.

Japan has the strictest regulation which limits free formaldehyde on clothing for adults and children above 24 months of age to 75 ppm. The limit for clothing intended for babies is lower.

The United States requires the following limits:

  • 20 mg/kg for children under 36 months of age
  • 75 mg/kg for all other textiles used with direct skin contact
  • 300 mg/kg for all other textiles not subject to direct skin contact.

However, the above mentioned limits are voluntary standards.

Germany and Austria recommends labeling textiles subject to direct skin contact if such textiles are known to contain more than 1500 ppm of formaldehyde. The label appears both in English and German as follows: Contains formaldehyde. Washing this garment is recommended prior to first time use in order to avoid irritation of the skin.

One can limit exposure to free formaldehyde by:

  • Promoting good indoor air circulation: Indoor sources of formaldehyde are carpets, drapes, adhesives used in plywood and furniture, insulating foam, and cigarette smoke. It's not surprising that high levels of exposure to free formaldehyde occur indoors than outdoors.
  • Do not use unvented kerosene heaters.
  • Wash garments prior to use: Chemicals that impart wrinkle resistance properties should be properly "fixed" or cured on to fabrics with the right combination of temperature, pressure and time of application. Unfixed or free formaldehyde can be laundered off the cured fabrics.
  • Read product labels and purchase household chemicals and cosmetics that are formaldehyde-free.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A few Significant Facts on Domestic Violence: How you can help

According to the National Organization of Women:
  • 1400 women are beaten to death every year by their husbands or boyfriends.
  • 2 to 4 million women are battered each year.
  • Women are ten times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner.
  • Of women who are victims of assault and rape, the majority are women who are separated, divorced, single, or from low-income households
  • African-Americans are more likely to be victims of assault and rape.
Here's more:
  • 3.3 million children are exposed to violence by family members or female caretakers
  • 40-60% of men who abuse women also abuse children
  • Fathers who batter mothers are twice likely to seek sole physical custody of their children than are non-violent fathers
  • 27% of domestic homicide victims were children (in 1996).
Since President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, victims of domestic violence have been able to avail of free Legal aid, housing and counseling services provided through shelters. But 2008 prompts action as funding for Domestic Violence programs will be reduced. Funding for VAWA which is tied to the Justice Department's budget appropriations of $400 million in 2008 will be reduced to $280M next year.

Legal intervention has saved lives and allowed victims to move on. The consequences of a cut in the budget appropriated for domestic violence are the following:
  • Lack of free Legal aid: The reduction or absence of Legal aid reduces the chances for fighting for child custody and/or obtaining court-ordered protection against the abuser. Abused persons who are undocumented immigrants or in the process of legalization may find it difficult to petition the government for legal status.

  • Lack of housing programs and transitional housing: The lack of shelters places the abused at a much higher risk as women and children will need to spend the night or continue to live with their abuser.

  • Scaled-back counseling: Reduced counseling services will lead to prioritization of services such that only the brutally abused receives counseling. The reduction in crisis intervention also leads to a lack of social support and counseling which can lead to prolonged stays at shelters. This also lengthens the time for the abused to reach self-sufficiency. The average length of stay in a shelter is currently 25.5 days.
What can we do? Logon to Find members of the House and Senate who have shown an interest in domestic violence issues. Write to them with suggestions on how victims of domestic violence can be important contributors provided that their immediate needs for crisis intervention are met. Provide them with examples of success stories and describe cost-efficient means to protect women and children in transitory situations.
Members of Congress can also be sent pre-formatted letters petitioning the continued funding of VAWA by accessing the following websites: