Choosing products like bamboo can greatly benefit our environment and personal health.
Bamboo's rapid growth and versatility make it an ideal material for creating a variety of items, including flooring, textiles, and kitchen utensils. However, the way bamboo is processed can vary, and some methods may involve the use of harmful chemicals. This raises questions about whether we could potentially be exposed to these chemicals when using bamboo products. Let's delve deeper into the advantages and drawbacks of utilizing items made from bamboo.
What Are Bamboo Products?
Fun fact: Did you know that bamboo is actually a grass, not a tree?
In addition, bamboo does more than just feed adorable panda bears. Its durable fibers can be used to make many products, including:
- Cutting boards
- Kitchen utensils
- Coffee filters
- Toilet paper
- And more
How can panda food do all this? Let’s take a closer look!
Potential Benefits of Using Bamboo to Make Products
Like a party guest who won’t take the hint, bamboo gets a little unruly and overstays its welcome in gardens. Its ability to spread quickly makes this resilient crop a sustainable choice for creating a variety of products.
In addition to its sustainability, bamboo is very durable. Some bamboo products, like clothing, may last longer than clothes that use synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polyester.
Lastly, bamboo fibers contain bamboo kun, which is a compound that’s been shown to exhibit antibacterial properties [*]. In the wild, bamboo kun helps keep pests from destroying the crop.
These properties could potentially help increase the longevity of your bamboo products. However, proper cleaning and maintenance will still be required to ensure the products remain free from contamination.
Before you head into a panda’s backyard to chop down some bamboo, there are some things to consider. While bamboo is sustainable, the process of creating bamboo products may raise some red flags. Let’s take a closer look!
How Are Bamboo Products Made?
Crafting bamboo products isn’t as simple as tying together a couple of blades of grass. A lot of effort and resources go into making bamboo products possible.
Once harvested, the bamboo stalks are cut into thin strips. These strips are then boiled in a chemical solution to remove the sugars and starches present. This step is crucial as it prevents the bamboo from attracting insects or developing molds.
Next, the strips are dried and then glued together under high pressure to form sheets. These sheets are milled into different shapes and sizes based on the product they're destined to become. This could be anything from flooring planks to furniture components to cutting boards.
Next, the milled products are sanded to create a smooth surface. Many manufacturers will add a finishing coat. These are applied to the products to enhance their durability and appearance.
Lastly, the bamboo product is packaged and shipped to stores or warehouses, where they eventually end up in your home!
Potential Toxic Chemicals in Bamboo Products
While bamboo may be a sustainable material, processing its fibers may increase the chances of toxic chemical contamination. Here are some ways that processing bamboo may cause some reasons for concern.
Harvesting and milling bamboo requires the use of machinery. These machines may have high levels of heavy metals. In addition, lubricants used to maintain machines may have petroleum. Petroleum-based products have a high risk of impurities that may contaminate items they come into contact with, including bamboo fibers.
Many chemicals may be used to strip bamboo. Most of these chemicals are considered safer alternatives to more abrasive chemicals, such as ethanol and ammonia.
Chemicals commonly used in bamboo processing may promote acute reactions in some people. That means our reactions to these chemicals would be short-term, such as throat irritation or itchy eyes.
Typical commercial chemicals used to strip bamboo include:
- Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH): Also known as lye, sodium hydroxide is used to extract the fiber from bamboo by removing polysaccharides and lignin [*]. Direct contact with NaOH may cause skin burns and respiratory tract irritation.
- Potassium Hydroxide (KOH): Similar to NaOH, potassium hydroxide is another alkali solution used in treating bamboo.
- Hydrogen Peroxide: Used in bleaching processes, hydrogen peroxide can be harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or comes into contact with skin or eyes [*].
- Boron salts: These are used as non-fixing bamboo preservatives effective against borers, termites, and fungi. However, high exposure to boron compounds may irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract [*].
- Copper Chrome Boron (CCB): Used as a preservative treatment, CCB can be toxic if ingested or inhaled, causing symptoms like nausea and vomiting [*].
While this may seem alarming, many of these chemicals are toxic to us when ingested or inhaled during the stripping process. So, if we properly care for, use, and store our bamboo products, there should be little cause for concern about being exposed to these chemicals. However, other chemicals used to finish bamboo might be a different story.
One of the biggest causes of concern with bamboo products is the adhesive glues used to keep the fibers together.
Much like the chemicals used to strip bamboo, adhesive glues can cause many of the same acute issues. However, long-term exposures to some of these specific chemicals could lead to some more long-term effects.
Common adhesive glues used in the bamboo industry include:
- Aliphatic Resin Glue: Also known as “yellow glue,” this includes glues, like Titebond II, that are commonly used in woodworking. They may contain formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals [*]. Some studies find this type of glue has the highest levels of formaldehyde [*].
- Polyurethane Glue: This includes glues like Gorilla Glue, which are more water-resistant than yellow glues [*]. They may contain Acetaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen [*]. In addition, Diisocyanates are commonly used in these formulas, which has been linked to various acute effects [*].
- Cyanoacrylate: Also known as Super Glue, this glue is commonly used for its fast-drying capabilities. When cyanocrylate breaks down, it’s known to release formaldehyde [*]. This formaldehyde can be released into the air and inhaled into the body. Long-term formaldehyde exposure can lead to chronic respiratory issues [*].
- Epoxy: A very strong adhesive formula that may contain many harmful chemicals, including Bisphenol-A (BPA) [*]. Long-term BPA exposure has been linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes [*].
- Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA) Glue: A common glue used to bond bamboo, PVA may negatively impact the immune system [*].
Even though you may not ingest these adhesives or come into physical contact with them often, you can still be exposed to them through the air.
Many of these adhesives break down with time and “off gas” chemicals. We can then inhale them into our bodies. Be proactive with your health. Take proper care of your bamboo products, and store them properly.
Varnishes and Paints
Even something naturally beautiful as bamboo gets a little dolled up. Many manufacturers will “finish” or “treat” their wood products, including bamboo grass, with various varnishes and paints.
These can also act as bonding agents. In some cases, these chemicals may also have antibacterial properties.
Some bamboo products, such as cups and bowls, can be made with toxic melamine-formaldehyde resins, which are linked to kidney problems [*]. Many varnishes may also off gas benzene, a known human carcinogen.
Remember, the toxicity of these chemicals largely depends on the concentration and the duration of exposure. Try to find bamboo products that are “untreated.” Using minimally processed bamboo products could potentially reduce your toxic chemical exposures while using these items.
What are Some Safe Ways to Use Bamboo?
Did you just swap out plastic products for bamboo? Congratulations on the next step in your detox journey. Now, it’s time to maximize your health by using bamboo products safely. Here are a few tips!
Avoid High Heat
High temperatures can cause the release of adhesives used in the manufacturing of some bamboo products. Avoid using bamboo utensils, dishware, and cutting boards while cooking on high heat or serving hot food directly.
If you do use bamboo while stirring hot foods, don’t leave the utensil sitting in the pot. This can cause the adhesives to break down and leach toxic chemicals into your food.
Hand Wash Only
Clean toxic chemicals out of your routine by washing your bamboo products by hand. Dishwashers can reach extremely high temperatures, which can cause the adhesives and varnishes to break down.
Not to mention, harsh detergents can cause the bamboo to crack and warp. Instead, wash them by hand with mild soap and warm water.
After washing, make sure to dry your bamboo items thoroughly to prevent mold and mildew growth. Don't let them soak in water for extended periods.
Maintain Your Bamboo Products
Just like wooden cutting boards, bamboo kitchenware needs regular maintenance. Use fruit oils like organic extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil to condition your bamboo items every few months. Beeswax is another great option! Treating your bamboo will help prolong the life of your product and improve its appearance!
You might also want to do a monthly deep cleaning. Consider filling up your sink with warm water with equal parts vinegar. Let your bamboo items soak for 20-30 minutes. Scrub clean, and then allow to dry.
Treat stains without the use of harsh chemicals like bleach. Bleach can break down the bamboo and release harmful chemicals into the air that you may inhale. For pesky stains, make a paste with baking soda and water to help break down the stain.
Many adhesives, paints, and varnishes may off gas toxic chemicals, contaminating your indoor air quality. These concerns may increase if you use bamboo to handle hot items, such as cooking utensils.
Make toxic chemicals out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Store many of your bamboo products in drawers and cabinets. Also, try to keep bamboo in dry areas, as they can maintain moisture that can lead to mold growth.
For larger items, like furniture and bedding, this may not be possible. Reduce your chances of toxic chemical exposure by shopping for bamboo with an informed eye.
What to Look for When Shopping for Bamboo?
Stopping sustainably may take a little work, but it’s well worth the effort. Make knowledge decisions about your bamboo purchases.
Take these into consideration when shopping for bamboo products:
- Organic: Look for bamboo products that are certified organic. This means the bamboo was grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, which can leave harmful residues on the bamboo.
- Untreated: Try to find bamboo that’s been minimally processed and varnished.
- Formaldehyde-Free: Look for bamboo products that explicitly state they are formaldehyde-free.
- Third-Party Certifications: Look for certifications from reputable third parties, such as GreenGuard.
- No Added Dyes or Stains: Choose products that haven't been treated with synthetic dyes or stains, which can contain harmful chemicals.
- Natural Finishes: Opt for products with natural finishes, like beeswax or food-grade mineral oil, rather than synthetic varnishes or paints.
Is Bamboo the Best Option?
While bamboo is a more eco-friendly and healthier alternative to plastic, it may not necessarily be the best option for everyone.
For those seeking complete peace of mind, these other materials might be better options:
- Kitchenware (Utensils, Cutting Boards, Dinnerware, etc.): Glass, stainless steel, food-grade silicone, copper
- Clothing, Furniture, Textiles: Organic cotton, linen, alpaca wool, hemp
Is Bamboo Right for Me?
While there are some concerns about potential toxicity in bamboo products, choosing high-quality items from reputable manufacturers should mitigate these risks. Bamboo is a sustainable, durable, and largely non-toxic alternative to plastic. However, for those seeking complete peace of mind, other options like stainless steel, glass, or food-grade silicone may be more suitable. Proper cleaning and maintenance of bamboo products are also crucial to ensure their longevity and safety.