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By Brian Barth
Synthetic fragrances are out, aromatherapy is in. From beauty products to insect repellent to room diffusers, folks are gravitating toward fragrances made by nature—not the lab. But what exactly are these quasi-mystical substances called essential oils? Are they farmed or foraged? What part of the plant do they come from? Can I produce my own? Here, we answer the seven most common questions we get about essential oils.
1. What are essential oils?
Essential oils are aromatic compounds found in many plants. In chemistry jargon, they're considered "volatile organic compounds." Volatility, in this case, meaning that they readily convert from a liquid to a vapor form at room temperature. In other words, what we're smelling are tiny molecules of vaporized oil that are lighter than air, which allows them to drift into our nose and lodge in our olfactory receptors.
It's been found that the smell of different essential oils can alter brain chemistry in ways that impacts our emotional and mental state, hence their therapeutic potential. Essential oils are also readily absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin or stomach, creating a physiological effect with potential medical applications.
NOTE: It is generally unsafe to ingest pure essential oils or apply them directly to the skin. They must first be highly diluted. Never use pure essential oils in any way other than that which is indicated on the product label. If you have any questions or concerns, it's best to discuss with your doctor prior to use.
2. What is the purpose of an essential oil in nature?
Plants produce essential oils for a variety of reason: to attract pollinators, make themselves unpalatable to insects and animals, ward off disease or even make the soil around them toxic to other plants with which they would compete for sunlight, moisture and nutrients. Depending on their biological purpose, essential oils may be concentrated in flowers, leaves, roots or bark.
3. How are essential oils extracted from plants?
There are several methods. One of the oldest, and still the most common, is steam distillation. In this method, hot steam is forced through the plant material and then collected in a condensation device that causes the vapor to return to a liquid. In ancient times, a technique called enfleurage was also used, particularly for delicate floral oils like rose: the petals were covered in animal fat, which absorbed the essential oil; alcohol was then used to as a solvent to extract the essential oils from the fat. In modern times, essential oils are often extracted in a high-pressure system using liquid carbon dioxide, or with chemical solvents, such as hexane and acetone.
4. Where are they produced?
The U.S., India, China, France and Brazil are the world's top five essential oil producers. However, there are some individual oils that are typically produced in only a handful of countries, depending on where the species grows best and other factors, such as local labor costs.
For example, frankincense and myrrh oil, which both come from the bark of desert trees, are produced in the Middle Eastern and North African countries where the trees grow wild. Ylang ylang comes from the flowers of a tropical tree found in the islands of the South Pacific. Southern France traditionally produced much of the world's rose oil, but the high cost of land and labor in this region has shifted the majority of rose oil production to Turkey and Bulgaria. Essential oils produced on a commercial scale in the U.S. include peppermint (Pacific Northwest), cedar (Texas) and various citrus oils (Florida).
5. Should I consider growing crops for essential oil production?
Probably not, unless you're willing to do it on an industrial scale or live in a country with cheap labor—it takes enormous quantities of plant material, often picked by hand, to make a small quantity of oil and profit margins are notoriously thin. One exception is if you are going to produce value-added products using essential oils, such as soaps and beauty products. In that case, only small quantities of oil are needed, requiring perhaps just a few acres of land. A number of lavender farms in North America have found success with this model.
6. Can I make my own essential oils at home?
Yes, but you will need an essential oil "still" for distillation—similar, but not quite the same, as a still for alcohol—which are not widely available. A few manufacturers offer them online, starting at about $400, or you should try watching eBay for a deal. Many of the essential oils found in stores come from common garden plants, including lavender, oregano, peppermint, basil, clary sage, lemon balm, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, thyme, yarrow and chamomile. Depending on the species, you may need anywhere from a single plant to a quarter-acre planting in order to produce a small vial of oil. Plant material for some oils may also be foraged from nearby forests, including Eucalyptus, spruce, cedar, cypress, fir and pine.
7. As a consumer, how do I identify good quality essential oils?
Unfortunately, quality claims on essential oil products are not well-regulated and should be treated largely as marketing material. If a pleasant fragrance is all you are after, simply use your own nose as a guide. Therapeutic grade essential oils, however (those used by aromatherapists), are virtually impossible to assess without special training and scientific equipment.
Why is it so complicated? The same species grown in different soils, at different altitudes, harvested in different ways, and extracted with different methods will produce oils with significantly different chemical compositions, some of which are much more desirable than others for therapeutic use. Reputable essential oil purveyors only sell oils that have been analyzed for optimum chemistry. Many of these companies are listed on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website.
Testing also assures that the product is not contaminated with pesticide residue or other adulterants, whether from chemical solvents used in the extraction process or low-grade oil that has been used to "cut" an expensive oil to make it cheaper. For example, 10 milliliters of steam-distilled rose oil should cost about $500—because of the enormous number of rose petals required to produce it—but 10 milliliters of rose-scented geranium oil, produced in copious quantities from the leaves of an easily grown plant, retails for around $25. Both smell nice, but have very different aromatherapy applications.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.