Week of 3/9/2008

Dear EarthTalk: My pediatrician swears by those gel hand sanitizers for lowering the risk of my family getting sick during cold and flu season. But I’ve also heard that these products can be dangerous to kids if ingested. Are there any safer alternatives that work just as well?

—Jason Blalock, Oakland, CA

A 2005 study by the Children’s Hospital in Boston compared illness rates across a study group of 292 families—half of them got hand sanitizers while the other half were given literature advising them of the benefits of frequent hand washing. The findings revealed that those families who used hand sanitizers experienced a 59 percent reduction in gastrointestinal illnesses and that the increased use of sanitizers correlated to a decreased spread of contagions in general.

Although gel hand sanitizers have proven in tests to reduce gastrointestinal illnesses and the spread of contagions compared to ordinary soap and water, their high alcohol content can be poisonous to children who ingest them.© Living is Easy with Eyes Closed

Another study conducted at Colorado State University yielded similar conclusions, that alcohol-based hand sanitizers were as much as twice as effective as either regular soap or antibacterial soap at reducing germs on human hands. A Purdue University study, however, concluded that while alcohol-based hand sanitizers may kill more germs than plain or triclosan-based soaps, they do not prevent more infections that make people sick. Instead they may kill the human body’s own beneficial bacteria by stripping the skin of its outer layer of oil.

The down side of the gel/alcohol products is their danger as poison, especially for young children who may ingest the gel by licking it off their hands or eating it directly out of dispensers. Purell and Germ-X, two of the leading brands, each contain 62 percent ethyl alcohol. While this alcohol is what gives the products their germ-busting power, it also puts kids at risk of alcohol poisoning. A few squirts of the hand sanitizer—which is equivalent to124 proof booze—is enough to make a kid’s blood alcohol level .10, which is the equivalent of being legally drunk in most states.

So what’s a concerned parent to do? Unfortunately, the so-called greener alternatives out there aren’t safe to swallow either. EO Hand Sanitizer, for example, though it uses organic lavender oil also contains alcohol to sanitize the skin surface, and would also be considered poison if a large enough amount was ingested. Similarly greener (but still not safe to eat) products are available from Avant and All Terrain.

For now, soap and warm water—and constant nagging of your kids to wash their hands—may be the safest way to sanitize. Also, make sure that any hand sanitizer dispensers you may still use are kept out of the reach of little hands.

But who knows how we"ll be sanitizing our hands in the future. Researchers at Arizona State University have found that certain types of natural clays pulled right from the ground are highly effective at killing bacteria. One type of green clay has been shown to do a number on E. coli, salmonella, staph and other bacteria known to make people sick. But the research is still in its infancy, so don’t expect to see moms pulling jars of clay out of their purses anytime soon.

CONTACTS: EO Products; OrganicBeautySource.com; MotherNature.com

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental consequences of leather? Are there any good alternatives?

—Brianna Jacobs, Somerville, MA

One of many non-leather shoe offerings from vegetarianshoesandbags.com. Pictured here are high heels made of stylish faux snakeskin.© vegetarianshoesandbags.com

Leather is everywhere—from shoes and belts, to purses, wallets, jackets, furniture and car seats. Most probably assume that the leather that finds its way into our wardrobes and living spaces is a byproduct of the meat industry. But while cows are certainly the most popular animals to use for leather goods, in truth most of our leather is sourced from overseas, from countries like China and India, where a host of animals may be raw material for our bags and belts, including horses, deer, sheep and, in more exotic cases, alligators or snakes. All of which may make an animal-lover or vegetarian queasy.

But environmentalists have reason to forgo leather, too. Processing leather requires copious amounts of energy and a toxic stew of chemicals including formaldehyde, coal tar, and some cyanide containing finishes. The tanning process is just as pollutant-laced, and can leave chemicals in the water supply (as described in the best-selling book and popular movie, A Civil Action) and on the hands (and in the lungs) of developing world workers.

Tanneries are top polluters on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) "Superfund" list, which identifies the most critical industrial sites in need of environmental cleanup. Due to their toxicity, reports organicleather.com, "many old tannery sites can’t be used for agriculture, or built on, or even sold." That website is the home of Mill Valley, California, retailer Organic Leather, which offers a return to the tanning practices of old—using animals that are organically fed and humanely raised and a tanning process that uses plant tannins, vegetable tannins or smoke to cure the leather with zero toxicity in the process.

But with the wealth of fashionable faux leather alternatives, there’s no need to ever wear animal skins. So-called "cruelty-free" fashions have advanced in leaps and bounds, with variations on every style of handbag, wallet, belt and boot. Online "vegan boutique"Alternative Outfitters even has a version of the ubiquitous Ugg boot made with microsuede "shearling" on the outside and synthetic wool inside, while Iowa-based Heartland Products sells western-style non-leather boots and non-leather Birkenstock sandals. Science has come up with plenty of comfortable, durable alternatives to materials made with animal products. These include vegan microfiber, which claims to match leather in strength and durability, and Pleather, Durabuck and NuSuede.

Products made with these synthetic materials tend to be less expensive than their leather counterparts and are being produced by major manufacturers like Nike, whose Durabuck athletic and hiking shoes "will stretch around the foot with the same "give" as leather… and are machine washable," according to company sources. And you won’t need to adjust your style, either. Vegetarianshoesandbags.com offers everything from purple faux snakeskin peep-toe pumps for hitting the clubs to hemp sneakers with recycled outsoles that look skate park-ready, to distinctive Pleather bags and versatile woven belts.

CONTACTS: Alternative Outfitters; Heartland Products; Organic Leather; Vegetarian Shoes and Bags