Plastic carrier bags and other garbage pollution in ocean

Plastic Trash (Fotolia)

Oh, that prophetic line from the movie The Graduate. There’ve been a lot of stories lately about plastic in our environment, thanks to the hundreds of millions of tons produced globally each year.1 Because it’s so convenient, plastic is a tough habit to break. So why bother? Plastics and their additives cause problems at all stages in what we call their lifecycle and for our health. And plastics that contain halogens (chlorine, bromine, and fluorine), like vinyl (PVC), nonstick products, and those containing flame retardants, are even more problematic from start to finish.

What is the lifecycle of plastic?

  • First, there’s the production stage. Most plastic is produced from fossil fuels, like petroleum and natural gas. When these are extracted from the earth, they can contaminate air and water resources.
  • Then there’s the consumer stage. Look around your home and in your shopping bags to see just how many products are either made from or are wrapped in plastic. Another source that you can’t see is what leaches into your food during processing.
  • Finally, there’s the disposal stage. Though much plastic is interred in landfills, many tons have escaped and is now circling our oceans or spoiling beaches. Though developed countries like the U.S. successfully capture 99% of plastic waste, countries in East Asia and the Pacific lose around 60% to littering or improper disposal.1 Also, incineration of trash containing halogenated plastics generates very toxic molecules like dioxins.

The lifecycle stage that has the most impact on you and your family’s health is the middle one, i.e. what makes it into your home and your body. You may wonder how something ‘inert’ like plastic, meaning it doesn’t decompose or damage products, can be toxic to you? It’s not like you intentionally chew on the wrapping that your sandwich came in, right? Though most plastics are very large molecules that your body can’t absorb, there are smaller molecules associated with them that are absorbed into your bloodstream from the food you eat or across your skin. These include additives like phthalates that make plastics soft and pliable, components of hard plastics like bisphenols, or grease-proof linings made from perfluorinated chemicals. And recent studies have shown that the fish we eat for dinner may now be contaminated by microplastics, another route of exposure for us.2

These smaller molecules are the chemicals that are problematic for your health, particularly for children and developing fetuses. For example, phthalates have been shown in animal studies to impair male sexual health, with similar problems showing up in humans who were exposed to higher levels of these chemicals during gestation.3 BPA, and it’s substitutes, have been shown to cause genetic damage and interfere with estrogen receptors in animal studies.4

How do these chemicals get into your food? Studies have shown that processed foods contain higher levels of phthalates than whole, unprocessed foods. For example, processed cheese products were recently analyzed for phthalates. Cheese powder contained higher levels than regular cheeses, though they were also contaminated by these chemicals.5 In other words, the more food is handled prior to getting to you, the higher the levels of plastic components it will likely contain. And a recent study showed that people who eat out more often had higher levels of both phthalates and BPA in their bodies.6 Finally, storing your food in plastic creates more opportunities for these chemicals to leach into your food. These molecules are especially prone to breaking off or leaching out of plastic containers when you heat food in them.

There are some great resources about breaking the plastic habit – I’ve added links to a couple at the end of this blog if you want to dive into a plastic-free (or at least, less plastic-filled) life. I recommend that you try going plastic-free for a month. You’ll discover how many ways you use plastic in the kitchen and shift your practices to reduce your exposure for the long term.

Finally, though it may seem overwhelming to try to reduce plastic in the world, particularly when its use is so prevalent by manufacturers, stores, and restaurants, there are some things you can do to have an impact. First is not buying products that are processed or heavily packaged. Second, let companies know you want them to reduce their use of plastic. Trader Joe’s, which is a heavy user of plastic, finally listen to consumers and has promised to reduce packaging.

FoodJarsHere are a few easy ways to break the plastic habit in your kitchen:

  • Eat more whole, unprocessed food.
  • Replace plastic storage containers with glass and stainless steel and bags with mesh or fabric. On a budget? Reuse glass jars from sauces/condiments or invest in some canning jars, though these don’t work for reheating your food. I reheat and store leftovers in a dish covered by a plate.
  • Never cook in plastic. Use heat-resistant glass, stainless steel, or cast iron. Be careful about using non-stick pans, even when they claim to be “green”.

For more info, check out these resources for great suggestions on reducing plastic from your life, especially in your kitchen:

  • zerowastechef.com has great resources for eliminating plastic and other waste in your life.
  • https://myplasticfreelife.com/, Plastic-Free, Beth Terry

 

Selected references

  1. OurWorldInData.org/plastic-pollution.
  2. Occurrence of Microplastics in Commercial Fish from a Natural Estuarine Environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, volume 128 (575-584), 2018.
  3. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/ohat/phthalates/dehp/dehp-monograph.pdf
  4. BPA Substitutes May Be Just as Bad as the Popular Consumer Plastic. Science, September 13, 2018.
  5. http://kleanupkraft.org/data-summary.pdf
  6. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 124 (1521-8), 2016.
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Got Organic: Cereal & Beer?

January 29, 2019

breadgrainscereal2When you’re looking to avoid pesticides in your diet, it’s important to go beyond organic produce. A good place to start is grains, such as cereal, bread, pasta, etc. These crops are also treated with pesticides, especially grains engineered (GMOs) to be resistant to herbicides like glyphosate, which is now considered a probable carcinogen to humans by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer).

Pesticides in grains aren’t cleared from the food by the time crops are harvested, which means some of the residues make it into your cereal box or loaf of bread and ultimately into your body. Studies, including those by the FDA, EWG, and others, have detected many pesticides in grain-based foods, some at levels exceeding what is considered safe, though there are disagreements on what safe levels are. Because use of pesticides is so widespread, even organic crops can become contaminated, though at much lower levels than those grown ‘conventionally’, e.g. with pesticides.

So buying products made with organic grains can help reduce your exposure to these toxic chemicals. Also, as more of us switch to organic foods, we can reduce the presence of pesticides in our environment, as we support farmers who crop without them. And don’t forget products made with grains. A recent study on German beers, which are made with grains, showed residues of glyphosate.

A Toxic-free New Year

January 1, 2019

14502768_539160869614590_3277597365892536645_nJoin me in 2019 for tips on creating a cleaner diet, free of many of the toxic chemicals that come from the use of pesticides, processing, packaging, and environmental contamination.

There are numerous sources of problematic chemicals in our diets and many ways that they find their way into our food and water. It can be overwhelming to deal with all the possibilities at once. To help with this, I’ll tackle one key issue each month in 2019. I’ll also be providing advice for small steps you can take to clear toxic chemicals from your diet and reduce your body’s toxic burden.

These posts come from a book I’m writing on this subject. Over the last several years, I’ve given presentations on where toxins come from in our diets and what we can do to reduce them. In addition to this blog, join me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DocLaurel) and Twitter (@Laurel_Standley) for more information.

fresh fruits and vegetables

Let’s start the year right by transitioning to or increasing your consumption of organic foods, meaning those grown without pesticides that are used to control weeds and insects. So why eat organic foods rather than conventional? Studies on animals and in people who’ve had higher exposures to some pesticides show links to health issues such as cancer, brain damage, and reproductive impairment. When you decide to ‘go organic’, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing effort – you can do as much or as little in a way that works for you. The best way to get the biggest bang for your buck is to switch to organic for the foods most likely to contain the highest levels of problematic pesticides. Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the dirtiest dozen foods, as well as a list of the cleanest fifteen (www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php). So if you can’t afford to go all in for organic foods, use their resource to help you choose which conventional foods to stay away from. And, if you can afford to do so, I highly recommend donating to EWG to help support their work in this important area.

fresh fruits and vegetablesThere are many reasons to follow a vegan, or the newest trend, “seagan” diet, which includes fish. Many studies have shown significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease in vegans and pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) than in people eating a meat-based diet. And for vegans, it is a choice to avoid harm to animals by eating only plant-based foods.

There’s another benefit to eating a plant-based diet. Because our environment has become contaminated by decades of industrial production, there are no truly pollutant-free places left on the planet, with some places more contaminated than others. Although both plants and animals are exposed to pollutants such as PCBs, mercury, and dioxins, animals like cattle and chickens accumulate these chemicals at up to a million times higher levels than plants and store them in their fatty tissues. Fish also accumulate pollutants at high levels when they’re reared in contaminated environments.

Consequently in addition to what we’re exposed to in our environments, eating animal products that are high in fats like meat, cheese, and butter greatly increase the transfer of these pollutants into our bodies. This is of concern because these toxins are harmful to our neurological and reproductive health.

tunaSo why would vegans eat fish? Adding seafood to a plant-based diet can help you overcome nutritional deficits like inadequate levels of the brain-healthy omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although plants like walnuts and flax have omega-3 fats, it is primarily alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) instead of EPA and DHA and studies have not shown links between consuming ALA to improved brain health.

If your concern as a vegan is to avoid animal-based products or you want to reduce your exposure to fat-based contaminants, then you can choose to include algal sources of fats in your diet, either through supplements, or eating sea-based veggies like kelp. Because algae are plants, they are often much less contaminated than fish. Just make sure you’re choosing products that have been grown in clean waters.

However, if you want to include fish in your diet, these are the best steps to take to avoid getting a hefty dose of toxic chemicals along with your meal:

  1. Eat lower on the food chain. Small fish like sardines and herring tend to have lower levels of toxins than predator fish and, if you like tuna, go for “canned light” over albacore or ahi, which have higher levels of the neurotoxin mercury.
  2. Choose wild-caught fish from cleaner waters (I recommend checking one of the great fish consumption guides from the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resources Defense Council).

Bottom line: the more organic, unprocessed, and plant-based foods you include in your diet, the lower your risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals so prevalent in our environment. And if you add fish to your vegan diet, make sure you use a guide to choose cleaner options to reduce your exposure to pollutants.

What’s that in my food?

October 2, 2016

inglabelParticipating in #OctoberUnprocessed this year gives me another opportunity to take a closer look at what’s really in the food I eat. Thousands of ingredients are added to foods for sale in the U.S. and can include chemicals that act as preservatives, change texture or appearance, or add flavor. These must be listed on ingredient labels unless they are present at “trace” levels and have no functional purpose in the food.

Later this month I’ll post on health effects associated with some of these ingredients. But today I want to talk about how to choose foods that are free of potentially toxic ingredients. One approach I’ve heard is to choose foods with no more than five ingredients listed on the label. Another is to avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or identify. The second approach is probably the safest bet, since many foods made from whole foods can contain more than five ingredients and still be healthy – like ten bean soup, for example. The only limit to this approach is that some botanicals (e.g. plants) have Latin names that even a chemist like me struggles with identifying.

It’s also a good idea to skip ingredients with generic names like “flavors”, which can consist of a mixture of human-made chemicals, or “natural”, which is no guarantee that the ingredient has not been altered from its natural state. Keep in mind, avoiding unrecognizable ingredients in your food does not protect you from exposure to other chemicals that leach from packaging or are formed as byproducts of processing.

Bottom line: Just as it is possible to avoid many pesticides in food by choosing organic products, you can avoid artificial ingredients by reading food labels and skipping anything other than those you recognize as a whole food, like apples, beans, or oregano.

Share your strategies for avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in the foods you love (of course there will be a post on chocolate later this month).

 

September 30, 2016

OUlogo.jpgJoin me for the #OctoberUnprocessed Challenge! Starting tomorrow and for the entire month of October, I’ll be choosing to eat minimally processed, whole foods . And I will be posting at DocLaurel (Facebook) and @Laurel_Standley (Twitter) on ways that eating a less processed diet can reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals.

This is the 7th annual Challenge, which is hosted by Andrew Wilder (@EatingRules) on Facebook. To find the group, just search for October Unprocessed and join ~3,000 people participating this year. Even if you are only able to reduce rather than avoid processed foods during the month, you can make a big difference in eliminating unhealthy ingredients from your diet. Learn more about the Challenge at https://eatingrules.com/october-unprocessed/.

Please join the conversation – I’d love to hear your ideas!

Balcony Farm Girl

July 13, 2016

Growing your own food is a pleasure that even access to a great Farmer’s Market can’t beat. Plucking a ripe strawberry or tomato still warm from the sun offers the best flavor and burst of nutrients. It’s a wonderful venture for those of us seeking to increase organic, unpackaged food in our diets and the best way to avoid the many toxins associated with industrial farming and food processing. For those with a backyard, urban/suburban farming can expand to raising chickens or goats.

Like many balcony farmers, I am limited by the boundaries of railings and distance from the ground. And on hot days, the sun’s reflection off sliding glass doors can fry delicate. To cool things off when the temp rises above ninety, I have an umbrella to shade herbs and lettuces and a bamboo curtain that rolls down to cover the glass. This has the added benefit of keeping the indoors cooler. The bamboo curtain was suggested during last summer’s heat wave by my friend Jen Willis.

While my own balcony measures only 4.5×9 feet, I’ve created an expansive collection of “crops” by going vertical with stacked pots and trellises. As for many urban gardeners in Oregon, my “farm” is expanded by proximity to a nearby hillside covered in blackberry bushes. By mid-August my freezer is stocked with enough luscious berries to hold me until January.

I’ve been farming on this balcony for three summers now and have a wonderful collection of perennial herbs and strawberries and am continually working on expanding my collection of annuals. I’ve learned that cucumbers work, if you don’t mind a carpet of vines and big green leaves on the balcony floor. Zucchinis did not work, however. Perhaps they’re just not happy being constrained in a pot. The usually vigorous squashes never got past a couple of inches before turning brown and giving up.

SeedlingsSummer16About a month before the danger of frost (and in Oregon, hail) passes, I start laying out small little pots across window ledges and plant seeds for lettuce, tomatoes, arugula, and ready the packets of peas and edamame. I’ve learned to keep adding new peas, beans, and cilantro seeds to the pots every few weeks during the summer to keep the harvest going.

There are a few critical things to remember to reduce the presence of toxins in your home-grown produce. It is really important to avoid using pesticides, which have been linked to diseases like Parkinson’s and reproductive harm. While growing plants on a balcony can reduce competition from critters like slugs and other pests, some will still find their way up to your farm. Checking your plants for pests often and setting up nets around tomato and strawberry plants can help. And to some extent, it helps to let go and share some of your harvest with the bugs and squirrels. Although I admit that a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a handful of strawberries to ripen to perfection, I ran outside to chase off a squirrel determined to harvest the shiny red berries.

Getting clean soil is also a top priority. The use of the word “organic” for soils and composts does not mean that they are free of pesticides. It means that they were made from plant or animal sources instead of minerals, which is what “inorganic” fertilizers are made from. So, whenever possible, ask for soils and composts that come from sources untreated by pesticides. It is also important to avoid soils and composts made from “biosolids”, which are the solids formed during sewage treatment. Although these materials are rich in nutrients, they can be contaminated by heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. One study by USGS researchers showed that soy beans grown in biosolids-treated soils were contaminated by the antimicrobial chemical triclosan.

There are other potential sources of toxins to be aware of when you live in multi-family housing. My home owners’ association occasionally treats the tile roof to reduce moss growth. This can result in toxins sprayed onto your plants while they’re working and runoff long after they’re done. I lay a plastic tarp over the garden while they’re spraying and make sure the gutters are working well to direct roof runoff away from my plants. Some HOAs may also spray surrounding landscapes with herbicides or insecticides. Ask to be notified when they do so that you can cover your crop. Better yet, ask them to find non-toxic ways to control pests.

chicken_roamingJust a note for those raising chickens and goats, which will also take up toxins from their environment and accumulate them in their meat, eggs, and milk. Though you can’t shield them from all toxins, the same cautions apply as those for growing produce. Clean soil is key. If you live in a home built before the seventies, be extra careful about letting the animals feed near the house where flakes or dust from lead paint may contaminate the soil. Raised beds filled with clean soil down to root depth can help overcome past contamination. Finally, if you live near a busy road, it might not be a good idea to grow food, as dust and exhaust from traffic may result in an overall toxic environment.

I would love to hear your stories about your urban farming adventures! Don’t forget to post pics of your crops.