What do eco-labels really mean?

May 20, 2009

Consumer Reports has an interactive eco-label website. You can search by topic, such as “organic” or “sustainable fishing” or by product area, such as “meat” or “bath products.” Or you can click on random things in their very silly flash-animated virtual kitchen.

I was pleased to learn that my Fair Trade coffee really is fair trade, but not pleased to learn that “free range” has even less meaning than I thought. So much for those Trader Joe’s eggs.

Via Sociological Images


Speak out on overpopulation, but know the history first

February 12, 2009

Is talking about overpopulation and the environment really a taboo? Both Emmett Duffy and Rick MacPherson posted yesterday on the population control “elephant in the room.” Rick in particular wrote about his struggle to broach this topic in the context of coral reef conservation.

I think that this topic is so hard to discuss because it is inextricably entwined with racism and coercion. In a more extensive post a couple months ago, I outlined the unpleasant history of population control movements and detailed how they have fallen disproportionately on poor women of color. Historically, white women have had to fight for the right to limit their fertility, while women of color have had to fight for the right to be fertile.

Read the rest of this entry »


Does plastic make you fat?

December 8, 2008

Bisphenol A, an additive in plastic that made Nalgene water bottles go out of fashion, may be worse than carcinogenic – it may be fattening. Angry Toxicologist (blogging once more! Yay!) posted on a new study that found a link between BPA and metabolic syndrome.

The Angry Toxicologist writes:

It’s not clear how the BPA does this, though it’s likely due to it’s ability to disrupt hormones. In the study, estradiol (the potent estrogen) had the same effects on breast and abdominal fat tissue. They used human fat tissues that were removed from patients undergoing other procedures. The one issue I have here is that it may be that those undergoing the procedures have cells that react differently than the rest of the population. The samples came from patients getting breast reduction sugery, a tummy tuck, or gastric bypass. The people may have bodies that like to build up fat anyway, especially in the last two. Even if this is true, however, it at least means that some people are effected by BPA; in fact, it may be those who can least afford it.

There was a wide variety of effect of BPA (i.e. some patient’s tissues were sensitive to it and others weren’t). However, on average, BPA was more potent than estradiol at equimolar doses (that’s an equivalent dose based on the number of molecules, not weight, for those of you who didn’t take or don’t remember chemistry). Yikes!

Anyway, here’s the kicker. The levels were environmentally relevant. 1-10 nM are common in people (some up to 20 nM). The study found effects at 0.1 and 1.0 nM. Good ‘ole plastics. Is there anything they can’t do?

Yikes! You can keep your opaque white Nalgene bottles, though – they’re high-density polyethylene and do not contain BPA.


I can’t stand the rain – and neither can this autism study

November 6, 2008

Though the Republicans are famed for their War on Science, the left has plenty of anti-science anti-evidence faith-based cranks, too. A prime example is some of the anti-vaccine dribble published on the Huffington Post. David Kirby is best known for his thoroughly debunked book Evidence of Harm, and has now written a HuffPo column on the alleged link between autism prevalence and precipitation. Kirby takes the poorly done original study and runs wild, linking mercury and autism and rainfall and coal and vaccines in a positive orgy of denialism.

Respectful Insolence explains better than I can why the original study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, fails to establish a link between precipitation and autism. Here’s some select quotes from his excellent analysis:

Note that the authors did not correlate autism prevalence directly with raw mean precipitations but instead used a “relative precipitation variable.” When I see something like that, I know right away that there was no correlation between raw mean precipitation levels and autism…

The authors of the current study, although they tried to correlate for household income, didn’t even attempt to control for urbanicity. That alone makes this study highly suspect, at least to me…

Another problem with this study is that it examines only the Pacific Coast, specifically California, Oregon, and Washington. There is no indication that the observations made in this study are generalizable….

Now, It’s possible there may be a genetic susceptibility to autism that is triggered by an environmental factor or factors, but nothing–I repeat, nothing–in this study supports that hypothesis. Measures of genetic susceptibility were not even a part of the study–or even looked at! To use the words “genetic susceptibility” in the conclusions and to say that this study somehow supports an interaction of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors is just plain incorrect.

So back to the Kirby column. Kirby is an anti-science crank because he refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that there is NO LINK between vaccines and autism. From Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Autism’s False Prophets:

In response to the concern that vaccines caused autism, the public health and academic communities responded, performing a series of large, carefully controlled, epidemiological studies. Ten separate groups of investigators found no link between MMR and autism and six groups found no link between thimerosal and autism. Because of the strength, consistency, and reproducibility of these studies, the notion that MMR or thimerosal cause autism is no longer a scientific controversy.

Kirby is an utterly unreliable source – note that he’s still plugging the vaccine-autism connection in this column.  Unfortunately, he’s not alone. There are rumors that Obama is considering making Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. the head of the EPA – and RFK is an anti-vaccine crank as well. If Obama truly values science – and I believe that he does – than I hope that he will appoint people who can make scientific decisions based on the evidence. Because fear-mongering and denialism sure don’t sound like change.

Thanks to Martini-Corona, who requested that I unleash the Oyster Hounds upon this Kirby column. Now released, the Oyster Hounds are frolicking in the rain and gnawing on David Kirby’s femur.


The sordid history of population control

November 3, 2008

I consider population control to be the albatross of the environment movement. It usually stinks, but we just can’t get rid of it. Recently, the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) is attempting to de-stank discussions of population control and the environment. The premise of the GPSO is:

What if a large number of qualified voices worldwide, many of whom might not have emphasized the topic previously, were to speak out on population all at once? The strength of numbers might help weaken the taboo and bring population to a more prominent position in the global discussion.

Oh, good, let’s talk about it! Too bad that the GPSO webpage utterly fails to acknowledge the nasty history of population control.  Read the rest of this entry »


A mighty battle rages in your veins

October 6, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Step right up and see the White Blood Cell Army in action! See the mighty neutrophil swallow up a real live bacterium! Watch the stalwart granulocyte calvary slay cancer cells! Tremble as sharklike neutrophils circle a pipette of chum! And fear the souless hunger of the macrophage!

Via Metafilter and my recent viewing of Carnivale


Yes, Virginia, you CAN be fit and fat

September 11, 2008

Being of the short and busty type (hi, fellow Jewish women!), I’ve long had a contentious relationship with the metric of Body Mass Index. Even when I was climbing large mountains every day (sometimes with 70 pounds of food on my back), I could never get my damn BMI to go from “overweight” to “normal.”

So it was with great cheer that I read this NY Times article on the lack of relationship between BMI and health. If you’re active, you’re better off than if you’re inactive, regardless of what you weigh.

Several studies from researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas have shown that fitness — determined by how a person performs on a treadmill — is a far better indicator of health than body mass index. In several studies, the researchers have shown that people who are fat but can still keep up on treadmill tests have much lower heart risk than people who are slim and unfit.

This should be obvious, but “fat” in our society is such a synonym of “lazy/ugly/BAD” that it’s not. Of course, the article goes on to mention that a BMI of 25-30 is not really what people think of when they think of fat. (Calculate your own freakishly large BMI here – the fat pink person is a nice touch.)

“People get confused by the words and the mental image they get,” said Katherine Flegal, senior research scientist at the C.D.C.’s National Center for Health Statistics. “People may think, ‘How could it be that a person who is so huge wouldn’t have health problems?’ But people with B.M.I.’s of 25 are pretty unremarkable.”

Oh! By unremarkable, do you mean…normal??? To recalibrate your expectations, check out the Illustrated BMI Categories. (Previously).

Quasi-relatedly, Joy Nash made this kickass video on Staircase Wit. She comes up with excellent, all-purpose comebacks to nasty weight-related comments. Some of her comebacks will work for other kinds of street harassment, too. And I love her style and poise.


Organic produce: healthful snack or POISON FOR HIPPIES???

September 8, 2008

I am not an organic food believer. Like the inimitable farmer in Omnivore’s Dilemma, I think eating locally is much more important than buying mass-produced organic produce grown in a different hemisphere with (for example) ecologically-toxic pyrethrins. So I’m quite open – even eager – for intelligent criticism of organic food, particularly of the “everything organic is healthy and happy” marketing. But this Slate article by James E. McWilliams wasn’t it.

Essentially, McWilliams claims that heavy metals from organic fertilizers (manure, bird guano, and so on) lead to a greater amount of metals in organic produce, and thus to a greater risk of health problems But it is written in a misleading way. For example:

George Kuepper, an agriculture specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, observed in a 2003 report that composting manure actually concentrates the fertilizer’s metal content, which could lead to greater levels of the contaminants in organic soil.

Composting manure concentrates the metal content relative to raw manure, certainly. But the Kuepper report doesn’t say anything about the concentration of heavy metals in organically-farmed soils compared to that of conventionally-farmed soils. It just notes that contaminated source materials lead to contaminated compost, and suggests that farmers “inquire about the feeding practices at the source or have the material tested.” This is a problem of sloppy farmers, not organic farming.

But it gets worse. McWilliams does not seem to understand that twice as much of very little is still very little.

Recent studies have lent Kuepper’s concern tentative support. For example, in 2007, researchers conducted an analysis of wheat grown on various farms in Belgium; based on the results, they estimate that consumers of organically grown wheat take in more than twice as much lead, slightly more cadmium, and nearly equivalent levels of mercury as consumers of wheat grown on conventional farms.

When I went to the source, I found that “twice as much lead” was 0.28 ug lead per kg body weight for organic consumers, and 0.12 ug lead per kg body weight for conventional consumers. 0.28 is indeed more than twice as much as 0.12. However, according to that very same study, this is less than 10% of the Belgian tolerable daily intake (TDI) and is very unlikely to lead to health problems.

McWilliams also mentions a Greek study that found that:

As it turned out, “certified” organic cereals, leafy greens, pulses, and alcoholic beverages had slightly less heavy-metal contamination than conventional products, but “uncertified” organic products had “far larger concentrations” than conventional ones.

This probably has more to do with farms that are uncertified and unregulated than with organic farming methods. McWilliams’s very own source, the Kuepper report, explains why. In the United States, certified organic produce cannot be fertilized with, for example, arsenic-contaminated chicken bedding. Uncertified products are not similarly restricted.

I think it’s good to be reminded that organic agriculture is not the end-all be-all solution to perfect human and environmental health. But I think the McWilliams piece comes dangerously close to OMG POISON IN UR FOOD!!!! There is nothing inherent about organic farming that makes it more metal-filled than conventional farming, and no data to suggest that there is enough metal in organic food to harm your health.


Newsy Bit: Skewed gender ratios in Arctic native peoples

July 28, 2008

Living on Earth reports on skewed gender ratios in the Arctic Circle. Why are so few boys being born, and is it related to persistent organic pollutants (mercury, PCBs) that accumulate in the marine mammals that these people eat?

Only girls are being born in a village in Greenland. Host Steve Curwood turns to Lars Otto Reiersen, of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, to find out what may be behind a growing gender imbalance in babies born around the Arctic Circle.

Previously on TOG


The ocean like you’ve NEVER imagined it – or have you?

June 19, 2008

Priapulids have nothing on this HIV/AIDS prevention poster (REALLY, REALLY NSFW). This ocean scene is a highly disconcerting combination of gorgeous and Legend of the Overfiend. (Though how could a phallic ocean not include those epically well-endowed barnacles?)

Meanwhile, it’s BOOOOBS INNNN SPAAAAAACE (STILL NSFW) for the hetero lads. The theme for both posters? “Explore. Just Protect Yourself.”

The posters are put out by AIDES, a European HIV/AIDS NGO. What is with those Europeans and the sexy science? I’m never, ever, going to look at a turtle the same way again.

Via Boing Boing


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