EarthTalk® | October 2012

Credit: BananaStock/Thinkstock
Many cat litters contain significant amounts of silica dust, chemical fragrances and, in “clumping” cat litters, sodium bentonite clay, which can be derived from destructive strip mining and can cause gastrointestinal distress in cats that can lead to death.

Dear EarthTalk: Which are the most eco-friendly and non-toxic (to people, cats and sanitation systems) cat litters? — Sam Barnes, Macon, GA

It makes sense that environmentally enlightened cat owners would want cat litter made from natural products that will not potentially compromise their health or that of their beloved pets. Many mass market cat litters contain significant amounts of silica dust which has been linked to upper respiratory issues in cats and even humans. Likewise, the chemical fragrances in many cat litters can also be toxic to cats.

Yet another issue is the sodium bentonite clay in “clumping” cat litters. The fact that this type of clay can swell up to 15 times its original volume when a cat urinates or defecates into it makes it an excellent cat litter substrate, as waste clumps can be scooped out and filled in without changing the entire litter box. But when cats ingest this material it can cause gastrointestinal distress that in some cases can lead to death. Also, the clay commonly used can be derived from environmentally destructive strip mining.

But thanks to increased concern for cats’ health and the environment, there are plenty of greener options out there. To wit, Yesterday’s News cat litter is made from recycled newspaper and is reportedly three times more absorbent than clay. It is non-toxic and contains no scented fragrances, but its makers say it is still tough on odors, and is 99.7 percent dust-free. It also comes in recyclable paper packaging.

Wood shavings and sawdust also make good cat litter substrates. NEPCO’s Cedarific Natural Cat Litter is a blend of hardwood and cedar chips with no clay or silica dust. Besides being inexpensive, it is easy to handle, has a pleasant odor, and is biodegradable and compostable. Other wood/sawdust alternatives include Feline Pine, which is made from dust-free pine chips, and Better Way Cat Litter, which combines clay with cedar chips for natural odor control. Yet another great choice is Eco-Shell’s Purr & Simple Cat Litter, made from a proprietary blend of fibrous material from annually renewable tree-nut crops.

SwheatScoop Natural Wheat Litter keeps odors at bay through the power of natural enzymes in renewable wheat crops; it is low-dust and low-tracking besides being biodegradable and compostable. Meanwhile, World’s Best Cat Litter is made from whole kernel corn. And Benevo Cat Litter is made from non-genetically modified maize and other vegetable derivatives.

Frugal eco-conscious cat owners might consider making their own cat litter by repurposing everyday materials that would otherwise end up in the waste stream. Plain sawdust makes great cat litter, but doesn’t control odor as well as other substrates and might be hard to find in urban areas. The website offers instructions on how to turn old newspapers into cat litter; the process is a bit involved but can save money while extending the life of discarded newsprint.

Cat litter made from natural materials can also be composted as a way to reduce waste while creating rich soil for the garden. The Glenbrook North Zero Waste Blog in Vancouver, BC provides instructions on how to get healthy compost from cat litter derived from wood, sawdust or vegetable products.

Yesterday’s News,
Treehugger’s “Make Your Own Newspaper Cat Litter,”
Glenbrook North Zero Waste Blog’s “How to Compost Your Cat’s Litter,”

Credit: Fuse/Thinkstock
Most of us assume that all we need do to prevent sunburns and skin cancer from exposure to the sun is to slather on sunscreen. But consumers should be careful about which sunscreens they trust for themselves and, even more important, for their kids.

Dear EarthTalk: I imagine you’ve been down this road before, but what’s hot in the green-friendly sunscreen department nowadays? — Elaine Mayer, Ocean City, MD

Most of us assume that all we need do to prevent sunburns and skin cancer from exposure to the sun is to slather on any of the widely available sunscreens on the market today. But the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) points out that this may not be the case, and that consumers should be careful about which sunscreens they trust for themselves and, even more importantly, for their kids.

According to EWG, some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma skin cancer among sunscreen users. “No one knows the cause, but scientists speculate that sunscreen users stay out in the sun longer and absorb more radiation overall,” reports EWG. Scientists also suspect, says EWG, that free radicals, which get released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight, may be playing a role.

Most sunscreens screen out some of the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun that lead to visible sun burns, but many do not protect against the potentially more damaging ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that penetrate deeper into the skin and may facilitate the development of skin cancer later on, regardless of how high a Sunburn Protection Factor (SPF) the sunscreen may have. Also, EWG warns that many common sunscreen ingredients generate free radicals that can damage the body’s DNA and skin cells, accelerating skin aging and potentially causing skin cancer in the process.

But, just because some sunscreens can’t be trusted and overexposure to the sun is unhealthy doesn’t mean staying indoors all the time is a viable solution. Getting some sun is good for you, as the body converts it to Vitamin D, an essential nutrient that facilitates good health and prevents a wide range of diseases.

So what’s a sun lover to do? The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recommends wearing protective clothing, seeking shade, and timing outdoor play to avoid peak sun. IARC adds that sunscreen still has a place in our lives to augment these other sun exposure minimization tactics.

But which sunscreens do live up to EWG’s stringent standards? The major choice is between chemical sunscreens that break down quickly, penetrate deep into the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone system, and mineral varieties that can contain potentially irritating and damaging nano-scale particles.

According to EWG, mineral sunscreens are the better choice, as they protect against both UVB and UVA rays, remain effective longer and don’t contain as many dangerous substances. Some leading mineral-based options come from Alba Botanica, Beyond Coastal, ECO Logical Skin Care, Karen’s Botanicals, Kiss My Face, Poofy Organics and Solar Sense, among others.

For those who don’t like mineral-based sunscreens, which can be chalky and leave a white film until washed off, EWG recommends sunscreens with avobenzone (three percent for the best UVA protection) and without the notorious hormone disrupter oxybenzone. Some leading non-mineral choices are available from manufacturers including Bull Frog, Ocean Potion, Sunbow and Vichy.

EWG’s Sunscreens 2012,

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