Connecting the dots…breast cancer and everyday chems

breast cancer chemsAre chemicals in our environment connected to the rise in non-genetic causes of breast cancer? For lots of us following environmental toxin news, it seems like a no-brainer, but scientists are still trying to firm up the connections. A recent study by the Silent Spring Institute and Harvard School of Public Health published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives notes that exposure to chemicals that cause mammary gland tumours in rats is common, but “few studies have evaluated potential breast cancer risks in humans.” In the studies that have been done, researchers found that chems that cause tumours in rats are often associated with breast cancer in women.

The scientists eventually narrowed the list from 216 chems known to cause breast tumours in rodents to 17 common groups of chemicals that should be “top targets for breast cancer prevention.” On the list are substances found in gasoline/diesel fuel, flame retardants, stain-resistant fabrics, paint strippers and (gulp) disinfection by-products of chlorinated drinking water. The list goes on.

The study makes it clear that more research is definitely needed. Silent Spring’s goal was to identify high-priority toxins for further research and biomarkers for these toxins in women. While scientists continue to learn more about these chemicals, the authors of this latest study say there’s enough information to begin reducing our exposures.

On that note, here’s the Silent Spring Institute’s list of the most effective strategies:

• Avoid fuel and exhaust: Turn the engine off instead of idling. Give up gas-powered mowers and leaf blowers. Walk or take transit when you can. Don’t store gasoline in your home.

• Quit smoking, and avoid secondhand smoke.

• Limit consumption of carcinogens in charred foods and use ventilation fans when cooking.

• Go to perc-free dry cleaners or ask for “wet cleaning.”

• Avoid stain-resistant rugs, furniture and fabrics.

• Don’t buy furniture with polyurethane foam, or ask for foam not treated with flame retardants.

• Make sure you’re protected from toxins on the job. Push for good ventilation and protective equipment.

• Reduce exposure to chemicals in household dust by removing shoes at the door, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter and cleaning with wet rags and mops.

• Use a solid carbon block filter for drinking water.

This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine.

Go with the flow: what kind of water filter is right for you?

Glass of waterI’ve been writing the Ecoholic column for, oh, a decade now (actually it was just Ecoholic’s 10 year anniversary!) and some questions trickle in again and again in my inbox. Probably one of the most common reader Qs I get is about water filters. I write about them every few years but the thirst for knowledge of this front never ceases. So I revisited the topic in a recent column, and boiled down the latest info on filter types. We weighed environmental factors against filter quality.  Writing about environmental health, I’m certainly straddling two worlds – a lot of enviros will tell you they don’t own water filters (from an environmental footprint perspective, tap is greenest), but holistic health peeps are highly concerned with filtering out trace contaminants. The final call is yours. But if a filter is effective but super wasteful, sorry, points have to be docked. We also scored filters by type, not by brand (so your particular pitcher filter might score higher). Without further ado…


Your least expensive level of protection. Most rely on granular activated carbon, which is quite effective at getting rid of trace pharmaceuticals in water but not good enough at reducing lead to meet certifier standards. To be honest, pitchers are fine if you’re not all that worried about your water quality and you just don’t want the taste of chlorine. A basic Brita pitcher is certified to reduce “cadmium, chlorine, copper, mercury, taste/odour, zinc.” Mavea is also certified against perc (the dry cleaning chem). Santevia isn’t certified (by a water quality organization) but says it also alkalizes. Only one pitcher in Canada is certified to reduce lead, chromium, chlorine and other heavy metals: ZeroWater. Overall, pitchers scored a 2/5.


This energy-intensive filtration system basically vaporizes water, then captures the steam. It’s top-notch at killing bacteria and viruses (useful in rural settings with no municipal water treatment), but it also strips all the beneficial minerals out of water, which explains why the World Health Organization advises against it. It doesn’t remove chlorine or chlorine disinfection by-products like chloroform, hence why distillers often also run water through a carbon block filter. 2/5


Zapping untreated water with UV light is another great way to kill off bacteria. In fact, the city of Toronto voted to treat wastewater at Ashbridges Bay with UV a few years ago to eliminate carcinogenic chlorine disinfection by-products. But to be honest, urban households getting treated tap water needn’t bother getting a system that includes UV. It’s largely a waste of electricity for urban home use, so we’re docking points. 2/5


A long-time fave in the holistic community, since RO systems get rid of a lot of stuff not tackled by carbon filters, like fluoride, arsenic, bacteria and hexavalent chromium (made famous by Erin Brockovich). It also strips mineral content and doesn’t inherently get rid of chlorine or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Not all RO filters are created equal – some do more than others. (See’s water filter guide.) Where it loses points is waste: an RO system dumps three to 20 times more water than what it sends out of the tap. Probe before you buy.3/5


These super-condensed carbon filters are the type recommended by the Silent Spring breast cancer report (see column). They won’t remove fluoride (gotta combine it with reverse osmosis or alumina for that) or hex chromium, but are great for chlorine, lead, other heavy metals and a long list of VOCs. They don’t take extra energy or water to run, making them inherently greener. Shaklee makes a carbon block pitcher, though it’s certified to reduce less. Quality varies among countertop, faucet-mounted and under-sink versions. (See’s filter guide.) 4/5

This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine. 

Tough love: the rough guide to exfoliating face scrubs

exfoliators snapThere’s something weirdly hopeful about a good face scrub. Like if you find the right one it might just erase all the mistakes you (and by you I mean I) made popping, picking, sunbathing and generally abusing the delicate skin on our faces. Alas, the miracle has yet to happen for me and after a decade of chemically peeling my acne-riddled skin with prescription strength vitamin A as a teen, I’m hesitant to do any more intense sloughing. Instead, I use old fashioned scrubs. But it’s a delicate dance for someone with a genetic propensity towards poreous gigantus (the technical term for big ass pores). Scrub with the wrong thing and you might just tear at those little dermal openings, making then larger over time. At the same time, you want to get rid of that dry, flakey layer between you and the world.

Searching for the right scrub made me feel a little like Goldy Locks. So which one’s too gritty, not gritty enough, just right? I answered that in my Ecoholic column on scrubs. Click here to get the full column. My household’s tried way more than we had room for in print, like Green Beaver (bamboo beads are rough but sparse, so it feels a little painful and yet not exfoliating enough), Yes to Blueberries (meh, could be more natural/effective, plus it kind of stinks), MyChelle (pretty good), Suki’s foaming cleanser (works but it’s drying as hell, if you’re used to creamy cleansers….my guy loved this one), Pure & Simple Sensitive Skin Exfoliant & Mask (should have mentioned this one in the column alongside the Pure &Simple Cleansing Powder, it’s a top performer with jojoba beads), Panagea Organics (great for those who love good grittiness)…if I remember more of them, I’ll add them here. Whatever you do, stay away with any scrubs with seriously water-polluting plastic micro-beads!

DIY ALERT: Who needs to buy a scrub when you can make one?  I especially feel  that about body scrubs, but DIY face scrubs work well too. I make my own with soothing ground oats (oat flour), optional hemp powder (leftover hemp protein powder I never eat) and green tea (just tear open a tea bag). Keep it in a lidded jar by the side of your tub, put some in your palm, mix with a little water to make a paste and voila!

Also in this column, you’ll find my greenwash of the week (“Pure Coconut,” my ass!) and some nature notes on the latest bee/pesticide research and campus divestment from fossil fuels. For all the juicy details, read on!


Rain or shine: my month long nature bootcamp

hCan you believe May is almost coming to an end? Rain/shine/gloriously torrential downpours/surprise scorchers (is it really 28 degrees in Toronto today?) – I’ve soaked every bloomin’ day of it in. That was NOT that case in April when I was drained of all life force knocked over sideways with a crazy multi-tentacled flu virus for much of it. All that time cooped up indoors sapped my spirits to the point that I morphed into at least 4 of the 7 dwarves.

I have to give props to to the David Suzuki Foundation and Suzuki’s own Queen of Green herself, Lindsay Coulter, for encouraging me to sign up again this spring for their inspiring 30×30 Challenge. No matter the weather, no matter your mood, you had to spend 30 minutes outdoors in nature for 30 days straight. Sounds easy when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and you’re itching to get out there walking, running, hiking, biking, gardening, whatever, but some dreary drizzly days are, hm, shall we say, less than motivating. In the end, I loved them all.

Here’s my original piece from early May. I feel like I should have done a before and after pic. One with a bad case of cabin fever (and a literal fever) and one beaming from ear to ear, soaking in spring’s life force, moment by moment. Thank you, Nature, for being so naturally awe-inspiring.  And thank you, Suzuki Foundation friends. I needed that.

Soggy grey clouds are wringing themselves out on the streets of Toronto, and I’m at my computer ticking boxes asking how agitated or energized I’ve been feeling. “Have I felt so alive I just want to burst?” Hmm. Clearly this is a sign I need a kick in the ass. Thankfully, I’m signing up for one from David Suzuki himself.

Suzuki’s not doing the actual kicking, but every May his foundation signs Canadians up to commit to 30 minutes in nature for 30 days as part of its 30 x 30 Challenge. The national well-being-boosting campaign asks participants to take an official psychological pre- and post-nature-injection survey. The whole thing kind of made me want to lie down on a shrink’s couch at first.

I consider myself a pretty happy, upbeat person. But from the look of my survey answers, something was obviously off. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but the solution smacks me upside the head: I need to get outside.

Committing to 30 minutes in nature sounds like a breeze, I know – until you realize that May can be a pretty wet month. Grey skies are a little uninspiring, and on drizzly days I park the bike and opt for transit. (I’d never survive Vancouver.) But now I’m committed to track down a park, a ravine – anything green really – and stroll tree-lined side streets no matter the forecast.

It takes a little internal goading at first, but making time for those 30 minutes, well, it’s magic. I’d normally bypass the ravine near my house to speed-walk to the bus, but today the trickling brook, chirping birds and rustling leaves (mementos of fall) envelop me in nature’s surround-sound amphitheatre. It doesn’t matter if the sun hasn’t been seen for days. Between the budding treetops, flashes of neon-green moss and purple violets, it’s as though nature is warming up its best singers and dancers for a wild cabaret to celebrate spring. 

If you’re far from decent hiking grounds, have your morning coffee outside, skip the gym and jog outdoors, suggest a walking meeting at work. Even a little parkette should have a tree under which you can read/sketch/write. All I need is a single big ol’ tree. There’s something expansive, transformative that happens when you really stop to take in the vibes and wondrous skyward twisting limbs of those giant woody gods. It’s like a mini-meditation without the ponytailed guru. 

Take 30 minutes to escape the concrete jungle and the heady traffic jams of the information highway, and your day, no matter how it started, is enchantingly purified. Less than a week in, I feel relaxed and healthier. Have I felt so alive I just want to burst? Actually, check.

*This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine. 


Cookware unscrambled: the latest dish on fying pans

Fried eggs

This column first appeared in the Mother’s Day issue of Ecoholic in NOW Magazine. Let’s get straight to it…


First the good news: Teflon, the most famous of the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) non-stick coatings, is now being manufactured without the notoriously persistent, suspected human carcinogen PFOA, as the result of U.S. government pressure. However, critics argue that replacement chems are under-researched. France-based T-Fal’s website says it’s still manufacturing with PFOA, though like all non-stick makers, it says the final pan surfaces are PFOA-free. Regardless, Health Canada says PTFE pans can give off poisonous fumes at very high temps. FYI, some titanium pans use ptfe non-stick coatings, so be sure to probe.

SCORE: 1/5


Aluminum’s great at conducting heat (hence, all sorts of pans have aluminum cores), but plain aluminum skillets do quite a bit of leaching. Anodizing the metal in an acid bath with electric current hardens it, creating a non-stick surface that leaches a lot less aluminum. But it still seeps out over time if you’re cooking high-acid foods like tomato sauces. Health Canada says levels are low enough that you shouldn’t worry. But why invest in one of these when there are so many other options on the market?

SCORE: 2/5


Often branded as “eco” pans because their non-stick glazed ceramic surface doesn’t use PTFEs or Teflon. I’ve tried a good half-dozen ceramic brands over the years. Some scratched within six months (like Eco-Chef, which came with a one year warranty) or just failed to deliver consistent non-stick performance (Orgreenic). Earthchef and Green Pan, both of which test for lead and cadmium in the glazes, were more durable, but I’ve found ceramic will lose its non-stick skills if you’re searing or cooking at high heat often. Nice part is Earthchef comes with a five-year guarantee. My advice: reserve these for eggs, and cook with another pan the rest of the time.

SCORE: 3/5


Few pans are more durable and resilient than those made of stainless steel. They won’t rust like cast iron or wear out like ceramic, aluminum or conventional non-stick pans. You can scrub them with steel wool if need be and on they live. They can leach a little nickel and chromium into your food, though “not enough to cause concern,” according to Health Canada. Rundown aluminum and copper pans may leach to a more worrisome extent. A lot of pro chefs use carbon steel, which is mostly iron without the nickel or chromium in stainless steel. It’s more like lightweight cast iron and still needs seasoning. (De Buyer B Element from France is carbon steel with a beeswax coating.)

SCORE: 4/5


I love old-fashioned cast iron pans. Okay, yes, they’re a bit of a pain in the arse since they’re heavy as hell and you have to wash and dry them with care. But if you buy good seasoned pans (Lodge crafts quality, American-made ones), these are wonderful chef-friendly surfaces. Plus, iron cookware can actually boost your daily iron intake by some 20 per cent – a bonus for vegetarians! Too heavy for you? Try carbon steel.

SCORE: 4/5

Battle of the Cleaning Cloths + Is Borax Really Toxic?

Ecloth column

Back in the day (as in up until, oh, a year ago), Ecoholic used to be a straight up green advice column. Every week readers wrote in with questions and I’d answer them in Q&A format. We’ve changed things up since then (mixing in product guides, nature notes, greenwash of the week, green finds of the week), but sometimes there’s no better way to get at a topic then with an old fashioned reader Q. Like this one on borax. Actually, I was at the Green Living Show in Toronto in late April when two women ended up asking me about borax. It hit me that I’ve never addressed the whole borax controversy with you guys so I figured there’s no better time then the present. It’s an important read for anyone that does DIY cleaning or uses all natural products. So is borax actually toxic? It’s a complicated issue. I get into it all in the column but thought I’d provide you with some direct links to reports for those of you looking for background details.

A few years ago, the European Union said boric acid/borax were reproductive toxins at high levels but not endocrine/hormone disruptors (which can trigger problems at quite low levels). At that point, they issued another report assessing the actual risk to consumers and they said levels used in detergents/soaps/cleaning products were safe. Then things shifted. They ended up putting boric acid on the list of potential hormone disruptors. I think it’s important to clarify that the list basically prioritizes substances for further research for endocrine disrupting effects. The list contains some seriously troublesome chems, like known toxin PCB,  as well as BPA, on which hundreds of studies have found hormone disrupting effects. Boric acid doesn’t have the same lengthy rap sheet in terms of hormone disruption. So a lot of people are confused. Should we should keep using it with abandon? Should we shelve it for good? Well, I think we should certainly pause and wait for more research. It’s also unclear why the EU only put boric acid on the list and not borax, when they’ve lumped the two together before. In the meantime, you can double click on the image above to read the column laid out as it appears in print or click here for the online version. You’ll get the full dirt, I promise.

While I was talking borax, figured I’d do a product guide to cleaning tools that promise you can get your home spic ‘n span without any cleaning products (natural or mainstream) altogether. Plus I’ve gotten a ton of questions over the years from Norwex fans asking, ‘Why didn’t you review Norwex in Ecoholic Home?’ ‘Why did you say Norwex contains nano silver in an old column?” “Why don’t you do an updated guide to cleaning cloths?” Yes, there’s a small army of green cleaning women and men wanting an update on this situation so voila, I’ve updated my cleaning cloth guide. Again, you can peruse it above or read the whole shebang here.

So what do you guys think? Which cleaning cloths do you like/hate? Will you be packing up your borax or will you keep using it anyway? A lot to mull over on cleaning day, that’s for sure.

Hello, sunshine: the solar tech guide for every budget (& more)

woman in the fieldSome people dream in technicolour, I dream in solar panels. Well, not every night or anything, I’m not a lunatic. I’m still saving for a house clad with shiny blue panels (oh wouldn’t it be awesome to go off-grid and never pay a utility bill again?). In the meantime, I’ve got a little guide here to solar technology for all budgets (just ignore the part that talks about the Green Living Show, which has now passed…yes, I’m behind on blogging again). It covers everything from pretty solar patio lights to solar chargers all the way to solar shingles. Plus, you’ll find my super cool Green Find of the Week (moss graffiti kit!), news on H&M and Zara‘s commitment to green up their rayon, the latest push to get us all planting milkweed (the only plant monarch butterflies can breed on) & more. Now that’s a variety pack! Who else gives you solar tech, fashion news and gardening tips in one blog? Click here to read on…

The New Hemp Economy: Q&A with author of Hemp Bound

Doug FineIf you’ve ever met a hemp enthusiast, you’re probably already schooled in the plant’s superpower uses in clothing, snack bars and hacky sacks. But in his newly released book – Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Agricultural Revolution –  comedic investigative journalist and solar-powered goat herder Doug Fine shows just how deep the wonder-crop’s applications run. New Mexico-based Fine set out to meet the people pioneering hempcrete-insulated houses, hemp-fuelled limos, even hemp-fired power plants. He chats with Ecoholic about the plant’s budding potential.

You say Canada’s hemp industry is booming and can’t plant it fast enough. Where’s it all going?

Here’s the reality on the ground today: Canadian farmers are making $300 per acre profit on hemp – as much as 10 times what they make on GMO corn. They’re growing for the nutritive superfood that is hemp seed oil. Demand is growing so fast… I wish I had 1,000 acres on which to plant hemp today – $300 times 1,000 is more than I’ve yet made as a writer.

If so much hemp is being grown, why isn’t anyone making Canadian-grown hemp clothing?

Canada isn’t yet growing much for fibre applications; the seed oil has been the money crop. In China and parts of Europe, fibre is profitable for textiles, construction and industry. At the Composites Innovation Centre in Winnipeg (a joint government/private sector venture), I saw a prototype tractor body made entirely from hemp fibre.

How can hemp come to the rescue in the face of climate change?

The idea in Hemp Bound that I hope spreads widest and most quickly is a farm waste biomass energy plan that I believe can help wean humanity from fossil fuels. It’s already in play in Europe: entire communities in Austria and Germany are becoming energy-independent by combusting biomass anaerobically. Now I’m traipsing around North America trying to get farmers and processors to implement this alternative to fossil fuels. The outhouse-sized units aren’t very expensive. A single farm can provide its own energy or feed it back to the grid. The U.S. Army is even investing in this technology.

You talk about how its drought-resistant, soil-rehabilitating properties will come in handy as farms dry up.

Hemp is an annual plant whose foot-long taproot helps stabilize soil and provides a vital ecosystem for microflora and fauna. Colorado’s first commercial hemp farmer, Ryan Loflin, comes from an experienced farm family. He told me hemp uses half the water his wheat crop did. That means his neighbours on the threatened Ogallala Aquifer can dry-land crop hemp. Imagine the implications for drought-ravaged parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa.

If hemp growing doesn’t require pesticides, why is it important to support organic hemp?

That is a fantastic question, and the answer is important: while hemp itself doesn’t require pesticides (and you blessed Canadians have prophylactically banned GMO hemp as well), to be organic the soil must be organic year round. If not, hemp, being a rotational crop, could be and often is cultivated on non-organic soil that’s growing, say, GMO soy at other times. While the hemp crop will help heal that soil, I don’t want my family putting that non-organic seed oil in our morning shake.

Is the U.S. any closer to legalizing hemp farming, the way Canada did in the late 90s?

I expect U.S. federal law to get there in the next year or two, now that this year’s Farm Bill allows university research. Canada’s industry, now approaching $1 billion a year, started out with cultivar research as well.

If you were a venture capitalist, what hemp products would you invest in?

The hemp brand is best expressed in the kind of beyond “Don’t be evil” business model that Dr. Bronner’s hemp and olive oil soaps espouses: fair trade, organic, and the CEO makes no more than five times the wage of the lowest-paid worker. You can be righteous and profitable at the same time. Along those lines, what I’d like to see is rural communities investing in regional processors, sharing the profits, healing the soil and the air, and profiting right from season one from “tri-cropping” – that is, from growing at once for seed oil, fibre applications and clean distributed energy.

What’s the most surprising place you found hemp in a product?

My Republican accountant’s office: she proudly showed me her skin cream with hemp in the ingredients list. Also, a Canadian product called Holy Crap Cereal is at the International Space Station. Oh, also on my own body: I testified in favour of cannabis regulation at the United Nations recently while completely clad in hemp clothing.

Did you know…?

• Hemp-insulated houses take less energy to heat.

• Hemp fibres are used in Dodge, BMW and Mercedes door panels.

Earth Day Manifesto: I Think a Change Will Do Us Good


Most of us get antsy when we think about change. We brace for it like a bad smell coming downwind, cringing and turning our heads, hoping it won’t hit us if our faces are cranked the other way. But it always does. Maybe not the bad smell but change always finds us. The question is, can you welcome it?  I don’t know about you but no matter what shit storm I’ve been through in my life, it’s always made me change for the better. It’s made me stronger, gentler, wiser, more adaptable, more resilient. It’s cracked wide open my mind and expanded and unfurled my heart.

And that my friends, is the gift hidden, waiting, in the shit storm called climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel report released in stages over the last couple weeks has been clear as day. Change is coming, actually change is here and already knocking on our door, at our flooded city gates (hello, Calgary, New York, Toronto) and on our bone-dry barn doors (sorry, Prairies). Sooner or later, we’re going to get stronger, gentler, wiser, more adaptable, resilient and creative, we’re going to open our hearts and minds to it and we, as a people, as a civilization, will change for the better. The question is how much suffering do we want to cut off at the pass? After all the lessons I’ve learned from my brother Nick’s suicide and my father’s disabling stroke, I sometimes haggle with the universe, telling it, “you know what, I think I’m good with the hard lessons for now.” That’s when I negotiate, vowing to learn not just from all the things that go wrong in life -  the way humans usually do – but to keep trying to be a more conscious, caring, mindful, grateful human being day by day, to really awaken to the amazing gifts of living on this earth, in this lifetime, not just on my deathbed at the end of it.

So let me ask you again, how much suffering do we want to cut off at the pass? The wise IPCC scientists from all around this incredible planet say we still have time, but we have to H-U-S-T-L-E. What can I really do, you ask? I’m just one person. Well, for one, we have to care. And we have to vote for and support the politicians and policies that can help us thrive in the face of change that’s coming whether we like it or not. What you can do is tell all three levels of politicians elected to represent you – right or left – to bravely lead on renewable energy, on shifting away from fossil fuels and on getting the places we live in ready for a changing climate. Tell them you don’t want us to just turn our collective heads the other way hoping the stench of climate change doesn’t hit us. We need to walk towards change with our eyes, hearts and minds open.

For my Earth Day feature in NOW Magazine, I wrote about how cities like Toronto can lead the planetary rescue (to read it in full, click here).  Truth is no matter where you live – country, city, Toronto, Texas, Timmins – we all need to get involved, show we care and work on changing the world from our little corners, as my mom would say. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the IPCC reports but if you read between the lines there’s also a hell of a lot of exciting potential for change, to build thriving, resilient, dynamic communities that our families can call home for generations to come. Places that remind us that, yes, a change can do us good.


If you like it then you better put an ethical ring on it: the band guide

wedding bandsOnce spring hits full swing so does wedding season. If you’re already engaged, well, congratulations! When’s the big date? You planning on sealing the deal with a wedding band? Have I got the column for you. In the latest Ecoholic, we dig deep, real deep, like belly-of-the-earth-mining-conditions-deep to, er, extract the truth about which rings are truly fair and and full of heart from the ground up. Lots of companies claim to use ethical diamonds and responsible gold, but what steps have they taken to ensure they’re not selling you dirty bling, tainted with blood, sweat and tears? Check out Earthworks retailer score card called Tarnished Gold. Interestingly, Birks and Tiffany were two of the only major retailers that scored fairly well, though the top scorers are all indy brands that use certified fair trade and/or recycled gold.  For the complete Ecoholic wedding bang guide, though, read on here. And keep your eye on this page…Earthworks has an updated retailer scorecard coming out in the near future. I’ll be sure to post it.

ethical rings