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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Why are food manufacturers adding potentially carcinogenic potassium bromate to the flour of many of the packaged baked goods we consume? What are the risks and how can we minimize them? -- Annie C., Poulsbo, WA

It may sound strange, but there are still many food manufacturers across the world who choose to enhance the quality and appearance of their baked products by adding the carcinogenic compound known as potassium bromate (KBrO3) to their flour.

Potassium bromate, a “potential human carcinogen” as deemed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is often used as an oxidizing agent during the production of baked goods such as bread or pizza.

In order for a baked good to achieve that fluffy, high-risen appearance and texture, it must be oxidized first. In the past, dough would be kneaded repeatedly by a baker, then left out in the open air to oxidize naturally; a process that can take days, even weeks. Potassium bromate shortens this process by directly and more potently strengthening the bonds between gluten (the constituent parts of any baked good), resulting in a more efficiently-made, better-looking baked product.

But is the possibility of cancer worth it? Potassium bromate is unfortunately an excellent source of free radicals (unstable atoms) called reactive oxygen species (ROS), the kind that cause mutations in our DNA. These mutations can in some cases accumulate, producing cancers of the thyroid, liver, and kidneys.

In 1982, Japanese researchers were the first to publish a series of papers stating that potassium bromate was causing these different types of cancer in rats. Many countries shortly thereafter banned its use (Including the European Union, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, South Korea and Peru, among others). The FDA, however, felt that the US need not ban potassium bromate as levels in most baked goods sold were unlikely to exceed 20 parts per million (ppm), an amount deemed safe for human consumption.

Before you run to the nearest poison control center, remember that it is the quantity of potassium bromate in the end product that ultimately determines its carcinogenic potential, not its mere presence. According to the FDA, 50 ppm (parts per million) is the upper limit for its use in bromated flour. As for its use in bread, 75 ppm is considered the limit for safe human consumption.

If you're a hobbyist who enjoys baking their own bread or other similar products, it should be noted that if your product fails to reach a high enough temperature, or if it isn’t baked long enough, it may contain residual amounts of potassium bromate. Your best option for baking carcinogen-free items is by using unbromated flour, although the process is a little different. More mixing is required (as there is less oxidative potential), as well as the setting of a lower initial temperature (due to the temperature increase from the mixing).

As for those hoping to purchase unbromated baked goods, it is of course required by law that all ingredients be stated on the packaging. If you’re lucky enough to live in California, a warning label stating carcinogenic ingredients should be visible on the packaging. Keep an eye out for “potassium bromate” or “bromated flour” — and if you see either ingredient, do yourself a favor and put it back.

CONTACTS: Potassium bromate: Effects on bread components, health, environment and method of analysis, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31865111/; Was your bread bakes with flour containing a possible cancer-causing additive? ewg.org/research/potassium-bromate; Toxicity and carcinogenicity of potassium bromate--a new renal carcinogen, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1567851/.


Dear EarthTalk: Does all the pet waste American dogs and cats leave behind outside have an effect (positively or negatively) on the environment? -- Mary C., Seattle, WA

Dog and cat waste may seem harmless, but the reality is that your pet’s poop can be very problematic for ecosystems where it accumulates. Think of an ecosystem as a closed box. Within that closed box is everything that makes up an ecosystem: the dirt, the bugs, the animals, the plants, the microbes, and all the different chemicals necessary for the functioning of each of the organisms that call this “box” home. Some organisms prefer some chemicals in abundance; others do not. As such, a homeostasis of sorts develops over time that eventually balances the populations of each organism in the box.

As these organisms eat one another, they absorb nutrients and excrete waste that is essentially a product of the organism they ate, derived from the very same chemicals that organism was made of. So, in effect, there is never an addition or subtraction of anything to that box. The same chemicals are being used over and over. However, if you were to add waste that was derived from an outside source to that box (ecosystem), say a dog-food factory where the ingredients (and therefore the chemicals) are chosen in abundance to provide the best possible diet, then you would be upsetting the balance of that ecosystem.

The chemicals found in pet feces that are the most problematic are nitrogen and phosphorus, which in overabundance can cause certain organisms to thrive, and others to falter. Algae blooms, for example, thrive when nitrogen and phosphorous levels are high. These blooms can spread very quickly across waterways, sucking the oxygen from aquatic ecosystems and suffocating the wildlife found therein.

According to an article by the British Ecological Study, the average dog excretes 11 kg of nitrogen and 5 kg of phosphorus per hectare. Livescience.com estimates that there are some 83 million dogs in America alone, producing 10.6 million tons of feces each year. With numbers like these, it’s easy to see the significant influence this amount of waste can have on the chemical balance of natural ecosystems.

That being said, pet waste is an issue of extreme importance not only for Earth’s ecosystems, but for our own health as well. According to the Clean Water Campaign of Atlanta, Georgia, pet waste can contain up to 23 million fecal coliform bacteria per gram, the kind that causes serious intestinal illnesses and kidney disorders. To make the issue worse, Livescience also states that the microbiota of certain American watersheds (20-30 percent) and airways (10-50 per cent) consists of dog feces- derived bacteria.

So, what are we supposed to do with all this poop? Throwing it in the trash unfortunately just moves the problem to another location. Our best option would be to naturally compost it, but if your options are limited, flushing it down the toilet to be processed at a sewage treatment facility is considered the most convenient and greenest option today.

CONTACTS: Deluge of dog pee and poo harming nature reserves, study suggests, theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/07/dog-pee-and-poo-harming-nature-reserves-study; The Poop Problem: What To Do With 10 Million Tons of Dog Waste (Op-Ed), livescience.com/44732-eliminating-pet-poop-pollution.html; If You Think Picking Up Dog Poop Is Unpleasant, Try Swimming In It, cfpub.epa.gov/npstbx/files/cwc_petwastefactsheet.pdf

Dear EarthTalk: Why is the U.S. lagging behind Europe and China on the production and sales of electric cars? -- James V., Miami, FL

The U.S. lags as a distant third among electric vehicle (EV) sales and production. According to Bloomberg, China claims a whopping 46 percent of global EV sales. Europe comes in second at 34 percent, while North America accounts for only 15 percent. The U.S. EV fleet continues to expand, growing 28 percent annually from 2015-2020, writes The Guardian. But that same period saw the European fleet increase 41 percent while China’s fleet grew 51 percent.

Production rates show similar trends. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) establishes China as the market leader, accounting for 44 percent of EV production as of 2020. Europe again claims second place, with 25 percent market share. And the U.S.?: 18 percent of global production, a decrease from 20 percent in 2017.

Policy is the primary hold-up behind the U.S. lag. Both China and the European Union boast supply and demand policies to stimulate EV markets, such as greenhouse gas reductions, quota systems for new vehicle sales, and consumer incentives to reduce purchase price. “Electric vehicle manufacturing growth happens where there are strong national policies designed to spur the market forward,” says Nic Lutsey of ICCT. “Hundreds of billions of dollars are on the table, and the United States hasn’t even bothered to pull up a chair.” During the Trump administration, the U.S. rolled EV policies back. The Environmental Protection Agency under President Biden released new greenhouse gas vehicle standards in December 2021, but some argue the revisions merely reinstated Obama-era policies rather than advance the field.

Charging infrastructure is another missing link; electric charging stations are still scarce on the American landscape. In daily spins around the city, this dearth may not present a problem, but for long-distance trips, “range anxiety” can be enough to slow sales. As Alyssa Altman of Publicis Sapient told Wired, “Historically there simply haven’t been enough charge points. Potential EV customers are concerned with keeping their vehicle juiced up for long trips, and for some journeys in the U.S., the lack of charging stations makes this impossible.” Statista counts 113,600 charging outlets in the U.S., compared to China’s 800,000, with 36 percent in California, thanks to its profusion of EVs and supporting state policies.

Some bright spots are emerging for the U.S. EV market. President Biden is aiming for 50 percent of new car sales to be electric by 2030, although 20 percent may be more realistic. Congress passed a bill for 500,000 new charge outlets nationwide, but the death of the Build Back Better bill interrupted plans for expanding consumer incentives. Also, car manufactures are beginning to step up. GM, Volvo and Audi have announced intentions to go fully electric in 10-15 years. And, although the number of EV-ready manufacturing plants still lags behind traditional plants, that number is rising, says ICCT, with seven of 44 manufacturing plants scheduled to be all-electric by 2025. U.S. Department of Energy research shows that, even with higher price tags, less maintenance on EVs decreases lifetime costs compared to traditional cars. The more consumers consider electric, the more the U.S. market grows.

CONTACTS: How to Decide If A Hybrid, Plug-In Hybrid, or Fully Electric Car Is Right for You, consumerreports.org/hybrids-evs/how-to-decide-if-a-hybrid-plug-in-hybrid-or-fully-electric-car-is-right-for-you/; International Energy Agency, iea.org/reports/electricity-market-report-january-2022; ICCT, theicct.org/publication/power-play-evaluating-the-u-s-position-in-the-global-electric-vehicle-transition.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that a tree seed shortage is jeopardizing reforestation efforts across the American West following so many bad wildfire seasons in a row? If so, what can everyday people do to help? -- Helen K., Barre, VT

Wildfires have been a mainstay on the news of late, and in the United States and across the world we are witnessing fires that are more intense than ever before. With warmer and drier conditions brought on by climate change, scientists project a 33 percent increase in wildfires by 2050 and a 57 percent increase by the end of the century. The Western U.S. is seeing the worst drought on record in the past 1,200 years, causing wildfires to spark earlier and more often.

As a result, public interest in reforestation efforts has skyrocketed. If a deforested area is left unattended to, the wrong species of trees might grow back, disrupting the ecosystem. Trees use carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow, so they are crucial tools in fighting climate change, functioning as what is called a “carbon sink” by capturing and “sequestering” the carbon. Not only is there bipartisan support for more tree planting, but corporations are also showing interest in mass tree plantings to sequester carbon to offset pollution. Companies are willing to invest not only in tree planting, but in the long-term survival of the trees once they are planted.

Increasing investment in tree planting and maintaining the trees as they mature is a great step forward for ecological restoration and carbon sequestration, but there is one flaw with this plan: There is a shortage of seeds. According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), nurseries will need to more than double their production of seedlings to keep up with the current demand for trees. While it may seem like a simple solution, as the climate changes, the behavior of seed-producing trees changes as well.

Seed scarcity is linked with temperature increases and drought conditions brought on by climate change. In periods of extended drought, trees respond by stopping the production of seeds. Additionally, especially at lower elevations, the warmer weather results in more insects that will eat away at the remaining viable seeds. Harvesting seeds is a sensitive process; to ensure the long-term success of a tree, the seeds that are collected have to come from the same geographic region as well as the same elevation that you plan to plant the tree. Another piece to this puzzle is the wildfires: Hotter, drier conditions are exacerbating the frequency and severity of wildfires, reducing the number of seed producing trees in the ecosystem. This, in turn is putting more stress on nurseries to provide not just seeds but trees themselves.

Even though you may not have the knowledge to collect seeds yourself, you can be part of the solution! Increasing seedling production is an expensive task, and donating to organizations like the National Forest Foundation or The Arbor Day Foundation can be invaluable in supporting reforestation. Volunteering with the U.S. Forest Service is another way to make a difference.

CONTACTS: Volunteer with the Forest Service, fs.usda.gov/working-with-us/volunteers; Climate Change & Wild Fires, nytimes.com/2022/02/23/climate/climate-change-un-wildfire-report.html; Reforestation and Seed Shortage, wired.com/story/reforestation-is-great-but-were-running-out-of-seeds/; Challenges to Reforestation, fastcompany.com/90611106/theres-a-surprising-wrinkle-in-the-quest-to-plant-68-billion-trees.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .



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