Balcony Farm Girl

July 13, 2016

Growing your own food is a pleasure that even access to a great Farmer’s Market can’t beat. Plucking a ripe strawberry or tomato still warm from the sun offers the best flavor and burst of nutrients. It’s a wonderful venture for those of us seeking to increase organic, unpackaged food in our diets and the best way to avoid the many toxins associated with industrial farming and food processing. For those with a backyard, urban/suburban farming can expand to raising chickens or goats.

Like many balcony farmers, I am limited by the boundaries of railings and distance from the ground. And on hot days, the sun’s reflection off sliding glass doors can fry delicate. To cool things off when the temp rises above ninety, I have an umbrella to shade herbs and lettuces and a bamboo curtain that rolls down to cover the glass. This has the added benefit of keeping the indoors cooler. The bamboo curtain was suggested during last summer’s heat wave by my friend Jen Willis.

While my own balcony measures only 4.5×9 feet, I’ve created an expansive collection of “crops” by going vertical with stacked pots and trellises. As for many urban gardeners in Oregon, my “farm” is expanded by proximity to a nearby hillside covered in blackberry bushes. By mid-August my freezer is stocked with enough luscious berries to hold me until January.

I’ve been farming on this balcony for three summers now and have a wonderful collection of perennial herbs and strawberries and am continually working on expanding my collection of annuals. I’ve learned that cucumbers work, if you don’t mind a carpet of vines and big green leaves on the balcony floor. Zucchinis did not work, however. Perhaps they’re just not happy being constrained in a pot. The usually vigorous squashes never got past a couple of inches before turning brown and giving up.

SeedlingsSummer16About a month before the danger of frost (and in Oregon, hail) passes, I start laying out small little pots across window ledges and plant seeds for lettuce, tomatoes, arugula, and ready the packets of peas and edamame. I’ve learned to keep adding new peas, beans, and cilantro seeds to the pots every few weeks during the summer to keep the harvest going.

There are a few critical things to remember to reduce the presence of toxins in your home-grown produce. It is really important to avoid using pesticides, which have been linked to diseases like Parkinson’s and reproductive harm. While growing plants on a balcony can reduce competition from critters like slugs and other pests, some will still find their way up to your farm. Checking your plants for pests often and setting up nets around tomato and strawberry plants can help. And to some extent, it helps to let go and share some of your harvest with the bugs and squirrels. Although I admit that a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a handful of strawberries to ripen to perfection, I ran outside to chase off a squirrel determined to harvest the shiny red berries.

Getting clean soil is also a top priority. The use of the word “organic” for soils and composts does not mean that they are free of pesticides. It means that they were made from plant or animal sources instead of minerals, which is what “inorganic” fertilizers are made from. So, whenever possible, ask for soils and composts that come from sources untreated by pesticides. It is also important to avoid soils and composts made from “biosolids”, which are the solids formed during sewage treatment. Although these materials are rich in nutrients, they can be contaminated by heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. One study by USGS researchers showed that soy beans grown in biosolids-treated soils were contaminated by the antimicrobial chemical triclosan.

There are other potential sources of toxins to be aware of when you live in multi-family housing. My home owners’ association occasionally treats the tile roof to reduce moss growth. This can result in toxins sprayed onto your plants while they’re working and runoff long after they’re done. I lay a plastic tarp over the garden while they’re spraying and make sure the gutters are working well to direct roof runoff away from my plants. Some HOAs may also spray surrounding landscapes with herbicides or insecticides. Ask to be notified when they do so that you can cover your crop. Better yet, ask them to find non-toxic ways to control pests.

chicken_roamingJust a note for those raising chickens and goats, which will also take up toxins from their environment and accumulate them in their meat, eggs, and milk. Though you can’t shield them from all toxins, the same cautions apply as those for growing produce. Clean soil is key. If you live in a home built before the seventies, be extra careful about letting the animals feed near the house where flakes or dust from lead paint may contaminate the soil. Raised beds filled with clean soil down to root depth can help overcome past contamination. Finally, if you live near a busy road, it might not be a good idea to grow food, as dust and exhaust from traffic may result in an overall toxic environment.

I would love to hear your stories about your urban farming adventures! Don’t forget to post pics of your crops.

Facebook posts

November 2, 2015

Hi Folks,

I finally created a Facebook page called Doc Laurel ( that I’m doing most of my posting about toxins and reducing your exposure. Please join me on that platform for more frequent postings.

I’ll still post here when I need to go into more detail.

Wishing you good health,


Imagine arriving in your city’s downtown core on a quiet electric train, whisked along tracks through residential and urban city blocks. You glance toward the mountains in the distance, visible through a sky free of smog.

As the train pulls into the station, you step out and inhale the clean air. Electric buses and trams move swiftly past you along the road and throughout the city in a widely accessible grid, similar to Curitiba’s efficient transport system. As you walk along broad sidewalks toward your office, the weight of each step triggers a small pulse of electricity that flows from the pavement’s array into the city grid.

Your company has offices in a riverside building, integrated into its environment like those in the eco-city Masdar. The building operates so efficiently that it contributes net energy to the grid and is powered by a geothermal system, wind turbines and PV panels synced with the sun’s arc across the sky. Retractable shades shield offices from the summer sun. You are fortunate to live and work in a city entirely connected to the earth’s plentiful energy systems of sun, wind and subsurface heat.

You settle into your office on the second floor, which is mostly illuminated by walls of windows and a glass atrium located in the building’s center. Structural materials and furnishings were created from nontoxic, sustainably harvested componentss, leaving the indoor environment as clean as mountain air.

After a few hours of work, you walk up a circular staircase lit by windows and take your lunch at the café on the top floor. Fruits and vegetables that fill your plate were gathered from the rooftop garden that morning; hummus, chicken and grains were harvested from farms located a few miles outside the city.

As the day ends, you power down your low-energy holoscreen and gather your belongings to return home. You return to the train, which has just sped into the station. The sidewalk that takes you from the station home glows as you walk, lit by phosphorescent molecules embedded in the pavement, lighting your way and reducing the need for streetlights that block the view of stars in the sky.

Walking toward your home, you glance up at an apartment building on your left and smile at the vertical vegetable garden winding up the southern face of the building. PV panels and a thermal solar array cover the roof and supply energy and hot water to each unit in the building.

Your city’s hydrological and organic systems are also integrated into the environment’s natural cycles. Freshwater that falls as rain and flows in streams down from the mountains is optimally utilized, including sufficient recharge of the region’s surface and ground water resources. Parallel pipes channel potable and treated reclaimed water to each home and building and then out again after use by residents. Fluid wastes are channeled to a quaternary treatment facility and then back out again for use in landscapes. Solid wastes are flushed to a collection center and used to generate biogas. Grey water is immediately filtered on site and used for flushing ultra-low flow toilets. Vegetables and other green wastes are harvested to create an organic, rich compost that is transported to farms within and surrounding the city, completing the capture of carbon-rich waste back into the food supply.

As the weekend approaches, you look forward climbing into your Tesla, powered by energy collected from PV panels on your roof, and heading out into the countryside for a drive.

An entry to the Masdar Engage Blogging Contest

Dear Toxins Blog followers:books

I am writing a book on the presence and source of toxins in our food and drinking water, whether they come through environmental contamination, are added as ingredients, or leach from packaging/cooking materials. One major chapter of the book will focus on how choosing different diets likely affects your exposure to toxins (e.g. plant-based, omnivore, paleo, vegan).

I would love to have feedback from you about what you would like to see discussed in the book, what questions you have on the topic that you think would be helpful for people to learn about. I am also very interested in including case studies on your experiences with toxins in foods (do you react to certain ingredients, taste contaminants, etc.).

Again, the toxins I will be focusing on for the book include:

  • environmental contaminants (e.g. dioxins)
  • pesticides used during cultivation of crops
  • ingredients added for preservation or other purposes
  • substances leached from packaging, storage, or cooking equipment.

When I have finished a draft copy of the book, I will be looking for several people interested in acting as beta readers to provide me with feedback before I publish. In gratitude for your services, I will send you a free eBook or paperback copy once the book is published.

Wishing you great health,


Ingredient list A friend just asked me about the safety of ingredients in a product that claims to enhance eyelashes ( Even though I’m a chemist, I still find it difficult to interpret product labels for safety of ingredients and can imagine how frustrating this is for people who simply want to know about the safety of products they apply to their bodies.

I decided to use this as an example for how you can figure these things out. To begin with, I checked to see whether the product was on EWG’s SkinDeep Cosmetics Database ( It wasn’t, drat.

So I then checked the Database for each ingredient’s hazard score. Of the 27 ingredients listed for the product, all but one were in the Database (I’ve listed the individual ingredient scores below if you’re interested). Of these, the majority (17) had hazard scores of zero, which indicates that they were not considered hazardous based on available information. That was good news. And it wasn’t until the 16th ingredient on the label that a score above zero was listed. Only one ingredient, phenoxyethanol, had a score in the moderately hazardous range and it was 21st on the list of ingredients, meaning that it was present in low concentrations in the product.

That left one ingredient not listed in the Cosmetics Database. Chlor phenoxyethanol was the 22nd ingredient on the list and appears to have been added as a preservative to inhibit bacterial growth. I decided to look further to see what I could find out. After much searching on Google, I found nothing to answer my question about this ingredient’s toxicity. I actually didn’t even find the chemical in the top results of the search. So I shifted to EPA’s Aggregated Computational Toxicology Resource ( and found – nothing – on its toxicity. Sigh…

lashThis is a place many of us are familiar with. And while I am painfully aware that few chemicals have been adequately tested before they are added to consumer products, it is still frustrating to be unable to fully answer my friend’s question about this product’s safety. I can only hope that this will change so that it isn’t such a chore to figure out how safe a product is to use. Or better yet, that the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products will end sometime soon.

Bottom line, I will tell my friend that most ingredients appear to be safe and of the two lower-concentration ingredients, one is moderately hazardous and that I don’t know about the safety of the other.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Wishing you good health,


Here’s the list of ingredients and their scores on the Cosmetics Database:

Ingredients that had scores                               EWG’s score                     Supporting Data

Aqua/Water/Eau                                                         0                                       robust

Glycerin                                                                      0                                         fair

Butylene Glycol                                                       0 – 1                                    limited

Pterocarpus Marsupium Bark Extract                        0                                      no data

Myristoyl Pentapeptide-17                                         0                                      no data

Apigenin                                                                      0                                         fair

Glutamic Acid                                                             0                                         fair

Biotinoyl Tripeptide-1                                                 0                                      no data

Octapeptide-2                                                            0                                      no data

Panthenol                                                                   0                                       limited

Mannitol                                                                     0                                         fair

Biotin                                                                          0                                         fair

Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil                                         0                                        fair

Oleanolic Acid                                                            0                                         fair

Disodium Succinate                                                   0                                         fair

Sodium Oleate                                                            2                                       limited

PPG-26-Buteth-26                                                     2                                       limited

PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil                              3                                       limited

Cellulose Gum                                                            0                                         fair

Hydrogenated Lecithin                                               2                                       limited

Phenoxyethanol                                                          4                                       limited

Chlor Phenoxyethanol                                         not listed

Chlorphenesin                                                            2                                       limited

Sodium Benzoate                                                       3                                         fair

Sodium Citrate                                                            0                                         fair

Potassium Sorbate                                                     3                                       limited

Disodium EDTA                                                          0                                         fair

Scores for ingredients range from 0 – 10 overall, with values from 0 to 2 indicating a low hazard, values from 3 to 6 likely a moderate hazard, and those from 7 to 10 considered highly hazardous. The strength of information supporting these scores also ranges from no data available to a robust amount. For more information on how EWG determines the score for ingredients, check out their website at

Join #OctoberUnprocessed!

September 30, 2014

october-unprocessed-2014During the month of October, I’ll be tweeting (@Laurel_Standley) on the benefits of an unprocessed diet on reducing exposures to toxic chemicals. This was inspired by Andrew Wilder’s annual event called October Unprocessed (follow @eatingrules). I highly recommend visiting his site ( and signing up for the month as a way to reconnect to ‘real’ food and good health. Oh, and to benefit from a reduced exposure to toxic chemicals that are present in packaging and processed foods.

Bon Appetit!



I recently read about studies that show a counterintuitive relationship between consuming higher fat dairy products and reduced body weight (e.g. I read this with concern because animal fats, such as those in high fat dairy products, are a key source of fat-soluble toxins to our bodies (see and it can take many years to clear these toxins from our tissues.

What isn’t clear from these studies is whether there are alternatives to dairy fats or animal fats in general that would achieve the same result. For example, they didn’t assess whether people could replace full fat dairy products with healthy vegetable fats, like those in avocados and nuts, to achieve satiety while avoiding the toxins that bioaccumulate in animal fats.

Vegetarian, especially vegan diets, have been linked to lower diabetes, heart disease, and cancer risks (see And consuming these foods instead of meat products (including fatty dairy products) definitely reduces your exposure to fat-soluble toxins such as PCBs and dioxins, which are taken up by animals at levels many orders of magnitude higher than plants.



One of these studies on body weight versus dairy fat consumption mentioned the presence of omega-3 fats in organic high fat dairy products as an added health benefit. But there are definitely cleaner sources of these fats. And because most people consume non-organic dairy products, I am concerned about the advice to increase consumption of high-fat dairy since cattle raised conventionally produce lower levels of omega-3 fats in addition to accumulating fat-soluble toxins.

Sometimes what’s best for you in terms of other health indicators may not be best for you with respect to reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals, like the benefits of breast-feeding versus toxins in breast milk and the use of sunscreens with potentially toxic ingredients versus protecting your skin from damaging ultraviolet radiation. In those cases, breast-feeding and reducing exposure to ultraviolet rays make sense, even if they increase exposure to certain toxins.

But in this case, I really would love to see studies compare a vegetarian, low toxin alternative to this association between consumption of dairy fat with lower body weight.

For now, I think the bottom line is to try the vegetarian approach toward achieving a smaller ‘bottom’ to avoid increasing your risk of diseases associated with exposure to toxic contaminants, especially the fat-soluble ones present in high fat dairy products.