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Is Your Coffee Maker Toxic?

Health + Wellness
Is Your Coffee Maker Toxic?

For many people, that rich steaming cup of coffee is an essential part of getting the day off on the right foot. And we've learned that drinking coffee (not in excess!) can actually be good for your health. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2012 showed that people who drink coffee live longer than those who don't, provided they don't smoke.

Plastic coffee makers like these could be hazardous to your health.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Of course, nothing is ever simple. What kind of coffee should you drink? Fair trade and organic are of course the best for you and the planet.

But toxins can get into your coffee from another source you may not have given much thought to: your coffee maker. While trying to choose from the various types and preparation methods available as brewing coffee has become something of a contemporary art form, maybe you haven't considered whether the coffee maker itself is toxic.

Many drinkers have noticed an odd plastic taste in their coffee immediately after buying a new coffee maker. That's a sign that something is getting into your coffee that's not coming from the beans. More and more information is emerging about how plastic containers of various types can shed chemicals into whatever it is they contain, especially when that something is a hot liquid. Byphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that could lead to reproductive issues such as infertility and even some types of cancers, has been found in a variety of plastic items as well as the lining of canned foods.

As this information has become more widely known, many manufacturers of products that come into contact with food are removing BPA from plastic. That includes the makers of some plastic coffee pots, which are advertising BPA-free products. But many plastic coffee makers aren't labeled so there's no way of knowing if they are BPA-free. And companies that promote that their products are BPA-free may be replacing that chemical with another that's equally bad for you.

The safest thing to do is to look for a coffee maker with a no plastic parts or at least none that come into contact with the pot's contents. That might mean rethinking how you make your coffee. While single-serve and drip brewing coffee makers are the most convenient, those are the ones most likely to be made primarily of plastic.

But there are other types of coffee making systems that tend to be made of glass and stainless steel, much safer choices if you're worried about bad chemicals in your coffee. That old-fashioned percolator your mom used is one of those. If she didn't throw it out after buying a new plastic one, appropriate it! These vintage-style metal coffee pots may look clunky, but they're generally safe, as long as they are stainless steel and not lined with aluminum. Plenty of new ones are on the market if you can't find mom's.

Many of the trendy new ways of brewing coffee also utilize plastic-free equipment also. With their glass carafes and stainless steel mesh filters, sleek French press coffeemakers generally bypass plastic entirely. The process is more complicated than plug-in-and-brew coffee pots. But if making your morning coffee is a leisurely ritual for you, it's a perfect solution—and many people swear the taste of the finished cup is far superior.

The 75-year-old Chemex pot is considered a classic of modern design—and it contains no plastic. Photo credit: Chemex

There are some well-known coffee makers on the market that are plastics-free. One is the all-glass coffee pot produced by Chemex. Created nearly 75 years ago, the Chemex pot has won design awards and is on permanent display at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. It features a heat-resistant, non-porous glass carafe, a wooden collar, a natural paper filter—and no plastic.

Porcelain is another alternative to plastic. Walküre's German-made coffee machines and cup filters are among the best known, their design requiring neither a paper filter nor a metal sieve. Like the Chemex pots, they have a long history, going back over 100 years. And like Chemex, Walküre promotes the superior taste their process offers.

It might be a little more work. But with the assurance that no bad chemicals are leeching into your coffee, it might be worth it.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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