I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

May 23, 2010

Food safety, marketing, and reducing childhood obesity

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report

This report was released earlier this month. It discusses issues and offers recommendations relating to childhood obesity, including the usual regarding diet and lack of physical activity, but also notes the role that “obesogens” (endocrine disruptors and other chemicals thought to increase obesity by interfering with the body’s metabolic processes), food marketing, product formulation, access to healthier food, etc., play a part in the obesity epidemic.

Report: Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation

http://www.letsmove.gov/taskforce_childhoodobesityrpt.html

Full reporthttp://www.letsmove.gov/tfco_table_of_contents.pdf (chapters also available as individual PDFs)

Contents
  • Early Childhood – A. Prenatal Care; B. Breastfeeding; C. Chemical Exposures; D. Screen Time; and E. Early Care and Education
  • Empowering parents and caregivers – A. Making Nutrition Information Useful; B. Food Marketing; and C. Health Care Services
  • Healthy Food in Schools – A. Quality School Meals; B. Other Foods in Schools; C. Food-Related Factors in the School Environment; and D. Food in Other Institutions
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food – A. Physical Access to Healthy Food; B. Food Pricing; C. Product Formulation; D. Hunger and Obesity
  • Increasing Physical Activity – A. School-Based Approaches; B. Expanded Day and Afterschool Activities; C. The “Built Environment”; and D. Community Recreation Venues

The role of marketing

The report notes:

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that, in 2006, food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. Children and adolescents are an important demographic for marketers for several reasons: (1) they are customers themselves; (2) they influence purchases made by parents and caregivers; and (3) they are the future adult market.

The report says that the relationship between marketing and obesity isn’t firmly established, but that advertising does appear to have an effect on kids. Give me a break. Why would companies spend that kind of money if they weren’t getting the results they wanted?

Many books have been written about the ways in which companies try to market products to kids. A couple of note are Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn. Both books cover food marketing in a good amount of detail (and are well-documented).

One of the things that caught my attention in Born to Buy was Schor’s discussion of how marketing companies want to create a world in which consumers are constantly bombarded by 360-degree advertising (or what one agency refers to as “infinite consumer touchpoint possibilities”).

What are the effects of such marketing? Probably not just obesity. Overstimulation. Psychological effects. Increased materialism. And what are the eventual consequences? In an article, “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability,” the authors (Tim Kasser, Tom Crompton, and Susan Linn) argue that “the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction.”

Food safety issues

The USDA Office of Inspector General issued a report in March 2010 (Audit Report 24601-08-KC) noting that:

One of the public food safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. “Residue” of this sort finds its way into the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants while they have these residual contaminants in their system. When the animals are slaughtered, traces of the drugs or pesticides contained in these animals’ meat is shipped to meat processors and retail supermarkets, and eventually purchased by consumers. In order to safeguard the Nation’s food supply from harmful residue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administers the national residue program.

The Inspector General found that “the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce. Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs.”

So the food we eat might actually be a source of obesity in more than one way.  Does this bother anyone else?

May 11, 2010

President’s Cancer Panel recommendations for individuals

I had difficulty copying these from the 7+ MB report (my Adobe Acrobat kept crashing).  Then I discovered that Acrobat Reader 9 lets you save a PDF as text!

Full report URL – http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf

Note: I added the links below—they were not in the original report (and they may or may not be sanctioned by the Panel or the U.S. government).

President’s Cancer Panel – What Individuals Can Do: Recommendations

Much remains to be learned about the effects of environmental exposures on cancer risk. Based on what is known, however, there is much that government and industry can do now to address environmental cancer risk. The Panel’s recommendations in this regard are detailed above. At the same time, individuals can take important steps in their own lives to reduce their exposure to environmental elements that increase risk for cancer and other diseases. And collectively, individual small actions can drastically reduce the number and levels of environmental contaminants.

CHILDREN

1. It is vitally important to recognize that children are far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds than adults. To the extent possible, parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.
Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and known or suspected carcinogens prior to a child’s conception and throughout pregnancy and early life, when risk of damage is greatest.

CHEMICAL EXPOSURES

2. Individuals and families have many opportunities to reduce or eliminate chemical exposures. For example:

  • Family exposure to numerous occupational chemicals can be reduced by removing shoes before entering the home and washing work clothes separately from the other family laundry.
  • Filtering home tap or well water can decrease exposure to numerous known or suspected carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Unless the home water source is known to be contaminated, it is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Storing and carrying water in stainless steel, glass, or BPA– and phthalate-free containers will reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting and other chemicals that may leach into water from plastics. This action also will decrease the need for plastic bottles, the manufacture of which produces toxic by-products, and reduce the need to dispose of and recycle plastic bottles. Similarly, microwaving food and beverages in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers will reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may leach into food when containers are heated.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues. Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications if it is available. Avoiding or minimizing consumption of processed, charred, and well-done meats will reduce exposure to carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Individuals can consult information sources such as the Household Products Database to help them make informed decisions about the products they buy and use.
  • Properly disposing of pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, paints, and other materials will minimize drinking water and soil contamination. Individuals also can choose products made with non-toxic substances or environmentally safe chemicals. Similarly, reducing or ceasing landscaping pesticide and fertilizer use will help keep these chemicals from contaminating drinking water supplies.
  • Turning off lights and electrical devices when not in use reduces exposure to petroleum combustion by-products because doing so reduces the need for electricity, much of which is generated using fossil fuels. Driving a fuel-efficient car, biking or walking when possible, or using public transportation also cuts the amount of toxic auto exhaust in the air.
  • Individuals can reduce or eliminate exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in the home, auto, and public places. Most counseling and medications to help smokers quit are covered by health insurance or available at little or no cost.

RADIATION

3. Adults and children can reduce their exposure to electromagnetic energy by wearing a headset when using a cell phone, texting instead of calling, and keeping calls brief.

4. It is advisable to periodically check home radon levels. Home buyers should conduct a radon test in any home they are considering purchasing.

5. To reduce exposure to radiation from medical sources, patients should discuss with their health care providers the need for medical tests or procedures that involve radiation exposure. Key considerations include personal history of radiation exposure, the expected benefit of the test,
and alternative ways of obtaining the same information. In addition, to help limit cumulative medical radiation exposure, individuals can create a record of all imaging or nuclear medicine tests received and, if known, the estimated radiation dose for each test.

6. Adults and children can avoid overexposure to ultraviolet light by wearing protective clothing and sunscreens when outdoors and avoiding exposure when the sunlight is most intense.

SELF-ADVOCACY

7. Each person can become an active voice in his or her community. To a greater extent than many realize, individuals have the power to affect public policy by letting policymakers know that they strongly support environmental cancer research and measures that will reduce or remove from the environment toxics that are known or suspected carcinogens or endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Individuals also can influence industry by selecting non-toxic products and, where these do not exist, communicating with manufacturers and trade organizations about their desire for safer products.

March 31, 2010

More industrial infrastructure problems (Cradle to Cradle, pt. 4)

McDonough and Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Design problems with “universal” design solutions

  • One size fits all
  • Products are designed for worst-case scenarios (guarantees widest possible market–also reflects assumption that nature is “the enemy”)
  • Logic of brute force – make universal solutions “fit” local conditions through chemical brute force & fossil fuel energy

Natural systems rely on energy from the sun, but people extract and burn fossil fuels without energy of harnessing local natural energy flows.
Burning fossil fuels leads not only to greenhouse gases and global warming, but production of particulate matter, which can cause respiratory and other health problems.

You wouldn’t want to depend on savings for all of your daily expenditures, so why rely on savings to meet all of humanity’s energy needs?

Culture of monoculture

  • Diversity is treated as a hostile force and a threat to design goals
    “Brute force and universal design approaches to typical development tend to overwhelm (and ignore) natural and cultural diversity, resulting in less variety and greater homogeneity.”
  • Modern urban areas replace natural land cover with asphalt and concrete
  • Conventional agriculture

Native plants help prevent erosion and provide habitat for insects and birds, some of whom are natural enemies of crop pests.  Loss of pests’ natural enemies results in an increase of pests (and monoculture can become vulnerable to widespread destruction if the wrong pest gets introduced, whether that be insects, fungi, etc.)

Increase in pests has led to increase in use of pesticides, which in turn has led to increase in pesticide resistance.

Super weeds

Here’s a link to the ABC News story on pigweed, “Super Weed Can’t Be Killed” (Oct. 6, 2009):
http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=8767877

(The pesticide industry’s basic reaction: “You dumb farmers!  You need to use additional herbicides and not just Roundup.”)

Glyphosate-Resistant Weeds: Can We Close the Barn Door? (Weed Science Society of America)
Researchers say cost-competitive management techniques can slow weed resistance to the herbicide and improve crop yields

And Monsanto’s take on this – http://www.monsanto.com/pdf/science/weed_management.pdf

And now there are reports that Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis) is failing because pink bollworms in India are developing Bt resistance as well.

Hmm, maybe if Monsanto hadn’t bred glyphosate-resistant plants (Roundup Ready!), thereby encouraging farmers to use more Roundup, we wouldn’t have this problem.  It kind of infuriates me that they’re now saying, “We knew this would happen!  We tried to warn people!”  If they knew that, why did they go ahead and develop genetically-modified (GM) plants in the first place?

The problem according to McDonough and Braungart?  Simplified systems actually require more maintenance because they can’t survive without intervention.

Economics

Activity equals prosperity

McDonough and Braungart note that the 1991 Exxon Valdez oil spill actually increased Alaska’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).    They note that GDP only takes one thing into account, economic activity.  They note that:

…if prosperity is judged only by increased economic activity, then car accidents, hospital visits, illnesses (such as cancer), and toxic spills are all signs of prosperity.

They note that loss of resources, cultural depletion, negative social and environmental factors, and reduction of quality of life can all be negated by a simplistic economic figure.

Crude products

The authors define these as products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health because they are unintelligent and inelegant.  Because little attention is paid to the design of products, we end up with what they call “products plus.”  You get the item or service you wanted, plus additives you didn’t ask for and didn’t know were included.  For example, examining a number of high-tech products, they discovered that during use they off-gassed carcinogens and/or chemicals that cause birth defects.

They claim that high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality-materials, including cheap plastics and dyes that would be banned in Europe or the U.S., but are used in materials made in developing countries where their use has not been banned.

As a result of emissions from these “crude products,” indoor air quality is often more contaminated than outdoor air.  They cite a Scientific American story by Wayne R. Orr and John Roberts, “Everyday Exposures to Toxic Pollutants,” Feb. 1998, that notes that levels of toxic chemicals found in households were high enough to trigger a formal risk assessment at a Superfund site.

They note that even products designed for children can contain high levels of toxic chemicals which can be absorbed.  Not only can these include carcinogens, but they can also include chemicals that stress children’s bodies and also weaken the immune system, making children more susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals and other stressors.  Citing Our Stolen Future, they note that many of these chemicals can also disrupt the endocrine system and that only a small fraction of industrial chemicals have been tested for their effects on living systems.

They say that it might be tempting to try to turn back the clock, but that

the natural materials to meet the needs of our current population do not and cannot exist.

Also, even “natural” products are not necessarily safe and healthy.  (Some of the strongest poisons are natural in origin.)

A Strategy of Tragedy, or a Strategy of Change?

McDonough and Braungart argue that the poor designs created by today’s industrial infrastructure are not sustainable.  They say that most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive.  (That might be true for agricultural practices, but I don’t actually see how they can say that about resources like petroleum and coal.  We clearly know that we’re depleting such resources.)

So how they propose we get out of this cycle of what they call intergenerational remote tyranny?

At some point a manufacturer or designer decides, “We can’t keep doing this. We can’t keep supporting and maintaining this system.” At some point they will decide that they would prefer to leave behind a positive design legacy.  But when is that point?

We say that point is today, and negligence starts tomorrow.  Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, even if you never intended to cause such destruction, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy, or you can design and implement a strategy of change.

They then note that many people probably think such a strategy already exists.  After all, don’t a number of “green” and “eco-efficient” movements already exist?

Isn’t such a strategy viable?  (The short answer, No.)  In the next chapter, they make an argument for “Why Being ‘Less Bad’ Is No Good.”

March 17, 2010

EPA and Children’s Environmental Health

Lax regulations on toxics put kids at risk, experts testify

(from CNN’s “Paging Dr. Gupta” blog)

The above post concerns a hearing held to hear about a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on EPA’s progress in protecting children from environmental threats.  It discusses the challenges EPA faces in protecting children’s health.  (To be fair, many people acknowledge that shortcomings in the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, are responsible for EPA’s being unable to protect children and others from environmental pollutants.)

I’m not usually one to plug particular networks, but I thought the following mentioned in the Dr. Gupta blog might be of interest.

CNN editor’s note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at the environment and health in an upcoming hourlong investigation, Toxic Towns USA, airing April 24 at 8 p.m. ET

Documents from the hearing

Children are exposed to many sources of potentially-harmful environmental pollutants

from the GAO Report Highlights

Selected report contents:

  • Background
  • EPA Has Not Focused Attention on Children’s Health in Agencywide Priorities, Strategies, and Rulemakings

Includes a figure showing the steps where children are considered in the EPA rulemaking progress.  The report does note that some offices within EPA more consistently incorporate considerations for children’s health in their work than others, but notes that at least one other federal agency does not even seem to do that.

  • In Recent Years, EPA Has Not Fully Utilized Its Office of Children’s Health and Other Child-Focused Resources
  • Opportunities Exist for EPA to Lead and Coordinate National Efforts to Protect Children from Environmental Threats
  • Recommendations for Executive Action
  • Matter for Congressional Consideration
  • Appendix II
    EPA Policy on Evaluating Health Risks to Children
  • Appendix III
    Executive Order 13045 and Amendments
  • Appendix IV
    EPA Regulations Subject to Executive Order 13045

From GAO’s summary: “In 1997, Executive Order 13045 (from the EPA website) mandated that agencies place a high priority on children’s risks and required that policies, programs, activities, and standards address those risks. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Office of Children’s Health Protection and convened the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee….

“…While EPA leadership is key to national efforts to protect children from environmental threats, EPA’s efforts have been hampered by the expiration in 2005 of certain provisions in the executive order. For example, the Task Force on Children’s Environmental Health provided EPA with a forum for interagency leadership on important federal efforts, such as the National Children’s Study.”

GAO recommended that Congress consider the following:

Because EPA alone cannot address the complexities of the nation’s challenges in addressing environmental health risks for children, Congress may wish to consider re-establishing a government-wide task force on children’s environmental health risks, similar to the one previously established by Executive Order 13045….

Full Committee Hearing entitled, “Hearing on the Government Accountability Office’s Investigation of EPA’s Efforts to Protect Children’s Health”

The hearing mentioned in CNN’s blog – Held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Wednesday, March 17, 2010, 10:30 AM EDT

[Webcast]

From the Committee’s Hearing page:

Chairman Barbara Boxer will convene the Full Committee for a hearing on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) children’s health program. The committee will also examine what can be done to strengthen protections for children.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) is also expected to give testimony on the federal government’s role in investigating children’s health issues and how that can be improved.

GAO documents

Environmental Health: High-level Strategy and Leadership Needed to Continue Progress toward Protecting Children from Environmental Threats
GAO-10-205,  January 28, 2010
Summary (HTML)   Highlights Page (PDF)   Full Report (PDF, 83 pages)

Environmental Health: Opportunities for Greater Focus, Direction, and Top-Level Commitment to Children’s Health at EPA

GAO-10-545T,  March 17, 2010
Summary (HTML)   Full Report (PDF, 12 pages)

EPA’s response

Peter Grevatt, the director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, stated in his written testimony:

EPA agrees that the GAO report reflects well the early history and progress of the Agency’s children’s health protection efforts. The report accurately portrays the Agency’s challenges in addressing children’s  environmental health, and sets forth sound recommendations on steps that could be taken to better incorporate protection of children’s health as an integral part of EPA’s everyday business.

Grevatt also noted that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had designated the protection of children’s health as one of her top priorities.  He then described how EPA would implement its strategy to protect children’s health.

EPA’s strategy on children’s health (starts on p.4 of the testimony—specific components are listed under each item in the testimony)

  1. EPA will use the best science to ensure that regulations provide for protection of children’s environmental health by actively addressing the potential for unique childhood vulnerability and exposure. Our goal is to reduce negative environmental health impacts on children through rulemaking, policy, enforcement and research that focus on prenatal and childhood vulnerabilities.
  2. Protecting children through safe chemicals management.
  3. Coordinate national and international community based programs to eliminate threats to children’s health while measuring and communicating our progress.

Children’s health protection at EPA

Office of Children’s Health Protection website

Basic information about the Office of Children’s Health Protection

America’s Children and the Environment

(more…)

March 10, 2010

The Breast Cancer Money-Go-Round

An older story, but it would be worth finding out how much, if anything, has changed over the last few years.

The Breast Cancer Money-Go-RoundBy Lynn Landes (AlterNet) (Oct. 23, 2002)
“Racing for the cure, but running from the cause.”
Most of the well-financed breast cancer organizations make little or no mention of the non-genetic causes of breast cancer. Go to their websites. Read their literature. These organizations don’t focus on the environmental and pharmacological causes of this epidemic because it’s a dank dark alley that leads right to their corporate sponsors.
Landes cites the Green Guide, a publication of the Green Guide Institute: “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was established by Zeneca, a bioscience company….”  Zeneca had “sales of $8.62 billion in 1997. Forty-nine percent of Zeneca’s 1997 profits came from pesticides and other industrial chemicals, and 49 percent were from pharmaceutical sales, one-third (about $1.4 billion’s worth) of which were cancer treatment drugs.”
Landes also notes that General Electric, Rhone-Poulec, Rohm & Hass, Eli Lilly Novartis, American Cyanamid, and Dupont have all profited from both sides of the breast cancer epidemic.  She further notes that NIH and CDC have tended to side with corporate conglomerates by focusing more on the detection and cure side of the equation than on the identification and elimination of environmental causes.

Another example of the blatant conflict of interest (from the Breast Cancer Fund’s “Atrazine, Frogs and Breast Cancer“)

Dr. Tyrone Hayes at the University of California at Berkeley has spent his career examining atrazine and its effect on the growth and development of frogs. He has shown that atrazine chemically castrates and feminizes male amphibians in the wild and in the lab. He suggests that atrazine-induced deformities result from the depletion of androgens and production of estrogens, perhaps after atrazine increases the activity of aromatase.

When Dr. Hayes presents his research, he often tells this story: The maker of atrazine is Syngenta, a multi-national agrichemical corporation. Syngenta was formed in 2000, when another multi-national called Novartis merged their Crop Protection and Seeds businesses with Astra Zeneca’s Agrochemicals. What is interesting and very disturbing, he argues, is that Novartis is also the producer of Femara, the breast cancer drug discussed above. And so, Dr. Hayes points out, the very company that produces atrazine (that “turns on” aromatase, thereby increasing estrogen which can lead to breast cancer cell growth) is also producing — and selling at great profit — a medication that has the opposite effect (to “turn off” aromatase).

March 7 interview with Dr. Hayes on NPR (transcript & podcast) about the neutering effects of atrazine on male frogs.

State of the Evidence 2008 (edited by Janet Gray and published by the Breast Cancer Fund) is a report on environmental exposures linked to increased breast cancer risk.  You can download a PDF version from the Breast Cancer Fund’s website.

Rethink Pink NOW! Saner Solutions to Breast Cancer (Huffington Post, Oct. 21, 2009)

Helen Cordes discusses how the major breast cancer awareness programs avoid discussing environmental causes (as well as the impact of mammograms and mammography advice on breast cancer).

Critics such as veteran women’s health advocate and writer Barbara Ehrenreich note that AstraZeneca, long a leader in the global multi-billion-dollar breast cancer pharmaceuticals market, founded National Breast Cancer Prevention Month–the generator of Pink October frenzy–in 1985, when then-Zeneca was also in the business of making pesticides deemed “probable human carcinogens” by the EPA. NBCAM is still controlled by AstraZeneca and its single-minded ‘get-your-mammogram’ mantra echoed by cosponsoring radiological and oncology associations and cancer establishment organizations. Other breast cancer heavy-hitters such as the American Cancer Society and the Susan G. Komen Foundation are also too influenced by corporate backers, say critics such as Pink Ribbons Inc. author Samantha King and No Family History author Sabrina McCormick. The result (seen most clearly in NBCAM materials) is that breast cancer’s environmental causes are avoided or downplayed to focus instead on directives to get mammograms, stay fit, and when diagnosed, obey conventional treatment regimens. (emphasis added)

While personal actions are important, why not actually prevent cancer from developing in the first place by reducing exposure to carcinogens?  For example, benzene is defined by the National Toxicology Program as a known human carcinogen, and yet the NTP profile on benzene (see the profile for references) notes:

Benzene is used as an additive in gasoline, but it also is present naturally in gasoline, because it occurs naturally in crude oil and is a by-product of oil-refining processes. The percentage of benzene in unleaded gasoline is approximately 1% to 2% by volume.

In 2002, U.S. imports of benzene totaled over 4 billion liters (1.1
billion gallons), which greatly exceeded exports of 6 million liters (1.6 million gallons). This trend continued in 2003, during which 4.5 billion liters (1.2 billion gallons) were imported and 110 million liters (29 million gallons) were exported.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory listed 1,008 industrial facilities that released benzene into the environment in 2001. Reported benzene releases decreased from 34 million pounds (15,400 metric tons) in 1988 to 6 million pounds (2,700 metric tons) in 2001. In 2001, reported emissions to the air totaled 5 million pounds (2,300 metric tons), and reported discharges to surface water totaled 19,000 lb (8.6 metric tons).

And that’s just one chemical!

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