In the news: The Chemical Industry is the New Tobacco

Tyrone Hayes, professor of biology at UC Berkeley.

I’d like to bring to your attention two recent news articles on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) with a disturbing connection. They’re both great reads, so I’ll try not to spoil them for you.

Endocrine disruptors seem to be in the news every day. (So does reducing our intake of animal products- is this just because I am more conscious of it now?) The USDA released the results of a BPA study last month that led to the headline “Maybe That BPA In Your Canned Food Isn’t So Bad After All” (on NPR, no less, and it’s a terrible article so I won’t even bother to link to it). The flawed study used a species of rat known to be insensitive to estrogen, and on top of that had contaminated controls. You have to have an unexposed population to compare to or else the results are worthless!

Ok, enough rant. The fact I want to make you aware of is that the chemical industry is the new tobacco industry; they’re employing not only the same tactics but also the same people to preserve their economics interests, no matter what the science says. Sounds an awful lot like the history of lead to me. Continue reading

Twelve Endocrine Disruptors to Avoid

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a “dirty dozen” list of endocrine disruptors to avoid, similar to their dirty dozen list of produce to buy organic.

Endocrine disruptors, quite simply, are chemicals that interfere with hormones in the body. They’re particularly scary because very small amounts can have very big effects, particularly during development.  

You and I don’t have unlimited time to investigate every single ingredient in our shampoo, so it is great to have a list like this to know what to look for, just like we know to buy strawberries and apples organic but not worry too much about avocados.

Most of the endocrine disruptors on the list are names you will recognize, big baddies like lead and dioxin, but some you may not recognize by name.  The list describes in plain English what is so bad about these chemicals and gives suggestions for avoiding them; most enter our body either through food or water.  It’s definitely worth taking a look at. Continue reading

Take This Tomato Project BPA Poll!

Aside

Hey everybody, please take this quick poll to help with the tomato project & my second year graduate seminar.  I want to know what you think! You can choose up to two answers.

Questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome.

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

The Lessons We Need to Learn from Lead (and an environmental book review)

We have been reading a book called Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution for our green chemistry class, and boy is it terrifying.  Authors Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner are historians who have had the privilege of pouring through entire rooms full of internal memos from both the lead and vinyl chloride industries, revealing the despicable ways that each industry has sacrificed the health of humanity and the environment to promote their products.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the story of lead, as an additive in both gasoline and paint.  It’s not a nice one.

Lead is toxic, especially to children, and scientists have known this for more than a century.  By 1915, lead toxicity was established in medical literature, and the largest lead producer in the United States even acknowledged it. Lead was banned in paints around the world (except in America) and safer zinc oxide paints were available by the 1920s.  How then did lead use in paint and gasoline manage to become so widespread in the United States in the 20th century? Continue reading

Quote of the Day: Endocrine Disruptors

Quote

“We seem to be accepting as a society that it’s acceptable to load up our next generation with chemicals in an unregulated manner and hope they’re not bad. We need to change that entire culture.”

— Thomas Zoeller, UMass Amherst Professor and co-author of a joint report by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program on endocrine disrupting chemicals.

The report, State of the Science of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, concludes that endocrine disruptors, which interfere with human and animal development and reproduction, present a “global threat.”

Finally, we are moving in the right direction.

One of my personal goals for the near future is to learn exactly how the endocrine system works and how these chemicals disrupt it.

___

Here is the article the quote came from and here you can access the entire report and a summary of it from the World Health Organization.