By Nate Seltenrich
Synthetic dyes used as colorants in many common foods and drinks can negatively affect attention and activity in children, according to a comprehensive review of existing evidence published this month by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
Funded by the California legislature in 2018, the new report involved a literature review, scientific symposium for experts, peer review process, and public comment period. Its conclusions about the behavioral effects of food dyes are grounded in the results of 27 clinical trials in children performed on four continents over the last 45 years, as well as animal studies and research into the mechanisms through which dyes exert their behavioral effects.
Food dyes in products such as breakfast cereals, juice and soft drinks, frozen dairy desserts, candies, and icings were linked to adverse neurobehavioral outcomes in children including inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and restlessness. Animal studies also revealed effects on activity, memory, and learning.
The report is the most rigorous assessment of the behavioral effects of food dyes ever conducted, said Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Editor's note: Lefferts previously worked as an editor at EHN).
Lefferts has been tracking the issue for years and through the Center published her own report on the link between synthetic food dyes and behavioral problems in children in 2016. In it she called for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to either revoke approvals for all food dyes or institute a federal labeling rule.
The European Union enacted such a law in 2010 that requires most dyed foods to bear a label warning consumers that food colorings "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." In response, many food manufacturers reformulated their products for the European market to avoid the dyes, and thus the label.
But many left the dyes in their products for the U.S. market, where awareness of the issue has remained low, said Lefferts. "In our experience, most consumers have no idea that something that is allowed in the food supply by the FDA could trigger adverse behaviors," she told EHN.
A California State Senate bill introduced in February and backed by the new report would require a similar warning label on foods sold in the state. But it was abruptly withdrawn from the Senate Health Committee on April 28, the day of its scheduled hearing, by sponsor Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont).
In a press release, Wieckowski said he pulled the bill "to take additional time to brief other senators and make sure they understand the science in the OEHHA report" given that it had been published only 12 days earlier. The bill, which Lefferts said she sees as a wedge for widespread reformulation of dyed foods in the U.S, is now slated to be heard in January 2022.
Widespread Food Dye Exposure
An example of food dyes. jessica / flickr
The FDA last formally reviewed the issue in 2011, when it concluded that a causal link between children's consumption of synthetic color additives and behavioral effects had not been established. At the time the agency also commissioned an exposure assessment of all seven color additives approved for use in food in the U.S.: FD&C Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6.
The results of this study, later presented in 2014, revealed that between 2007 and 2010, some dyes were consumed on an almost daily basis by up to 98 percent of 2-to-5-year-olds, 95 percent of teenage boys aged 13-18, and 94 percent of the entire U.S. population aged 2 and up.
"Exposure in children affects attention and behavior across the whole spectrum of the population, and it's a widely distributed exposure," Mark Miller, a public health medical officer with OEHHA and one of 13 authors of the report, told EHN. "Overall it means that the impact is subject to being fairly large."
Mechanistic studies reviewed by Miller and the report's other authors reveal that food dyes may impact behavior through a variety of pathways including neurotransmitters, hormones, and oxidative stress. More research is needed on how dyes are absorbed, distributed, and metabolized in the body, they note.
An FDA spokesperson said that the agency had received and was reviewing the report. "The FDA will continue to engage in the scientific and regulatory review of color additives to evaluate their potential impact on various populations, including children, and act when necessary to ensure that the products marketed to consumers are safe and properly labeled," the statement read.
"Parents who wish to limit synthetic color additives in their children's diet may check the food ingredient list on labels, where they are required to be listed."
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Quinn McVeigh
The study, published in Applied Geochemistry, found that almost every groundwater sample across 32 U.S. aquifers had detectable strontium levels, while 2.3 percent exceeded 4 milligrams per liter (mg/L), the maximum amount that people should consume routinely, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The public and private wells extending from these aquifers provide drinking water for 2.3 million people.
While low amounts of natural strontium are safe and even beneficial for the human body, these high concentrations can stunt bone growth in children who lack adequate calcium intake. Strontium can replace calcium in bones, weakening them and limiting development, according to Sarah Yang, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' groundwater toxicologist.
"We're more worried about infants and children because their bones are actively growing," Yang told EHN. "Generally infants and children can absorb more strontium in their intestines, and adults can't."
High strontium in drinking water is linked to rickets in children, an extremely rare skeletal condition causing soft, sometimes deformed, bones.
Strontium, a soft metal that originates from minerals like celestine, makes its way into drinking water naturally. Aquifers with high strontium concentrations are often surrounded by carbonate rock containing limestone and dolomite.
In the USGS study, author MaryLynn Musgrove, a research physical scientist, found that 86 percent of people exposed to high strontium levels drink water supplied by carbonate rock aquifers. More than half of them are using Florida's underground reservoirs, where some freshwater has been blending with limestone and dolomite for 26,000 years.
Texas' carbonate aquifers also stood out.The Edwards-Trinity aquifer system, a sandstone and carbonate formation spanning from Oklahoma to western Texas, had the most frequent occurrence of high strontium concentrations in its corresponding wells.
Dolomite is abundant in the bedrock of eastern Wisconsin, where strontium levels are among the highest of U.S. drinking water supplies.
While the USGS study mainly looked at areas exceeding 4 mg/L of strontium in samples, some communities living atop these dolomite layers drink water with more than 25 mg/L, the one-day health advisory limit for children.
"We have a lot of communities that have values above 20, 30, 50 mg/L," John Luczaj, a professor of geosciences at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, told EHN.
Removal of Strontium From Drinking Water
While its radioactive sibling, strontium-90, is regulated, natural strontium contamination is unregulated by the EPA.
The major dilemma, according to Victor Rivera-Diaz, a writer and researcher for Save the Water, is that it is still a "public health mystery." While some research has conclusively linked strontium to bone degradation, a lack of data has kept the EPA from regulating it under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
"It is a problem," Rivera-Diaz told EHN. "It definitely requires more attention, even more so in the areas that are prone to high contamination."
But this is easier said than done, Rivera-Diaz explained.
Strontium cannot be removed with conventional water treatment technology. Thus, communities would have to look to other systems, such as point-of-entry reverse osmosis.
"Some of these technologies can be quite costly, so that might be a barrier for lower-income communities," Rivera-Diaz said.
Reverse osmosis systems and water softeners are incredibly effective in removing strontium concentrations.
"If it was up to me, I would, in the short term, figure out a way to subsidize technologies that are proven to filter out strontium, especially in those communities where those levels are well above 4 mg/L," Rivera-Diaz said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
The contents of our mattresses are often an afterthought. That's a mistake, as research shows that the quality of your sleeping surface can significantly impact your health.
As consumers gain awareness about the health effects of sleeping on potentially toxic compounds, mattress companies are responding with new beds made from better materials. Today, you can choose from a broad range of mattresses made from all-natural components, including organic wool, cotton, and latex. Here's a summary of the best non-toxic, eco-friendly mattresses available today and how to decide between them.
Why You Should Choose an Organic Mattress
Traditionally, mattresses contain trace amounts of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that act as flame retardants and coatings on plastic components. While the popular view is that these VOCs are found in too low of concentrations to be concerning, a 2019 study published in Environmental Science and Technology indicates that body heat may transform them into toxic vapors that you breathe in through the night.
That's a reason for concern, as according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the potential health effects of VOC exposure include headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation. In extreme cases, they may trigger cancer cell development or organ damage.
8 Top-Rated Organic and Natural Mattress BrandsEach product featured below has been selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the included links, we may earn a commission.
- Best Overall – Avocado Green Mattress
- Best Cooling – GhostBed Natural Mattress
- Best Hypoallergenic – Plushbeds Botanical Bliss
- Best for Lower Back Support – Saatva Zenhaven Latex Mattress
- Best for Couples – My Green Mattress Natural Escape
- Best 100% Certified Organic - Happsy Mattress
- Best Fair Trade Certified – Birch Natural Mattresses
- Most Affordable – Eco Terra Latex Hybrid
- Best Give Back Program – Awara Organic Luxury Hybrid Mattress
How We Chose These Products
When comparing the best natural mattress options, we looked at several specific factors to determine which ones stand out. Here are some of the distinguishing features.
The best non-toxic mattress brands today exclusively use certified organic textiles like cotton and wool.
Is it certified GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard) or GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)? As the leading natural certifications for textiles and latex materials, GOLS and GOTS-certified products meet stringent requirements for responsible social and environmental practices.
The best nontoxic mattresses are compressed into boxes for shipping and then expand to full size once you unpack them. Environmentally speaking, smaller packages mean less fuel wasted on transportation. Others are sent in pieces or in full form and require a delivery team for installation.
Give Back Programs
The best eco-friendly mattress brands also support nonprofit programs that benefit the environment. We like brands where a percentage of your purchase may go towards a worthwhile cause.
Many of the best organic mattresses are handcrafted in the United States, which shrinks their environmental footprint by keeping production and transportation within a smaller area.
Standard practice in the mattress industry is to offer sleep trial testing periods. These range from three months to a year or longer.
Direct to Consumer
Direct-to-consumer mattress companies are increasing in popularity. They tend to be less wasteful than traditional retailers because the brand isn't putting resources towards maintaining showrooms.
9 Best Natural and Organic Mattresses of 2021
Best Overall - Avocado Green Mattress
- Materials – 100% GOTS certified cotton and wool, 100% natural latex, steel support coils
- Manufacturing – Handmade in USA
- Delivery – Mattress arrives compressed in a box
- Certifications – GREENGUARD Gold, Rainforest Alliance, eco-INSTITUT®, and Formaldehyde-Free certified, OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certified wool, GOTS and GOLS certified materials
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 100-night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
This mattress-in-a-box brand doesn't compromise its eco-friendly principles for low cost or convenience. The Avocado Green mattress boasts a gentle latex support system for balanced firmness that's ideal for larger people and those who sleep on their back or side.
Why buy: Avocado is a leading brand for affordable mattresses made from natural materials. The Green mattress makes this list for its affordable price point and five-zone support system with up to 1,400 pocketed steel support coils. Equally impressive, Avocado maintains control over its whole supply chain and employs strict social and environmental standards for every product.
Best Cooling - GhostBed Natural Mattress
- Materials – Natural wool, GOLS certified Dunlop & Talalay latex, USDA organic and GOTS certified cotton
- Manufacturing – Manufactured in the USA
- Delivery – Mattress arrives vacuum sealed in a box
- Certifications – USDA organic, Control Union certified, OEKO-TEX® certified, GOLS and GOTS certified materials
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 101 night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
The GhostBed Natural mattress offers five layers of natural comfort materials. Each mattress is made from natural wool, genuine Dunlop and Talalay latex, and organic cotton for solid support and air-flow cooling. This is an eco-friendly mattress made for comfort, cooling, and support.
Why buy: The GhostBed Natural mattress is a great option if you tend to get hot when you sleep, as it includes both a naturally cooling latex core and cooling airflow coil technology to help you sleep better. We also love that it is made in the United States with organic and natural materials like sustainably-sourced latex and USDA organic cotton.
Best Hypoallergenic - Plushbeds Botanical Bliss
- Materials – GOLS certified latex, GOTS certified cotton and wool
- Manufacturing – Handcrafted in California
- Delivery – Delivered in two boxes, the customer must assemble
- Certifications – GOLS certified latex, GOTS certified cotton and wool, GreenGuard Gold Certified, OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 Certified, eco-INSTITUT® certified, Control Union Certified, Forest Stewardship Council Certified
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 100-night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
Plushbeds mattresses are handcrafted in the US from certified organic materials. Orthopedic specialists recommend them for their buoyant support and pressure point relief, along with an organic latex core you can customize.
Why buy: With Plushbeds' Botanical Bliss mattress, you get a non-toxic, hypoallergenic sleeping surface that keeps you cool through the night. This bed is dust mite resistant to eliminate most home's primary allergy problems and includes an organic cotton cover for comfort.
Best Luxury - Saatva Zenhaven Latex Mattress
- Materials – Certified organic cotton, all-natural Talalay latex, 100% organic New Zealand wool
- Manufacturing – Made in USA within 19 independent factories
- Delivery – Purchase comes with free white glove delivery and setup, including old mattress removal
- Certifications – OEKO-TEX® Standard 100, eco-INSTITUT®, Rainforest Alliance, and Cradle to Cradle certified
- Sleep Trial/ Warranty – 180-day sleep trial, 20-year warranty
The Saatva Zenhaven mattress is naturally hypoallergenic and made using environmentally responsible practices. The manufacturing process is entirely water-based and produces minimal byproducts. Even the certified organic cotton cover is protected by a proprietary nontoxic botanical antimicrobial treatment. Rather than using traditional flame retardants, the mattress contains a protective layer of organic New Zealand wool.
Why buy: As Saatva's premium mattress, the Zenhaven is made for low back support and a cooling, comfortable night's sleep. This 100% Talalay latex mattress contains durable materials for supported rest and boasts a flippable design for two firmness levels. This is the best option for a luxurious yet eco-friendly mattress.
Best for Couples - My Green Mattress Natural Escape
- Materials – GOTS certified cotton, GOLS certified Dunlop latex
- Manufacturing – Handcrafted in a certified organic factory in Illinois
- Delivery – White glove delivery service available for $199 for setup and old mattress removal.
- Certifications – GreenGuard Gold Certified, GOTS Certified cotton, GOLS certified Dunlop latex
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 120-night sleep trial, 20-year warranty
The Natural Escape mattress boasts a responsive zoned pocketed coil spring system covered with GOLS certified Dunlop latex for breathability. With an adaptive support system that conforms to the contours of your spine, the company recommends it for couples with opposite body types or who prefer different sleeping positions from each other. The mattress itself is button tufted to pull the layers together without the use of any potentially toxic adhesives or VOCs.
Why buy: The Natural Escape mattress from My Green Mattress delivers stellar lumbar support and proper spinal alignment—all underneath a comfortable organic cotton cover. It also provides limited motion transfer thanks to an upgraded innerspring system, making it a great option for couples as you won't disturb your partner when you move.
Best 100% Certified Organic - Happsy Mattress
- Materials – Organic cotton filling, organic wool, certified latex
- Manufacturing – Handmade in USA
- Delivery – Ships compressed in a single box
- Certifications – GOTS-certified cotton, Certified Made Safe, GOLS-certified latex, Forest Stewardship Council Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, GreenGuard Gold Certified, Underwriters Laboratories verified formaldehyde-free, Green America Certified Business
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 120-night sleep trial, 20-year warranty
Happsy's mattresses combine comfort, the latest technology in certified organic mattress design, and premium earth-friendly materials for a bed you can feel good about from every angle. In fact, the included zipper lets you peek inside to see what you're really sleeping on. The mattress utilizes a breathable coil system designed to wick moisture away to keep you cooler at night than sleeping on heat-trapping synthetic foams.
Why buy: Happsy is a small mattress brand focused on making mattresses with a conscience — meaning that all materials are chosen for being easy on the environment. The company forgoes all glues and adhesives in favor of its own pocketed spring design that keeps the mattress supportive, but never "bouncy."
Best Fair Trade Certified - Birch Natural Mattresses
- Materials – Organic cotton, wool, birch wool, natural latex, steel coils
- Manufacturing – Handmade in USA
- Delivery – Ships compressed in a box
- Certifications – GreenGuard Gold Certified, GOTS Certified, OEKO-TEX®Standard 100, Eco INSTITUT® Tested Product, Wool Integrity NZ, Fair Trade Certified Factory
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 100-night sleep trial, 25-year warranty
Birch by Helix makes a range of natural bedding options constructed in ways that support the environment. Each mattress is made from premium materials that together work to relieve your body's pressure points, no matter how you prefer to sleep. The company claims this premium product has natural flexibility that allows it to retain its shape to provide enough softness for coziness while still offering full-body support.
Why buy: We love that all Birch mattress wool comes from New Zealand sheep farms that meet Wool Integrity NZ standards, which ensures the animals are treated ethically at every stage of production. Plus, the cotton within each mattress is Fair Trade certified, making this a responsible sleep option.
Most Affordable - Eco Terra Latex Hybrid
- Materials – 100% natural latex foam rubber, organic wool, organic cotton
- Manufacturing – Designed and handcrafted in Los Angeles, CA
- Delivery – Free standard delivery across the US, White Glove delivery available for an extra cost
- Certifications – OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certified, GOTS Organic wool, GOTS organic certified cotton
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 90-day sleep trial, 15-year warranty
Eco Terra offers a budget-friendly latex hybrid mattress that includes natural materials, unobtrusive pocket support coils, and a 90-day sleep trial. Eco Terra's latex mattress is available in both a medium and medium-firm firmness level to support a wide range of sleepers. The bed is free of synthetic foams and VOCs, favoring a three-inch-thick layer of Talalay latex instead.
Why buy: Eco Terra offers a more budget-friendly option than other latex hybrid brands, making this mattress an excellent choice for comfortable sleep without compromising on natural materials. One thing to note is that this latex isn't GOLS-certified, though the other materials are GOTS certified.
Best Give Back Program - Awara Organic Luxury Hybrid Mattress
- Materials – Dunlap latex, organic New Zealand wool, organic cotton, steel coils
- Manufacturing – Made in China
- Delivery – Arrives compressed in a box
- Certifications – Rainforest Alliance certified latex, certified organic wool, certified organic cotton
- Sleep Trial/Warranty – 365-night sleep trial, Forever Warranty (lifetime guarantee against sagging and manufacturing defects)
Awara features premium Sri Lanka latex and wrapped coil springs to provide contour and a touch of bounce for supportive sleep throughout the night. At the core of this mattress are nine-inch pocketed coils that are thicker than standard. This gives the bed a firmer, more responsive feel that minimizes the sense of sinking when you reach the outer edge, so it's suitable for back, side, and stomach sleepers alike.
Why buy: Awara's natural latex mattress stands out for being slightly firmer than some other options. The mattress itself is made from quality materials with GOLS, GOTS, and Rainforest Alliance certification. Awara also partners with Trees for the Future to support forest systems throughout Africa. Every purchase funds the planting of ten trees throughout Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, or Tanzania.
The best night's sleep takes place on a mattress that won't make you or the environment sick. Today, there are more options than ever for finding the best organic and nontoxic mattress for your family. Seek out brands that use certified organic materials and that guarantee each bed is free from VOCs to rest easy every night.
Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness, food and farming, and environmental topics. When not working against a writing deadline, you can find Lydia outdoors where she attempts to bring order to her 33-acre hobby farm filled with fruit trees, heritage breed pigs, too many chickens to count, and an organic garden that somehow gets bigger every year.
By Cameron Oglesby
Since 1960, about 21 percent of global agriculture production, including livestock, tree farming, and traditional crops such as corn and soybeans, has been negatively impacted by climate change, according to a new study.
In the research published Thursday in Nature Climate Change, agriculture production is defined not just as crop yields or the amount of food or livestock grown, but the overarching energy and input it takes to produce food. This includes manual labor, fertilizers, water, and land. Unsurprisingly, agriculture production worldwide has grown over the last 60 years as a result of improved technologies and greater efficiency, primarily in higher income countries.
But the new study provides the latest evidence that climate change — and the subsequent increase in droughts, flooding, and extreme heat — has held back agricultural gains and impeded global food security efforts.
"People don't yet realize that the climate has already changed," Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, a Cornell economist and lead author of the new study, told EHN. "That's not something that we often talk about, just about what the impacts will be 50 years from now."
Climate Change Wipes Out Improvements
Using models similar to those created by climatologists to predict future climate trends, Ortiz-Bobea and his team charted climate data between 1960 and 2020, and compared it to a model where human-caused climate change never occurred.
They compared the "total factor productivity" between models: how does actual agricultural productivity over time compare to what it could have been without climate change?
"Climate change has basically wiped out about seven years of improvements in agricultural productivity over the past 60 years," Ortiz-Bobea said in a statement.
In other words, if the world were to wave a magic wand and halt the planetary changes associated with greenhouse gas emissions and a warming climate, global agricultural production would have reached the level it is today back in 2013, said Ortiz-Bobea.
Ortiz-Bobea compared the situation to someone running with a strong wind at their front: As a runner attempts to make their way to the finish line, the wind is constantly pushing them back. They're making progress but it's slow compared to a windless day. In this scenario, climate change is the strong wind and the runner's progress is farm production growth.
He noted that if climate change gets worse, a growing possibility as countries fail to set commitments that meet Paris agreement targets, it's only a matter of time until agriculture production stalls. "[Climate change has] been happening for years, and as the magnitude keeps rising and rising it's going to get harder to ignore," he said
Ortiz-Bobea wasn't expecting such a significant difference in farm production between models with and without climate change. "I didn't even think that the result would be statistically significant," he said. "I was expecting something much smaller, something almost imperceptible. But no matter how we sliced the data or looked at different variations of the econometric model, it was pretty consistent that it's a substantial negative effect."
Developing Countries Suffer
The greatest climate impacts are seen in countries that are historically warmer such as those in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. As developing regions are often without the same technological advancement or management systems for agriculture, they face the greatest losses as unpredictable weather and warming events threaten crops and livestock. Ortiz-Bobea noted that this issue is as much an equity issue as it is an economic one.
The agriculture sector faces a unique problem in the way of climate change. Historically, the industry has relied on unsustainable practices that further greenhouse gas emissions. One example is in Brazil, where massive Amazon deforestation has taken place in an attempt to grow the country's economy around cattle and soybean farming. The transformation of forests, a crucial carbon sink, into crop lands also contributes to rises in atmospheric carbon levels.
In addition, increased global meat consumption and subsequent cattle production is a common source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
So what is the best way to produce more food without contributing to a cycle of climate change?
Ortiz-Bobea said that the solution is in a mix of mitigation and adaptation. "Despite all the new, very exciting technologies that we are coming up with like CRISPR, they will still take decades to have an impact," she said. CRISPR is an increasingly popular technology that allows geneticists to modify DNA sequences and gene functions. Often touted as the solution to harmful birth defects in human genomes, conversations have arisen around the use of gene editing to increase food production for a rapidly growing population.
Ortiz-Bobea also highlighted the potential for soil-based strategies. "There are ways to increase soil health that allow soils to improve their water holding capacity, for example," he said. "And so that improves the crop yields and allows farmers to weather the storm, no pun intended there, while at the same time it helps capture carbon from the atmosphere."
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Andrew Blok
Researchers found that one type of algae, which has greatly expanded its range within the Great Lakes and is one of the most abundant algae by weight there, could catch up to one trillion pieces of microplastic in the Great Lakes.
"It's just a massive amount of these microscopic particle pollutants that are now part of our environment," Julie Peller, a professor of chemistry at Valparaiso University whose recent research revealed the microplastics-algae dynamic, told EHN.
Peller and colleagues say the study may offer insight into how we can stop the microplastic pollution — any plastic debris less than five millimeters long — from getting into the lakes. However, in the meantime, algae are often used as shelter for freshwater species at the bottom of the food chain, so the findings suggest that these microplastic hiding spots could be contaminating Great Lakes fish — and the people that eat them.
The Hiding Spots for Great Lakes Plastic
There are a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes, one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems and the drinking water source for 30 million people. While less well understood than ocean plastics, the tiny bits of plastic are pretty much ubiquitous throughout the five lakes. Research shows they're in tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes. Surface water samples show huge numbers of microplastics, but statistical models always predict more microplastics are in the lakes than are found by sampling.
Finding them in algae helps close some of that gap.
"I think that we found one of those reservoirs where some of the microplastics have been, for lack of a better word, hiding," said Peller, whose recently published study in Environmental Pollution documented the close interactions between algae and microplastics.
This study examined the most abundant group of algae in the Great Lakes: Cladophora. Cladophora, which looks a bit like green hair, readily tangles up with plastic microfibers, which are shed from synthetic clothing, carpets, and other cloth.
Nearly every penny-sized sample of Cladophora collected from the lakes contained at least one microfiber, Peller said. Even samples from apparently pristine locations, like near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, contained microplastics.
Peller's team also took clean, living Cladophora samples and added plastic microfibers to them. Plastic microfibers quickly adhered to the algae in a process called adsorption, in which two substances stick together because of a molecular attraction.
"The affinity between microplastics and Cladophora may offer insights for removing microplastic pollution," Peller and colleagues wrote in the study. In fact, adsorption already plays a major role in stopping microplastic pollution.
Attracted to Sludge
Synthetic fabrics shed microfibers when washed, so microfibers are often most abundant near populous areas where they enter the environment through treated wastewater.
Even without special plastic screening technology, removing 90 percent of plastics is not only possible, but probable, Heng Zhang, the assistant director of monitoring and research at Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, told EHN. Studies of wastewater treatment plants around the world put the removal rate as high as 98 percent.
A main goal of wastewater treatment is removing particles of organic waste by screening and settling out waste into a sludge. Because microplastics tend to attach to these particles, like they do to algae, a lot of it is captured by processes designed before microplastic pollution started gaining attention.
"I have to admit, it wasn't designed. It just happened by chance or by nature or the characteristics of the stuff," Zhang said.
Removal rates of 90 percent or higher still leave a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes. Some researchers estimate 10,000 metric tons (or about 11,000 tons) of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes each year.
But regulation will likely dictate when new microplastic removal technology is developed.
"I don't see any EPA guidelines that says we need to start looking at the technology to remove that," Zhang said. "It looks like microplastics is down to the very end of the priority list."
Until then, wastewater treatment plants are likely to focus on other areas, Zhang said.
Pollutants like metals, nutrients and emerging contaminants like improperly disposed pharmaceuticals take precedence now.
If or when microplastics become a focus of wastewater treatment it makes sense to "start with what has worked," Zhang wrote in a follow-up email. There would still be questions to answer about efficacy, cost and consequences — such as safe disposal after microplastic is collected.
Plastics at the Base of the Food Web
Cladophora is a genus of freshwater algae that has increased in the Great Lakes with the arrival of invasive mussels. Filter-feeding zebra and quagga mussels have spread throughout the Great Lakes basin, sucking light-blocking algae and plankton out of the water. As the water cleared and sunlight could reach greater depths, Cladophora expanded its range to deeper waters.
Cladophora is different from the toxic blue-green algae that has caused problems for some Great Lakes water supplies. But there's so much of it now it's become a nuisance, Meredith Nevers, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the new study, told EHN.
The sheer amount of long, stringy Cladophora in the lakes — up to 129,000 tons, according to one estimate — means it's likely playing a significant role in microplastic's fate in the Great Lakes.
"If there are microfibers and microplastics in the lake, there's no question they're going to get tangled up in filaments of algae," Nevers said.
Great Lakes fish don't eat Cladophora, but it provides shelter for zooplankton and other invertebrates, which are a major food source for some prey fish. The mingling of microplastics with natural fish food could be one entry point for microplastics into the food chain. Further, by catching microplastics, algae may be keeping them suspended in the water for longer where they're more likely to be eaten.
"It wouldn't surprise me to have microplastics enter food webs through the invertebrates that live in and graze on Cladophora," Eric Hellquist wrote in an email to EHN. Hellquist is a professor of biological sciences at State University of New York Oswego.
Once microplastics enter a food chain, they can make their way up to fish species that humans eat, research shows.
Hellquist and his students surveyed prey fish — such as alewife, sculpin, and invasive round gobies — in Lake Ontario and found that 97 percent of 330 fish had microfibers in their digestive tracts. The majority of microplastics found were microfibers, he said.
Higher up the food chain, microplastics were present in most animals, too. In 40 chinook salmon, Hellquist found that 92 percent had microplastics in their digestive tract. Of 33 coho salmon, 82 percent had ingested microplastics. Hellquist's students found, on average, 3.5 to 4 pieces of plastic in each salmon.
Research is beginning to show harmful effects on fish from microplastics. Microplastics are often found in their gills and digestive systems, but also within muscle tissue. When ingested they've been found to have harmful effects on fish digestion, metabolism, growth and brain function. They've also been associated with higher levels of toxic substances in fish.
Research suggests that fish consumption could be one way that microplastics get into people.
'It's Just So Huge'
The study of microplastics in the Great Lakes is still a relatively young field and a lot of questions need to be answered.
One thing is clear: the amount of microplastics in the Great Lakes is huge.
"It's hard to think about because it's so large," Peller said.
However, Peller thinks the stickiness of algae might inspire better removal technology.
"I think that a lot of times when we look for solutions to problems that we as humans have created, we often find a lot of insight into nature's natural mechanism for cleansing itself," she said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Gwen Ranniger
Fertility issues are on the rise, and new literature points to ways that your environment may be part of the problem. We've rounded up some changes you can make in your life to promote a healthy reproductive system.
Infertility and Environmental Health: The Facts
- Sperm count is declining steeply, significantly, and continuously in Western countries, with no signs of tapering off. Erectile dysfunction is on the rise, and women are facing increasing rates of miscarriage and difficulty conceiving.
- Why? A huge factor is our environmental health. Hormones (particularly testosterone and estrogen) are what make reproductive function possible, and our hormones are increasingly being negatively affected by harmful, endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonplace in the modern world—in our homes, foods, and lifestyles.
What You Can Do About It
It should be noted that infertility can be caused by any number of factors, including medical conditions that cannot be solved with a simple change at home.
If you or a loved one are struggling with infertility, our hearts and sympathies are with you. Your pain is validated and we hope you receive answers to your struggles.
Read on to discover our tips to restore or improve reproductive health by removing harmful habits and chemicals from your environment.
Edit Your Health
- If you smoke, quit! Smoking is toxic, period. If someone in your household smokes, urge them to quit or institute a no-smoking ban in the house. It is just as important to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Make sure your caloric intake is right for your body and strive for moderate exercise.
- Eat cleanly! Focus on whole foods and less processed meals and snacks. Studies have found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is linked to increased fertility.
- Minimize negative/constant stress—or find ways to manage it. Hobbies such as meditation or yoga that encourage practiced breathing are great options to reduce the physical toll of stress.
Edit Your Home
We spend a lot of time in our homes—and care that what we bring into them will not harm us. You may not be aware that many commonly found household items are sources of harmful, endocrine-disrupting compounds. Read on to find steps you can take—and replacements you should make—in your home.
In the Kitchen
- Buy organic, fresh, unprocessed foods whenever possible. Read our grocery shopping guide for more tips about food.
- Switch to glass, ceramics, or stainless steel for food storage: plastics often contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that affect fertility. Learn more about the dangers of plastic here.
- Ban plastic from the microwave. If you have a plastic splatter cover, use paper towel, parchment paper, or an upside-down plate instead.
- Upgrade your cookware: non-stick may make life easier, but it is made with unsafe chemical compounds that seep into your food. Cast-iron and stainless steel are great alternatives.
- Filter tap water. Glass filter pitchers are an inexpensive solution; if you want to invest you may opt for an under-the-sink filter.
- Check your cleaning products—many mainstream products are full of unsafe chemicals. Check out our guide to safe cleaning products for more info.
In the Bathroom
- Check the labels on your bathroom products: fragrance-free, paraben-free, phthalate-free and organic labels are all great signs. You can also scan the ingredients lists for red-flag chemicals such as: triclosan, parabens, and dibutyl phthalate. Use the EWG Skin Deep database to vet your personal products.
- Ditch the vinyl shower curtain—that new shower curtain smell is chemical-off gassing. Choose a cotton or linen based curtain instead.
- Banish air fresheners—use natural fresheners (an open window, baking soda, essential oils) instead.
- Remove wall-to-wall carpet. If you've been considering wood or tile, here's your sign: many synthetic carpets can emit harmful chemicals for years. If you want a rug, choose wool or plant materials such as jute or sisal.
- Prevent dust build-up. Dust can absorb chemicals in the air and keep them lingering in your home. Vacuum rugs and wipe furniture, trim, windowsills, fans, TVs, etc. Make sure to have a window open while you're cleaning!
- Leave shoes at the door! When you wear your shoes throughout the house, you're tracking in all kinds of chemicals. If you like wearing shoes inside, consider a dedicated pair of "indoor shoes" or slippers.
- Clean out your closet—use cedar chips or lavender sachets instead of mothballs, and use "green" dry-cleaning services over traditional methods. If that isn't possible, let the clothes air out outside or in your garage for a day before putting them back in your closet.
- Say no to plastic bags!
- We asked 22 endocrinologists what products they use - and steer clear of—in their homes. Check out their responses here.
- For more information and action steps, be sure to check out Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by EHS adjunct scientist Shanna Swan, PhD: available for purchase here.
- Sign up for our Above the Fold Newsletter to stay up to date about impacts on the environment and your health.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Casey Crownhart
Disinfectant use has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic as people try to keep their hands and surfaces clean. But one family of cleaning chemicals is receiving scrutiny for potential health concerns.
Quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, are charged molecules that can kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Quats are effective disinfectants, but some researchers are raising alarm given recent research on the compounds' possible human health and environmental effects, including fertility issues, endocrine disruption, occupational asthma, marine toxicity, and potential to spur antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
And, while industry defends quats as safe, some states are taking notice and looking into regulations.
The pandemic has increased demand for products like Lysol wipes that use quats as active ingredients: sales of Lysol wipes were up nearly 50 percent in spring of 2020 compared to 2019. Other cleaning products are also in high demand — aerosol disinfectant sales as a whole have doubled in 2020 in the U.S., a large fraction of which also contain quats.
All those additional sales mean quats are becoming more present in the environment. "We're in an era now where the concentration [of quats] is certainly higher than ever before," William Arnold, an environmental engineer at the University of Minnesota, told EHN. He published a paper in June that revealed an increased load of quats may be ending up in wastewater plants, with some worrisome implications. Quats can end up in wastewater plants after they're flushed down the drain — at the levels of use during the pandemic, some plants can't keep up, so quats have the potential to pollute waterways. There, they might disrupt marine food chains, as quats have been found to be toxic to small invertebrates like plankton in lakes.
The ingredients also may be spurring antibiotic-resistant germs, Arnold said.
Bacteria are constantly working to shore up their defenses against the antiseptics we use. "We've had an 80- or 90-year head start, but we really need to keep innovating" to stay ahead of microbial evolution, Kevin Minbiole, a Villanova University chemist who studies how quats affect bacteria and viruses, told EHN.
Quats work like spears, penetrating the shell on the outside of a bacteria or virus. But some bacteria are getting better at recognizing quats and getting rid of them, or becoming resistant, said Minbiole. He and his collaborator, Emory University chemist William Wuest, are experimenting with new antimicrobial ingredients and recently patented their own quats that can mount multiple attacks on a single microbe. These quats are likely even more effective antiseptics than current quats on the market, but the new chemicals haven't yet been tested for safety, so it's not clear how their health or environmental impacts might differ, or not, from current quats, according to Wuest.
But the germs may be one step ahead. As they encounter quats and other antiseptics, bacteria can develop broad, rather than specific, resistance. These new bacterial shields, which evolved to block attacks by antiseptics, might also protect them against other threats, including the antibiotic medications doctors prescribe to help fight serious infections.
It's called cross resistance: when changes bacteria make to get around one threat make them better suited to survive other threats, too. "Those changes make bacteria capable of surviving different compounds, different chemicals that it hasn't seen before," Beatriz Pereira, a recent graduate student in microbiology from University of California, Davis, told EHN.
In lab experiments, Pereira has seen bacteria develop resistance to certain quats, even when she only exposes them to low concentrations of the chemicals. The bacteria shore up their defenses, strengthening their outer membrane — a good way to develop cross resistance to other chemicals as well. It's not clear whether bacteria are yet developing resistance in the wild in response to current levels of quat pollution, or even how much quat pollution currently exists. But to Pereira, these lab experiments alongside a growing body of evidence suggest that the best way to respond to the problem of antibiotic resistance may be not to develop new quats, which might cause the same problem of antibiotic resistance eventually, but to reconsider whether we should be using them at all, at least in some products.
Birth Defects and Infertility
Theresa Hrubec, a biologist at Virginia Tech and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, has also been publishing work on the potential risks of quats — work that started by accident. While she was using mice to study potential side effects of medications, she noticed that some mice in her control group, the mice that weren't exposed to any medication, were developing birth defects. After ruling out the possibility that she had switched the groups, she found a potential explanation: the facility had recently started using quats to disinfect her lab. The floors were mopped daily, the walls wiped down weekly, and anytime a box of mice was opened, it was wiped down with disinfectant. The mice were all being unintentionally dosed with quats, Hrubec told EHN. And she wasn't the only researcher who had seen problems with mice and quat disinfectants: Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University, had seen similar problems with her mice.
Hrubec and Hunt have since published several studies that link quats to health problems in mice, from birth defects to decreases in fertility. For each of the studies, mice were fed a mixture of two common quat disinfectants at high doses for several weeks before being examined for either fetal birth defects or signs of decreased fertility.
Mice that were exposed to quats were more likely to develop neural tube defects, an early-stage birth defect. And doses of quats decreased the number and size of litters born as well.
How exactly quats might cause birth defects is still unknown, according to Hrubec. She has a few theories. Endocrine disruption might be to blame — Gino Cortopassi, who collaborated with Hrubec, found that one quat, although not the same chemical Hrubec used in her research, can bind to hormone receptors. The same lab also found that quats appear to affect how mitochondria function, which can cause a litany of problems in cells.
Inflammation might be another possible explanation. Quats are suspected to cause occupational asthma — exposure to a toxic or irritating chemical that results in lung inflammation. Japanese researchers found in 2010 that mice exposed to quats at high concentrations by inhalation saw cell death and increased levels of inflammation. However, human studies observing quat exposure and occupational asthma have had mixed results, with some researchers arguing that quat exposure hasn't been definitively linked with lung problems.
Most of the research by Hrubec and her collaborators is done in mice, so quats may not have the same effects on humans. Figuring out how quats might be impacting humans is a much more complicated job. In a pre-print, published last year but not yet reviewed by outside experts for accuracy, Hrubec and her collaborators performed a monitoring study of a small group, 43 people. They detected quats in 80 percent of the study participants, and quat levels in the blood were associated with higher levels of inflammation and decreased mitochondrial function. The results are still preliminary, but it is among the first research to attempt monitoring quat levels in humans.
Not everyone agrees about how the research is being done. In a letter to the editor in response to one of Hrubec's early studies, Keith Hostetler, an industry representative, raised concerns about the experiment's design. One critique was the dose level — according to Hostetler, the level of disinfectant fed to the mice would be the equivalent of a 155-pound adult drinking about 1.5 quarts of disinfecting solution daily.
But toxicology studies are pretty typically performed with high doses at first, before being extrapolated down to more realistic doses, according to Heather Patisaul, a biologist at North Carolina State University who studies toxicological effects of hormone-disrupting compounds. She was not involved in Hrubec's studies.
"Complaining that the dose is too high and the sample size is too low is a common industry response," Patisaul told EHN via email. In this case, she said the dosage was particularly high for some groups. However, Patisaul also notes that Hrubec saw birth defects in fetuses when the father was fed less than 1/15 the dose Hostetler mentioned, which she said is more compelling evidence that quats might cause harm.
Still, "neither [dose] is anywhere near a human-relevant range," Patisaul said, so the results do not definitively show that quats could harm human health with normal levels of use.
The doses were high in order to determine whether quats warrant more research, said Hrubec, adding that many mice that were not fed quats, but were merely present in rooms where quats were used, were also found to develop birth defects. To her, this suggests that the disinfectants present in the lab from regular disinfecting were still enough to trigger health problems.
States Take Notice
Hrubec has been a constant figure at regulatory meetings on quats. She presented her research during a March 2020 meeting with California's Biomonitoring Program. During the meeting, other researchers also presented data on quat's potential for causing occupational asthma and endocrine disruption.
After considering data from researchers and industry, the advisory panel for Biomonitoring California voted unanimously to add quats to the list of chemicals that could be considered for biomonitoring studies, and they plan to discuss quats as potential high-priority chemicals in March 2021, according to Shoba Iyer, a toxicologist for the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment who works with the biomonitoring program.
The program's board does not have the authority to ban quats — the purpose of adding quats to the monitoring list and completing biomonitoring studies is to learn more about chemical exposures and inform public health policies and regulations, Iyer told EHN.
Officials from one agency in Massachusetts also have their eye on quats — and they say the pandemic and the resulting increase in disinfectant use has caused them to examine the chemicals more closely. "That's why we finally decided to take up [quats], because people are using it constantly to try to keep themselves and their workers and customers safe," Liz Harriman, Deputy Director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) in Massachusetts, told EHN.
Massachusetts state law requires companies that manufacture certain chemicals, or use them to make products, to report use levels of the chemicals and submit plans for safe use. The Scientific Advisory Board for TURI makes recommendations to state agencies on which chemicals to examine, and they are focusing on two classes of quats, both of which are used in surface cleaners, according to Heather Tenney, who heads the board.
In January, the advisory board discussed several categories of research on quats, including birth defects and respiratory conditions like asthma, as well as environmental effects of quats like the potential for microbial resistance. The board did not reach a vote, and will reconvene in March to continue discussing potential action on quats.
Hostetler, the industry representative who has published letters challenging Hrubec's research, also presented at both the March Biomonitoring California presentation and the TURI meeting in January. At the TURI board meeting, he emphasized that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has independently concluded that quats do not have effects on developmental or reproductive health, based on tests that follow agency guidelines.
Manufacturers maintain that their disinfecting products available for purchase have been tested extensively. "They've done a lot of research on their formulations. What they put on the market, they know to be safe and efficacious," James Kim, a Vice President of the American Cleaning Institute, a trade organization that represents manufacturers, told EHN.
Alternatives Are Available
Despite increased attention from states, quats will likely remain available on the market in surface disinfectants for the foreseeable future. But for consumers looking to avoid quats in their cleaning supplies, alternatives are available.
"Given the huge concern for reproductive toxicity and birth defects in humans, it really makes sense to take a precautionary approach," Samara Geller, a research analyst for Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization that pushes for regulation of chemicals in consumer products, told EHN.
While a large portion of disinfectants on the market include either quats or bleach as their main ingredient, there are other options available. Geller said EWG recommends products that contain citric acid, lactic acid, or hydrogen peroxide as their main ingredients. EWG also publishes a guide to cleaning products that aggregates safety data where consumers can check for options.
Consumers can reference the EPA's list of disinfectants that are expected to be effective against coronavirus, which lists products by active ingredient.
Liz Harriman, the Massachusetts TURI official, said she also urges the public to consider alternative products to those that contain quats. "It's not so much that we're dead set against quats," said Harriman, "But if there are safer alternatives you can use to accomplish the same thing, why wouldn't you use those?"
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
COVID-19 is having disproportionate impacts on our nation's two million farmworkers, who as essential workers continue to toil in the fields despite numerous deadly outbreaks and no federal COVID-related workplace protections.
COVID-19 has pulled back the veil on the strikingly poor workplace conditions of these essential workers, built by decades of insufficient farmworker health and safety policy, poor immigration policy, and limited health care access. As a consequence, at least 86,900 food workers have tested positive for COVID-19 – but with uneven data collection, exacerbated by businesses' lack of transparency over workplace outbreaks and workers' avoidance of testing due to fear of losing income, the figures we have are likely an underestimate.
A new analysis does note that each additional percentage point of farmworkers per overall population in a county was associated with 5.79 more deaths from COVID-19 – but did not contribute to more deaths per 100,000 residents. The researchers concluded, "farmworkers may face unique risks of COVID-19 beyond issues of language, insurance, or economics."
The Biden Administration must issue a federal standard to protect workers from COVID-19 that includes farmworkers. But beyond COVID-specific actions for farmworkers, the Biden Administration also needs to urgently address the underlying health and workplace conditions that pre-dated COVID.
A Dangerous Regulatory Rollback
One key way the Biden Administration can start to correct the course is by enforcing and safeguarding the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), the main federal regulation that protects workers from pesticide exposure. Pesticide exposure weakens the respiratory, immune, and nervous systems — exacerbating farmworkers' COVID-19 risks.
Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump Administration made various efforts to weaken or eliminate key provisions of the WPS, which had been revised and improved at the end of the Obama Administration. The WPS is an outlier in occupational health standards – because pesticides, although they are a workplace hazard, are regulated by the EPA, instead of by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which covers occupational health in every other industry. This is just one example of how farmworkers are exempted from basic protections afforded to other workers.
Many of the Trump Administration's efforts to weaken the WPS were thwarted by advocacy and litigation by environmental and farmworker groups. However, one of the Trump Administration's proposed rollbacks of the WPS remains: the gutting of the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ), which required pesticide handlers to stop applying pesticides if someone is near the area being sprayed. If the final Trump AEZ rule goes into effect, farmworkers in neighboring fields, children in school playgrounds or in their backyards, and rural residents going about their day may be in close proximity to where pesticides are being sprayed, as long as they're not on the same property, without any requirement that the applicator suspend spraying. More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides, designed to kill insects, weeds, and other pests, are applied to U.S. agricultural fields every year. In addition to acute poisonings, pesticides are also associated with long-term health harms including various cancers, developmental and reproductive harm, and neurological damage, for both farmworkers and community members who are chronically exposed to pesticides.
In December 2020, Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, acting on behalf of a coalition of groups including Migrant Clinicians Network, sued the EPA to stop these changes. An injunction is currently in place preventing the changes from being implemented as the case proceeds – but the Biden Administration has a responsibility to protect these workers, rather than rely on courts. And the issue of pesticide drift on nearby properties is just one of the many challenges that farmworkers face when it comes to pesticide exposure.
An Opportunity to Right Wrongs
Pesticide spray in Utah. Pesticide exposure is associated with various cancers, developmental and reproductive harm, and neurological damage. Aqua Mechanical / Flickr
These hard-working farmworkers, upon whom we all depend for the food we eat, deserve immediate and effective protections. The new Administration has a unique opportunity to take advantage of renewed public understanding of the exploitation of farmworkers, to provide long-overdue workplace protections to keep essential workers safe, and to transform our food systems to ensure healthy workplaces, neighborhoods, and the environment, by:
- Rejecting the Trump Administration's attempt to weaken the Application Exclusion Zone requirements;
- Increasing the monitoring and enforcement of the WPS, including, but not limited to, provisions such as the minimum age of 18 for applying pesticides, adequate training for workers in a language that they understand, and worker access to information about pesticides being applied;
- Requiring drift protections on pesticide labels for drift-prone pesticides, to better protect workers, bystanders, and communities;
- Requiring that all pesticide label instructions be written in Spanish and/or other languages spoken by workers so they have the information they need to protect themselves and their families;
- Banning highly toxic pesticides such as chlorpyrifos;
- Using accurate scientific methods for determining pesticide risk, including taking into account farmworkers' potential long-term exposure, when making determinations about pesticide safety and the registration of pesticide products;
- Including farmworkers and farmworker-serving organizations as key stakeholders at EPA, with a focus on environmental justice.
These are just some of the essential steps the new administration can take to protect farmworkers from the extreme hazards of their workplaces. Much more needs to be done about the myriad factors that negatively impact farmworker health, like poverty, immigration status, language barriers, and fear of retaliation.
COVID-19 has shown that a strong public health system and a functional food system require basic health and human rights for all of our neighbors, especially those typically left out. The Biden Administration has a duty and an opportunity to improve our systems – and consequently improve our nation's health and well-being.
Amy K. Liebman is Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit focused on creating practical solutions at the intersection of vulnerability, migration, and health.
Iris Figueroa is the Director of Economic and Environmental Justice for Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
"Prevention is the cure for child/teen cancer." This is the welcoming statement on a website called 'TheReasonsWhy.Us', where families affected by childhood cancers can sign up for a landmark new study into the potential environmental causes.
The study is a joint project between Texas Children's Hospital, part of the world's largest medical center, and The Oliver Foundation, founded by the parents of a 12-year-old boy who died 36 hours after he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, one week after the onset of headaches.
After signing up, participants are contacted by the hospital's medical school, Baylor College of Medicine, to fill out a questionnaire about their environment going back from pre-conception through pregnancy and childhood, to identify chemical contaminants in the places that they live, learn, work and play, to the point where they developed cancer.
Dr. Michael Scheurer, director of the childhood cancer epidemiology and prevention program at Texas Children's Hospital, the nation's largest pediatric cancer center, is quoted in The Guardian saying: "[This research] … will allow families who might not live near one of the existing study centers to participate as they are comfortable. In the end, if we see that several kinds of cancers share some risk factors that's important information, but we want to start with a very homogeneous group of cancers and start looking into these patients first. Signposts will pop up along the way."
When Oliver died in 2015, his parents Simon and Vilma Strong struggled to understand what may have led to their son's cancer, and whether it could have been prevented. They agonized over having used Roundup – the herbicide containing glyphosate, which is linked to leukemia – to kill weeds in their yard and garden. Or could it have been the crumb rubber artificial turf athletic fields, made with toxic petrochemicals, where their goalkeeper son had played soccer?
In addition to cancer, exposures to harmful chemicals can lead to learning and behavioral impairments, developmental delays, reproductive harm, and chronic diseases including autoimmune disease, asthma, and obesity. The important work of preventing these health harms can only be done if we increase our efforts to identify the causes— including industrial and environmental pollutants— and reduce or replace them to prevent harmful exposures.
Sadly, as the 2020 Childhood Cancer Prevention Report confirms, childhood cancer incidence rates, the number of new cases per 1,000 children, have steadily increased over the last few decades across all racial/ethnic groups. Cancer is now responsible for more than half of all childhood and teenage deaths, making this study all the more urgent.
Oliver's family may never know exactly what led to the cancer that took his life. But the study they've helped to launch can identify the environmental contributors to cancer and other diseases – and that knowledge can inform policies and practices to better protect families from toxic products and pollution.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) failure on food chemical safety has left consumers at risk of chronic diseases.
The agency is required to review the safety of classes of chemicals rather than individual chemicals. Using the class approach, multiple chemicals adversely affecting the same organ or system (such as the immune, endocrine, or nervous systems) are evaluated together and a safe consumption level is determined for the class. This approach prevents the intentional new or expanded uses of chemical additives that increase chronic disease and, when coupled with a systematic review of prior decisions, results in health risk reduction. Instead, the agency has consistently reviewed individual chemicals without regard to the cumulative effect on chronic disease.
In the last 60 years, innovations in processing, preserving, and packaging have made food more affordable, convenient, and available. To accomplish this transformation, industry, with the FDA's approval, has brought thousands of chemicals into the food system, resulting in diets increasingly composed of ultra-processed foods without regard for the cumulative effect of these additives and their long-term chronic health consequences.
When Congress passed the Food Additive Amendment in 1958 in response to a rapidly changing food system and rising public and scientific concerns about the potential health risks of new chemical additives, it included a health-protective requirement: the cumulative effect of chemically and pharmacologically related substances in the diet must be taken into account when assessing the safety of new additives. That means, additives with similar toxic effects, either because they look alike or affect similar body functions, must be evaluated together to prevent exposures above an amount that would cause harm.
However, food manufacturers and regulators have neglected to consider this cumulative effect, failing to harness changes in food technology and use advances in scientific knowledge to protect the public from dietary chemical exposures. Medical associations and a group of health, environmental and consumer organizations have jointly challenged the FDA to change its practice of not accounting for the cumulative health effect of chemicals in the diet as required by law.
We Are Sick
A lot of us are affected by chronic health conditions. Diabetes in children and adults; attention, learning and memory disorders; obesity in children and adults; thyroid dysfunction; and the list goes on. Experts call them non-communicable diseases because, unlike pathogens like bacteria and viruses, we do not pass them from one person to another. Global public health experts linked tobacco use, physical inactivity, alcohol abuse, and unhealthy diets to increases in the risk of non-communicable diseases.
Unhealthy diets are usually associated with calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods, often called ultra-processed foods, due to their ingredients resulting from a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology (sweet and savory snacks, reconstituted meats). In addition to industrially produced ingredients (high-fructose corn syrup, protein isolates, hydrogenated oil), such food also contains numerous additives including dyes, flavors, emulsifiers, thickeners, and artificial sweeteners. Further, industrial chemicals used in packaging manufacturing and food processing equipment —such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, PFAS, perchlorate— are also found in these foods.
These intentional uses of chemical additives number in the thousands, and many have been linked to endocrine disruption, neurological and behavioral problems, cancer, and heart and liver disease.
Congress Added Guardrails Against Chronic Health Effects
In the U.S., approximately 10,000 chemicals can be purposely added to food or enter the food supply through processing equipment and packaging, and 60 percent of the calories ingested are from ultra-processed foods. In 1958, Congress gave the FDA authority to regulate chemicals intentionally added to food or to food contact materials, commonly known as food additives, to ensure their use is safe. Safe means the potential toxic health effects of a new additive that becomes part of the diet must be assessed in combination with other substances already present and are expected to have similar health effects. Thus, the cumulative assessment of health effects by a class of related substances prevents the addition of intentional new or expanded uses of chemical additives that would increase chronic disease. Moreover, this approach, together with systematic review of prior safety decisions results in health risk reduction.
FDA Neglected Its Responsibility to Follow the Law
We wanted to investigate whether and how food manufacturers and the FDA had implemented the cumulative effect requirement. To do that, we downloaded and reviewed all 877 safety determinations contained in the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notifications inventory. These notices were voluntarily submitted by food manufacturers to the FDA between 1997, when GRAS notification program began, and March 24, 2020. We looked at GRAS notices because they are publicly available and FDA rules require that food manufacturers include in the notice an explanation of how they considered the cumulative health effect of a new additive. Unfortunately, our investigation showed that both the FDA and the food manufacturers appeared to have ignored this crucial safety requirement.
We searched the documents for terms "cumulative effect" and "pharmacological" presuming that any analysis of the cumulative effect of chemical or pharmacologically related substances would include those terms. We evaluated every positive finding for context and reviewed the document more closely when warranted. We found that in only one of 877 GRAS notices did a food manufacturer consider the cumulative effect requirement in a meaningful way. Notably, that one notice stopped short of establishing a safe exposure for the class as required by regulation. And we found no evidence that the agency either recognized this single attempt to follow the law or had objected to the omissions in the 876 other notices.
To better understand how these blatant omissions happened, we also reviewed the FDA's relevant guidance for industry documents to determine if they contain information to help industry understand how to consider the cumulative effect of the substance as required by law and regulations. We used the agency's online research tool and identified 21 documents related to food chemicals. For each document, we searched for key terms including "cumulative effect", "chemically related", "pharmacological effects", and "pharmacologically related". We also searched for references to key regulations or statutory provisions directly related to the cumulative effect requirement. We found next to nothing and what information was there was either incomplete or confusing.
Ten documents did not mention the legal requirement and two simply restated it. Four documents created confusion by using terms such as 'cumulative exposure' or 'cumulative intake.' Five documents provided incomplete and potentially misleading information. For example, excluding the requirement from the definition of safety or paraphrasing the safety requirement in a manner that limited the assessment to a single chemical instead of related substances in the diet.
The Unknown Cost of FDA’s Six Decades of Failure
This is an obvious failure by the FDA and food manufacturers that has significant consequences for public health, particularly for communities already facing significant health and socio-economic disparities and for children, who are uniquely susceptible to dietary exposures to multiple chemicals. It is known that fetal and early life exposures have been associated with long-term diseases or disorders that usually manifest later in life. Development of neurological, immune, reproductive, and endocrine systems have been shown to be particularly susceptible to chemical exposures. For example, several food additives and contaminants in common foods – including nitrates, perchlorate, thiocyanate, BPA, phthalates, potassium bromate, synthetic dyes – all harm the thyroid's ability to produce a hormone essential to brain development. The common-sense preventative measure to reduce exposures is to treat chemicals in the diet with related health effects as a class – as Congress mandated in 1958.
The healthcare costs of long-lasting health conditions, especially when they arise during childhood, as well as the economic benefits of preventing exposures to substances that disrupt the normal function of the endocrine system have been documented.
How can this be remedied?
First, the FDA needs to add definitions of key terms such as "cumulative effect", "chemically related", "pharmacologically related" and "pharmacological effect." This should not be a heavy lift. For instance, the agency's own Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has already established definitions for pharmacologically related substances and pharmacological effects; food additive regulators could also implement this. We are not implying that additives be regulated as drugs; rather, that the body does not identify whether a chemical that binds to a hormone receptor is a pharmaceutical or a food additive. But it certainly may have a similar biological response with potentially different health consequences depending on the dose, duration of exposure and life-stage of the individual.
Second, the FDA should review the requirement for all forms industry must complete when submitting petitions or notifications to the agency for review of their products' safety assessment. FDA should provide clear and specific guidance to industry on what it is expected and how to accomplish it. And, of course, the agency needs to ensure compliance with the law.
Medical and scientific societies together with health and environmental organizations have formally submitted a petition to the FDA to revise its food and color additive regulations and associated guidance to ensure compliance with the requirements in law. Safe food is fundamental to protect the health and well-being of all Americans. Putting into action the protections already available in the law and regulations would also restore the confidence in the FDA's mission to protect the public health by assuring the safety of our nation's food supply.
Lastly, these efforts should be conducted without delay so we begin to curb the epidemic of chronic diseases that continue to inflict personal and financial pain in so many families and worsen an already strained healthcare system.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Kasra Zarei
Microplastic particles exposed to freshwater or saltwater environments are more likely than original, non-exposed particles to be taken up into an animal's cells, according to new research.
The study offers new evidence that certain microplastics have more potential to infiltrate animals' bodies than previously thought – and this could be of particular concern for aquatic animals.
Microplastics, or tiny pieces of plastic, are everywhere, including Mount Everest. Over time, plastics discarded by humans break down into small pieces and spread across the environment, especially marine and freshwater ecosystems, and are consumed by organisms including mussels and zebrafish.
But so much about microplastics has not been studied, including whether particles can enter the cells of different animals and organisms and cause health risks, or affect the environment.
"There are plenty of knowledge gaps," Christian Laforsch, professor of animal ecology at the University of Bayreuth and senior author of the study, told EHN. "For instance, microplastics go from the digestive tract into the tissue [of certain aquatic organisms], but no one knows exactly why."
In the new study, Laforsch and colleagues found that microplastics exposed to freshwater or saltwater for several weeks are around 10 times more likely to enter the cells of mice compared to pristine particles. While the study was only done using mice cells, it's possible that a similar relationship could be observed in aquatic animals that encounter such non-pristine microplastics on a regular basis, which could also have further unknown implications for their predators (including humans).
These microplastic particles develop a coating of other molecules and microorganisms – acting somewhat like a "Trojan horse": other cells are more likely to engulf the coated microplastic particles (compared to pristine, uncoated particles), which can then potentially infiltrate an organism's circulatory system.
However, the results don't necessarily suggest that microplastics exposed to freshwater or saltwater pose a greater health risk to human or other organisms – that still needs to be studied further.
"We can't make direct conclusions about the health effects [of the microplastics studied]," Holger Kress, a professor of biological physics at the University of Bayreuth who was also involved in the study, told EHN.
While there is research about the health risks of inhaling particulate matter, little is known about the health effects of microplastics. Still, the new research adds one piece to a big puzzle.
Many physical and biological properties – for instance, the texture, charge, or size – of a particle may be responsible for the environmental and health effects of microplastics. And understanding which properties are responsible is a step-by-step scientific process.
"It [the field of microplastics] is such a complex topic, but you have to start somewhere," Laforsch said. "If we know what plastic properties might be toxic, we can design properties that might not harm the environment."
Furthermore, pristine particles have been primarily used in microplastic-related toxicological studies to date. But plastic particles in nature are often far from pristine.
"A lot of plastics spend time spiraling through the environment, and the watershed is an active vector to transport them to an aquatic environment," Janice Brahney, an assistant professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University who was not involved in the study, told EHN.
Brahney, who recently published a study showing how many microplastic particles accumulate in isolated areas of the United States, notes that the microplastics she has observed through her previous work have in fact not been pristine.
She adds that because the plastics are so long-lived, "it's very plausible that most environmental plastics will have some aquatic lifetime."
Pristine microplastics are not very representative of those found in the environment, both in terms of physical properties and how likely they are to get absorbed by an organism. And this may cause scientists to reconsider how they study microplastics in the laboratory going forward.
"The laboratory studies that only use pristine particles may strongly underestimate the strength of interaction between an organism's cells and the particles," Kress said.
Reposted with permission from EHN.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
One of our recent articles, "Disinfection dangers: How to avoid viruses without exposing yourself to toxics," gives readers an in-depth look at cleaning and disinfecting in a safe manner.
Here, we're going to boil down exactly what to look for when you're faced with shelves upon shelves of cleaning products.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It
One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.
Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.
2. With Bleach? Do Without
Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.
While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.
3. Check the Back Label
Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.
You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.
4. Ingredients to Avoid
We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.
- Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.
- Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer
- Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.
- Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line
Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Gwen Ranniger
The grocery store is a wonderful place: thousands of ingredients and products at your fingertips available to combine, cook, and eat. However, that choice can be overwhelming: while shoppers in the 1970s chose from a mere 9,000 products, shoppers today choose from more than 47,000.
Selecting food that is clean and healthy for you and your family can be daunting, so we've put together 10 tips for cleaner grocery shopping that will help to navigate your options.
We're defining clean here as products devoid of pesticides, additives or preservatives, and packaging by-products.
1. Your Most General Rule of Thumb: Try to Select the Bulk of Your Groceries From the Outside Perimeter of Your Grocery Store
Most stores line the walls with the simplest of products: produce, the butcher, the bakery, dairy, etc. Aisles in the middle contain most of the processed foods that generally have additives and preservatives it's better to avoid.
Now, there are caveats to this rule. For example, the bakery often also has items such as highly-refined cakes and cookies that are by no means beneficial to your health, and the dairy section provides a hearty supply of artificially flavored and sweetened creamers. You can find unhealthy products in every department, but the departments around the perimeter of the store contain the most whole, simple ingredients.
2. Buy Local
First and foremost, buy local. This can be anything from the weekly farmer's market to a local bakery to local ingredients sourced by your grocery store. Smaller businesses are more likely to use safer practices when cultivating their goods.
Buying local also reduces your carbon footprint. Imported ingredients contribute to fuel consumption and air pollution as they're flown in from overseas or driven across the country in a semi-truck. Local produce is fresher, often cleaner, and require less waste to get to you.
3. Buy Organic
Purchase organic food when possible, as it's grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, etc. Particularly pay attention to the EWG's "Dirty Dozen" - the produce with the most pesticide residue.
- This year's list includes strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes.
If your budget doesn't allow for all things organic, don't sweat it: it's better to gain the nutrients of produce, organic or not, than to go without.
4. Consider Frozen
Frozen foods get a bit of a bad reputation, but many companies have stepped up their game and you can find a variety of nutritious options in the frozen section.
If the fresh produce doesn't look good, opt for frozen fruits and vegetables: they're flash-frozen right after picking so often they are more fresh than the "fresh" produce, depending on where you live.
5. Try to Stick to "Whole" Ingredients
An easy way to eat cleanly is to eat simply. Shopping the perimeter of the store will already introduce you to many unprocessed foods - but the interior aisles have options too. Flour, nuts, dried fruits, beans and rice are all examples of whole foods.
The biggest thing? Check the ingredients list. The simpler the ingredients, the better. If you don't recognize or can hardly read the ingredients, do without.
A Few More Tips:
- Go in with a list. Studies have shown that entering the store with a set list of items to purchase reduces impulse purchases - most of which happen in the candy, cookies, and chips section.
- Bring reusable bags. Clean grocery shopping is not only what you buy, but also what you carry your groceries home in. Single-use plastic bags are unsustainable and end up littering our environment and clogging waterways. Many European countries have banned them, with some U.S. cities and states beginning to follow suit. If you don't already, bring bags from home. It is an easy transition to reduce your waste (and those bags carry so much more, anyways!)
- Online grocery shopping continues to grow in popularity as the pandemic drags on. You can follow these same steps while shopping online - products should be clearly labeled and many stores even have filters that allow you to narrow down your search to only organic products.
- Reduce consumption of canned goods. While many canned goods, especially fruits and vegetables, do not contain many ingredients, they contain a harmful by-product from their packaging: BPA. Check out our guide to BPA to learn more.
- If possible, buy in bulk. Bulk purchases often save you money in terms of price per ounce, and reduce packaging waste. Be smart about what you bulk-buy - make sure that the item won't go bad before you get around to using it, and that you have room for the bulk items back at home.
The Bottom Line
The food we eat is a huge indicator of our health. Eating cleanly and simply, exposing your body to as few toxic pollutants as possible, will benefit your wellbeing. Be flexible; sometimes the only option may be non-organic or in the frozen section. Pick and choose what works for you and your budget, and know that every step toward eating cleanly is a step in the right direction.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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