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?”

April 4, 2010

Are we too busybusybusy?

I reencountered a song a week or two ago that is absolutely hilarious.

“BusyBusyBusy” (sung by Kevin Kline, Song #13 in Philadelphia Chickens [1])

First verse and refrain (imagine this sung non-stop with almost every syllable being sung on an eighth note—and with no rests in each verse):

We’re
very, very busy
and we’ve got a lot to do
and we haven’t got a minute
to explain it all to you
for on SundayMondayTuesday
there are people we must see
and on WednesdayThursdayFriday
we’re as busy as can be
with our most important meetings
and our most important calls
and we have to do so many things
and post them on the walls.

Perhaps because of the song I pulled Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses[2] off the shelf it had sat on for a while and flipped through it.

A couple of chapters immediately caught my eye.  With chapter titles ranging from “A.D.D. Nation” and “24/7 Connectivity” to “The Infidelity of Busyness” and “Interrupting Ourselves” to “Overwhelmed” those alone sound what life is like nowadays.

Kabat-Zinn says that our entire society suffers from ADD and ADHD.

Learning how to refine our ability to pay attention and to sustain attention may no longer be a luxury but a lifeline back to what is most meaningful in our lives, what is most easily missed, ignored, denied, or run through so quickly that it could not possibly be noticed.

Kabat-Zinn notes that the combination of increasing processing speed and miniaturization and cheaper and cheaper electronics…

proffers a seduction in computer systems for work and home, consumer products, games, and portable electronic devices that can easily lead to outright addiction and the loss of all measure of direction as we respond willy-nilly to the increasing volumes of e-mail, voice mail, faxes, pages, and cell phone traffic coming in from all corners of the planet.

Hmm, makes me wonder whether he’s heard “BusyBusyBusy”:

we have to hurry far away
and then we hurry near
and we have to hurry everywhere
and be both there and here
and we have to send out messages
by e-mail, phone, and fax
and we’re talking every minute
and we really can’t relax
and we think there is a reason
to be running neck-and-neck
and it must be quite important
but we don’t have time to check.

I guess what I find most fascinating about this song is that while this might be what an adult’s life looks like to children at times, this is often how my life feels like to me.  Boynton (and Kevin Kline) capture that feeling perfectly.

And so Kabat-Zinn’s question resonates.  “But what about balance,” he asks, “and how do we regulate the pace of instant and ubiquitous connectivity, and the expectation of instantaneous responding?”  He notes that with our cellphones and wireless devices we can be in touch with anyone and everyone at any time.  “But,” he continues, “have you noticed that, in the process, we run the risk of never being in touch with ourselves?”

Saying that our primary connection to life is through experiencing our own bodies and our own senses, he says “we need moments that are not filled with anything, in which we do not jump to get in one more phone call or send one more e-mail, or plan one more event, or add to our to-do list, even if we can. Moments of reflection, of mulling, of thinking things over, of thoughtfulness.”  (Reminds me of Elaine Aron’s advice to Highly Sensitive Persons about what is needed to avoid becoming overwhelmed.  Everyone needs downtime.  Unfortunately with the world becoming increasingly frenetic, it seems that we are all less likely to get it and indeed burn ourselves out.)

Kabat-Zinn asks:

With all this talk of connectivity, what about connectivity to ourselves?  Are we becoming so connected to everybody else that we are never where we actually are?

As noted in “BusyBusyBusy”…

THEN
we have to hurry to the south
and then we hurry north
and we’re talking every minute
as we hurry back and forth
and we have to hurry to the east
and then we hurry west
and we’re talking every minute
and we don’t have time to rest
and we have to do it faster
or it never will be done
and we have no time for listening
or anything that’s fun.

In starting to read Coming to Our Senses I’ve realized how far I have to go.  (So is that why I’m sitting here at this computer typing another blog post? Ah, irony.)

References:
1. Philadelphia Chickens. [Book and CD] Music by Sandra Boynton & Michael Ford. Lyrics and Drawings by Sandra Boynton. New York: Workman Publishing, c2002.

One of the interesting things about this book and CD is that among the singers and performers were the Bacon Brothers (one of whom is, yes, Kevin Bacon), Meryl Streep, Scott Bakula, and the late Natasha Richardson.  If you have young kids (or nieces or nephews) it would make a great gift.  (I have not checked to see if “BusyBusyBusy” is available for listening anywhere on the Web, but perhaps you can find it somewhere.)

Note: A portion of the proceeds from the book goes to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation on behalf of all the artists who performed on the album.

2. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion, c2005.

March 21, 2010

Games, cortisol, epigenetics, and behavior

Haven’t really dealt with the digital lifestyle recently (see earlier posts The Virtual Frontier and Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities).

The following was thought-provoking:

The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s

Also came across the following that struck me as a nice summary of both positive and negative effects of video games (and, by extension, of online games as well).

How Video Games Affect Health (from fat food)

Notes that many negative effects aren’t directly caused by games, but by an excessive amount of time spent playing them.  (Of course, that’s true of many things.)

Still, given the possibility that outside stimulation might actually affect how the brain is wired (see below), I’m certainly going to be a little more cautious.

From Maternal Care Affects Adult Stress (a little dated—though I think I’ve seen something recently about maternal behavior can effect epigenetic changes):

The studies, presented at a [2003] conference on the fetal and infant origins of adult disease, found that baby rats who were licked by their mothers a lot turned out to be less anxious and fearful as adults and produced lower levels of stress hormones than those who were groomed less.

The scientists found that the mothers’ licking caused the baby’s brain to crank up a gene involved in soothing the body in stressful situations.

The rat research was led by Michael Meaney, a professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

How the mothers’ grooming is thought to have affected their offspring’s behavior:

The brain contains receptors for stress hormones such as cortisol. The more receptors there are, the more sensitive the brain is to cortisol and the easier it is for the brain to tell the adrenal glands when to stop cranking out the hormones. The receptors set the tone for how the body responds to stress.

Meaney found that the rats who were reared with much licking had more cortisol receptors in their brains than the others and he determined why and how. He examined the DNA of about 50 rats who were licked a lot and another 50 who were not.

February 28, 2010

Your brain (and body) and overstimulation

Went skating with my kids yesterday.  This time went much better than the last time I had been skating since I was wearing skates that weren’t too large.  (Actually made it around the rink several times without falling.)

The skating rink we went to has a pinball machine and a couple of old arcade games, which my kids naturally wanted to play.  Being more aware of the possible effects of too much stimulation on the mind (and having at times been sucked into playing such games in my youth), I tend to be somewhat cautious about letting my kids spend too much time playing such things.  Of course, pinball for example shows you that such games have been around a lot longer than the Web.

Games do vary a lot in terms of how intense they are, and there are positive aspects to them (puzzle-solving, developing quick reflexes and better hand-eye coordination), but many games are designed the way they are to be stimulating (and for some people overstimulating).  I don’t know whether this has anything to do with an adrenaline rush, endorphins, or dopamine, but it’s clear that something is going on inside some people’s heads.

As I noted in a previous post, all of us are being exposed to chemicals in the environment.  The Highly Sensitive Person‘s discussion of cortisol got me thinking about the effects of stress on the body and whether or not the stress created by exposure to chemicals could trigger that.  So I decided to look into it and related hormones.

There has been quite a bit in the news over the last several years about “endocrine disruptors.”  Our Stolen Future, a book by Dr. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, was one of the first to bring attention to endocrine disruption and the fact that common contaminants can interfere with the natural signals controlling development of the fetus.  It highlights the fact that modern medical advances are enabling scientists to determine what effect some common contaminants can have on your body’s endocrine system.  A good, basic explanation of the endocrine system can be found on KidsHealth.org and The Hormone Foundation’s website.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), founded by Dr. Colborn, offers some good background information on endocrine disruptors.  It also contains information on the effects that prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors can have.

TEDX’s Critical Windows of Development describes how prenatal exposure to certain chemicals could in part cause cancer and other disorders like infertility and diabetes later in life.  The site includes a timeline of how the human body develops in the womb, with animal research showing when low-dose exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals during development results in altered health outcomes.

If you’re a doubter about all of this, you can also check out the a website maintained by the American Association of Clinical Chemistry.  A table there lists the various endocrine glands, the hormones they produce, and the conditions and diseases associated with their improper function.

The Hormone Foundation lists environmental endocrine disruptors among external factors that can affect the endocrine system, and notes that such chemicals they can affect people and animals in several ways:

  • disrupted sexual development
  • decreased fertility
  • birth defects
  • decreased hatching in animals
  • reduced immune response
  • neurological and behavioral changes, including reduced stress tolerance

Cortisol is a marker for stress, but appears to have many positive effects and is in fact necessary.  It apparently helps the body respond appropriately to stress.  What’s not clear is whether constant production from chronic stress might in turn cause some additional effects.  And what happens when you combine the stress of daily life with the stress of exposure to chemicals?

Some would say there’s no proof that these chemicals cause particular effects, though The Endocrine Society recently came out with a scientific statement on endocrine disruptors.  (They want you to pay $20 for the statement itself, but you can get the basic details from the press release.)

As the president of The Endocrine Society noted:

[W]e present evidence that shows endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid disease, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology.”

And if you look through the scientific literature you’ll discover that many (if not most) scientists will admit there’s a lot going on with the brain and the endocrine system (and glands like the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that interact with both) that we don’t know much about.  And given how complex the human body is, it’s not surprising that exposure to so many chemicals could cause problems, some obvious, others much more subtle.

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