Toxic Elements from “Chemistry and Sustainability”

This morning, I taught my advisor’s undergrad/grad class on sustainability. They’re currently studying “toxic elements,” so I introduced the lesson and showed a few videos on lead, arsenic, and selenium poisoning. In the last 15 minutes I discussed with the students if the class is impacting their daily lives and why it should, which of course reminded me of why I blog. 

I’ve linked to the videos we watched today in class. We learned first about lead poisoning in children in Nigeria due to contaminated dust from illegal gold mines. Human Rights Watch named it one of the worst lead poisoning epidemics in modern history. Bangladesh is also experiencing “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history” from naturally-occurring arsenic in groundwater. 

These are extreme and geographically and socioeconomically distant examples, but lead and arsenic poisoning can and do occur to us, too. Lead, which I’ve written about before, was used heavily in paint and gasoline until it was banned in the 1970s and 80s, respectively. Lead is a persistent toxic pollutant and continues to contaminate soil and our homes. Most homes built before the lead paint ban (including mine) still have leaded paint underneath the top layers, which poses a threat to children who may eat the paint chips and to anybody who breathes lead dust. Lead use in paint and gasoline has also been epidemiologically correlated to a decrease in IQ and increase in violence in the 20th century. Low dose exposure of children to lead manifests itself in lowered IQ scores.

There are two main sources of arsenic poisoning that you should worry about as well: groundwater contamination and rice. Arsenic deposits in soil are naturally occurring (see below for major pockets), and can contaminate well water. Researchers recently measured the (low) levels of arsenic in well water in Maine and correlated it to a decrease in IQ in children. Takeaway: if you drink from a well, always have it tested for heavy metal contamination. 

Arsenic poisoning can also occur through rice consumption. The rice plant absorbs arsenic and other heavy metals including cadmium, mercury, and tungsten and stores them in the grain. For cultures who eat rice most frequently, this has lead to diseases such as the painful “ouch-ouch” in Japan. Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice because it accumulates in the bran, but is less healthy. The highest levels of arsenic have been found in rice grown in the southern United States; imported rice from Asia is mixed in arsenic levels. See Consumer Reports full rice test results hereConsumer Reports and the EWG recommend buying rice from California and limiting rice consumption for babies. Those on a gluten-free diet should also be mindful of rice intake. 

Scary, yes, but manageable. If you made it this far and are feeling pretty down, watch this funny John Stewart video on selenium that I am not skilled enough to figure out how to embed.

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In the News: Target Announces Sustainable Product Standards

Last month, Target announced a new program in which it will rate products based on their transparency, ingredients, and environmental impact.  According to Target’s website, the 100 point system will be implemented first on personal care, beauty, household cleaning, and baby care products.

Given how big of a reach Target has, this is big news: zillions of customers, average Americans (as opposed to the average Whole Foods shopper), with more sustainable and less toxic affordable products at their fingertips.   Continue reading

Toxic Air Fresheners

I hate air fresheners.  Hate hate HATE.  All they do is cover up smells with other sickly smells.  Seriously people, there are better ways to make your home or car or garbage cans more olfactorily pleasing.  (Is that a word?)

Taylor and I recently came in close contact with a hawaiian scented Febreeze thing that was meant to cover up garbage stench in our building. A few minutes later Taylor was turning pink and having a hard time breathing.  Meanwhile, I was shuddering at the thought of all the hormone disrupting chemicals in those things.

A little research when I got home told me that the only “ingredient” in that air freshener is “fragrance,” which we’ve talked about before. Fragrance is a catch-all term that may include tens or even hundreds of different ingredients.  Fragrances are proprietary, so companies don’t have to disclose what is in them. Additionally, the government does not have any safety regulations in place for air fresheners.

So how do we know what’s in them if the ingredients aren’t disclosed? Continue reading

The Tomato Project: An Introduction

We are in the midst of tomato season right now, which means I am busy stockpiling oven roasted tomatoes in my freezer to use as sauce base for the rest of the year, but my sister told me yesterday that even during the summer she only buys canned tomatoes.  In bulk, she says, they are the cheapest option, and they taste pretty darn good.  I was aghast at the idea of consuming so much BPA, but Mark Bittman made the same point in the Times this past weekend in his piece “Not All Industrial Food is Evil.”  Bittman doesn’t even mention BPA! Canned tomatoes do taste better than the hydroponically farmed ones in supermarkets in the winter, but this is August.

My sister is stubborn, and we argued for a while about the cost of canned tomatoes vs. the risk of BPA exposure.  She is committed to living on the cheap, and will probably never switch away from canned food, no matter how toxic, unless a cheaper option is presented.  And as Bittman points out, canned tomatoes are dirt cheap thanks to the international market.

Home canned tomato sauce, yum! I wish the lids of Ball jars weren’t also lined with BPA/BPS.

My mind is blown by how difficult it is to avoid foods packaged with BPA. You have to really TRY, and in my experience, you pretty much have to spend either a lot of money or a lot of time (i.e. buy organic tomatoes in fancy jars or can your own).  I don’t think that this doesn’t have to be the case, though.  Living in a city, I have a lot of options for buying food, and I bet that I can find cheap, non-BPA tomatoes in bulk for at least a reasonable price.

…and so the tomato project was born.  I am going to be living in this city for a while, and I certainly buy lots of groceries, so I think it will be worth the time to study sources of tomatoes and other major foodstuffs in the city of Pittsburgh. Plus, I need to prove to my sister that it is possible to live cheaply and avoid major, um, not-so-beneficial food additives.

Here’s how this is going to work: I am going to visit all of the places in the city I can think of from which I can buy tomatoes (fresh, canned, jarred, or otherwise) and document them with my camera. I don’t have a car, so everywhere I go will be accessible by public transportation. I plan to check out:

  • Giant Eagle Market District (standard grocery store chain)
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s
  • East End Food Co-op
  • various farmer’s markets
  • Pennsylvania Macaroni Co (huge Italian specialty store)
  • Costco

In my assessment, I will be considering:

  • Price (by weight)
  • Packaging*
  • Source (domestic or international)
  • Organic (or not)
  • Additives (sugar and other unnecessary additives are a no go)

*Note: I do not consider cans designated “BPA free” to be ok if they don’t say what replaced it.  Most BPA free plastics use BPS instead, which is a structurally similar molecule with similar endocrine disrupting properties.  It just hasn’t gotten as much publicity yet. 

While I am investigating tomatoes, I am going to research a few other major foods as well. I most often shop around for dairy and nuts because they are expensive.  Because of the high fat content in dairy products, it is important to me to buy organic (and hormone free) because many toxins, especially pesticides, partition into fat rather than water. Nuts I would prefer to buy in bulk because it is usually cheaper and saves packaging, but I have found that the nuts in the bulk bins at Whole Foods are much more expensive per pound than the packaged ones because the bulk bins are stocked with “fancy organic pecan halves” whereas the packaged ones are just pieces and almost half the price. (Whole Foods is probably set up like this just to trick conscientious shoppers.) Finally, I’d like to find the cheapest and least packaged way to buy unbrominated unbleached and preferably organic flour.

The project will start this weekend, and probably will take a while.  In the meantime, the next post in the tomato project series will be an exposé on the threat of BPA with the purpose of convincing you that you should want to pay more to avoid it. Hopefully I will soon be able to prove that you don’t have to.

 Any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for other foods I should look into? Leave a comment!

A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong. Continue reading

An Introduction to Slow/Real/Whole Food (for my little sister)

My little sister, who just completed her first year of college, was forwarded this buzzfeed page containing a list of 8 common ingredients in food that are banned in other places of the world.  She wanted to know if it was “legit”, and my answer was YES YES YES this is a big deal and if you don’t know all about this already you should!

Because most of the blogs I read are written by other like-mindedly green people, they (and subsequently I) tend to write about more nuanced aspects of green living, like for example my last post on how to minimize organic kitchen waste. This post is for those of you, like my sister, who not only don’t have a worm bucket, but don’t know how to navigate a grocery store without inadvertently buying carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Continue reading

Non-toxic Shower Curtain

I’ve decided it’s time for a new shower curtain, and I definitely want a nontoxic one.  I don’t even know what my old one is made out of because it was in my apartment when I moved in, but my new one will definitely not be made out of PVC.

PVC, often called “vinyl” in shower curtains, is bad for both you and the environment in so many ways:

  • PVC is made from the highly toxic vinyl chloride monomer.  To learn more about the shocking history of vinyl chloride, check out the film “Trade Secrets.”
  • It is softened with the use of phthalates, known endocrine disruptors, which are not chemically bonded to the polymer and can leech out.
  • Burning PVC generates dioxins, a carcinogen and one of the most toxic synthetic chemicals out there.
  • “New shower curtain smell” is actually a mixture of VOCs, organotins, and phthalates, all of which are toxic and will make you sick.

The good news is that there are many alternatives to PVC shower curtains. Continue reading