I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 6, 2010

A chemical pot pourri

This is a real hodge-podge of items.

Bisphenol A

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently announced the findings of a study that found BPA in a large percentage of paper receipts it had collected.  http://ewg.org/BPA_Found_In_Receipts

Chemicals in cosmetics

Another resource EWG maintains is the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database.

http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/

Speaking of cosmetics, Annie Leonard (“The Story of Stuff”) has come out with “The Story of Cosmetics”, a look at chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products.  The Story of Stuff blog looks at the cosmetics industry’s reaction.

Learning and developmental disabilities and other diseases and conditions

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) covers a wide range of topics, from learning and developmental disabilities to the CHE Toxicant and Disease Database, a searchable database that summarizes links between chemical contaminants and approximately 180 human diseases or conditions, to the Metabolic Syndrome Discussion Group.

BP (not just oil spills)

The CHE site also includes news items like:

6 Aug Thousands sign on for $10 billion BP suit. The revelation that BP’s Texas City refinery emitted toxic benzene for more than a month has ignited a furor in the port community that has suffered its share of deadly industrial accidents and toxic spills. Houston Chronicle.

Yes, before the BP oil spill there was the BP Texas City refinery explosion.  The U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted an investigation.  I believe that they are looking into whether these incidents show that BP fostered a culture of cutting corners.

Chemicals and depression?

Was reading Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, where he argued that depression is a true illness.  (At least that’s what I’m getting out of it.)  He makes a couple of points that struck me.  One, on p. 156 he states that there is a connection between diabetes and depression.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite a source for that.  And if true, it’s not clear which caused which.  That is, does having diabetes make it more likely that you would be depressed?  Or does depression in some way connected to the development of diabetes.  Or could diabetes and depression be caused by the same agent?  (Or some combination of the above.)

He also talks about how long-term stress can result in increased levels of corticotropin and that such stress can lead to depression and illness.  Of course, corticotropin is but one element of the neuroendocrine system.  And with many of these things, there are feedback loops that get out of whack if enough recovery time is not available.  That’s actually why some scientists have proposed that a chronic lack of sleep can cause obesity over the long haul.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer and NIOSH are looking at whether “shift work” (along with a number of chemicals) can be considered carcinogenic.

Leptin: An example of what we didn’t know

Leptin, the appetite hormone, was not discovered until 1994 (though its effects had been observed much earlier).  (Zhang Y, Proenca R, Maffei M, Barone M, Leopold L, Friedman JM (December 1994). “Positional cloning of the mouse obese gene and its human homologue”. Nature 372 (6505): 425–32. doi:10.1038/372425a0. PMID 7984236.) I mention that because chemical industry apologists seem to ignore the fact that we’ve learned a lot about the human body in the last 15-20 years.  And the more we learn, the more we discover how chemicals can mess up our systems.

Regarding leptin, I found the following using the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus service.

A National Cancer Institute fact sheet on physical activity and cancer states that “increasing physical activity may influence insulin and leptin levels and influence breast cancer prognosis.”

An EPA report, “A Decade of Children’s Environmental Health Research:  Highlights from EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Program,” cites an EPA-funded study that found that “autistic children showed higher levels of leptin (a hormone that affects the regulation of body weight, metabolism, and reproductive function, and influences the immune system) in their blood when compared to typically developing children (Ashwood et al. 2007; R829388C002).”

Citation: Ashwood P., Kwong C., Hansen R., Hertz-Picciotto I., Croen L., Krakowiak P., Walker W., Pessah I.N., and Van de Water J. 2007. “Brief report: Plasma leptin levels are elevated in autism: association with early onset phenotype?” J. Autism Dev. Disord. Advanced online publication (DOI 10.1007/s10803-006-0353-1).  Abstract

So our bodies are these incredibly complex systems.  Some chemical companies would have you believe that the stuff they make, even the synthetic chemicals that human beings have never been exposed to before, have absolutely NO effect on our health.

Truth is, despite the Environmental Defense Fund saying that we’re not guinea pigs, we all are.  (See previous post: “Tired of being a guinea pig?“)

“Would you like BPA with those fries?”

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April 11, 2010

Nature Deficit Disorder and National Environmental Education Week (April 11-17, 2010)

This week is National Environmental Education Week.  By teaching our kids more about the environment we will hopefully reduce Nature Deficit Disorder (this is NOT a medical condition, but is related to modern lifestyles).

NOTE: I have posted a number of these links on the “Parenting Resources” page.

Nature Deficit Disorder Resource Center (Education.com)

What is Nature Deficit Disorder?

from http://www.education.com/facts/quickfacts-ndd/what-is-nature-deficit-disorder/

A lack of routine contact with nature may result in stunted academic and developmental growth. This unwanted side-effect of the electronic age is called Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). The term was coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods in order to explain how our societal disconnect with nature is affecting today’s children. Louv says we have entered a new era of suburban sprawl that restricts outdoor play, in conjunction with a plugged-in culture that draws kids indoors. But, as Louv presents in his book, the agrarian, nature-oriented existence hard-wired into human brains isn’t quite ready for the overstimulating environment we’ve carved out for ourselves. Some children adapt. Those who don’t develop the symptoms of NDD, which include attention problems, obesity, anxiety, and depression.

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition; it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families, and communities. There are solutions, though, and they’re right in our own backyards.

Source: Johanna Sorrentino “Nature Deficit Disorder: What You Need to Know”; Richard Louv “Nature Deficit Disorder”

The site notes that

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2006 to pediatric health care providers on ways to increase physical activity in children and adolescents.
  • The authors stated that lifestyle-related physical activity, as opposed to aerobics or calisthenics, is critical for sustained weight loss in children, and recommended free, unorganized outdoor play as a method of physical activity.

[Ed. note: The above is from a post entitled “Is NDD linked to obesity?” It may be linked, but there are a lot of other factors beyond physical activity (or lack thereof) and diet.  But more on that in another post.)

Source: National Environmental Education Foundation. “Fact Sheet: Children’s Health and Nature

This fact sheet describes a number of recent research findings on the effects Nature Deficit Disorder might have on children’s health.

National Environmental Education Week, April 11-17th

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson encourages educators and students to get involved in National Environmental Education Week, April 11-17th. A week-long effort involving thousands of teachers and more than a million students, EE Week connects educators around the country with environmental resources to promote students’ understanding of the environment. Join EPA Administrator Jackson and take part in EE Week 2010.

Teaching resources

Highlights

EPA Resources

Environmental Education

http://www.epa.gov/education/index.html

National Environmental Education Act of 1990http://www.epa.gov/education/whatis.html

Federal Legislative Authorities for Environmental Educationhttp://www.epa.gov/education/flaee.html

March 10, 2010

More on cortisol and stress

Came across a couple of blog posts about this topic and thought I’d share.  The author does a more complete job describing the role of cortisol in the body than I did in a previous post.

From Life and Body by Ben: Making the most of life and body
http://slicer30.wordpress.com

Ben’s focus is on the effect of cortisol on the storage of fat.  That’s necessary of course because our bodies need some fat reserves, but we all know that your body can also carry too much fat and that that can have very serious consequences for your health.  And cortisol does have other important functions that it carries out.

As I’ve noted in previous posts I’m very curious about the effects of environmental chemicals on the endocrine system in general and on hormones like cortisol in particular.

Reviewing The Endocrine Disruption Exchange‘s section on Prenatal Origins of Endocrine Disruption (links to each section are included here):

makes me wonder if there’s some sort of domino effect, some sort of cascade.

It’s clear that things like genetics, diet and nutrition, exercise and fitness, and even the stress of modern living all play a part in obesity and general health and well-being.  But having said that, the fact that those do have an effect does not preclude environmental chemicals from having an effect as well.

The problem for scientists and policymakers is that all of these factors are interwoven to some extent.  In The Optimistic Child (1995), a book about “immunizing” children from depression, Martin Seligman writes about an epidemic of depression that started in the late 50s and early 60s.  He notes that depression can have biochemical and genetic causes, then states quite matter of factly that “this epidemic is not biological.”   He states that no biochemical change has been identified that meets the time trends.

He specifically mentions fluoride in the water, ozone-layer breakdown, industrial pollution, and birth control pills as possible contributors to biochemical changes.  Instead, Seligman places the blame squarely on the “self-esteem” movement.  While I think he very well might be right about that having had a major impact, I also think that he was too quick to dismiss the effects of industrial pollution, many of which we weren’t aware of even in 1995.  For example, Our Stolen Future, which documented many of the effects of endocrine disruptors, wasn’t published until 1996.  (We also did not really take into account that children are not just smaller adults, but that childhood is a time when their bodies are growing and changing and that exposure that might not have an effect on an adult, whose body is already grown, might have subtle, yet still damaging consequences for a child.  And recent discoveries in neuroscience seem to indicate that adult brains can, surprise, surprise, still develop neurons.  Perhaps some chemicals are affecting adults’ brains, either directly or indirectly.  Perhaps many mental disorders from anxiety to depression to autism to Alzheimer’s are simply different endpoints on a multi-dimensional “spectrum” of the brain misfunctioning.)

In addition, we now know that drinking water can contain chemicals and byproducts from the drugs and pills people take, household cleaners and soaps (and other consumer products, etc., and we really have no idea how those interact with fluoride and chlorine in water.  (Well, actually, we do know that fluoride and chlorine can react with organic matter in wastewater to form toxic byproducts.)

So here’s are some hypotheses.  Could industrial chemicals have had neurological effects that directly caused an increase in depression (and other mental disorders)?  Could they have affected people’s bodies such that their endocrine systems got out of whack (that, I believe, is the technical term ;-)  )?

Could they have affected the production of cortisol, such that people’s bodies started storing more fat?  Did the resulting imbalance in the endocrine and immune systems start making people more susceptible to stress thereby compounding the problem?  Or are increased cortisol levels the byproduct of some of these processes?  And are some chemicals affecting the ability of the blood-brain barrier to keep certain chemicals out of our brains?

And, going back to Seligman, he argues fairly persuasively (I haven’t finished the book yet), that depression is caused by “learned helplessness.”  Learned helplessness is, according to Seligman, a strong predictor of depression.

Which makes me wonder, what were people’s reactions when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in 1962?  You’ve just found out that the world in which you live is being contaminated by chemicals from industrial plants, pesticides, etc.  Wouldn’t you feel rather helpless?  This is not to say that such information should be kept from us.  Without knowing we can’t make informed choices.

Most people would, I think, agree that there’s some connection between mind and brain, between brain and body.

Aside: While looking for info on Silent Spring, I stumbled across the website for the Silent Spring Institute.  The institute’s mission is to identify and break the links between the environment and women’s health, especially breast cancer.

Interestingly, when I checked out the American Cancer Society’s site, there is no obvious link to anything about causes from exposure to chemicals in the environment.  It seems to be primarily about screening, diagnosis, and treatment.  This is not to say that screening and treatment aren’t important, but why not try to reduce or prevent the occurrence of cancer in the first place?  (The cynical answer is, there’s no profit in that.  More on that in another post.)

With respect to the difference between treatment and prevention (whether it be with respect to a disease or pollution), I am reminded of a story I heard—more of a parable really—many years ago.

A tribe that lived along a river.  One day they found a body floating down the river next to their village.  The tribe members were saddened and decided they would respectfully bury the body.  The next week another body floated down the river.  Again they buried the body.  A few days later, another.  And pretty soon they would sometimes find two or more bodies and hardly a day went by that they didn’t find at least one body.  The tribe became very good at building coffins and digging graves, but it never occurred to them that perhaps they should find out why bodies were floating down the river in the first place.

While we do know the causes of many cancers (and for those for which we do know some of the causes doesn’t mean we know all of the causes), we know a lt more than we did just fifteen years ago.  But we just don’t know enough yet to pinpoint the exact causes of all cancers or diseases or disorders.  Well, scientists are researching that, but that’s not something most of us can do.  Do what can we do?  I guess I’d say the take-away lesson of all of this is, do what you can now to get in shape and to reduce stress.

One of the examples of small steps that Robert Maurer describes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life is of a woman who knew she needed to get more exercise and to eat better, but found the idea of committing to half an hour several times a week too overwhelming.  The step he suggested to her that finally got her started on the way to being in shape was that she simply march in front of the television one minute a day.

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