Saturday, December 8, 2012

We Live Here

NASA photo of Earth from space
The "Big Blue Marble" as seen from Apollo 17.

Forty years ago, the crew of Apollo 17 took this iconic photo of the "Big Blue Marble" floating in a sea of black.

I think it is so cool that when you look at the Earth from space, you don't see country borders on land or lines in the ocean defining where international boundaries end and national ones begin. You just see a lot of water, some land, and clouds swirling about. My thoughts are not that original, as I realized while reading about the origins of this photo on NASA's web site. Eugene Cernan, who flew on Apollo 10 and commanded Apollo 17, said,

"...You only see the boundaries of nature from there...not those that are manmade."

Having the larger view makes it possible to visualize how radioactive debris from Japan can wash up on the shores of Oregon. Or how airborne ash from a volcano in Iceland can ground planes in London. Or how air pollution in China can disrupt the weather in the United States to the point of reducing precipitation. Basically, how the earth is one finite entity, as the recently deceased Barry Commoner articulated in his Four Laws of Ecology:

Everything is connected to everything else.
Everything must go somewhere.
Nature knows best.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.

It's all one thing. And it's the only one. There is only one blue dot in our entire solar system. 

I love that this photo was picked up by the emerging environmental movement in the 1970s. A picture truly is worth a thousand words, and this one, well, this one is where we live.


 Image from NASA.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Viva la Mitochondria!

Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Last week, I found myself in the swank ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in midtown Atlanta. Unlike the functions I attend for my government clients, this one had swag bags, free hors d'oeuvres and soft drinks, and an open bar for VIPs. It was a nice event.  But I wasn't there to soak up the atmosphere - I was there to listen and learn and to support  one of my clients, the Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine, who sponsored the program.*  

And I'm so glad I went. The program was impressive: top researchers and clinicians from Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, Georgia State University, and private practice in Atlanta shared their research into how mitochondrial dysfunction is at the crux of the diseases and conditions they study, conditions ranging from autism to Parkinson's disease and that include muscular dystrophy, ALS, and more. The illustration above provides a graphic representation of the central role mitochondrial dysfunction plays in many common diseases. You can read more about it here.

A brief primer on mitochondria:  These organelles, found in almost every cell in our bodies, are responsible for many functions in the body and brain. Perhaps their main contribution to our health is taking chemical elements from the food we eat and the air we breathe and turning it into adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is the fuel on which our bodies run. But mitochondria perform other tasks in our bodies, as well: organ-specific ones, like working in the liver to detoxify ammonia that is created as a waste product of protein metabolism; or regulating calcium so that neurons can function smoothly; and even telling cells when to die, an important housekeeping tasks that ensures the availability of robust cells to take care of our bodies' business.

So when mitochondria become damaged, either through inborn genetic mutations or through environmental assaults, diseases and conditions can develop that range from moderate to severe, from feeling fatigued to being unable to breathe, move, see, or think clearly. Researchers also suspect that damage to our mitochondria are responsible for the aging process itself.

This is terribly exciting research. Importantly, this particular group of researchers is working not just on laying out how mitochondrial dysfunction results in disease, but how to fix the problems. Currently, the most helpful therapies, such as CoEnzyme Q, exercise, excellent nutrition, specific supplements, and rest are pretty basic. But that gives you an idea how important those aspects are, and how much we take them for granted in supporting our bodies' daily energy needs.

Of special interest to me is how fragile mitochondria are. Many things, including some drugs, pesticides, and other chemicals, including air pollution, can damage them. And, last I looked, we are all living in an increasingly polluted world, which might help explain why certain diseases are increasing. Excellent nutrition, therefore, offers a basic defense from the continuous assault of chemicals we all experience. And it's not just the protective nature of good foods that is important, but also recognition of the damaging aspects of bad fats and artificial additives, including the creation of free radicals when they are metabolized that can harm the delicate mitochondria.

This post is more "gee-whiz"than most of my posts, but I really think mitochondrial medicine is one of the great promises for understanding, preventing, and treating some of the most common and debilitating diseases and conditions of our time. If you look around your family tree and map out diseases and conditions in various family members (this post can help you get started), you might find patterns between the generations, one of which may be linked to mitochondria. That can give you a clue about how clean you need to make your personal environment, whether it's the foods you eat, the air you breathe, or how you control pests in your house and weeds in your yard, in order to support mitochondrial health. The evidence is strong that the combination of family genetics and one's personal environment can make the difference between good health and disease and now we're beginning to understand that high-functioning mitochondria may be one of the key sentinels standing guard over our well being. Therefore, since we can't do much about the genetic hand we are dealt, we need to be vigilant about creating personal environments that support these vital sources of energy and cellular protection.


Did you know that mitochondria are believed to be ancient bacteria that were ingested by single-celled organisms, where they eventually created a mutually beneficial relationship by providing energy to the organism in return for a safe place to live? The enhanced energy is why organisms could evolve from one cell to many.

* disclaimer: The Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine is one of my clients. It pays me to do scientific writing and strategic communication counseling. This blog posts represents my own opinions and not those of the Foundation. I was not asked to write this post, did not have anyone from the Foundation vet it, and take full responsibility for its content. I'm just really excited about this field of medicine.

Image from the Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's Almost Halloween!

sleepy hollow pumpkin
My family attended the greatest Halloween party over the past weekend. It was for all ages, so there were toddlers entranced by motion-activated ghosts and seniors in face paint chatting it up. There were teenagers hanging out on the sofas and younger teens playing tag and flirting (which is basically the same thing for that age group). Us middle-agers had a great time dancing, imbibing, catching up, and eating. Because the party was a potluck, I realized how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who value good food and brought their finest recipes to share. The dessert table, which could have been a disaster of artificially colored and flavored treats, was laden with homemade cupcakes with real chocolate frosting, snickerdoodles and other cookies that were crisp with real butter or coconut oil, homemade cakes decorated with naturally colored frosting, chocolates formed in the shape of rats (icky, but tasty), and other sugary, but fairly wholesome, treats.

The chilis, salads, sides, and other food were equally whole. What a treat. 

But as we sneak ever-nearer to the official trick-or-treat date, the drug-store candy is beginning its siren call to my kids, and to kids across the country. For Halloween, I take the view that I won't give away candy that I wouldn't give to my family. That makes sense because the pre-Halloween stash and post-Halloween leftovers are eaten by my family (and me). So, of course I look for alternatives that have no suspicious chemicals, items like bite-sized Cliff Bars or candy from health food stores. However, I don't stress too much about it and some people are surprised to learn that I also give out more commercial candy. But I do, after reading the labels. In this case, my goal is to minimize, rather than eliminate, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. So, Butterfingers are a reasonable compromise and Hershey Bars are OK. Not great, but OK for this specific holiday, especially because my kids are older, have developed good eating habits, and quickly tire of cheap candies.

I do, however, stay away from the candies that are just an compilation of chemicals, you know those brightly colored, strangely flavored ones, like those highlighted by TakePart, in its article on the worst Halloween candies. Generally, these are not only laden with chemicals, they are sticky, too, which means they stay around on teeth (and braces!).

This conversation is getting a lot of traction. Over at The Lunch Tray, blogger/lawyer Bettina Siegel is conducting a poll on what you're giving away for Halloween. She also provides some ideas to reduce the chemical intake of the holiday. These candies look great, but I have not seen them in my local stores.

In honor of Halloween, here are links to some previous HealthTwisty articles on candy.

  • Don't Eat the Oil ran after Halloween 2010 and remains the most popular HealthTwisty post.
  • Snack Attack is about gummy treats masquerading as healthy treats.
  • Yes, Diet Affects Attention. Really. explains some of the research linking artificial colors/flavors/preservatives and other components of processed foods with attention and behavioral issues.

And I love A Story about Bees, which provides anecdotes about how we, as a society, often pay more attention to how foodstuffs affect our animals than how they affect our kids.

So happy reading, make reasonable choices, and have a ghoulish good time out there on the 31st!


Image from Visit Sleepy Hollow

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Doping is Cool in School

bike doping

recent article in the New York Times brought up the subject of performance-enhancing drugs, but not in the way we usually think of them, which is for sports. No, this article highlighted a not-so-secret use of stimulant drugs: prescribing them for children who do not have ADD/ADHD, but who are struggling in school. The article was fairly non-judgmental and focused mainly on one doctor in rural Georgia who sees a lot of underprivileged kids, who, in his words need the drugs because they are "mismatched with their environment." For support and contrast, the article included other doctors, as well as educators, from across the country to weigh in on this surprisingly (to me) common use of stimulant drugs.

This particular doctor's rationale for prescribing ADD drugs to kids who don't have ADD is that he feels these drugs can help to make up for deficits elsewhere in the system, such as a lack of funding for tutors or aids that could address the kids' issues through more labor-intensive behavioral strategies. Another doctor was quoted as saying:

“We as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmaceutical interventions for these children and their families,” said Dr. Ramesh Raghavan, a child mental-health services researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in prescription drug use among low-income children. “We are effectively forcing local community psychiatrists to use the only tool at their disposal, which is psychotropic medications.”

That article was thought-provoking in and of itself. But when you combine that news with the United States Anti Doping Agency's indictment of the Lance Armstrong doping situation that emerged at roughly the same time, well, you have sort of schizophrenic situation. Apparently doping is good in some situations, and bad in others. After all, here are two different uses of performance-enhancing drugs. One is an example of professional athletes using drugs to make up for limitations of the human body. The other example is of students using drugs to make up for limitations in their school systems.

Is there a difference?

According to the doctors, educators and some parents, there is. After all, Lance Armstrong's team was stripped of all their medals and banned from their sport because they used performance-enhancing drugs. Conversely, struggling kids without ADD are being encouraged to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to compensate for shortcomings not in themselves, but in their academic settings. Performance-enhancing drugs, mind you, that are categorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule II Controlled Substances because they are particularly addictive. From the NYT:
"The superintendent of one major school district in California, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that diagnosis rates of ADHD have risen as sharply as school funding has declined. "It's scary to think that this is what we've come to how not funding public education to meet the needs of all kids has led to this," said the superintendent, referring to the use of stimulants in children without classic ADHD."
Doping kids appears, at least in the short term, to enable struggling kids who don't have ADD/ADHD to keep up with the baseline of what they need to learn. But I can't get over what it says about us as a society - that we would choose to medicate kids who don't really need those strong medications* rather than fund our schools to the extent that those students could get the appropriate support to help them learn. Support that could supply them with behavioral modification and cognitive tools that could serve them throughout their lives. And, here's a nasty truth: Even while these marginalized kids are maintaining, kids at the top of the heap are using the same drugs illegally to vault into the stratosphere of GPAs and test scores. So the drugs still are not leveling the playing field.

If we, as a society, decide that it is OK to dope some kids, how do we decide? The doctor in the article says he does not prescribe stimulants to students who make As and Bs, so he draws his lines along grades. I have not heard or read how team physicians make the distinction as to whom to dope, but I imagine it is the higher performers who have a real chance at breaking records that use performance-enhancing drugs. So if we should try to create guidelines as to when and for whom it is appropriate to dope based on that reasoning, the resulting guidelines might look like this:
  • High-performing academic kids [without a diagnosis of ADD] from well-funded schools should receive drug testing, and those who are found using stimulants should be stripped of their academic awards, college scholarships, and acceptances into elite professionals schools.
  • Lower-performing cyclists who have not benefited from optimal training opportunities would be able to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to make up for the deficits in their training systems.
Of course, those "guidelines" are tongue in cheek and I don't expect them to really happen (but after thinking about it, the first bullet might be worth considering). I only pose them to prove a point about our society's inconsistency when it comes to drugs.

However, what should not get lost are the needs of students who could benefit from "extras" that some schools can provide, but that many, increasingly, cannot. If we can't come up with the money and support to address their learning in the optimal way, then what are we going to do? It seems, at least to a handful of doctors, that we'll medicate those kids until they graduate from high school, then we'll let them figure it out for themselves.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

* You don't have to read too far into the comments after the NYT article to read lots of testimonies from people whose lives were changed for the better once they began using medications. So, clearly, if a student has ADD/ADHD, medications are an option that should be considered.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Going to the Dogs...

Remember when I wrote that it seems as if we pay more attention to how foodstuffs affect the behavior of animals than how they affect our kids?

Well, Brianne DeRossi takes that concept one step further. In a post over at The Lunch Tray, she notes that, in many cases, dog food may be superior in quality to much of the people food that is passed off as being "nutritious."

It's a great read. Check it out.


Photo credit:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Long Live the Fireflies!

photo credit:

Raise your hand if you love summer!  What can be bad about more daylight, fresher foods, and a more relaxed schedule? Even though we may all keep the same work hours in summer that we do the rest of the year, the extra daylight makes the season feel luxurious - as if you can finally get everything done on your to-do list and maybe read a book, too.

Recently, as a group of us were sitting on our porch, the fireflies came out. Winking and blinking in their ageless mating game, these specially endowed cousins of the common beetle sent us all reminiscing about chasing them in our childhood yards  or watching our own kids wonder at the "lightning bugs" when they were younger.

Then the discussion turned to how we don't see them as much as we used to. Like frogs and bees, fireflies are declining due to the effects of human activity. Evidence is mounting that lawn chemicals kill the beetles both directly by poisoning these ground and tree dwellers and indirectly by killing the grubs and other insects the fireflies use for food. Light pollution is thought to inhibit them from lighting up - which means no offspring. After all, fireflies communicate by blinking their lights and if they can't find each other to mate, well, there goes the next generation. The paving of green spaces to make way for roads, shopping centers, and suburban driveways leaves less space for the beetles to live.

Because I love fireflies, I'm hoping others will join me in trying to protect them. You can read more about how simple actions can make your yard more hospitable to fireflies here and here.

Sometimes, when I'm especially fatalistic about what is happening to the world around us, I think of the things I'll miss the most once they are gone. Tigers and elephants and rhinos, definitely. Glaciers, certainly. Fireflies? Oh yeah. How tragic to lose that tiny bit of summer magic from our lives - especially when a few alterations to how we live could preserve them.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Arsenic and Old Hens

Arsenic, that classic chemical that villains use to do away with people in old timey murder mysteries, continues to be in the news. First, we learned that arsenic fed to chickens (more on that in a bit) is stored in their muscles, which we ingest when we enjoy a roast bird for dinner. And if that's not enough, the arsenic-containing wastes from the chickens may be spread as fertilizer on fields, where the arsenic becomes an ecotoxin that is carried by runoff into streams, wells, and other bodies of water.

So we eat it, then we drink it.

But there is a glimmer of good news: the state of Maryland has quietly banned the use of arsenic-containing chicken feeds. Even though it is just one state, Maryland's ban is significant because there are approximately 1,700 poultry producers near the Chesapeake Bay, which, combined, produce about 11 million chickens each week. The arsenic-containing wastes from these birds is significant and has resulted in contamination of nearby wells as well as high levels of arsenic in Chesapeake Bay.

Years ago, research showed that the arsenic-treated lumber used in children's playsets and household decks was a major cause of arsenic exposure. In 2004, the EPA outlawed arsenic as a wood preservative, despite industry's pleas to place a warning label on the wood. The evidence is strong linking arsenic to all sorts of health ills, including cancer and decreased cognitive function. So why is it purposefully put into our food supply?

The answer reflects a problem inherent in factory farming: in order to supply large amounts of inexpensive food, the livestock industry needed to come up with ways to allow lots of animals to grow in close quarters. Some of those ways include dosing the animals with antibiotics to prevent infections,  supplying them with  growth hormones so that will they grow and go off to market more quickly than normal, trimming the beaks of chickens and the tails of hogs so that the animals do not injure each other, and adding arsenic to the chicken feed in order to kill intestinal parasites that inevitably grow in the feces produced by thousands of birds. It's a decidedly sad life for an animal grown in confinement, but if you're going to expect chicken to cost less per pound than a pint of good ice cream, then you should know that's the real price you pay.

So the banning of arsenic-containing feed is a positive step and should result in lowered levels of arsenic compounds in the environment and in our tummies. But the ban does not address the real problem those feeds were introduced to combat - parasites caused by extreme overcrowding. What do you think will happen next? Do you think poultry producers will opt to raise fewer chickens in a roomier environment, which will increase the price of chicken at the supermarket and likely decrease the growers' profits? Or do you think we'll see the introduction of yet another chemical to keep parasites at bay? I'm betting on the introduction of another chemical that will find its way into our food, water, and bodies. But I'd like to be proven wrong on this one, so let's watch Maryland closely to see how its poultry producers adjust to the new law. Maybe, just maybe, some truly innovative thinking will emerge.


Interested in reading more about how arsenic and other environmental contaminants can harm humans at all stages of life? Here is a 2011 report from the National Research Council exploring these issues. The information about arsenic in on page 7, which includes a discussion of the research showing that early exposure to arsenic can decrease intelligence permanently. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Childhood Vaccines: A Case of Collective Amnesia

Children in Nigeria line up to receive the smallpox vaccine, 1968.
In 1979, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared
the global eradication of smallpox and recommended
that all countries cease vaccination. 
Source: CDC
Not long ago, I was in the bleachers at one of my son's baseball games. It was one of those ordinary, and therefore quite wonderful, evenings. Nice weather, decent sports action, no place I'd rather be. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dad and two kids walk by and then stand by the bleachers to watch the game. Again, not unusual. However, what caused me to do a double take was the oldest child's extreme skin condition.

All of this child's visible skin was covered with angry-looking, red sores. Arms, hands, face, neck. The sores looked vaguely familiar, and then it hit me: This kid was walking around with chicken pox. Not trusting my own diagnosis, I leaned over to a physician/baseball mom near me and said, "Does that kid have chicken pox?" She nodded her head in affirmation and said, "I know his family. They don't vaccinate, and they infected him on purpose at a 'chicken pox party'."

I had to think about that for awhile.

From what I could tell, most of the kid's pox were scabbed over, which meant they weren't infectious. But I did notice some newer pox that looked more like blisters, meaning that they were potentially infectious. Even though I confess to a somewhat irrational cringe moment at being so close to this kid, I wasn't really worried about my own health. After all, I had a raging case of chicken pox in elementary school that rendered me immune. But looking around the bleachers, I saw a couple of grandparents and a baby. And that's when my noncommittal response to the chicken pox family turned into a more judgmental one. After all, the grandparents were at risk of developing chicken pox or activating shingles because of their aging immune systems, and the baby was definitely at risk because the chicken pox vaccine is not given until four or five years of age. And for all I knew, any one of the seemingly healthy middle-aged parents in attendance could have been immunocompromised from cancer treatment, HIV infection, or other conditions. Whatever thoughts I had about the chicken pox family's beliefs toward vaccination quickly became secondary to what I thought of this family being in a public venue with a perhaps-active and easily transmissible infectious disease, no matter how "certain" they were of the child's infection status.

Unfortunately, judging from vaccination trends, we can expect more and more of these exposures.

This past week, media outlets across the country carried news of the whooping cough outbreak in Washington state. The outbreak is huge - well over 1,000 cases, and one that

"could surpass the toll of any year since the 1940s, before a vaccine went into wide use," according to public health officials interviewed by The New York Times. 

The numbers are probably higher because many people with mild disease do not get a diagnosis. Further, the state is so strapped for cash that it is recommending foregoing the $400 diagnostic test and just prescribing antibiotics to those with the hallmark symptoms and exposure patterns, causing speculation that only 1 in 5 infections are being recorded.

The outbreak is directly attributable to that fact that families of 6% of school-age children in Washington have opted out of some or all of the recommended immunizations. That 6% is over the tipping point where even people with some degree of immunity through vaccination can have elevated risk of getting the disease. This is especially germane to whooping cough. Researchers have reformulated the whooping cough vaccine in recent years to reduce its side effects. As a consequence, the new vaccine is not as effective as older versions were, making the concept of herd immunity even more important for this particular disease.

In other words, individuals who received vaccinations and trusted others to do the same in order to keep herd immunity strong, were totally screwed over by families who decided to not only put their kids at risk, but also other people's kids (and grandparents, and so on).

I've written about this issue before, from an international perspective here and a link to a vaccine expert here. It is so concerning that we are exiting, voluntarily, the era of disease prevention through vaccination. Not because the vaccines don't work. No, modern vaccines work extremely well. So well, in fact, that younger generations do not remember how deadly or disfiguring certain diseases can be because they have never experienced them. If vaccination rates continue to slide, though, it's fairly clear that we all - regardless of our own vaccination status - will pay the price, either through disease or higher health care costs.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Teeth of the Lion*

File:Taraxacum officinale - K√∂hler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-135.jpg
Source: Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen.
Accessed through Wikimedia Commons.
On a recent trip to Illinois, I stood admiring the cheery yellow dandelions in my sister's front yard. Combined with the new green grass, the stubby little flowers just shouted "Spring!" and on that clear, sunny day, I could think of no finer symbol to celebrate the season.

My sister confessed that she liked them, too, and that many people had been commenting on her bumper crop of dandelions. However, as she wryly noted, most of the comments she received were the opposite of appreciative and were more along the lines of, "Why don't you just get rid of them?"

We got a good chuckle over how far out of step with cultural norms we are, but the dissonance stayed with me. How did we decide as a culture that dandelions, which were once viewed as a valued source of food and medicine, an important soil enhancer, and a welcome harbinger of spring, were just weeds to be removed? When did we decide that a green lawn, devoid of diversity and kept that way through chemicals, was the ideal of outdoor beauty?

A quick trip around the Internet unearths an entire field of academic study on the history of lawns and their sociological meanings. Beginning with English manor homes, where expansive grounds were once used for animals and gardens, lawns evolved into recreation areas as the the tasks of growing food could be outsourced. That style was emulated in the new country of America, in places like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and really took off once early post-war suburbs were developed. The concept of a private patch of green became more entrenched with the growth of modern suburbs and their increasingly larger lots (and a standardized work week that allowed time to care for a lawn). As lawns continued to be symbols of land ownership and growing wealth, the concept of what makes a yard became more and more refined until all that's left is a monoculture of green, only sightly different than the felt on a pool table. Reading more about lawns and dandelions makes me realize, once again, the amazing power advertising has to reflect and amplify changing cultural norms so that within a few generations, a plant that was once respected for what it could provide became something to kill because it was different.

So. Dandelions. You don't have to dig far to see that throughout history, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have been, if not revered, then at least highly respected and useful. For example,
  • Their leaves provide excellent levels of Vitamins A, C, and K, and calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. No wonder previous generations welcomed these plants after a long winter of eating root vegetables. Recently, a recipe for sauteed dandelion greens came across my FaceBook news feed. Could dandelions be next new thing that is really an old thing?
  • The flowers and roots can be used in a variety of beverages - tea, wine, coffee, and root beer  (when is the last time you thought about root beer as being made from, um, roots?)
  • Bees love 'em, butterflies and moths do, too. These early spring flowers are an important source of pollen for honeybees when there's not much else to snack on, and butterflies and moths also flock to the cheery flowers.
  • As any gardener who has tried to get rid of dandelions knows, the plant has a serious taproot. But this pain-in-the-neck root is actually beneficial - it efficiently brings up deep-soil nutrients to benefit nearby plants with shallower roots by adding minerals and nitrogen to the soil. 
  • The plant is a pharmacologic powerhouse, with compounds that have been used as diuretics, anti-inflammatories, anti-coagulants, and other important medicines. In fact, Canadian scientists have recently received a grant to evaluate the anti-cancer effects of certain components in dandelions based on promising research in animals. 
Obviously, dandelions are more than a pretty flower to be plucked by children and proudly presented to their moms to stick in glass jars. They are really important plants. So important that, apparently, dandelions were some of the plants that the colonists brought with them to America

I write all this not to encourage you to grow dandelions, but to think about what makes a yard. We spend so much time,  apply so many chemicals, spill so much fuel (17 million gallons each year!), use so much water, and experience so many injuries to create an unbroken field of green that, really, is nothing more than a green desert. Ron Jones, over at GreenBuilderMag has a nice blog post that references data from "The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening," including the concept that Americans apply three times as much synthetic pesticides on their lawns as farmers do on a per acre basis. Those pesticides, some of which are banned in other countries,  have been linked to all sorts of health problems, for humans and animals, not to mention environmental issues. (Here's a link to a previous HealthTwisty post on some specific health issues related to atrazine.) 

The next time you read an ad for lawn chemicals, or 10 ways to get rid of dandelions, read it critically. Look at who is profiting from selling the concept of having a monoculture yard and consider why this standard of beauty evolved. Then think of what's missing: dandelions and clover and all the other local and regional plants that provide greenery, diversity, food for insects and animals, and encourage healthy soils


* A French physician named the plant "dent de lion" or "teeth of the lion" to describe the ragged shape of the leaves. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Do I Feel A Paradigm Shift?

Well, perhaps not a complete paradigm shift. But the beginnings of one, anyway. The past few weeks have shown us that consumers are taking a stand for better foods and our concerns are being respected. For example:

Tell USDA to STOP Using Pink Slime in School Food!
"Pink Slime"
Pink Slime in the Limelight

Bettina Siegel, over at The Lunch Tray, started a petition to keep "pink slime" out of the meat purchased for school lunches. Pink slime is a low-quality mix of the bits and pieces that are left over after slaughtering - a mix that includes connective tissue and beef trimmings that had previously been used for pet food. In record time, over 235,000 people signed the petition, causing the USDA, which had purchased ground beef that contained over 7 million pounds of pink slime for use in school lunches, to announce that schools will have a choice about whether or not to use meat with pink slime in it. Amazing. Social media is powerful stuff.

Caramel Coloring is Not So Sweet

In fact, it can cause cancer. Because the state of California mandates that products containing known carcinogens carry a warning label, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have decided to use a slightly different, slightly less carcinogenic caramel coloring in their formulations. Of course, it took the threat of having to carry a warning label on their products before the manufacturers decided to make the change, but it's a good example of how tough policies can protect consumers and force change.

Food Waste = Energy Waste

NPR had a nice story about food waste, similar to the message in the infographic that HealthTwisty recently showcased. A 2010 article published in Environmental Science & Technology calculated that the food wasted in the United States each year is equivalent to wasting approximately 350 million barrels of oil. Recognition is growing regarding how much energy we waste when we waste food.

All good stuff, no? Sometimes, progress happens so gradually that we don't recognize it is happening. Only after connecting the dots do we see that perhaps we are headed in the right direction. Granted, we're getting there slowly, but consciousness is rising and things are happening.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hunger Games

Like many people, I am looking forward to the film adaptation of The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic book in which hunger, famine, and food security play starring roles.

While the narrative arc of the book focuses on the life-and-death competition between the teenagers representing the 12 districts in what was once the United States, the effects that food (in)security have had, and continue to have, on these young people is never far from the surface. When sizing up her competitors in the Hunger Games, the book's protagonist Katniss notes

"Almost all of the boys and least half of the girls are bigger than I am, even though many of the tributes [competitors] have never been fed properly. You can see it in their bones, their skin, the hollow look their eyes."

Like much science fiction, The Hunger Games is based on hard truths. Food inequality is a major theme in the book, as it is in our country and our world. So when I ran across a nifty infographic on the equally nifty Food and Tech web site with that same theme I wanted to share it (with permission, of course).

The graphic, which was assembled by the folks at  Public Health Degree, focuses on the issues of Want and Waste. As in The Hunger Games, many people worldwide are wanting for food, while a relative few have more than they need to the point of wastefulness. Here's the intro from Public Health Degree's site that explains the background, including the startling statistics that 1 in 7 people in the world are chronically malnourished and Americans (in the US) waste about 40% of their food.

I think it's a beautiful infographic, packed with accessible information. Importantly, it provides practical steps that individuals can take to address the problems. I love that. Too often, we get stuck and all bummed out about the problems in the world because they can seem so big. But change begins with that first step, and Public Health Degree gives us some baby steps to get started.

The Food Crisis


Friday, March 2, 2012

Pretty Things

Nikon Small World winners!

Operating under the premise that everything looks better blown up and in color, Nikon has sponsored a Small World contest annually since 1997.

Working scientists and armchair scientists alike submit their best images to this competition.

And the good news is that, even though it's March, it's not too late to snag a calendar with images like this beauty:

It's a blade of grass like I've never seen before. That's because it's taken at 200x magnification through a microscope.

The blade of grass was the 2nd place winner in 2011. The first place winner was this magnificent, but sort of creepy, view of a green lacewing larva at 20x magnification (below). Now we know where those science fiction movie directors get their ideas.

I'm liking this wreath-y view of mammalian cells stained for various proteins and organelles. 

current image

What a fun way to look at cells, bugs, and bacteria. Don't worry physicists, there is something for you, too: images of elements, materials, and surfaces. Check out this image of sand:

No wonder my feet get sore at the beach.

You can see the 2011 winners here, but if you've got a lot of time, you can see all of the winners since 1997 here.

I love the way the images on the web site are framed in slide casings. Remember when slides were the best medium for high-quality photos? Me, too.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Something's Fishy Here

Pink Salmon in Washington's Elwha River
Pink salmon in Washington's Elwha River. Source: NOAA

Almost a year ago, HealthTwisty published this blog post about genetically modified (GM) salmon. At the time, the FDA ruling on the safety of the fish was expected at any time. Since then, the application to approve GM fish has been under review, but now things seem to be bubbling up again with a ruling expected any time.

I have to admit, these fish confound me. For the record, I'm not opposed to genetic engineering. After all, I appreciate that humans have figured out, for example, how to hijack the genome of bacteria to create medicines, such as insulin, in vast quantities and to very high standards. Here's a simple interactive infographic of that type of genetic engineering, which is the basis for introducing most new traits into different organisms.

The salmon situation is a bit different. For one thing, they are the first GM animal to reach this level of scrutiny. Because they are live beings, they could potentially interact with conventional salmon and cause unknown outcomes. And because we eat them, we will eat the results of whatever genetic modification has taken place. Such a precedent-setting situation calls for hypervigilance on the part of the federal government to review the science and safety data, as well as extra caution before opening what is sure to be a floodgate of GM animals (already other GM fish are in the regulatory pipeline, and there have been studies on the safety profile of meat from cloned mammals). The biggest questions surrounding these salmon focus on two main issues:

  1. environmental issues (what would happen if these GM salmon escaped into natural habitats?)
  2. health issues (what effects will the genetically engineered fish flesh have on humans once ingested?)

Environmental Issues

Tidal Channel Angoon
Tidal channel, Angoon, Alaska. Source: NOAA

AquaBounty, the company that created the GM salmon, assures us that all of the GM fish will be females and that they will be sterile due to the addition of an extra chromosome. These safeguards are designed to keep the altered DNA out of the wild salmon population. But, as two scientists who were on the FDA review panel reminded us recently on NPR, nothing is ever 100%. There will be GM salmon who are not sterile, and there will probably be GM salmon that can escape from their cages and find their way to natural habitats. The outcome is uncertain if those two, admittedly remote but still possible, situations occur together.

As the NPR transcript shows, these scientists were not satisfied with the quality of the risk assessment that was submitted as part of the FDA application for these fish. Specifically, two key aspects of formal risk assessment were not completed: a failure mode analysis (which is a quantitative analysis of what could go wrong that would allow the fish to escape as well as what could happen if some fish did escape) and a formal uncertainty analysis (which pulls together all the aspects of the process that are unknown).

In fact, one of the scientists being interviewed, Anne Kapuscinski, PhD, a professor of sustainability science and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College, said that the data presented to the FDA

"...had gaps, and the quality of the analysis of the data, especially the statistical analysis, was really quite a low bar."
Now remember, the scientists interviewed by NPR were on the FDA review panel, which reviews the FDA's recommendations prior to the recommendations going forward. The panel is intended to be part of a check and balance situation to ensure that the FDA's ruling is impartial and that the organization has all the information required to make the best decision. So for scientists on this panel to question the quality of the data submitted to the FDA was not comforting to me, at all. It was the opposite of comforting. The data given to the FDA in support of this very, very important decision should meet the highest, most stringent standards accepted by our scientific community.

So there's that.

Let's look at the health issues.

Health Issues

Seafood market in Maine
Source: NOAA

The second point, about the possible health effects these salmon could have on humans, has not been addressed clearly, either. In fact, almost all of the supporting FDA documents are focused on the environmental impact of the GM salmon, not on the health effects. Perhaps that's because the FDA has classified the GM salmon as an "veterinary drug" rather than a "food additive." (Here are a couple of links, one scientific and one legal, that explain the difference and why it is sort of strange that the review of the GM salmon is overseen by the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.) Apparently, there is no formal classification for GM fish/mammals for the FDA to create a protocol for reviewing.

Unfortunately for consumers, the regulations governing a new animal drug are far less stringent than those applied to a food additive. That makes a certain intuitive sense; after all what animals are given may not require the same level of purity or burden of proof of safety as what is given to humans (this is debatable, considering we often eat those animals and therefore ingest the byproducts of what they were given. But whatever. That's the way it is.).

Currently, there is speculative information on the health benefits of these salmon. For example, the increased availability and decreased price of salmon that could result from GM salmon could encourage consumers to eat more salmon. One group of researchers estimated that an increase in salmon consumption could prevent an estimated 1,400 deaths annually from cardiac disease in the US.

Conversely, others, like the Ocean Conservancy, note that a GM fish is not nutritionally equal to a conventional fish. For example, the ratio of omega 3 fatty acids to omega 6 fatty acids differ between the normal and GM fish, other nutrients differ between the two types of fish, and allergens may be elevated in the GM fish (there is some discussion that elevated levels of fish antigens could cause more people to become allergic to fish). But what concerns me the most, and is always buried at the end of statements, is the long-term effect that the extra insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) from these fish will have on our health.

A brief primer on IGF-1. Our livers make IGF-1 in response to human growth hormone. IGF-1 is what makes our cells grow. It is what allows the GM salmon to grow more quickly than they would naturally. It is associated with breast, colon, and prostate cancers. It's powerful stuff and all the details about how it affects our bodies have not been worked out.

We have been confronted with this issue before, but it has been in our milk supply, not in our fish. Bovine growth hormone, given to cows to increase their milk production, increases IGF-1 in cows and can be passed along into their milk. The benefits to consumers that we heard for BGH were the same that we are hearing for the GM fish: the lower prices that can be gained by increasing the volume of milk produced will allow more people to purchase milk and reap the health benefits of it, as well as allow dairy farmers to stay in business.

But, here's the rub.

European countries will not buy our milk from cows that have received BGH due to the higher levels of IGF-1 it contains. In the mid 1990s, when I was considering what type of milk to feed my infant, I asked a couple of pediatric endocrinologists what they fed their kids. They said organic milk, and would continue to do so until more was known about what, if any, effects the extra IGF-1 would have on people. So I did the same (as much as possible considering not all cheeses and yogurts are labeled with the source of their milk). BGH has been a great experiment that may, over the long run, prove to be safe, but may prove to  increase obesity and cancers. I have been willing to wait that one out until the results are in, probably in another generation or two.

And, that is what I have decided to do if GM salmon receives FDA approval: wait it out until enough evidence is in that I'm satisfied that the fish is safe. But the problem is, I won't really know the provenance of my salmon because there is no requirement to label it as GM. Therefore, I am lobbying my congressional representatives and signing petitions on behalf of non-profit organizations, not to ban GM salmon, but to ensure that it will be labeled so that I can make up my own mind about whether or not I want to eat it.

I encourage everyone to learn about this fish and the technology involved. It is clear that feeding the ever-growing world with healthy food will become more and more challenging in the coming decades, and our depleted fishing stocks cannot be counted on to supply much without significant help. GM salmon do offer a way to increase our food supply. But there will be risks. Only we can decide if those risks are worth it.

Here are the FDA web pages devoted to salmon and GM salmon.

Here's a list where you can find your Congressional representatives.

Here's a petition to sign about labeling.

This HealthTwisty post has some good references to learn more about this salmon.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Breaking the Bank? Not really.

Some of the pastured animals at Green Gate Farms in Austin, Texas.
Sunday mornings are big breakfast mornings at our house. You know the type: breakfasts that take time to make, smell good while you're making them, and result in everyone lingering at the table. Recently, in anticipation of one of those breakfasts, I bought bacon at my nearby farm market, along with a dozen eggs, and other odds and ends.

Over the years, I have learned to take cash when I go to the farm market, for a couple of reasons. Paying by cash is  easier than writing checks at individual booths and, importantly, cash helps me keep track of how much I'm spending. This is really important because at this farm market, the bacon was $11.00 per pound and the eggs were $6.00 per dozen.

That's a lot of money for bacon and eggs. Some might say too much. But in a classic case of getting what you pay for, the meat was incredible - smoky and fatty and chewy and not overly greasy with a clean, bacon-y smell. Even the teenage eating machines living in my house were satiated after two or three pieces. Scrambling the eggs required getting tough with the shells - you really had to whack them against the edge of the counter to crack them - and being similarly no-nonsense with the resilient membranes around the vibrant orange yolks. It takes a lot of nutrient input to make eggs like that. Over at The Lunch Tray, you can see the difference between true pastured eggs and those from chickens that may be organically fed and "cage-free," but are probably still housed in massive group homes. Our eggs looked like the orange one.

That breakfast delivered the goods to our smell, sight, and taste senses. But the sense that governs my pocketbook - my common sense - was left questioning. After all, this was a majorly expensive breakfast. I wondered if it was worth it.

So I started reading. Specifically, I read Joel Salatin's latest book, "Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Healthier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World." And that book gave me some tools to help reframe the issue.

My main roadblock was that I was looking at these foods in the traditional way - a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon. I needed, instead, to get away from those measurements and look at the nutrition profile of the foods. Because, as it turns out, if you bought food based on its nutritional profile, rather than on gross poundage or number of eggs, these local, farm-raised, organics are a good deal. Or perhaps it is better to say that typical, mass-produced supermarket fare is a bad deal.

If you've heard of Mr. Salatin, you know that the chickens on his family's Polyface Farms roam about, eating bugs, picking up after pigs. The eggs they produce are similar to the ones that I purchased at my local farm market. Mr. Salatin once had his eggs characterized compared to the USDA's standard nutritional egg profile. Here are some of the findings:*

  • the USDA's standard nutritional egg profile for Vitamin E is 0.97 mg per egg. Polyface Farms'  eggs have 7.37 mg of Vitamin E per egg. 
  • Regular eggs have 487 IU of Vitamin A. PolyFace Farms' have 763 IU. 
  • Similar differences are shown for beta-carotine, folate, and omega 3s. 
  • Conversely, the standard egg has 423 mg of cholesterol and 3.1 g of saturated fat. Polyface Farms' eggs have 292 mg of cholesterol and 2.31 g of saturated fat.

In other words, these organic, pastured eggs have lots of more of the good stuff, and a lot less of the bad stuff. So, if we were buying eggs based on milligrams or international units of vitamins, the organic eggs are a good investment in healthy eating. (side note: wouldn't it be interesting if food were labeled by  nutrient quantity per ounce rather than price per ounce? Then you'd really know what you were paying for.)

I'm still bothered by the expense of organics, but believe in them enough to adjust our budget in other ways to accommodate them. And, we don't eat fully organic. We pay attention to Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen," to minimize pesticide exposure, we don't eat much meat, and we try to take advantage of the lower prices of in-season fruits and vegetables to stock up.

We think it's worth it to support our local farmers, and believe me, their bacon is gooood. But it's a conscious decision, and one we recognize not everyone can make.


* these findings are reprinted from Mr. Salatin's book.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Story about Bees

My little family traveled to be with our extended families for Christmas, which meant a 650-mile drive to Illinois. We've done this drive for years (decades!) and I don't mind it at all. I appreciate the subtle beauty of the Midwestern landscape, and the drive is somewhat meditative. This year, once we arrived at our destination, there were some things I needed to take care of, one of which was to stock up on honey.

I know that seems sort of strange, to travel so far in order to get honey. But I like honey and I like knowing where it came from, especially after the news about fake and possibly dangerous honey on our grocery shelves (here's a list of the brands that were found to have no pollen, which allows the source, and therefore the quality, of the honey to be determined). My sister used to keep bees, and she gave her hives to friends, Carolyn and Fred, who are fellow members of the Illinois Beekeepers' Association, when she got out of the beekeeping business. So we stopped at those friends' house one day during our visit and I sat at their kitchen table and watched Carolyn decant the different types of honey into various sizes of honey bears, ranging from the tiniest 2-ounce gift bears to the hefty 8 ouncers. She gave me a taste of the dark and earthy buckwheat honey while I admired the light coming through the pale gold wildflower and amber clover honeys.

As I was tasting the honey and deciding on what to purchase, Carolyn told me about the fields and field lanes where the bees got their pollen.  She recounted that she and Fred kept a hive in a neighbor's yard for years because of the proximity to certain flowering trees - even though that neighbor is allergic to bees. There had been no wayward incidents and the hive industriously kept doing its thing and coexisted peacefully with the neighbor. Recently, though, the neighbor called and asked Carolyn to remove her hive ASAP. The bees had become unpredictable and aggressive, and the neighbor was worried that they would sting her.

For a hive to change behaviors so drastically was strange, so Carolyn and Fred did a little investigating and found that a farmer had planted a field of buckwheat nearby. The bees were traveling to the field, feasting on the nectar from the buckwheat flowers, and returning to their hive all buzzy and aggressive. Apparently buckwheat, even though it is an attractive source of nectar for honeybees, makes  bees more than a little cranky, which makes them difficult to be around.

It was a good story about the provenance of the food I was purchasing, but it got me thinking about how we seem to know more about how food affects the behaviors of animals and insects - or at least we're more respectful of it - than we know about how food affects the behaviors of people.

Of course, no one ever suggested giving buckwheat-crazed bees a stimulant to reduce their hyperactivity and irritability. No, the solution was to move the hive away from the buckwheat. Horses and alfalfa have the same type of bad synergy. Some horses become hyperactive and willful if they eat too much of the protein-laden alfalfa, and a 1,200-pound animal is not something you want to be willful. So people with horses know to limit the amount of alfalfa their horses eat. No one thinks it's a good idea to give the horse strong medicines to reduce the negative behaviors. Just remove the offending food and get on with it.

Years ago, when I realized that artificial colors and flavors amped up my kids (and gave me headaches), I thought for certain my newfound knowledge would be embraced by fellow parents as well as the administration of the progressive preschool my kids attended. I envisioned the word would spread like a winter cold through a roomful of three-year-olds and that soon, the entire school would have guidelines for clean and healthy snacks. Oh, what a wonderful world that would be!

Obviously, I was pretty idealistic, but I really thought this group of super-educated parents would want to know what those petroleum products were capable of doing to their kids' health and behavior. But few parents wanted to hear about the positive changes we were all feeling from a better diet and even fewer parents went out of their way to learn more or support us by bringing in safe snacks. As the years rolled on and some of my kids' friends received diagnoses of ADD or ADHD or anxiety or whatever, I would offer some resources to the parents then let it go. Because to a person, they thought either that nutrition could not affect behavior or even if it did, it would be more difficult to change their diets than to allow their kids to take medications whose long-term effects are still not known.*

So why do we know more about how diet affects the behaviors of animals than we do of children? Perhaps we value animals more? Preposterous, you might say. But actions speak louder than words. I've never heard of bees being medicated for their buckwheat buzz, or horses given stimulants so that they can continue to eat alfalfa. But I've seen plenty of kids prescribed medications without their foods, cosmetics, or household chemicals being evaluated to see if they are contributing to the problem. I just find that so strange.


Want to learn more about diet/behavior links? Here are some good sources:
  • The Feingold Association of the United States. Probably the oldest organization focusing on the link between what we eat and our behaviors, the Feingold Association maintains a website with loads of information and supporting research. 
  • Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND, aka the Nutrition Detective, and her book, "What's Eating Your Child?" Dorfman uses her clinical skills and years of experience to help families figure out the connection between what the kids are eating and their mystifying symptoms. 
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest maintains a food additive database and the research behind those additives. 
  • This previous HealthTwisty post that contains links to research and highlights the discrepancy between the foods we have in the United States and the cleaner foods available in other countries.

* This is not to say that there are not true cases of ADD or ADHD that reflect a brain chemistry issue. For those individuals, medication can allow them to focus and attend and realize their potential, and can be a wonderful thing. But many cases of food intolerances or allergies masquerade as inattention, anxiety, or hyperactivity, especially in young children.