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.

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

Meatonomics & Sometimes Vegan

When I was a freshman in high school, I read Fast Food Nation in English class and I didn’t eat a hamburger again for years. I went for hotdogs and chicken fingers instead, which aren’t exactly the greatest alternatives, but everything about a burger was wrong to me. I don’t even remember anymore what part of the beef story convinced me to quit burgers cold turkey (hah), but that book certainly did it. I still sort of feel weird when I eat one, even when I make it myself from grassfed beef.

I just finished reading another book that is going to change my diet a lot more than Fast Food Nation ever did, and it’s called Meatonomics. Written by lawyer David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics explores the “rigged economics” of the meat and dairy industries.  It hits hard in all the areas that get to me; sustainability, humane treatment of animals, and corporate control of consumption.

I really enjoyed reading Meatonomics because it is well researched and clearly written. Each chapter has a thesis sentence, subtitles on almost every page, and a bulleted summary of important points at the end. Everything is described in economic terms, which usually means unfathomably large sums of money, but the quantification is powerful. Simon also devotes a significant portion of the book to outlining solutions to the problems he describes, and they’re not absurd. And finally, of course, I learned a ton reading this book. I’m going to recommend it to my vegetarian economics-major sister, to my sometimes-vegan other sister, and to my parents: read it, because our family has fallen for a lot of the problems described in Meatonomics. Continue reading

Environmental Book Review: Toms River by Dan Fagin

I’m usually skeptical of pop science journalism, but I decided to give Dan Fagin’s Toms River a go after coming across a grumpy amazon review complaining that it was too scientific.

Toms River is about chemical pollution and its consequences in the coastal New Jersey community of the same name, focusing on a childhood cancer cluster that made big headlines around 2000.  However, this isn’t just the story of evil chemicals that hurt innocent people; Fagin’s narrative, punctuated with historical background on chemical manufacturing, toxicology, epidemiology, and molecular genetics, is organized like a mystery novel but with an unsatisfying, anticlimactic ending.  It’s a true story after all, and the intricacies, flaws, and knowledge gaps in law and science make it almost impossible bring the responsible parties to justice.

Continue reading

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

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