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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: We often see and read reports about environmental threats to women’s health, but aren’t there also concerns about which men should be especially vigilant? -- Jay Walsh, Boston, MA

Indeed, women aren’t the only ones who should be worried about environmental threats. A recently released report (Men’s Health: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You”) by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) concludes that environmental exposures may have major negative impacts on men’s health as well, and outlines ways that guys can avoid some of the major risks.

“Most men understand that smart lifestyle choices—such as exercising regularly, eating a healthful diet and not smoking—make a big difference in staying healthy,” says EWG researcher and report author Paul Pestano. “However, what many men might not know is that research in the last few decades has shown that environmental exposures may contribute to major diseases and health concerns that especially affect men, including heart disease, prostate cancer and infertility.” He adds that toxic substances in drinking water, food, food packaging and personal care products have all been linked to serious health problems that affect millions of American men.

According to EWG, men’s heart disease risks are exacerbated by exposure to mercury in certain seafoods, Teflon chemicals in non-stick cookware, and bisphenol-A (BPA) in hard plastic containers and canned foods. Additionally, arsenic and lead in drinking water supplies is a contributing factor in elevated heart disease risks for men. Meanwhile, certain agricultural pesticides common on fruits and vegetables as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that build up in meat and dairy products have been associated with prostate cancer, the second most common cause of cancer for American men. And exposures to lead, pesticides and chemicals in personal care products contribute to low sperm counts, infertility and other reproductive issues for men. EWG also underscores the importance of limiting sun exposure, as men face a higher risk of developing melanoma than women.

“While genetics can predetermine certain health outcomes, there are a number of ways men can dramatically reduce their potentially harmful environmental exposures,” Pestano says. Some tips include:

· investing in a water filter system specifically designed to reduce exposure to lead, arsenic and other drinking water contaminants (see EWG’s “Water Filter Buying Guide” to find the right one);

· avoiding canned foods and plastic containers with the recycling code #7 to limit BPA exposure;

· using personal care products that don’t contain phthalates, parabens or other potential contaminants (see EWG’s “Skin Deep” database that lists toxic chemicals in some 69,000 personal care products);

· choosing conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that have the fewest pesticide residues and buying the organic versions of certain types of produce that otherwise rely heavily on chemicals (EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” guide lists apples, grapes, strawberries, celery, peaches, spinach and sweet bell peppers as the worst offenders among others); and

· using proper sun cover and getting regular skin checks with a dermatologist to reduce melanoma risks.

By following these guidelines along with eating a healthy, varied diet and getting regular exercise, men can significantly reduce their health risks and potentially add years to their lives.

CONTACT: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org/research/mens-health.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that, above and beyond our bad eating and lifestyle habits, some chemicals in everyday products are contributing to the obesity problem. Can you explain?

-- Alyssa Israel, Fairfield, CT

Obesity is a huge problem in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates have doubled for American adults and tripled for kids and teenagers aged six through 19 since 1980. Today, 31 percent of American adults and 15 percent of youngsters are classified as overweight.

The rise in obesity and related health problems like diabetes is usually attributed to an abundance of high-calorie food coupled with the trend toward a more sedentary lifestyle, but there is more to the story. A growing number of researchers believe that certain chemicals collectively known as “obesogens” may be a contributing factor to the growing obesity epidemic. Exposure to these chemicals has been shown to interfere with the way we metabolize fat, leading to obesity despite otherwise normal diet and exercise.

Bruce Blumberg, a biology professor at the University of California at Irvine, first coined the term “obesogen” in 2006 after discovering that certain tin-based compounds known as organotins predisposed lab mice to weight gain. In the intervening years, hundreds of research studies have found similar connections between weight gain in humans and exposure to organotins as well as several other common chemicals found in everyday consumer products, agricultural pesticides and even some drinking water.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) reports that as many as 20 synthetic chemicals—from the BPA in plastic food storage containers and the lining of cans to phthalates used in the manufacture of non-stick coatings to the parabens in many personal care products—have been shown to cause weight gain in humans, mostly from exposure in utero or as infants. These early effects can last a lifetime, permanently altering one’s metabolic “set points” for gaining weight. “If you have more fat cells and propensity to make more fat cells, and if you eat the typical high-carbohydrate, high-fat diet we eat [in the U.S.], you probably will get fat,” Blumberg tells the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Adult exposure to obesogens has also been shown to trigger weight gain and other endocrine issues while exacerbating the effects of earlier exposure. Certain pharmaceuticals (including some of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants) have been found to be particularly egregious in this regard. Meanwhile, nicotine, air fresheners and many household cleaning products also contain obesogens. Also, soybeans (consumed by both humans and the livestock we eat) contain a naturally occurring obesogen.

There may not be much we can do about the damage already done, but avoiding obesogens, whether from natural or synthetic, might be the best thing we can do to prevent making our obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other health problems that much worse. Says Blumberg: “Eat organic, filter water, minimize plastic in your life…If there’s no benefit and some degree of risk, why expose yourself and your family?”

Of course, avoiding obesogens alone won’t keep people from getting fat. Eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise are as important as ever to keep one’s weight and overall health in check.

CONTACTS: NIEHS, www.niehs.nih.gov; “Obesogens: An Environmental Link to Obesity,” Environmental Health Perspectives, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3279464/.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: With summer officially here now, what can you tell us about which sunscreens are safe and which are not? -- Clara Rosen, New York, NY

Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more new cases each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. And the rate of newly diagnosed cases of the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma, has tripled over the last three decades. But many of the sunscreens on the market do not provide enough protection from the sun’s damaging rays. Also, some of them contain chemicals that can also cause health problems in their own right.

According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which assessed the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,400 “SPF” (sun protection factor) products for its 2014 Guide to Sunscreens, only one in three sunscreens for sale on the shelves of American stores offer good skin protection and are free of ingredients with links to health issues. “That means two-thirds of the sunscreens in our analysis don’t work well enough or contain ingredients that may be toxic,” reports the group.

A big part of the problem is the lack of tougher rules from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). “The FDA’s first major set of sunscreen regulations, 36 years in the making, took effect in December 2012 and proved far too weak to transform the market,” reports EWG. While the new rules did restrict some of the most egregious claims on sunscreen labels (such as the “patently false” ‘waterproof’ and ‘sweatproof’ claims) and ended the sale of powder sunscreens and towelettes that were too thin to provide protection against ultraviolet rays, they didn’t address inhalation threats from spray sunscreens or take into account the risks of exposure to so-called “nanoparticles” from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide varieties.

While the FDA is currently reassessing its stance on sunscreens, EWG warns it may be a while before new rules address these and other concerns, especially given push-back from regulatory-averse members of Congress and some manufacturers. So what’s a health-conscious sun worshipper to do about sunscreen?

For starters, read labels. Some common sunscreen ingredients to watch out for and avoid include: oxybenzone, which can cause allergic reactions and hormone-like effects; Vitamin A (AKA retinyl palmitate), a skin irritant and possible carcinogen; and fragrances which can contain allergens and chemicals. Also, spray sunscreens are suspect because inhaling some of the ingredients can irritate breathing passages and even potentially compromise lung function. And EWG warns to avoid products with SPF ratings higher than 50, as their use can tempt people to apply too little and/or stay in the sun too long. Sticking with products in the 15-50 SPF range and reapplying often makes much more sense.

Some of the best choices are those sunscreens that employ either zinc oxide or avobenzone, both which have been shown to block the most damaging ultraviolet rays effectively without the need for other potentially troublesome additives. Some of the leading brands that meet EWG’s criteria for both safety and effectiveness include Absolutely Natural, Aubrey Organics, California Baby, Elemental Herbs, Goddess Garden, Tropical Sands and True Natural, among others. Find these and other winners on the shelves of natural foods retailers as well as online. For a complete list of all 172 recommended sunscreens and to learn more about the risks, check out EWG’s free online 2014 Guide to Sunscreens.

CONTACT: EWG’S 2014 Guide to Sunscreens, www.ewg.org/2014sunscreen.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Why are wildfires on the increase and what can be done to stop them from happening? -- Sandy Heffran, Albuquerque, NM

There’s no question that wildfires are on the increase across the American West and other fire-prone regions of the world, and most environmental leaders agree that global warming is largely to blame. In a recent study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers from the University of Utah analyzed a database of large wildfires in the western U.S. between 1984 and 2011 and found a significant increase in the number of large fires and/or the area covered by the blazes. From Nebraska to California, the number of large wildfires increased sevenfold per year over the study period, with the total area burned increasing by 90,000 acres a year on average.

“Wildfire trends in the West are clear: There are more large fires burning now than at any time in the past 40 years and the total area burned each year has also increased,” says Alyson Kenward of the nonprofit Climate Central. “Over the same span, average spring and summer temperatures across 11 Western states have increased by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, contributing to the higher fire risks.” What worries Kenward and others is that the latest climate model projections show temperatures rising an additional two to four degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades (and as much as eight degrees by 2100).

According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the hotter temperatures we are already experiencing increase fire risks for several reasons. For one, drier, hotter conditions increase evaporation rates and encourage desertification. Also, as snowpacks melt earlier and summer temperatures rise to new heights, the length of the “fire season” is extending. Meanwhile, warming-induced insect infestations and other problems are ravaging many forests, turning once teeming ecosystems into tinderboxes. And the increased frequency of lightning as thunder storms become more severe only exacerbates the situation.

Not everyone agrees that global warming is causing the increase in wildfires. Professor David B. South of Auburn University points the finger at forest management and fire suppression practices over the last century that have allowed “fuels” to build up on forest floors, making the fires that do get started that much harder to quell or contain. “Policymakers who halt active forest management and kill ‘green’ harvesting jobs in favor of a ‘hands-off’ approach contribute to the buildup of fuels in the forest,” South told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May 2014. “This eventually increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” he said, adding that blaming carbon dioxide emissions for increased fire risk would be “simply unscientific.”

Regardless of who is right, we can all help reduce or prevent wildfires. According to Smokey Bear, the federal government’s mascot for wildfire prevention since the 1940s, those of us living in or visiting fire-prone areas should take extra precautions when burning anything outdoors. The campfire safety page of Smokey Bear’s website outlines how to build and extinguish campfires properly to minimize wildfire risks, and provides lots of other relevant tips on how to stay vigilant. You can also help reduce the risk of wildfire by reducing your carbon footprint (drive and fly less, plant trees) and speaking up for legislation and other actions that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

CONTACTS: NWF, www.nwf.org; Climate Central, www.climatecentral.org; Smokey Bear, www.smokeybear.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Recent news coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 reminded us all again of how much debris, including plastic, is in our oceans. To what extent is this a real problem that threatens ocean or human health? -- Margaret Ainsworth, Philadelphia, PA

The so-far in-vain search for Flight 370 has indeed stirred up interest in the growing problem of ocean debris as objects thought to possibly be plane parts have repeatedly turned out to be just floating trash.

“The ocean is like a plastic soup, bulked up with the croutons of these larger items,” Charles Moore, the captain who discovered an ocean trash gyre roughly the size of Texas swirling around in the deep ocean currents between Hawaii and California, told the Associated Press. “It’s like a toilet bowl that swirls but doesn’t flush,” he added. Moore’s “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is one of five such debris vortexes in the world’s oceans. Last April, searchers for MH370 stumbled onto the eastern edge of one of them in the Indian Ocean, at first mistaking some of the larger bobbing objects for airplane wreckage.

While this floating flotsam may be a time-wasting distraction for MH370 searchers, green leaders are worried about it for other reasons. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), trash and other ocean debris can cause direct harm to wildlife that ingests or gets caught in it and can break or suffocate coral reefs that are key habitat for many of the world’s marine species. Marine debris can also contribute to the movement of harmful invasive species that hitch rides from one body of water to another.

Another issue is that so much marine debris is comprised of plastic, much of which takes hundreds of years to break down and ends up in the digestive systems of everything from whales to plankton, including much of the seafood that ends up on our dinner plates.

The 2011 report, “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem,” by the California Ocean Science Trust, California Ocean Protection Council and Sea Grant found that plastic debris in the ocean not only leaches some chemical pollutants that were added during manufacture but also absorbs and accumulates others. This includes many persistent organic pollutants (so-called POPs that have been used extensively for things like pest control, crop production and industrial manufacturing) from surrounding seawater and marine sediments. These POPs have been linked to population declines, diseases and behavioral or physical abnormalities in many wildlife species. Researchers are still not sure how these chemicals, as well as others (Bisphenol A, phthalates, phenanthrene, etc.) may affect marine ecosystems in the long run.

In the meantime, we can all play a role in reducing the amount of plastic and other debris that end up in our oceans. “The most effective way to stop plastic pollution in our oceans is to make sure it never reaches the water in the first place,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit. According to the group, individuals need to take care to recycle and never litter, while manufacturers should reducing packaging and design more of it to be fully recyclable. NRDC and others are also working on the legislative front to try to institutionalize such measures.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA Marine Debris Impacts, water.epa.gov/type/oceb/marinedebris/md_impacts.cfm; “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem,” calost.org/pdf/science-initiatives/marine%20debris/Plastic%20Report_10-4-11.pdf; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.


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