Do Flavored Tobacco Products Cause Significantly More Youths to Get Addicted?

In June, San Francisco voters will vote on Proposition E, which would ban flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. Here is the Yes on Prop E campaign and here is the No on Prop E campaign.

I’m not going to state my opinion of Prop E in this post. Instead, I’m interested in the question – do flavored tobacco products cause significantly more youths (in this post, I will define ‘youth’ as someone who is less than 18 years old) to get addicted to tobacco than would otherwise happen?

The proponents of Prop E claim that the answer is ‘yes’. Their evidence is that most youths who use tobacco started with flavored products, and that a high percentage of youths who use tobacco used a flavored product within the past month. However, it’s possible that, in the absence of flavored tobacco, they all would have just been using unflavored tobacco instead.

Though flavored tobacco products have been around for a really long time, tobacco flavored with anything other than menthol has only been widely available in the United States recently
(because there already is a ban on flavoring cigarettes with anything other than menthol, and the popular alternatives to cigarettes are fairly recent). So if these new flavored products are causing lots of youth who would otherwise not use tobacco to start using tobacco, I would expect to see a spike in tobacco use among youth.

Based on the information I could find, the percentage of youth in the USA who smoke cigarettes at least daily has dramatically decreased since I graduated from high school (I don’t want to reveal what year I graduated from high school; suffice to say, it was a year when a lot more youth were smoking cigarettes daily than in recent years). There is less information on e-cigarettes because they have not been around very long, but the percentages they report … look roughly like the percentages for daily cigarette use when I was in middle school and high school. Except they count any youth who used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, whereas only cigarette smokers who used on a daily basis were counted.

With these numbers, it does not look like flavored tobacco products are actually increasing tobacco use in youth – it looks like it’s just substituting the use of unflavored tobacco with flavored tobacco. That is consistent with what I remember from high school. A lot of my classmates in high school were cigarette smokers – in fact, I suspect my high school had a higher percentage of cigarette smokers than what that link reports. There were certainly a lot of smokers in my peer group, though maybe not all of them smoked every day, or maybe some teenagers do not answer these surveys honestly. Some of my peers in the 12th grade also went to hookah bars and got flavored smoke – but only if they were 18, because otherwise they could not get in the hookah bar, and they had been smoking cigarettes before their turned 18.

However, this is just the surface. I’m far from an expert on any of this, and it is possible that there are important factors that I do not know about.

There is a study (Villanti AC, Johnson AL, Ambrose BK, et al. Use of flavored tobacco products among U.S. youth and adults; findings from the first wave of the PATH Study (2013-2014)) which found that “81 percent of current youth e-cigarette users cited the availability of appealing flavors as the primary reason for use” but since I have not seen the study itself, I’m not sure how to interpret this. Do these youth mean that the main reason they use e-cigarettes INSTEAD OF CIGARETTES is the appealing flavors, or do they mean that they would not be using tobacco AT ALL if ‘appealing flavors’ were not available? I don’t know.

I know little about e-cigarettes. I suppose they may be way more horrible than cigarettes in some way, but that is not the case that the Yes on E campaign is trying to make. Based on their arguments, e-cigarettes are bad because they are a ‘gateway’, they are not claiming that e-cigarettes are worse than cigarettes in any other way.

The one piece of evidence I have found that leads me to think that flavored tobacco products may actually induce people who would not otherwise use tobacco to use ironically comes, not from the proponents of the ban, but from the opponents. Specifically, it the fact that storekeepers are so adamantly opposed to Prop E, and that the opponents of Prop E emphasize that banning flavored tobacco would hurt small business. I understand that the small-business storekeepers have a tough time making a living in San Francisco, and that tobacco products are an important source of revenue for them. The fact that they are so vehemently opposed to me indicates that THEY think that a significant portion of people will stop buying tobacco if flavored tobacco is no longer available (or does flavored tobacco have a much higher profit margin than unflavored tobacco? Or do they think they will just lose all of their customers to the internet? I do not know). It is also possible that this will primarily influence adults, not youth.

In short, based on the evidence I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that flavored tobacco products lead to significantly higher usage of tobacco among youth than would otherwise exist, but I admit that it is possible that flavored tobacco products are hooking more youth than unflavored tobacco products would hook.

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Sara, you’re doing it wrong, you stopped using toilet paper!

That’s right, I’ve stopped using toilet paper (errr, for the most part). Obviously, that is wrong.

For a long time I’ve been vaguely aware that manufacturing toilet paper kills a lot of trees and uses a lot of water, but actually looking at the statistics, it’s worse than I thought (i.e. I got it wrong). Apparently, manufacture of toilet paper is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in the United States, and not only does it require a lot of water, but the water is much more polluted after it has been used to process toilet paper than before. You can do research on the environmental impact of toilet paper yourself, but the TL;DR is: people who use toilet paper are evil cartoon villains who wreck ecosystems, harm future generations, and can make an awesome cackling sound.

Of course, the ~right way~ to show one’s concern about the environmental impact of toilet paper is to switch to recycled toilet paper so no trees die, at least according to a lot of websites such as “Green Living Tips”. Oh, but recycled toilet paper tends to contain even more toxic chemicals than toilet paper made from virgin fiber. Should one subject oneself to more toxic chemicals to save some trees, or should one let the trees die to protect oneself from toxic chemicals? Apparently, one could solve this dilemma by using toilet paper made from sugarcane or bamboo instead of from trees, or checking that the recycled toilet paper was processed without chlorine, or something.

I suppose a good consumer would do their due diligence, research all of this stuff (because, you know, good consumers have unlimited time and energy for all this because they don’t have jobs, social relationships, or fun hobbies), and make sure they were making the most ethical and healthiest choice when buying toilet paper, no matter how inconvenient or expensive. But I’m a bad consumer, which means instead of trying to find a boutique store which sells expensive fair-trade-organic-locally-manufactured-sugarcane toilet paper, I decided to just stop using toilet paper. Like I said, I’m doing this wrong.

But to be honest, I did not stop using toilet paper purely out of concern for the environment. I have a confession to make: I don’t like toilet paper. Wrong, I know.

Even when I’m being careful, I often got bits of feces directly on my hands when I use toilet paper, and little bits of toilet paper often got lodged in my butt, which fester there until I take a shower and can wash them out. Speaking of which, toilet paper never fully cleaned my butt of feces, which is why, along with those bits of festering toilet paper, I often washed out more bits of feces when I took showers. In Taiwan, I had a bathroom setup which make it easy for me to rinse out my butt after I used the toilet, but in my home in San Francisco, I can’t do that without actually taking a shower, so until I stopped using toilet paper, between I defecated and when I took a shower, there was still quite a bit of residue of feces riding on my skin. It turns out that it’s not just me – this newspaper article also says that toilet paper is a bad way to clean up feces. I know, it’s wrong to admit all this publicly.

The right way to stop using toilet paper is to use a bidet instead. 93.482% of all articles on the internet about switching away from toilet paper tell you to use a bidet, because that’s what civilized people in Japan/France/India/Italy/Greece use, and if you don’t switch to a bidet you are a barbaric American/Brit/Australian and all of the civilized people from those civilized countries will think you are gross and make fun of you. Though they will say that Canadians are okay even if they don’t use bidets, because Canada. And they say/think nothing about Kiwis because they don’t know that New Zealand exists.

Second confession: I have used bidets, and I don’t like them either. I think this blog post already has too much information, so I will just express my opinion that I feel that the results using a bidet (probably because I am using the bidet wrong) are unsatisfactory (I found the bathroom setup I had in my apartment in Taiwan – which was not a bidet – to be much more satisfactory). Obviously, I am a barbaric American who has earned the mockery of civilized people.

That said, my family (until recently) were not just in an American level of barbarism – we were in a Taiwanese level of barbarism – we put used toilet paper in the bin, not the bowl (though our used toilet paper eventually made its way to compost, not landfill) . We put toilet paper in the bin for a similar reason the Taiwanese do it – plumbing issues. Yep, we were doing it wrong by adapting to the limitations of our plumbing system rather than spend lots of money and enduring lots of stress trying to change the plumbing.

(I have read various tracts by non-Taiwanese about how the Taiwanese habit of putting toilet paper in the bin is so ‘unsanitary’ and is ‘bad manners’ but instead of presenting scientific evidence of how Taiwanese practices help spread disease or cause more environmental damage than putting toilet paper in toilet bowls, their argument seems to be that it goes against their own non-Taiwanese cultural norms, and thus the Taiwanese are wrong.)

I have stopped using toilet paper the wrong way: I’m now using pieces of fabric to wipe myself after I use the toilet. Specifically, I am re-using the same pieces of fabric over and over again. That THAT, you snotty bidet-using elitists (and I bet you don’t clean all of that snot in your noses with your precious bidets). Pieces of fabric which are used and re-used to clean butts are called ‘family cloth’.

The right way to start using family cloth is to cut up old worn-out fabric goods, such as a shirt you would never wear again. This undeniably is very cheap (as in, costs no moeny) and very eco-friendly (you don’t waste resources making new fabric and you keep old fabric out of the landfill). Of course, I switched to family cloth the wrong way, that is to say, I bought brand-new family cloth. I bought a packet of organic linen ‘toilet paper’. This proves that I am a coastal millennial hipster elitist, which is wrong. Meanwhile, that store seems to be run by mid-westerners who practice an obscure form of Christian fundamentalism which tries to follow the rules of the Torah (though I am not sure of this), which is also wrong (they take Leviticus 19:19 seriously, so vegans can trust them not to slip wool into the linen fabric).

a square piece of linen cloth

This is what my family cloth looks like. I have 15 pieces. I don’t need all of them, so some of them have not been used yet, though I may find a use for them in the future.

When I was doing research on family cloth, every website said that one would clean them by putting them in the washing machine, just like cloth diapers. The people who wrote this articles/blog posts assumed that all of their readers ~have~ washing machines. Once again, I’m doing this wrong – the building where I live has no washing machine. Furthermore, I don’t want to run to the laundromat every time I need to clean a piece of family cloth (especially since that would require a lot of quarters).

So I clean them the wrong way – in a sink, by hand. This is what my process looks like (for poo, not for pee):

1. Immediately after use, I put the soiled piece in a container stored in the toilet room (like many older buildings in San Francisco, the toilet is in a different room than the bathroom).
2. Once a week, I take all of my soiled pieces, and rinse them in a tub that fits in the sink, and then pour out the rinse water. This gets rid of most of the feces.
3. I put in clean water and some baking soda, and let it soak for at least 10 minutes. After the baking soda treatment, the family cloth has no odor I can detect. Then I pour out the baking-soda-water.
4. I put in some more clean water, and add a few drops of liquid castille soap, agitate, and pour out the water.
5. I wring the family cloth pieces, and they put them somewhere to dry. However, if they are still wet when I need to use them, that’s okay too.

I’m probably doing this wrong, so if you do use family cloth, just wash them any way you want.

Oh, and for pee, I use a separate piece of family cloth (a ‘pee rag’). I just rinse it out quickly after each use, just before I wash my hands. This is enough to prevent them from stinking. When I am going to the laundromat anyway, I also throw the pee rag into my wash load (though I do not throw in the pieces of family cloth I use for poo into my general wash load).

I also now keep a spray bottle full of water in the toilet room. I spray my butt before I wipe (it works much better than a bidet, in my experience). This knocks off the biggest bits of feces, and the wetness helps the family cloth clean more effectively.

However, I’m not an organic-linen-family-cloth purist, which means I’m doing it wrong. When I use a bathroom away from home, I use the toilet paper that is provided. Shortly after I started doing hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I converted to using wet wipes instead of toilet paper. Though I considered taking family cloth on my current PCT hike, I decided to go with the tried-and-true wet wipes instead – which is wrong. Wet wipes are also terrible for the environment, though at least I don’t flush them down toilets and I use a brand which is compostable and made from not-so-toxic chemicals.

Following in my footsteps in going away from toilet paper would be wrong.

Of course, as you may have noticed by now, no matter what you do to clean yourself after you pee or poo, someone in the world thinks you’re doing it wrong. So just do what you want. (As far as sanitation goes, handwashing ~after~ you clean your butt is much more important than ~how~ you clean your butt).

If you want to do what I do, great, we can do it wrong together. If you want to convert to the School of Wet Wipes for Everypoop Use, you can do that. If you want to use a bidet, you can do that. If you want to use recycled toilet paper, you can do that. If you want to use toilet paper made from sugarcane or bamboo, you can do that. If you want to use quadruple-ply scented toilet paper made from virgin tree fiber because you think the world needs more deforestation, you can do that. If you want to use a sponge on a stick dipped in vinegar, you can do that. If you want to find in a thrift store a shirt featuring the logo of a brand you hate, buy it, cut it up, and then wipe your butt with that, you can do that (this idea was inspired by Linda Tirado). If you want to find a plant with large, broad leaves, tear off the leaves, and use the leaves to wipe your butt, you can do that. If you just want to use whatever is most convenient, you can do that.

It’s your butt, and if you are lucky enough to be able to defecate in privacy, you can clean it however you want, without anybody else knowing how you do it.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 4

When I say that I am worried about flame retardants, I am particularly worried about brominated flame retardants and chlorinated tris. I found this article from 2004 helpful for understanding the chemistry of these flame retardants. I find these types of flame retardants especially scary because a) they bioaccumulate (i.e. once they are in your body they are going to stay in your body for a very long time, possibly the rest of one’s life) and b) they generally are carcinogenic and disrupt the endocrine system. I don’t want cancer, and I already have a vulnerable endocrine system. Specifically, I’m in the grey zone between ‘does not have Hashimoto’s disease’ and ‘has Hashimoto’s disease’ and I want to preserve my thyroid’s ability to make hormones so that I don’t need to take prescription hormones.

Ironically, one of the household products with the highest levels of brominated flame retardants is plastic casings in computers – and hey, I’m using a computer right now. Here is an article about brominated flame retardants in electronics. It makes me glad that it’s been over 15 years since there has been a TV in my room (well, except when I was in Taiwan, but the TV was far from my bed and I almost never touched it), and glad that I insisted on keeping computers out of my room until my mid-teens. And my keyboard, which I am using to type this post, may also contain high levels of brominated flame retardants. Great. I’m going to wash my hands after I finish typing this.

But this is about my bed, not my electronics.

And the answer is, yes, my new futon mattress contains a flame retardant chemical.

BUT the only flame retardant chemical it contains is sodium borate, more commonly known as borax. Borax does not bioaccumulate, is not a carcinogen, and one needs a fairly high dose in order to be poisoned. I don’t plan to eat my mattress, so I’m not worried about exposing myself to a high dose. The borax will make it more complicated to compost my mattress after its no longer useful as a mattress, but it is still biodegradable in some circumstances (I’m almost certain a municipal composting facility could handle it), so it’s not going to poison the world for thousands of years or something. There are some who claim that sodium borate is not ‘green’ or safe to use at home, but upon further research, I did not find those claims convincing (here is an essay about that).

Besides being a flame retardant, borax is also a bed bug deterrent. I have never had a problem with bed bugs, and I want to keep it that way.

And borax is also antifungal. For reasons I explained in the previous post, I appreciate a little extra help keeping the mold at bay. Borax is not antibacterial, so benign bacteria are welcome to live in my bed (I think our living environments already have too many antibacterial chemicals – antibacterials in my mattress would be overkill).

Of course, I learn that pillows can have flame retardants too. Where aren’t there flame retardants?

I took a closer look at my pillow and found that 1) it is 100% polyester (probably a lot less flame retardants than foam pillows, but possibly still has toxic flame retardants) 2) it was moldy and 3) it was generally gross. The last two things weren’t really a surprise since I have been using this pillow since I returned to San Francisco in 2014, and it was probably an old pillow lying about the house back then (i.e. not new), and I’ve never cleaned it, and I drool in my sleep.

I decided to replace it with a millet hull / buckwheat hull pillow. Since buckwheat pillows are common in Japan, it’s consistent with the washiku aesthetic of the mattress and goza mats. I also liked the idea of being able to combine millet and buckwheat in whatever ratio was most comfortable to me.

I started out with having it be a full buckwheat pillow (not millet). A lot of people report that they need a night or two to get used to using a buckwheat pillow. Not me – I thought it was very comfortable right away. Then again, I also think paperback books are okay pillows, so I’m not the most discerning of pillow connoisseurs. Then I experimented with a few different buckwheat / millet ratios. I think the main thing millet hulls add is that they are quieter than buckwheat hulls. I think the thing where hull pillows really excel (for use/comfort) is that they provide excellent support for the head, which means I move my head less when I’m in bed. I did have a problem for a little while with my ear getting sore after lying on the pillow all night, but I fixed that problem by adjusting the fill.

I also think a queen size pillow is a bigger than I need. Not that having a big pillow is a problem – it’s just more than I need.

While I appreciate the versatility of being able to have various buckwheat/millet ratios in my pillow, I think in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend less money and just buy a smaller pure buckwheat pillow (BUT definitely one with a zipper – it is important to be able to adjust/replace hulls).

I still drool when I sleep. Thus, the hulls may eventually get moldy. In fact, they will probably get moldy even faster than polyester. I suppose if that happens I could just replace the hulls, and use the old hulls as mulch in the backyard.

***

Out of the five mattresses which were in my old bed, the two old futons and the feather mattress are now gone. We arranged a bulk item pickup with the local recycling/trash service, and we got rid of some other bulky items which are no longer usable (we can request ten items be removed per pickup). I assume they will recycle the parts which can be recycled, and send what cannot be recycled to a landfill.

The box spring mattresses – including the one which was poking me in the back – are now in our basement.

Since we easily have ten items for the bulky item pickup, I did not insist on putting the box spring mattresses in the pickup. But I am irritated because I want to have space in the basement for things which are potentially useful, not mattresses which we are never going to use again, and which will become harder to move as my dad loses physical mobility. My mom is the one who insisted on keeping those mattresses, at least for now. Yes, even the mattress that pokes people in the back. She says ‘what if we have overnight guests?’ Hey, we already have a guest mattress, and we would have to rearrange a lot of furniture to make space for a second guest bed. It would be easier to put people in sleeping bags/tents in the backyard than to place TWO guest beds in our home – especially since the mattresses in question have to be moved by two people (what if my dad is no longer in good enough shape to move the mattress at that time?) whereas I can set up tents/sleeping bags by myself. And why would we want to offer guests a mattress which pokes them in the back?

At first, she was even against getting rid of the moldy futons and the useless feather mattress. However, once it sunk it just how useless these mattresses are, she agreed to have them removed.

My mom has trouble letting go of a lot of material goods, not just these mattresses. My guess is that it has to do with her childhood experience of poverty, when getting adequate clothing for everyone in her family was a struggle.

And that is why my bed was piled up with all of these bad mattresses in first place. Those five mattresses were not there because they were each contributing to my sleep. I would have slept just as well with the bottom box mattress as will the five mattresses – better, because I would not have been poked in the back. Heck, I was probably exposed to even more toxins/mold with those five mattresses than I would have been if there had only been a single box mattress. All those mattresses were there because it was a place to store them, not to serve my benefit.

I do not think my parents really thought through all of the costs and benefits of keeping those mattresses in my room. I do not blame them, because until these past few months, I had not thought through the costs and benefits of all of those mattresses myself.

If we put in another request for bulky item removal, I am going to try to persuade her to agree to get rid of these mattresses. I really would prefer to have more space in the basement.

In the next part and final part, I will talk about three alternative types of natural/simple beds which cost less than 1000 USD (i.e. are not as outrageously expensive as most natural/organic beds sold in the USA), and why I decided not to try them.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 1

I wrote this post about my tent having toxic flame retardants. As I was writing the post, I was dimly aware that a lot of furniture in my home probably has toxic flame retardants too, and that objectively, the flame retardants in my home were probably harming much more than flame retardants in my tent. However, I had a mental block. Why? Because I’m not used to choosing furniture in my home.

Until now, I’ve basically never exercised any choice about furniture in my home (except maybe something on the scale of moving a chair). I currently live in my childhood home, which means that pretty much all of the furniture was chosen by my parents, not me. I’m used to having them make decisions about adding or removing furniture, not me. In Taiwan, I only lived in furnished apartments, which meant that my landlord chose the furniture in my home (which I liked because it saved me the bother and expense of having to buy and move furniture).

By contrast, I’ve generally picked out my own camping gear, so I am used to taking responsibility for whether the camping gear suits my needs and preferences.

Until very recently, my bed was literally five different mattresses piled one on top of the other, all on top of a metal bed frame. I did not even know how many mattresses there were until I removed them one by one. Those mattresses have been there ever since I returned to the United States in late 2014. Were they there before I left the United States? I don’t remember. I didn’t pay attention to what my parents did to my bed when I was absent.

When I returned home after my big trip this summer (2017), I noticed that the top mattress has springs which were poking through the fabric and thus poking me. This made it difficult to sleep. So I did the rational thing and … piled some extra sheets on top of the mattress to cushion it, and then pulled out my lightest sleeping bag to sleep inside it on top of the sheet pile. It was a decent kludge for when I wanted to go to sleep and didn’t have time/energy to do anything about the mattress. However, instead of trying to change the mattress, I just kept on using the kludge for more than two months.

I took this photo while I was in the process of paring down my old bed. The mattress which was poking me in the back is leaning against the wall on the left side. Inside that mattress protector in the back of the picture was the bad feather mattress. The red thing in the foreground is a quilt which I am still using now.

It eventually sunk in that, if I were concerned about exposing myself to toxic flame retardants, I could do a lot more to reduce my exposure by changing my bedroom than changing my tent. And it sunk in that changing mattresses would probably lead to better sleeping than just keeping the sheets piled on pokey bedsprings. So I finally decided to get rid of ALL of those mattresses I had been sleeping on and buy a brand new mattress.

Fortunately, I made this decision just in time for Black Friday. Thus, I was able to get a traditional Japanese futon mattress (also known as ‘shiki futon’) that was made purely from organic cotton grown in Texas for less than 300 USD (including taxes). If you have any idea how expensive organic cotton is, then you appreciate what a bargain this is. Specifically, I bought this futon (Twin XL size, 3 inch, organic cotton case).

Why organic cotton as opposed to ‘conventional’ cotton. This explains the difference in environmental impact. In addition to the general environmental reasons, if I’m trying to avoid toxins, it makes sense to avoid the toxins used in processing ‘conventional’ cotton. I’ve also noticed, when I compared organic cotton fabric to equivalent conventional cotton fabric, that the organic cotton fabric is higher quality and lasts longer. I think it’s worth paying triple the price to get organic cotton (I have seen a new conventional cotton shiki futon for sale for about 100 USD).

I was surprised to learn that this futon is made in San Francisco. I was even more surprised to find myself visiting their factory and showroom in order to buy the futon. I have since learned that there are several businesses with mattress factories which operate in San Francisco, not just this one. Like must of the United States, San Francisco, which once had a lot of manufacturing, has been deindustrialized. Though this was not the deciding factor, I think it’s cool that I now sleep on a mattress which was made in the very same city where I’m using it, which is also the city where I’ve spent most of my life.

The factory, of course, is in southeast San Francisco. I consider southeast San Francisco to be part of the rust belt. First of all, there is literally lots of rust – people who love rusty abandoned industrial buildings can have a great time in southeast San Francisco. Deindustralization has hit southeast San Francisco hard. When I hear or read about cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, Buffalo, etc., I imagine them as being like southeast San Francisco but with more land area, cheaper housing, less gentrification, and worse infrastructure. My mother expressed concern about me going to the factory/showroom – especially since it’s just a block away from Potrero Terrace, one of San Francisco’s ‘most distressed’ public housing projects – but I wasn’t worried, especially since I’ve never had a problem when I’ve walked through Potrero Terrace before (you can see what Potrero Terrace looks like in this video). Like the rest of the rust belt, southeast San Francisco has a reputation for being full of poverty and crime.

Anyway, back to my new organic cotton shiki futon. Why that and not some other non-toxic mattress?

First of all, it was the second cheapest new non-toxic/organic mattress I was able to find (I will discuss the cheapest, and why I decided against it, in a future post in this series).

Second, it’s consistent with washitsu style. During my extensive travels in Japan, I slept in washitsu-style rooms many times and became rather fond of them. I don’t intend to converting my entire bedroom into an authentic washitsu room, but for years I’ve thought it would be nice to incorporate some of that aesthetic. And now I have.

This washitsu room is actually in Rueisui, Taiwan, not in Japan. However, this inn was built when Japan ruled Taiwan to serve Japanese guests, and the innkeepers have maintained its original Japanese style. I remember that I had to pull out a futon and blankets from the closet and lay them on the tatami floor myself.

Third, it did not have wool. A lot of the nontoxic mattresses use wool because it is naturally fire-resistant and a way to comply with federal fire safety laws without using toxic chemicals. However, I do not want wool because a) I do not want to exploit sheep that way and b) I don’t want a repeat of the moth infestation I experienced in my bedroom as a child.

Fourth, it does not contain latex. I am only allergic to synthetic latex (or more accurately, the chemicals which are sometimes mixed with synthetic latex), not natural latex, but I still feel more secure avoiding natural latex.

Fifth, I like the idea of having a portable bed. My new shiki futon only weighs about 30 pounds (14 kg) so I can easily move it without assistance. I’m going to discuss why portability is important to me in the third post in this series.

The next post? I’m going to talk about what the purpose of a bed actually is.

How Much Do I Need the Internet?

Like just about every internet user who is not on the payroll of a massive internet service provider, I am in favor of net neutrality. In the United States, there is a serious threat that net neutrality will be lost. It would be best to keep net neutrality, but if net neutrality is lost, it would then be good to reduce one’s personal dependence on the internet. And even if net neutrality is preserved, the internet still can pose various threats to personal liberty, which is another reason to limit one’s dependence on the internet.

And I love the irony of writing about this on the internet.

As followers of this blog know, I recently went on a really long trip, mostly in places without electricity or internet service. I did not carry any device which could connect to the internet, so I had even less internet access than most of the people around me – people who carry smartphones could access the internet whenever they stumbled on a place with a wifi signal, whereas I did not just need wifi – I also needed to borrow a device. That meant I, for the most part, did not have internet access at all, and when I did have internet access, it was because someone was doing me a favor and I was using a frustrating smartphone on a mediocre wifi network. This was an excellent exercise for figuring out how much I needed the internet.

My #1 use of the internet is email. I generally only spend a little time on my email account, but when my internet access is very restricted, email gets top priority. Yet most of the emails I get are not that important to me – in fact, I don’t even read most of them. What makes email such a high priority is a) when I was away from home, it was a means of contacting my family (though I could also use a phone) and b) WHAT IF an important email arrived? That was the main reason email was such high priority – chances are, on a given day, I’m not going to receive any important emails, but I have to check my email to make sure that I don’t have any important emails.

My #2 use of the internet was practical information/reservations. When I was on trail, I could get all the practical information I needed by talking to people, but it was sometimes nice to confirm by checking the internet myself. I did need to print maps when I was in Ashland, which is why I had to reserve a longer block of time on the computers at the Ashland public library. However, as soon as I got off the trail, I suddenly needed the internet more urgently to get information on accommodation + transit in Canada, as well as to make reservations (including my reservations for trains and accommodation in Seattle and Portland). I could have done this with a phone and printed guidebook instead, but I didn’t have a printed guidebook for Canada (or Seattle/Portland), so that was that.

During my recent travel, when I got internet access, my usage was usually limited to email and practical information/reservations. However, I occasionally got slightly better internet access. For example, once I was done printing maps at Ashland, I still had some time left over before I was required to yield the computer to the next user. And in Snoqualmie Pass and Vancouver, I had access to internet terminals most of the time at my accommodation. Thus, I could use the internet beyond the strict essentials (I was also allowed to borrow an iPad upon request from the hostel I stayed at in Seattle).

What was my #3 use of the internet when I had extra access? Blogs. I would catch up on blogs. I used some of my extra time in Ashland on reading blogs, I spent a good chunk of time reading blogs in Vancouver, and in Snoqualmie Pass, I even wrote a short post. It became pretty clear to me that, beyond the bare essential practical uses of the internet, blogging is what I value most.

In Snoqualmie Pass, that oasis of internet access (it sure felt like an oasis of internet access to me), after I had taken care of my email, done the practical things I could do, and caught up on as many blogs as I had mental stamina for, I had a ‘what now?’ moment. I had all of this internet access, yet I could not think of a way to use it. I was too used to not having internet.

I basically do not do social media, so that is a large chunk of the internet which I do not use (I have no logged into my Facebook account since January 2010, and I don’t even understand how Twitter works, or Pinterest, or a bunch of other social media sites). There is a social penalty to refusing to use social media, but because this is my long-term state, I have developed a social life which does not rely on social media.

Yes, I do sometimes watch streaming videos on the internet, but I don’t value that as much as blogging. If I somehow lost access to video streaming, it would not be a big deal to me – it wasn’t a big deal that I never streamed videos during my entire two months of travel. In fact, nearly all of the online activities which I value (except the rare occasion when I want to download/upload big files) would work okay at dial-up speeds. And if I could somehow make sure that I never got an important email during my travels (or if I was comfortable with allowing someone else to check my email for me), and had a setup where I did not need the internet to make reservations, I probably would not use the internet at all on my next big backpacking trip.

This reflects my current situation – at other points in my life, I valued various internet services differently than I do now. Many people have much greater economic dependence on the internet than I do. For example, I know that some people in rural parts of the United States rely on Amazon for many purchases because it takes them several hours to drive to a place where they buy things in person (this is actually a situation which existed before the internet; a hundred years ago many rural households in the USA bought many goods from the Sears & Roebuck mail catalog for the same reason). There are also many people who value services such as video streaming and social media a lot more than I do. I do not think I am morally superior to people who value internet services differently than I do (especially since the way I value various internet services changes over time).

In addition to the issue of net neutrality, there is also the problem that the internet is becoming increasingly dominated by a few corporations – namely Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Even if these companies are not behaving badly, I still do not like so much power being so tightly concentrated. Thus, I want to avoid using them (and being dependent on them). I don’t use Facebook or any of their affiliated services anyway because when I tried using Facebook I didn’t like it. Nowadays, I will only buy something on Amazon if I a) really, really want it and b) cannot find any other reasonable way to get it. This is why I have not bought or read any ace fiction books which are only available for sale on Amazon (I can buy ace fiction fiction books which are available for sale elsewhere). Years ago I switched to using DuckDuckGo instead of Google for basic search. I still watch videos on YouTube and use Google Maps, and I even will occasionally give the Google search engine a shot if I’m unsatisfied with the DuckDuckGo results (and I sometimes give Baidu search engine a shot too, even though it’s under Chinese censorship).

Luckily, I’m not personally dependent on any of these companies, and I want to keep it that way.

However, I remain worried about the broader consequences. For an example of how letting one internet company have a lot of power can lead to badness, I remind you of the books which were too gay for Amazon (even though the cause in this case is disputed, it still shows how Amazon can abuse its power). A similar and more example is YouTube restricting LGBT+ content, which also affected ace vloggers (heterosexual videos with explicit sexual content are totally okay for kids but videos talking about asexuality are ‘mature’ and should not be viewed by people under 18 … wait, how does that make sense?)

The less dependent one is on the internet for various services one values (i.e. being able to substitute internet services one values with offline equivalents), the less power the internet – the internet service providers, large internet companies such as Google and Amazon, governments who censor the internet (I occasionally use websites based in China, and I fear that there will be more censorship in the US-based internet in the future) will have over one. I realize it is especially difficult to reduce one’s dependence on the internet if one needs it for a livelihood, but I think it’s something to consider.

Does My Palace Cause Cancer? What Can I Do?

Is my palace (tent) spreading toxic chemicals?

I’m working on a draft of a blog post about Leave No Trace and my experiences with camping. Working on that draft, I started thinking about the chemical impact of tents on the environment, so I decided to do some research, and then decided that this topic was important enough to merit its own blog post.

Spoiler: My palace (i.e. tent) is probably carcinogenic.

Most backpacking tents contain toxic chemicals. There are different types of toxic chemicals they may maintain.

One types of toxic chemical is fluorocarbons. They help waterproof fabrics, including tent fabrics. They also wash off fabric when it rains or water is otherwise applied to the fabric, and they damage the ecosystem, and since they are persistent (i.e. it takes a long time for them to break down) they can spend a lot of time damaging the ecosystem. Lovely. Oh, and fluorocarbons are also bad for humans because they are hormone-disruptors.

I had already been aware that many rain jackets / shells / etc. contain fluorocarbons, that they are a toxic pollutant, that fluorocarbons have been found in even the most ‘pristine’ wilderness areas, and that was one reason I chose fluorocarbon free rain gear for my big hike in Washington (which I ended up not using much because it only rained twice, but if it had rained a lot, my rain gear would not have poisoned the trail ecosystem with fluorocarbons).

However, I had not thought about whether my tent contained fluorocarbons.

Does my tent have fluorocarbons? I do not know, and I have not asked the manufacturer (Big Agnes). Based on my research, my guess is that my tent probably does not contain fluorocarbons. However, that is an educated guess, not a certainty, and maybe I’ve guessed wrong.

Another common type of toxin found in tents are PVC and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). They cause cancer and mess up the ecosystem. The manufacturer of my tent says that my tent is PVC and VOC free, so I don’t have to worry about that, hurray! I will have to pay attention to that if I ever get another tent.

And then there are flame retardants. You can learn many of the gory details by reading this article. The TL;DR is: flame retardants cause cancer, do NOT improve fire safety, and for legal reasons, are found in the vast majority of the tents sold in the United States and Canada. Lovely.

I did contact Big Agnes (the manufacturer of my tent) to ask about flame retardants. Their answer was: ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS. They have not told me which flame retardants they use, but the range for flame retardants (in terms of toxicity and effectiveness in fire safety) is not good thru bad, it’s bad thru horrible, so if I get a list of the specific fire retardants they use, all that would tell is is whether they are on the bad end of the spectrum, or the horrible end of the spectrum, and I do not think that information would affect my decisions.

I repeat, BIG AGNES HAS TOLD ME THAT ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS.

I understand that they probably do it for legal reasons, and I thank them for telling me.

Though I did not get this information from Big Agnes, based on my research, it seems that the flame retardants are most likely in the PU coating. If this is so, that means that they are probably not leeching much into the environment (like fluorocarbons, flame retardants are bad news for the ecosystem). On the other hand, they are in the area where I sleep.

So now what? Here are my options:

OPTION 1: REPLACE MY PALACE WITH A NEW TENT

I love my tent! This would make me sad. But knowing that my tent might give me cancer will definitely affect my love for my tent, and will possibly make it harder for me to sleep in my tent.

This would also raise the question of how I would dispose of my tent. Landfill? Let it sit in my closet indefinitely? Sell it – “Hey, I’ve stopped using this tent because it causes cancer – want to buy it?”

Also, this means I would have to get a new shelter. High-quality shelters tend to be expensive, so that would hit my wallet hard. Or I could get a tarp shelter, but they require a lot more skill than tents.

Oh, and I would have to make sure my new tent was also fluorocarbon and flame retardant free, which would exclude most of the tents sold in the USA and Canada because of the legal requirements to poison campers. What tents are fluorocarbon & FR free? The Moonlight tents are fluorocarbon and FR free – and the lightest one weighs about 5 pounds. That weight is a dealbreaker for long-distance use (and I don’t use tents for short-distance purposes often enough to justify buying a tent just for short-distance trips). It looks like, based on the description, that the tent has a lot of cool features, but I would be happy to get rid of some of those features to reduce the weight.

Based on this, its seems that for legal reasons, any tent sold by a major retailer in the USA (such as REI) will have the flame retardants. A tent manufacturer based in the USA but not located in any of the states which require flame retardants in tents and which does not sell through retailers in those states is not legally required to use flame retardants, which limits me to tent manufacturers who do not distribute through retailers across the USA/Canada.

I do not know whether cuben fiber tents contain flame retardants or not. If I ever decided I wanted a cuben fiber tent, I would ask the manufacturers about this. Since I do not want to buy a cuben fiber tent, I am not going to research it at this time. However, one manufacturer of cuben fiber shelters, Mountain Laurel Designs, says that all of their bug netting fabric has flame retardants. That rules out any shelter with bug netting, cuben fiber or no cuben fiber.

It seems the best way to get a lightweight shelter without flame retardants is to import from the UK or the EU. Their laws do not require tents to contain flame retardants, so most tent manufacturers there do not use flame retardants. Which means I may have another option…

OPTION 2: USE MY TAIWANESE TENT

I have used my Taiwanese tent on my PCT section hikes before I received my palace, so I know it can work on the PCT. It is also a brand which is not sold in the USA or Canada at all, so the manufacturer did not care about US/Canadian law. Does Taiwanese law require putting flame retardants in tents? I have no idea. I would have to do more research. I also do not know if my Taiwanese tent contains fluorocarbons. It is unlikely to have PVC or VOCs, but I would have to do additional research to confirm that. And doing research would be challenging since the tent model I have has been discontinued (which does not surprise me, since it is a pretty weird tent).

However, while I CAN use my Taiwanese tent on the PCT, there are reasons why I was willing to buy a new tent for use on the PCT (I continue to use my Taiwanese tent for all non-PCT camping trips). The most important reason was weight, though it also has less interior space and I think the tent poles are annoying (I prefer the 12 stakeouts on my palace to putting up the tent poles on my Taiwanese tent, which tells you just how much those tent poles annoy me). If I put my Taiwanese tent to serious use again, I would also want to buy new stuff sacks, because the current stuff sack sucks.

Nonetheless, if I did the research, and found that my Taiwanese tent had no fluorocarbons / PVC / VOCs / flame retardants, then that would be an option which would not require me to spend any extra money (beyond a new stuff sack, which is a lot cheaper than buying a new tent).

OPTION 3: CONTINUE USING MY PALACE, AND BE CAREFUL

As I said, the most toxic chemicals are probably in the interior coating, not the exterior coating, so continuing to use this tent may still be consistent with the principles of Leave Not Trace (I wouldn’t be leaving a trace on the environment, I’d just leaving a trace on my own body by exposing myself to carcinogens).

Research shows that the flame retardants rub off on hands when pitching a tent (you can read more about that research in the article I linked above), and that if those hands are later used to, say, eat food, the flame retardants can enter the body. However, when I am pitching my palace, I am mostly touching the exterior of the tent, not the interior, so I may not be getting into direct contact with the flame retardants. Finally, I usually pitch my tent with my gloves on (even in summer, I do all long-distance hikes with gloves), and I usually eat with my gloves off. I could make it a rule that I ONLY pitch my tent with gloves on and ONLY eat with gloves off.

When I’m inside my tent, I do put my gear in contact with the fabric. Research shows that flame retardants can rub off on gear too, but I would expect touching gear which touched flame retardant to be less bad than directly touching flame retardant. I do not directly touch the interior tent fabric often, and I can try to limit my direct contact with the interior tent fabric even more.

Not enough research has been done to show if there are other ways the flame retardants in tents can enter the human body. It is possible that it may coat dust in the tent, but AFAIK, this has not been proven. Just because is hasn’t been proven does not mean it’s not happening.

I have read that old PU coatings will flake, and I guess that the flame retardants would be in the flakes.

SO, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?

For now, based on what I know, I am going with option three. If I ever see signs that the PU coating is flaking, then I will retire the tent, but until then, I will continue to use it with caution.

Another thing I’m going to try to do is bring more attention to this issue in the trail community. Even if I am successful in taking care of myself, I do not want tent manufacturers to poison my fellow hikers, nor do I want my fellow hikers to spread toxins around the wilderness. And if the trail community does not pay attention to this, then the situation is not going to get better.

Feminist Benefits of Reading Beyond One’s Own Culture

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

According to Goethe, “wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiƟ nichts von seiner eigenen” which means “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” In English, we speak of fish learning to see water. Though I think it is possible to know something of one’s own language without knowing others, learning a different language is certainly a very powerful tool for become conscious of many aspects of one’s native language.

Likewise, learning about another culture is a powerful tool for becoming more conscious of one’s own culture. By extension, observing patriarchy in another culture can be a very useful tool for better understanding patriarchy in one’s own culture.

I think one of the things which has become apparent in this Rambling Series is that the sexism and misogyny in Jin Yong stories are sometimes similar to Anglophone pop sexism/misogyny, and sometimes different. Comparing the two is a way to learn a lot about patriarchy as expressed in Jin Yong’s stories (and to some extent, Chinese fiction in general, though not all Chinese writers are Jin Yong). It is just as effective for learning about patriarchy as expressed in Anglophone pop fiction.

China, obviously, has been a patriarchal society for all of recorded history, though the nature of patriarchy has varied by region and over the course of the millennia. All large Anglophone societies are also patriarchal, and Anglophone patriarchy likewise varies by region and historical period.

I admit, I am usually suspicious when a native Anglophone deplores Chinese cultures for how it treats women and girls, especially when it comes with the subtext that Anglophone society isn’t nearly so patriarchal (I am saying ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘Sinophone’ since most Anglophone natives don’t make that distinction!) It is true that there are some horrific misogynist practices which have existed in Chinese society which have not existed in Anglophone society. However, when someone is trying to show how Chinese society is so much more horrible to women and girls than Anglophone society, they tend to cherrypick their examples, and ignore all of the bad stuff Anglophone society does which Chinese society does not do. When it seems the point of the analysis is to understand patriarchy in both Anglophone and Sinophone societies, rather than to simply prove that Chinese society is bad, I am more inclined to take it seriously.

There is another benefit to reading outside one’s culture. Since I grew up in the United States, my sore points when it comes to patriarchy have been shaped by American patriarchy. I’m not talking about when I’m doing feminism as an intellectual exercise – I’m talking about me trying to enjoy a story without necessarily examining it critically, and doing my best to ignore the sexism when each instance of that sexist trope YET AGAIN wears me out a little more.

The sore points in Sinophone pop fiction for female readers are sometimes different. For example, female characters are much less likely to be visually sexualized in Sinophone pop culture than Anglophone pop culture. Sinophone pop sexism creates its own sore points, but when they are not the same points where Anglophone pop sexism has ground down on me, I’m not quiet so sore yet.

Even though I’ve focused on comparative feminism and sexism, other aspects of culture can be compared, such as disability, or a zillion other things. However, to pull this off, one needs to expose oneself sufficiently to a culture other than one’s own.