Monday, November 30, 2015

What's That Smell?

by LeAnn Siefferman

Ever wonder why your waffle iron had an odor the first few times you plugged it in? Or where that “new car smell” comes from?  You may be surprised to learn that many of our daily olfactory encounters are in fact manufactured bouquets of chemical compounds, with ingredients known to be hazardous to human health.

Take for example non-stick surfaces. Highly fluorinated chemicals (HFCs) are used to create a variety of oil and water-repellant surfaces, from frying pans and microwave popcorn bag linings to raincoats and stain-resistant carpets, and they are toxic to animals and humans. These harmful chemicals off-gas emissions when heated, migrate from surfaces with use, affix themselves to inhaled house dust particles and can enter soils and groundwater via landfill leachate. The pollutants then make their way into our bodies through the air we breathe, water we drink, and the food we eat.

HFCs have not only been linked to a number of health issues, such as endocrine disruption, obesity and cancer, they are scientifically recognized as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, meaning these harmful compounds build in concentration as they move up the food chain and do not break down over time. In fact, HFCs have managed to migrate into and through the biosphere, showing up in remote locations such as in the tissue of Arctic polar bears.

You may want to sit down to process what you have read thus far, but before doing so, make sure your chair, couch or ottoman is free of brominated flame retardants. To figure this out, you want to first look for a TB 117 label. This label is indication of compliance with Technical Bulletin 117, adopted in 1975 by California’s Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Home Furnishings and Insulation. TB 117 stated that furniture must meet an open flame and smoldering cigarette test. To pass this test, fire is contained and suppressed through the heavy use of brominated flame retardant chemicals (BFRs) applied to the furniture’s foam core.

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Chemicals commonly associated with the TB 117 label include known mutagens, carcinogens, and are linked to neurotoxicity, decreased IQ, hyperactivity and endocrine disruption. Similar to HFCs, you are exposed to BFRs by way of dermal absorption, inhalation of contaminated house dust, and ingestion of contaminated foods. Like HFCs, these flame retardant chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. While BFRs are still in use, their application is no longer required by law. In 2013, California changed TB 117 to TB 117-2013, whereby all furniture produced after January 1, 2015 is required to have a label indicating whether or not the furniture contained chemicals known to be hazardous to human health.

Amidst growing evidence linking highly fluorinated compounds and brominated flame retardants with significant health concerns, these chemical compounds are still in frequent use today. Federal legislation currently allows for the use of chemical compounds in consumer products before knowing the extent of their impact on the environment. Extensive scientific research has produced links between commonly-used chemicals and human health, yet legislation has not been updated to reflect these findings.

The good news? While plenty of headlines suggest that the contents of your home could be killing you, there are numerous ways in which you can mitigate your exposure, and your children’s exposure, to harmful chemicals. Below are several resources for reducing and removing sources of toxins in your home:

  • There are many safe alternatives to non-stick cookware. (And if you are a Southerner like me, you will be happy to learn that your grandma’s cast iron skillet is on the safe list.)
  • Not sure if your couch contains flame retardants? Check out the Duke University study that will test the contents of your couch for free.
  • While currently there are no safe methods for the disposal of flame retardant furniture, research is ongoing to determine possible options, and sofa cushion exchange programs make it possible to reduce your exposure in the meantime.

While it is financially unrealistic to replace everything at once, start small changes now that, overtime, make a big difference.

Challenge: take a quick inventory of your kitchen, closet or living room. What cookware do you have that might contain toxic non-stick coatings? Can you find a TB-117 or TB 117-2013 label on your furniture? What alternatives could you consider, or have you already considered? Post below what you find and what you plan to do, or have already done, to minimize exposure to identified toxic chemicals in your home. 


LeAnn Siefferman lives in Orlando, FL and currently works full time as Puppy Program Manager for Canine Companions for Independence. She will be applying to the Harvard Extension School's ALM in Sustainability program this spring. She will be leaving her job to start an internship with the City of Orlando's Office for Sustainability beginning in December. LeAnn has a BA in Studio Art from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Introducing Permaculture: A Follow-up to "INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective"

By: Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst

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INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective is a movie showcasing some of the key leaders and projects of the permaculture movement in New England and abroad.  The film shows many beautiful scenes of life in rural and urban setting. But what is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a philosophy that was born out of an Australian garden. It is a practice of sustainable agriculture whose 12 “principles” or guidelines are a framework for creating intuitive system assessments.

In my 2013 article for the Valley Advocate “ Permaculture Goes Public” I explain that “Permaculture revolves around three goals: caring for people, caring for the Earth, and giving a fair share to everyone. Incorporating elements of organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, sustainable development, forestry and natural building, permaculture is a way of thinking holistically about natural systems.”

The twelve principle of permaculture are simple common-sense type statements, accompanied by a saying or phrase that sums up the idea of the principle. Each principle is a key to maximizing sustainability and balance within an ecosystem.

The twelve principles are:
  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy 
  3. Obtain a yield 
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback 
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services 
  6. Produce No Waste 
  7. Design From Patterns to Details 
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate 
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions 
  10. Use and Value Diversity 
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal 
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
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In the movie INHABIT we see some great examples of urban permaculture including a number of permaculture examples within the state. In fact Massachusetts is one of the states leading the nation in Permaculture initiatives and education. UMass Amherst has a devoted Permaculture garden that won the 2012 White House Champions of Change Award.         
Permaculture started in the rural garden and its practitioners are overwhelmingly agriculturalists. However, increasingly permaculture is being used in urban areas, within businesses and at the management level. Permaculture explores worker owned co-ops and non-traditional management styles as well as helping to improve the effectiveness of traditional businesses .

Permaculture it is not a passive philosophy -- it is active and solutions based. It hopes to be a blueprint for human success in a time of climate change. Across the world, permaculture is proving that it can be helpful with giving communities localized food security, cleaner water and better understanding of local systems.


Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst

Kathleen is a writer and photographer with a focus on travel, the environment and global public health. She is a certified Permaculturalist as well as an Area Director for the historic Fenway Victory Gardens. Currently she is a master’s degree candidate in Sustainability at Harvard Extension. You can follow her on Instagram @kat_abroad