Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Don't Get Burned

I don't know what it's like where you live, but it's spring break season around these parts.  Thousands of college students and families with school-aged children are fleeing the stresses of daily life and heading to sunnier climes where they will offer up acres of winter-pale skin to the sun. And for the most part, everyone will be slathering and spraying on sunscreens to protect the kids and themselves from the potentially harmful effects of the sun, ranging from wrinkles and spots to serious skin cancers.

But do sunscreens actually do any good? Or do they just allow us to stay in the sun longer, thinking we are protected? And what is in sunscreen, anyway?

The answers to those questions: It depends, probably, and a lot of junk.

It depends because for sunscreens to be effective, they must be applied liberally and routinely after swimming or sweating. Probably because some sunscreens only screen out UVB rays, thereby protecting your skin from signs of sunburn while still allowing the deeper-penetrating UVA rays to wreak their own special brand of havoc in the under layers of your skin. As for the junk, well, there's a good chance that your sunscreen contains chemicals that disrupt hormones, contribute to premature puberty, and raise your risks for different types of cancers.


     Source: Skin Cancer Foundation
But this spring break, you don't have to bask in ignorance as well as the warmth of the sun. Before you pack the minivan or crowd into your friend's 1986 Volvo sedan, check out The Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide. You can look up your favorite brand to check out how it rates on actually screening you from the sun as well as its levels of harmful chemicals, you can see the top recommended sunscreens, and you can visit the Hall of Shame  to gasp at the outrageous claims, the ridiculous amounts of chemicals, and sadly, the very recognizable brands.

Some quick take-aways:
  • Just say no to oxybenzone. It's a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin. Unfortunately, oxybenzone, also called benzophenone-3, is found in 60% of sunscreens in the 500 listed in EWG's database. Even worse, one study found 96% of people tested had levels of oxybenzone in their urine and another study found traces of it in mother's milk, showing that this insidious chemical is finding its way into our bodies and that we can pass it along to our littlest kids. Here's the page with lots of science-y background. 
  • Create a barrier. The safest sunscreens are those that create a physical barrier against the sun's rays using minerals, such as zinc and titanium. These minerals shield your skin from both UVB and UVA rays but remain on the skin, rather than being absorbed by it. Even better barriers, according to the experts, are long sleeves, hats, and shade.
  • Nix the sprays. Sprays and powders put tiny particles of sunscreen into the air, which you (and everyone around you) breathe in. If you don't want those chemicals on your skin, you definitely don't want them in your lungs. Cough, cough.
  • Don't wear your vegetables. Vitamin A, which is added to many sunscreens as retinyl palmitate, is actually bad for you when applied on the skin. Research has shown that tumors and lesions develop more quickly on skin coated with creams containing vitamin A. 
If that seems like a lot to remember, just check out EWG's useful cheat sheet. EWG has boiled down pages and pages of information into one page that gives you some overarching advice on sunscreens and sun safety. And, if you want the info to go, there's an app for that.

You can learn a lot more about sunscreens on the EWG web site, including the fact that the FDA has been been drafting sunscreen regulations since...wait for it...1978. So don't hold your breath waiting for the government to provide clear guidelines about these chemicals. Do your own research and take control over what you put on your skin, which after all, is the largest organ of our bodies (despite what some college guys will try to tell you).

Have a great break!


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Read 'em and Eat

Image: Suat Eman
Take Part, the media company that strives to make participating in positive change a part of everyday life, has released "100+ Books on the Food Industry: If You Eat Food, Read Some."

It's a great list, with books by some of the usual suspects (Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Joel Salatin) but also some less popular, but equally important books like Monocultures of the Mind, by the Delhi-based physicist/environmentalist/philosopher/activist Vandana Shiva.

I was pleased to see Rachel Carson's Silent Spring on the list, but thought Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was an equally seminal book that should have been included. I shouldn't be critical. After all, the list wasn't meant to be comprehensive (it was created based on readers' favorites). What books would you suggest?

Thanks, Take Part, for compiling all these great reads in one place.


Monday, March 21, 2011

A Petition to Action

Here's your chance to tell the FDA how you feel about food dyes.

It's an online petition created by Healthy Food Action (part of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) in anticipation of the FDA's upcoming meeting on this topic.

Act now - comments need to be received in the next few days.

For background, I've written about this issue before.

Here's a video from  the Feingold Association that explains the link between poor health outcomes and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.



Sunday, March 6, 2011

Things Are Getting Complicated Out There

So how much is too much genetic modification?

That seems to be the question of the month.

In a move that made me read things twice, it appears as if the pro-GMO world of conventional grain-for-food farming is taking offense at the next step in GMOs - that of corn engineered for industrial purposes, specifically for ethanol production.

And the concerns are the same concerns that organic farmers have against GMOs overall: unintended contamination.

The North American Miller's Union, which represents companies such as ConAgra, General Mills, and Archer Daniels Midland, has come out swinging against Syngenta's recently USDA-approved alpha-amylase corn, not because it is a GMO, and not because it isn't safe, but because if even a small amount Syngenta's corn (as small as one kernel in 10,000 according to NAMU) contaminates the corn intended for food stuffs, it could result in, as the trade publication Seed Today noted:
"Corn chips that crumble in the bag. Cereal that's soggy before you can get it to your mouth." 
Definitely First World problems, but problems nonetheless.

The FDA says Syngenta's corn is safe to eat. But the presence of the enzyme alpha-amylase (which is derived from genes from a micro-organism that lives near heat vents at the bottom of oceans) would cause the corn to degrade when subjected to heat and humidity, thus making foodstuffs unstable. The amylase-enhanced corn is attractive from an ethanol-production standpoint because it would eliminate some of the costs associated with the current methods of breaking down the starch in corn to produce ethanol.

What's interesting to me is that contamination is what organic farmers have been concerned about for years with GMOs. This concern has grown more urgent with the recent USDA approval of GMO alfalfa, which has the potential to spread widely and contaminate organic alfalfa, and thus put the organic meat industry at risk. But what we're hearing from lobbying giants like NAMU is that GMOs that may contaminate organic farms are OK, but GMOs that may contaminate conventional farms are not.

However you feel about GMOs, you have to admit that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

"We love biotech. We don't question the safety. It's just a question of can we still make the food products we make now," if grain is contaminated, Mary Waters, president of NAMU told Seed Today. 

The Wall Street Journal covers the story here. And here's the New York Times' take.

Stepping back from the squabbles between the GMOs intended for food and those intended for industrial purposes, I don't think the industrial corn is a bad idea from an energy policy perspective. If there was ever a time that highlighted the United State's dependence on foreign oil (well, other than the 1970s) it has been the past decade. The current unrest in the Mideast has caused oil prices to spike again and has pulled back the curtain on some of the unsavory lengths to which the United States is willing to go in order to secure a steady supply of oil. These political concerns, coupled with our ongoing recession and the need to grow jobs, no doubt helped Syngenta on its multi-year quest for USDA approval. And remember, lots of people don't want to actually eat GMOs, American farmers are pros at growing corn, and ethanol is a growing industry despite its downsides of gobbling up, oh, gazillions of gallons of water and its potential for pollution. So, even though corn isn't a terribly efficient grain from which to make ethanol, perhaps growing GMO crops - including corn - for fuel isn't a bad idea (Brazil, an energy-independent country, doesn't think so). But more on the United States' energy policies later.

I just think it's ironic that a group that has been so pro-GMO now wants regulations for the new kids on the scene.