Sunday, October 5, 2008

Soup de Jour - Toxins

As the saying goes, "It's not what you know, but who you know..." I would have to respectfully disagree as nowadays it is your individual ignorance that makes you part of the uninformed group. So, that is my job and responsibility to educate and inform you fellow bloggers as to what is really out there in the environment - today's lesson is toxic chemicals.

Let's start with an easy one - Melamine.

What is Melamine? It is a reaction product (a.k.a. trimer of cyanamide) that is often combined with formaldehyde to produce melamine resin. Yes, that's right - a plastic. We interact with it everyday from countertops, dry erase boards, foam in our mattress, glue and other housewares.

Why use it in food? Melamine is sometimes illegally added to food products in order to increase the protein content. When it is added to water - a reaction occurs, typically a cloudy, milky reaction allowing companies to get away with diluting their products with water. This industrial toxic has become infamous based on recent cases found in Chinese-made milk products that have sickened nearly 53,000 children in China, killing four. Hong Kong's Center for Food Safety is testing everthing now including milk powder, yogurt, butter, baby food, soy products and other frozen confections.

Let's test your knowledge now with Bisphenol A (BPA).

What is BPA? It is chemical building block often used to manufacture polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. This toxin helps to make plastic lightweight, durable, optically clear, and has excellent electrical and heat resistance. Because of these attributes, polycarbonate is used in a wide variety of common products including digital media (e.g., CDs, DVDs), electronic equipment, automobiles, sports safety equipment, and reusable food and drink containers.

Why does it matter? BPA has been extensively researched and has gained infamous press coverage for "leaching out" of polycarbonate. Basically, those toxins are breaking down and presenting themselves into whatever is contained in the plastic. A classic example is Nalgene, manufacturer of drink containers. I give them credit for quickly eliminating water bottles from the shelves of Dicks Sporting Goods and REI stores and now marketing BPA-free products.

The research, backed by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, the EPA, NIH and well documented in Nature and Science have explained that this nasty environmental contaminant is the devil on your endocrine system, especially for children going through puberty. Scientists are still divided as to what types of "diseases and cancer" it causes. Some just to name a few include breast and prostate cancer, ADHD, and type 2 diabetes. Others are worrying that BPA affects the maturing brain in unspecified ways...hey, why wait to find out? According to an article quoting the National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s Chris Portier as saying that “there’s sufficient evidence now to give people who want to be prudent—especially parents—a reason to avoid BPA.” Let's not argue about this and get it out of our everyday products where possible.

Last quiz question...

What is Atrazine? The world’s most popular herbicide-weed killer is an endocrine disrupter in frogs. Many articles have exploded into allegations of ethical misconduct by Syngenta and bad science.

Why does it matter? The story of this toxin is extremely important and starts with Tyrone Hayes in 1998. He holds a biology degree from Harvard University and a doctorate in amphibian development from Berkeley, where he was tenured at a young age of thirty and later became the university's youngest full professor. The science community refers to him as a Rock Star since he was part of an "expert panel" that did research funded by Syngenta. Make a long story short, his career with Syngenta went extremely bad when his team's research confirmed that atrazine was associated with hermaphroditism in frogs 100 percent of the time.

It is well known that when Hayes discusses these findings at public presentations, grown men shift uncomfortably in their chairs when he explains, "The gonads, instead of sperm, have eggs, and the frogs are chemically castrated because they do not make testosterone."

Atrazine, sold by Syngenta to many corn, sorghum and sugar cane farmers, brought in profits of $1.1 billion in 2007. Do you see the conundrum? Money coming in - yet toxins are running off into the water system with evidence found in basic creatures such as frogs. The debate is more about how much atrazine is released! Hayes research took 800 frogs, with half used in a control set, and exposed them to 0.1 ppb (parts per billion) of atrazine. The threshold from the EPA is set at 3 ppb. Field studies have already found that atrazine levels following agricultural usage patterns (heavy crop dusting and preparations) have spiked high in the 50 parts per billion range in 40 watersheds especially in the Corn Belt region.

Fast forward to the year 2000, studies supported by Syngenta convinced the EPA that the "mechanism" by which atrazine causes cancer in rats is not the same in humans. The EPA backed off and Hayes resigned from Syngenta. In 2002, the EPA was trying to decide whether to re-register atrazine for continued commerical use. The controversy still continues and Japanese researchers and toxicologists are testing frogs up to 100 ppb... the results are still disturbing. Click here.

Source: Baker, Nena, The Body Toxic, Copyright 2008, Chapter 2, pgs. 57-73.

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