If you live in my world, your e-mail box is full every morning with reports of newly published research on the hazards of exposure to chemicals found in everyday consumer goods and the radiation emitted by wireless devices or the environmental impact of our fossil-fuel-driven and throwaway society. Unfortunately, many common chemical exposures are unavoidable as they are found in our air and water, but some can easily be avoided by making informed choices. As the holidays approach and gift giving is top of mind, here are some things to think about.
Buying gifts for children or grandchildren gives us great pleasure, but we need to be especially careful not to inadvertently purchase a toy or electronic device that can be harmful to their health. Some toys, such as children’s imported metal jewelry or painted toys, can contain cadmium or lead and the ubiquitous plastic toys lining store shelves often contain chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenols, PVC and other plasticizing chemicals that have been linked to serious illnesses but not yet taken off the market by government regulators. Avoiding these toys is especially important for very young children who mouth their toys.
Discarded plastic toys, along with the plethora of other single-use plastics used for holiday gatherings, eventually find their way into our oceans, where they are hazardous for aquatic species. Floating plastic garbage patches, some hundreds of miles in diameter, now populate our oceans and are growing every day. There are many ocean protection organizations that have “adoption” programs for endangered species that are appealing to older kids who love whales and dolphins. At the right age, a gift of environmental protection and awareness can be priceless.
We also have to keep in mind that the main feedstocks for plastics are fossil fuels and the companies that manufacture plastic items are highly polluting industries. Communities surrounding plastic manufacturing plants are known as “sacrifice zones” because they put local residents at risk of serious health problems related to contaminated air and water.
And, while not pleasant to think about, tens of thousands of young children in poor nations around the world work in dangerous mines, extracting rare minerals that are essential for most electronics, or sifting through massive garbage heaps to find and sell for pennies those same mineral components from discarded electronics.
Electronic gifts are hard to beat for popularity, but there are even more dark clouds hanging over them. In August, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ordered the Federal Communications Commission to re-examine its human exposure guidelines for radio-frequency radiation (the type of radiation emitted from wireless devices), this time taking into account recent studies proving that biological harm is occurring in humans at levels far below current safety guidelines. The court specifically mentioned potential harm to children as a major concern. The Environmental Working Group recently released a peer-reviewed study recommending that children’s exposure to RF radiation overall be 200 to 400 times lower than the current outdated exposure limits set by the FCC.
Every wireless device gives off some amount of RF radiation, but items such as wireless virtual-reality headsets emit high levels of radiation directly into the heads of children. Other wireless “wearables” and smart phones held against the head are in the same category. While advertising for these devices is enticing and peer-pressure is great, the bottom line is that wireless anything should give parents pause. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to harm from RF radiation and should avoid both “near field” (close proximity) and prolonged exposure.
Clothing is also a popular gift at holiday time, but winter clothing that is weather-resistant, such as jackets, ski wear and snow boots, usually contain one or more of more than 6,000 per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS. You’ve probably heard the news stories linking PFAS chemicals with a host of human health concerns, including endocrine disruption and cancer. Known as “forever” chemicals because their propensity for persisting in the environment long after their useful life, these chemicals have been unleashed on our environment and now contaminate practically every corner of the world. Especially concerning is their presence in public water supplies.
Another clothing concern at holiday time are all those warm and fuzzy synthetic (plastic) fleece coats, sweatshirts, hats, gloves and scarves. No one thinks about these items releasing billions of plastic micro-fibers into our waters when we throw them in the washing machine. Yes, they are comfy and relatively cheap, but the cumulative cost to our environment is enormous.
So what to do this holiday season when it comes to gifts for the ones you love?
The good news is there are plenty of gifts you can choose for your friends and family that pose no risk either to them or our environment. Environmentally friendly gifts include craft projects, a special book of family recipes, puzzles and books, magazine subscriptions, tickets to concerts and exhibitions, and memberships in museums and gyms.
Yoga, meditation, dance and cooking classes are all great gifts, as are music lessons or tickets to a lecture series. A piece of beautifully framed original art or an enlargement of a family photograph or a child’s special drawing make great and lasting gifts. One of my favorite gifts for kids is a large skein or spool of white cotton or wool. Hours of fun result in making the largest spider web you have ever seen! And it can be reused over and over.
Good resources to look up on-line for “green” gifts are: Bas Bleu, Etsy, Green America, Plan Toys, Hearth Song and Hanna Andersson.