environment

RECENT POSTS

Study: Bottled Water Bans May Increase Consumption Of Sugary Drinks

The University of Vermont instituted a ban on the sale of bottled water in 2013. (Courtesy University of Vermont)

The University of Vermont instituted a ban on the sale of bottled water in 2013. (Courtesy University of Vermont)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

Bans on bottled water are sweeping the nation, driven by concerns about the environment. But, according to a new study, the bans might bring some unintended consequences, including increased consumption of sugary beverages without a reduction in plastic waste.

The study, out in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health, came from the University of Vermont, which instituted its own ban on the sale of bottled water in January 2013. Researchers found that more sugar-sweetened beverages were shipped to the campus following the ban — despite efforts to reduce the presence of unhealthy drinks — while the number of bottles shipped per person actually increased.

In 2008, the average American consumed 30 gallons of bottled water a year, or over 200 single-serve bottles. While no one can fault a preference for water over less healthy beverages, the plastic bottles are not environmentally friendly — about 2 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic commonly used in beverage containers, entered the waste stream in 2013, while far less, about 899 thousand tons, were recycled.

Recently, bottled water bans have been proposed in towns and on university campuses as a way of reducing plastic waste. In 2013, Concord became the first town in the country to ban the sale of plastic water bottles under 1 liter, and others have since followed suit. Colleges and universities around the country — including Brandeis, Emerson and Harvard — also have bans in place.

Before its ban was implemented, University of Vermont made an effort to increase the presence of healthy beverages on campus by enacting a 30 percent healthy beverage requirement, meaning that at least 30 percent of the drinks for sale on campus needed to fit certain criteria, said Dr. Rachel Johnson, a UVM professor of nutrition and co-author of the new study. Continue reading

Asthma, Lyme Disease, Salmonella: How Climate Change May Worsen Your Health

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks  in Washington in 2014. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks in Washington in 2014. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File)

The link between climate change and extreme weather is widely known. But as the planet warms, what about the risks to your own personal health?

I asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, a Boston native in town to deliver the commencement address at UMass Boston (her alma mater), to give some specific examples of how climate change can impact human health. Here, edited, is our conversation.

RZ: So, feel free to get scary here, what should people know about climate change and their own health?

GM: As temperatures rise, smog gets worse and allergy seasons get longer, which makes it harder for our kids to breathe. We know that increasing the ozone, the ground level smog, makes it difficult for kids — and also the elderly — to breathe, it impacts their lung function. So, you’re going to see a dramatic rise in the number of kids with asthma who experience bad air days.

So, the allergy season gets longer, and this is related to the warmer temperatures as well as the later fall frosts, which means plants produce pollen later in the year. The length of the ragweed pollen season has increased in 10 of 11 locations studied in the Central U.S. and Canada.

This season is awful: I have a little allergy this year for the first time. I found myself sneezing, my eyes watering. Even the dog went on some kind of antihistamine. I felt sorry for her.

You also mentioned ticks, what will happen in their world?

Warmer temperatures also bring increases in vector-borne diseases — Lyme disease, mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and expanded seasons. What we see is that the Lyme disease areas are expanding and the number of cases is increasing. Among the states where Lyme disease is most common [New Hampshire, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts], on average, these five states now report 50 to 90 more cases per 100,000 people than they did in 1991.

You can clearly see the geographic region expand. Also, West Nile Virus is expanding. Our climate assessment tracks geography and seasons getting longer, expanding. As temperatures get higher, the entire ecosystem changes. I was in Aspen, the winters are getting shorter.

Screen shot 2015-05-28 at 1.11.33 PM

Are there any other diseases we should brace for?

There are also water and food borne diseases: salmonella, that relates to food potentially sitting out, the higher the temperature the more salmonella outbreaks. The same with water — anything that’s a bacteria — it’s going to increase in warmer weather. Continue reading

Weather Sexism: Female-Named Storms Deadlier, Seen As Less Threatening

Forget the brouhaha over Jill Abramson’s firing and questions about sexism running rampant in America’s newsrooms: here’s some really hard-core sexism that could kill you.

Researchers from the University of Illinois and Arizona State report that female hurricanes have proven to be more deadly than male hurricanes. Why? The researchers theorize that hurricanes with girly names like Alexandra aren’t taken as seriously as male-named storms, like Alexander; so, faced with a female storm, people don’t prepare as fully, or heed evacuation orders as intently.  

As USA Today notes: “The paper claimed that a masculine-named storm would kill about 15 people, but a hurricane of the same strength with a female name would kill about 42.”

Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (News Muse/flickr)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (News Muse/flickr)

Here’s more from the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

[Researchers] use more than six decades of death rates from U.S hurricanes to show that feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths than do masculine-named hurricanes. Laboratory experiments indicate that this is because hurricane names lead to gender-based expectations about severity and this, in turn, guides respondents’ preparedness to take protective action.

And in conclusion, the authors write:

…these findings suggest the value of considering a new system for hurricane naming to reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and to motivate optimal preparedness. For media practitioners, the pervasive media practice of giving gendered descriptions of hurricanes should prompt a reconsideration of the use of “he” or “she” when communicating about hurricanes. Finally, making members of the general public aware of the impact of gender biases on subjective risk perceptions may improve preparedness in the face of the next Hurricane Fay or Laura. Continue reading

Yoga Mat Chemical For Sponginess Found In Many Popular Foods, Group Reports

(mckaysavage/flickr)

(mckaysavage/flickr)

I love my yoga mat as much as the next guy — it brings me peace, relaxation, calm. But I wouldn’t consider eating it. Now, it seems, I may have already taken a nibble.

The health advocacy organization Environmental Working Group today announced that its researchers found azodicarbonamide, or ADA — the industrial chemical that makes yoga mats (and flip-flops) light, spongy and malleable — listed as an ingredient in 500 popular items and “in more than 130 brands of bread, bread stuffing and snacks, including many advertised as healthy.”

(Update on 2/28: “In response to recent coverage surrounding the use of the FDA-approved food additive azodicarbonamide, Nature’s Own brand of soft variety and premium specialty breads, buns, and rolls, issued the following statement today:

Nature’s Own bakery foods do not contain azodicarbonamide. We removed this additive from all Nature’s Own bakery foods in 2013, and it is no longer used in any Nature’s Own products.”)

Here’s more from the EWG news release:

The controversial “yoga mat” chemical that Vani Hari, creator of FoodBabe.com, campaigned to remove from Subway sandwich bread has turned up in nearly 500 items and more than 130 brands of bread, stuffing, pre-made sandwiches and snacks, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

[Subway did ultimately remove the chemical from its sandwich bread.]

According to ingredient data obtained for a new food database project that is due out later this year, EWG researchers found azodicarbonamide, an industrial “chemical foaming agent,” on the labels of many well-known brands, including Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Shoprite, Safeway, Smucker’s, Fleischman’s, Jimmy Dean, Kroger, Little Debbie, Tyson, Nature’s Own and Wonder…

ADA is a synthetic substance used by plastics makers to generate tiny bubbles that make materials light, spongy and strong. These materials show up in flip-flops, yoga mats and many types of foam packing and insulation. In 1956, a New Jersey pharmaceutical and engineering firm discovered that ADA could be used as a “dough conditioner” to make bread that would rise higher, stay soft and resilient and form an attractive crust. The federal Food and Drug Administration approved its use as a food additive six years later.

The World Health Organization has linked ADA to increased risk of respiratory problems and skin irritation in workers handling large volumes of the chemical. The additive has not undergone extensive testing to determine its health effects on humans. Continue reading

The Yuck Factor: CDC Says Pools Are Full Of Poop

Finally, after a week of wool socks and extra blankets, today is feeling like a groovy summer day. But don’t get too excited yet. With summer comes pools, and for many of us, public pools that are, according to a new report from the CDC, chock full of poop.

(bcmom/flickr)

(bcmom/flickr)

In the inimitably dry language of the nation’s public health authorities: “A study of public pools done during last summer’s swim season found that feces are frequently introduced into pool water by swimmers.”

Moreover, the study found:

“Fifty-eight percent of the pool filter samples tested were positive for E. coli, bacteria normally found in the human gut and feces. The E. coli is a marker for fecal contamination. Finding a high percentage of E. coli-positive filters indicates swimmers frequently contaminate pool water when they have a fecal incident in the water or when feces rinse off of their bodies because they do not shower thoroughly before getting into the water.”

(Be honest, does anyone really shower before getting into the pool? Maybe it’s time to start.)

So, what’s a swimmer to do?

The CDC offers these tips: Continue reading

Five Things You Need To Know About Arsenic In Rice (Before Dinner Time)

(Dano/flickr)

When both Consumer Reports and the FDA issued reports recently about the high levels of arsenic in rice — notably brown rice — many moms, in the Whole-Foods-Buying-Whole-Grain-Loving crowd I tend to hang out with, freaked out.

An example from Brookline:

I was freaked out because the source of the warning seemed so trustworthy – FDA and Consumer Reports. I usually ignore these things but rice seems like such a basic. We eat a fair amount of rice (mostly brown) because we’re trying to be healthy and eat whole grains and not too much pasta, etc. etc…I love quinoa but my daughter doesn’t so I don’t make that as often. I also was freaked out because a Whole Foods brand was on there. I don’t buy that particular brand, but still…

Another mother from New York wrote:

I was upset — and also irritated– by the news. But mostly, I am anxious. We already have a lot of cancer in our family. I already spend so much time planning and preparing healthy alternatives to meet the diverse needs of my children (who favor certain foods) and my husband (who has tendencies toward reflux and high cholesterol and is a vegetarian) and myself (allergies and kosher).

We eat brown rice about twice a week for dinner…But my kids also enjoy rice crackers (brown and white) as well as rice cakes for “healthy” snacks. We also eat “yellow” rice and beans for breakfast almost every weekend morning at our favorite Cuban brunch spot…and as my husband is a vegetarian, we tend to eat out (or order in) from Asian restaurants about once a week (more helpings of brown rice and white rice as well as rice noodles). Altogether, that’s easily five helpings, not counting things like the rice-brownie treats that were handed out at the Maker Faire festival to my eager (innocent) children last weekend.

For background: rice is particularly vulnerable to this problem. Here’s why, according to Consumer Reports:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.

And this doesn’t appear to be the case of just a tiny dash of toxin you can blithely ignore, given the reports. Inorganic arsenic (the type we are talking about here) is a known carcinogen. Again, Consumer Reports:

Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.

So what’s an anxious mom to do? Are we doomed to quinoa? I turned to the Center For Science In the Public Interest and spoke with Caroline Smith DeWaal, the group’s director of food safety, and asked how consumers should react to the “worrisome” reports.

She said there are a number of steps consumers can take to reduce their exposure to arsenic even if they eat a lot of rice and rice products. Here, condensed and edited, are her top five suggestions:

1. Pay Attention To Where It’s Grown

“Rice grown in the Southeastern U.S. had the highest amount of arsenic, according to Consumer Reports, which makes sense given that this is the land where cotton was grown and arsenic was used as a pesticide for decades to combat the boll weevil. Continue reading

Foodies Take Action To Spur Healthier, Greener Restaurants

By Eric J. McNulty
Guest Contributor

I’ve long been a foodie.

I’ve chronicled my food and wine adventures on my Executive Nomad blog. I’ve also been an environmentalist for decades. The first big “aha” moment about bringing these two together occurred in 2008 when I read in The New York Times that for the average American, consuming 20% less meat was the rough equivalent of shifting from a typical sedan to a compact hybrid in terms of environmental impact. Perhaps I might go vegetarian one day, but this was a start. I set a goal of one less meat meal per day. I also set a standard of only eating sustainably raised meat and poultry both as a way of reducing meat consumption – few restaurants served these products then – and minimizing the harm to the planet from the meat I did eat.

I kept on my personal journey. It is difficult to discern exactly what the best choices are when one travels a lot for business as I do. High-end restaurants tend to trumpet their local, organic, and sustainable choices — but what do you do in an airport terminal?

Jim Solomon, chef/owner of Boston’s first certified green restaurant, The Fireplace, sourcing local veggies in Rhode Island.

The second big “aha” came in spring 2011. I was challenged to develop a proposal to make my community more sustainable as part of my Lesley University self-designed Master’s program on leadership in the context of large-scale challenges, such as climate change and urbanization. There were many possibilities, from handing rainwater runoff to fostering more bicycling. I kept returning, however, to food. Food is one of the fundamental elements that knits families and communities together. It is part of everyone’s daily activities. How we grow, prepare, eat, and dispose of food has tremendous impact on personal, public, and environmental health. Best of all, with nearly 20 restaurants and other purveyors of food within a two-block area in my immediate neighborhood, there was a golden opportunity to take individual action to community scale. Why should my journey be a solo one? What if a group of like-minded people could band together to drive broader awareness and change? If it worked, it could also serve as a national model.

Restaurants use significantly more energy and water than a typical storefront business, such as a bank or barber. They also create a lot of waste – as much as 50,000 pounds of garbage per year according to the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). On most restaurant menus, there is limited information about ingredients, nutrition, or other attributes of the meals we consume. Here, I saw an opportunity.

My community of Washington Square is home to Boston’s first GRA Certified Green Restaurant, The Fireplace. Continue reading

Hospitals Launch Drive To Help Environment, Lower Costs

(sneeu/flickr)

Ditch Fast Food, Turn Down The Lights,” is the takeaway of this Kaiser Health News story about a new national initiative by hospitals (including Boston-based Partners HealthCare) to be more enviromentally friendly — while also saving money:

The Healthier Hospitals Initiative challenges hospitals to reduce energy use and waste, purchase environmentally friendlier products and serve healthier foods. The effort is as much about reducing health risks and environmental damage, as it is about lowering costs, officials said.

Organizers, who hope to have 2,000 hospitals participating by 2014, did not list specific goals such as units of energy saved, waste reduced or unhealthy food discarded in a press briefing Tuesday…

Kathy Gerwig, a vice president at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente (which is not affiliated with Kaiser Health News), said her company weighs environmental impact in buying intravenous bags, as well as computers.

It is also offering healthier food to patients and staff. Dozens of hospitals, including more than 25 children’s hospitals, now offer food from fast food restaurants, she said, adding, “That needs to change.”

Partners Healthcare, which runs Massachusetts General Hospital among other facilities, has reduced energy consumption by 9 percent in the past 18 months by turning down the heat and lowering air conditioner use, said John Messervy, director of capital and facility planning. The move is part of an effort to reduce energy use by 25 percent by 2014. Continue reading

When You Can’t Trust The Labels

(pennstatelive/flickr)

By Dr. Ellen Kornmehl
Guest Blogger

We try to be informed consumers, pouring over ingredient labels and shying away from products that may be deleterious to health. But how reliable are those ingredient lists and promising claims of “safe” and “non-toxic?” As it turns out, not very reliable at all. A new study testing everyday household commercial items for chemicals linked to breast health, growth, and asthma shows that conventional products, as well as “safe, green” alternatives, contained 55 potentially harmful chemicals. The agents tested were hormone-or endocrine-disrupting compounds, with potential links to breast cancer, male infertility, and abnormal development, as well as chemicals associated with asthma.

Published in Environmental Health Perspectives by the Silent Spring Institute, a national research agency in Newton, MA, the study is the largest commercial product-testing survey of its kind. Products tested (see list here) included shampoos, sunscreens, cleaning agents, bedding, hand soap, laundry detergents, lipstick among 50 product types. The highest levels of phthalates, DEHP, DEP, BBP, used to soften plastics and regarded as relatively strong hormone disruptors, were present in vinyl household products, such as pillow protectors and shower curtains. Sunscreens and fragranced products — including air fresheners, dryer sheets, and perfume — had the largest number of target chemicals and some of the highest concentrations.

Phthalates are linked to concerns about children’s growth and development as well as reproduction and have been banned in children’s products in the EU since 2005 and regulated in the US since August 2008. Continue reading

The Great Divide In Autism Research: Genetics Vs. Environment

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Blogger

 

For years, I’ve been confused about who to believe in the autism research world: the people who say autism is all in our genes or the ones who believe something bad in our environment is triggering a terrible epidemic.

A paper published Monday in the Archives of General Psychiatry seemed particularly appealing, because it argued for a middle ground. Genes are a risk factor, the Stanford University study found, but environment plays a major role, too, accounting for more than half the risk of developing autism.

Argument settled, I naively thought. All this week though, scientists on both sides have continued to snipe at each other.

Millions At Stake
This would be merely an academic argument except that the U.S. government spends well over $150 million annually on autism research. Over the last 10 years, taxpayers have devoted roughly $1 billion to studying genes involved in autism and only about $40 million digging into possible environmental causes. Whoever wins this argument could sway future spending.

Plus, of course, there are millions of families struggling with autism: the communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors and social challenges. Settling this dispute will effect which treatments they try, and what all of us can do, if anything, to prevent autism.

I finally realized today while talking to a geneticist that this difference may never be resolved. The two camps are so distinct – their world views, and the language they use, are altogether different. Continue reading