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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Little Things and Side Benefits

My wife and I try to minimize our impact on the earth wherever we can, though there's always room for improvement. We've done some big things, such as buying a Prius. It's some of the little things, however, that may have a greater ripple effect and might provide cause for some amusement as well.

Among our pet peeves are the wasteful styrofoam and plastic containers many restaurants use for takeout or leftovers. A while back we decided we would simply bring our own reusable containers with us whenever we went out to eat. We knew this would eliminate our use of throwaway containers. It may be having some other positive benefits as well. Other customers see us doing this and say something like, "Oh, what a good idea!" or "I never thought of that. I'll have to start doing that, too!" The restaurant owners see us doing this and realize their customers are very concerned about the environment; hopefully they'll become more serious about seeking out the most environmentally sensitive products. At our local Indian takeout place, which uses organic ingredients, they laugh when they see us coming. Sometimes they even give us bigger portions!

When it comes to food shopping, we've been buying almost entirely organic for a long time. Lately we've added an emphasis on LOCAL. Knowing it's taking a smaller amount of fossil fuels for the food to reach us is only part of the advantage. There is a wonderful, satisfying (dare I say warm and fuzzy?) feeling when you get to know the person who grew the food you are going to eat. We get this feeling at our local Fairfax farmers market, where we buy strawberries from Russ, greens from Dennis, pies and gallettes from Maria, etc.; at Clark Summit Farm in West Marin, where I buy my incredibly delicious Thanksgiving turkey from Liz; and at the awesome Phoenix Pastificio in Berkeley, where Eric makes the most amazing fresh organic pasta, cut to order, and reciprocates our appreciation of his artistry by practically making us part of his family.

Our local natural food store, The Good Earth, has made shopping local much easier. For years they've posted where each item of fresh produce was grown; recently they've added the mileage from here to there. If your favorite store doesn't yet do this, I suggest you encourage them to do so. Also, I think we can have the greatest impact on people who know us. So we talk to owners of restaurants we frequent, making sure they know we prefer and would be willing to pay more for organic, local ingredients, grass-fed beef, etc.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Green or Been

I am a secondary school teacher, teaching in Sung Siew Secondary School Sandakan, one of the best school in the state of Sabah, Malaysia.
When I was introduced to Maxis CyberlinQ Competition 2006, I had to come up with a project to serve the community. By then I was already introduced to SIMCA [Sugud Islands Conservation Area]. Realizing how noble this private organization trying to do their part for the environment, I wanted to do my part as a teacher. So I grabbed the chances through this competition, taking the theme of environment. With it, I was inspired to build a team called 'Green or Been' with many helps from parents and teachers. With the GOB team, consisted of 10 students and two teachers, we started off with many successful projects that overwhelmed me to see how these young generation do care. To name a few of the projects - Most Adorning Class, Recycle Reduce Reuse, Mini Botanical Garden, WWF Day, Green Week, charity to clean the beach and charity at our famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Thats not all, we were the first local school to adopt two babies orangutan named Naru and Sogo-Sogo, and also adopted coral reef named 'Sung Siew Reef'. That didn't stop there, we also joined WWF in their tree planting project. With all these, I'm proud to announce, we won the competition nationally. This is a proof to many that conservation surely can make a difference!
This year, I'm very pleased to get invited to go to Lankayan Island Dive Resort again. The GOB team did a mural painting of Sea Turtle's Life Cycle. The team learnt a lot about conservation of coral reef and sea turtle, besides had great amazing time. It is a very beautiful island indeed.
Our upcoming project is Mangrove Planting at Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, soon in September. I will update that here then :)
Conservation is the way!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Vegetable Box

I have had a hard time buying vegetables since I moved to San Francisco. Trader Joe's uses too much packaging and I often discover part of the vegetables are already bad when I get them home. Whole Foods is too expensive, and Safeway's vegetables look too waxy, and are often just as expensive as Whole Foods. Also, since I live in San Francisco I do not have the traditional warm summer that inspires one to eat summer's bounty. At the end of last summer I realized that I had almost missed out on the entire fruit season. So this spring I signed up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) box. When I signed up for the box I thought my fruit and vegetable problems would be over and I would be a vision of vegetable mastery, but alas, like usual my vision was a bit off.

The CSA I chose does not offer a lot of options for how often and how many vegetables you get, but the online reviews rated the quality and variety of this CSA as high. I am on my 11th week of getting the box and it is the first time I have used all of the vegetables. This is no small feat. For two people the amount of vegetables can be a bit overwhelming. Especially since I do not pick-up the box until Wednesday and I have standing activities on Wednesday and Thursday nights. On Friday nights I tend to be a bit lazy, and it seems like recently every weekend has been an endless crush of weddings, wedding and baby showers, birthdays and graduations. Suddenly, my compost transporter was overflowing and my kitchen smelled of rotting vegetables (I compost at my mom's house, so I only get rid of my compost as often as I see her).

Another problem that I only recently worked through was prolonging the life of the vegetables. While I have always trimmed the extra greens off of the vegetables I still was not getting a very long shelf life. I have recently been trying to cut down on my plastic consumption, I'll talk about this in my next post, and so I was excited that most of the vegetables come without plastic bags. Plastic bags, however, are helpful in keeping things from spoiling the the fridge, and I was unsure of what to do until I discovered the crisper. My greens do not wilt as quickly and my carrots now are not limp after 2 days, in fact, I have a few from two weeks ago.

By prolonging the life of my vegetables I have been able to start using the vegetables when I am at home. I also do not feel as overwhelmed by the sheer amount of product that can go bad. I have started making lists , using the recipes that come with the vegetable box and just adding a few extra vegetables to things that I might normally not. The process is getting easier, and less is headed to the compost heap.

Aside from the obvious benefits of eating locally grown, family farmed foods there are many other benefits I am discovering. The box has made me do a better job at planning what I am going to eat. I no longer wander the aisles of the store after work wondering what I should make for dinner. Instead I get to go directly home from work, and that means I get home earlier and eat earlier. This leaves me with much more time for myself later in the evening. I am also cooking more. I have always enjoyed cooking as a way to wind down from the day, but I tend to get a little lazy when take-out is so close. Having a ton of wonderful vegetables in my fridge inspires me to cook. Another great thing is the money I save. When I cook more I eat out less not only for dinner, but also for lunch, and I am now finding that I have extra money at the end of the week. The final benefit is the few pounds I have dropped, maybe it is because I am eating more vegetable or maybe it is because I am eating out less, but the scale has not been creeping up like it used to.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Finding good lipstick ... a continuing saga

My approach to updating my products has been slow and steady, to swap in new products as I finish the old. This of course goes faster with items like shampoo and conditioner, so it took me a while to get around to checking out new lipstick options.

My old lipsticks (that I still have and wear sometimes, just not on a daily basis anymore) were NARS semi-matte lipstick (here's the listing for the color Catfight) and MAC Satin Lipstick. Both earned a moderate concern ranking, with ingredients linked to cancer, and developmental and reproductive toxicity.

So I hit my local natural pharmacies with makeup sections to see what my options were. There are some brands that Skin Deep lists that I've never seen in a store (for instance, Canary Cosmetics, Alchemy of Color, and Cargo), and I don't like buying lipstick online because finding the right color is already tricky enough in person.

This is about the right time to note that I still haven't found an ideal lipstick. I just can't seem to find a nice red with brown undertones that suits people like me who are a little pale, but also a little olivey, and have dark hair. It seems like most of what I find is either way too pink or so brown that I look like a corpse.

But I have dedicated hours and the backs of both hands to testing healthier lipstick colors. Here's what I've found so far:

  • Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer: For a long time I avoided Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer because it seemed more like lip balm than lipstick, and I assumed it was for the shampoo-once-a-week/no-makeup types. But I tried it and it's a pretty convincing lipstick, plus it tingles (in a good way). The only problem is the color. I had to buy three of them before finding one that I really liked, though at about $5 a pop, it wasn't such a big deal. The Merlot, which I tried first, was much more pink than the top indicated. The color Raisin is pretty good, though perhaps still a little too pink for me. And Coffee, though I originally avoided it (see corpse issue, above), ended up being a lovely shade of brownish red.
  • Bare Escentuals Quick Stick: I tried Nancy's Fig color Quick Stick and really liked it. The color is great and the application is smooth and even. But, even though Bare Escentuals promotes itself as a company that uses natural ingredients, I know that some of its powders (specifically the Mineral Veil, which keeps oily skin from being too shiny) contain parabens, so I thought I should just take a quick look at the ingredient list before charging down there and buying my own. And what I found was a really long ingredient list that included parabens and a few other unsavory ingredients. So sad. I really do hope they ditch the parabens though, because I really like the colors.
  • Sante: This one is a mystery brand. It's available at the Elephant Pharm near my house, the colors are promising, and the price is right, but the store doesn't have an ingredients list and I can't find anything substantial online.

Ingredients of concern

In checking out some of the higher-risk lipsticks in the SkinDeep database, it looks like ingredients of concern in lipsticks include BHA, parabens, and various coloring agents.

Monday, June 4, 2007

What can dog food and apple juice have in common?

Just as my 3 year old was telling me with glee how he has learned to pour apple juice at pre-school, we read this in the WSJ that the US is the largest market for apple juice imported from China...where the regulations about what pesticides and how much are even more lax than here. One of the most heavily-polluted, pesticide-using country in the world is providing the juice our kids are drinking in a concentrated form!

I'm working with the school to serve organic-only juice. "Who's Monitoring Chinese Food Exports" WSJ, (4/9/2007) "China has one of the world's highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States," according to a report published last November by the economic-research service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Complex World of Tomato Sauce

I was stunned to read the following in Oprah magazine's Feb. 2006 issue:

"Is Plastic Affecting our Fertility?"
"The findings: Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in plastics that mimics estrogen, causes health problems in animals at far lower doses than most people are exposed to every day.

What you need to know: Polycarbonate, the hard plastic that contains BPA, is found in many products, including baby bottles and the inside coating of food cans. Heating and repeated washing can cause leaching, and significant levels of the chemicals have been measured in humans. Of the 115 animal studies reviewed in a recent Environmental Health Perspectives article, 94 showed that even small amounts of BPA can cause fertility problems, hyperactivity, altered immune function, and early sexual maturation. Plastics makers maintain their products are sage (of the 11 industry-sponsored studies, none found evidence of harm), but there are efforts to ban BPA from children's goods. Frederick vom Saal, PdD, the paper's lead author, called BPA "a poster chemical for ADHD" and recommends avoiding foods sterilized in the can, such as tomatoes ("massive amounts of BPA," he says). Also be cautious using clear plastic baby bottles--find out more at"

I've found some interesting organic tomato sauces in glass jars that I've been using in our cooking at home, and we've been ordering much less pizza and spaghetti when out.

My friend Julia has also tracked down how much BPA is in the bottled water we are getting from Alhambra water due to the sterilization process which super heats the bottles, which leech BPA into the drinking water we were buying because we thought it was safer. More on that in further posts.

Friday, June 1, 2007

A pretty problem: Avoiding dangerous ingredients and finding healthy beauty products

Recently I calculated about how much money I'd spent on face, hair, and body products over my lifetime. The number was so shocking that I'm not going to repeat it here, but I will say it was enough to buy a new compact car or a pretty nice extended vacation, one complete with high-thread-count sheets and beachside spa treatments (see there I am, already back to products).

And I didn't get to that number by purchasing excessively expensive products, either. No $100 jars of wrinkle cream made from the tears of ducklings or $60 deep conditioners from top-secret beauty labs in France. Most of my products fall in the $7 to $30 range. Over time though, it really adds up.

So it was already an issue with a lot of personal financial weight when someone recommended the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database, which reviews ingredients in beauty products for general health and safety. According to the Why This Matters article on the website, we apply an average of 126 ingredients to our bodies every day. That seemed high only until I took a look at the back of the bottles I had in the bathroom.

I'd heard the vague rumblings about how product companies put all sorts of unhealthy things in products, how the industry wasn't properly regulated, and so on, but because it seemed like it would open a whole can of worms (it did), I stalled on researching it. Finally I decided that if I was going to continue to spend as much as I do on products, it was worth the effort to get ones that didn't do more harm than good. And once I started looking, I realized that a ton of products, even the supposedly natural ones, had all sorts of stuff that various agencies around the world had deemed unsafe or questionable.

Some of the ingredients I'm now watching out for are clearly not the sort of thing you want in or on your body. Stuff like mercury, lead, and phthalates. But there are also ingredients which studies have suggested lead to health problems, though nothing totally definitive has been published yet.

But my take on it is that I'd rather be safe than sorry. I don't want my vanity to be my undoing. Maybe it's because I had two aunts who died of cancer (breast and ovarian), and it's unclear why. Perhaps it was genetic, but I also wonder if it was something environmental, something that they were exposed or some product they both used.

The database uses a scoring system, with low scores indicating healthier products. You can also look at the risks associated with particular ingredients, and though I started out just seeking the lowest products on the scale, I've since tempered my approach to reflect the health issues I'm most concerned with.

The primary shortcoming of the database is that it's limited. When I go down to one of the natural pharmacies close to me (I'm close to Elephant Pharm, Pharmaca, and Whole Foods), half the products aren't represented in the database. Then it becomes a matter of reading ingredient lists, cross-checking them against my little printed-out list of the worst-of-the-worst.

This whole process takes time and has turned me into that crazy person standing in the cosmetics section staring alternately at my little notebook and the back of a bottle, but if this is something that I'm going to continue to spend the equivalent of cars and vacations on—and it is, because I like smooth, moisturized skin; shiny, pretty hair; and makeup—then I'm definitely going to make sure that the stuff my skin is absorbing daily isn't likely to give me cancer, going to make me have flipper babies, and isn't doing weird things to my hormones.

I thought this would be a good space to share some of the things I've found over the course of my ongoing quest for healthier products. I'll tackle both general issues (Are bad ingredients the key to good products?) and detail what I've found by trying out some of the healthier options I've been able to find. First up? Hmmm, maybe "Lipstick: the continuing saga."