Firefly Season

Just had my first firefly encounter this season and was instantly reminded of that great NY Times article published a few years ago: Blink Twice If You Like Me.  In it, Carl Zimmer highlights research on flash patterns and mating rituals done by Dr. Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University. I highly recommend reading or re-reading it.

Fun fact to remember: Fireflies flashing in the air are all males. The females sit down in the grass observing, looking for flash patterns of males of their own species. They will sometimes respond with a single flash of their own, always at a precise interval after the male’s.

My Earth Day Pledge: To Be Turquoise

Thanks to a fantastic article by John Tierney: For Earth Day, 7 New Rules to Live By we here at JustSaying would like to officially adopt and strive to fulfill the title of “Turqs” which is a term derived from the color turquoise and coined by Stewart Brand to describe and inspire a new breed of environmentalists that combine “traditional green with a shade of blue, as in blue-sky open-minded thinking.” Think of a Turq as an environmentalist guided by science instead of nostalgia or (gasp) technophobia.

If you are able to take a few moments to read Tierney’s new-age-enviro-article, you will recognize some ideas, like supporting nuclear power and being realistic about “organic” foods, and likely learn something new. Here are the seven rules discussed:

1. It’s the climate, stupid.
2. You can never not do just one thing.
3. “Let them eat organic” is not a global option.
4. Frankenfood, like Frankenstein, is fiction.
5. “Green” energy hasn’t done much for greenery — or anything else.
6. “New Nukes” is the new “No Nukes.”
7. We are as gods and have to get good at it.

Toxins: Not Just in Plastics Anymore

If you’ve spent much time here on JustSaying, you already know that plastics marked “7” are a big no-no. And if you’ve spent much time shopping or sharing space with yours truly, you already know that perfume is a no-no (and have likely had your eau de toilette yanked out of your hands and heard, “Don’t use that! That stuff is carcinogenic with a capitol “C.” The perfume industry is going to go down in history like the tobacco industry. Just promise you’ll at least stay away from it when your pregnant?!”)

So why do I bring this up today, you wonder? Because Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a must-read Op-Ed in response to the rise of autism disorders, an article posted in Current Opinion on Pediactrics linking the rise to environmental exposures experienced prenatally, and the Environmental Health Perspectives article about suspect chemicals called phthalates (unregulated and commonly found in fragrances, nail polish, cosmetics, etc).

Read Kristof’s Op-Ed here.

Our advice: Do some research on your beauty products before slathering and spraying them onto your body, and keep your distance from plastics marked 3, 6, and 7.

Fantastic summary of MP’s message

Jane Brody wrote an excellent article about “Food Rules,” why we all need to follow them, and the bullet points of MP’s crusade thus far. I highly recommend reading it. Find the article here. It’s short and sweet. It’s everything I try to say in dinner conversations. And it highlights the S rule, which is pretty great.

Uh oh

So there’s a big story this week in the NY Times examining potential dangers of tap water – which, according to the latest data from the EPA, is not as carefully regulated as I/we once thought. This is a freakin’ disaster for JustSaying’s crusade against bottled water. Charles Duhigg reports:

“Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water, according to an analysis of government records by The New York Times… But not one chemical has been added to the list of those regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2000….”

Okay okay… the system needs some attention and upgrades. The NY Times put up this great interactive allowing folks to look at the water systems in their respective states and districts. Seeing these chemicals listed as contaminents in local water systems is bound to scare people straight to Costco for cases of bottled water. The article continues:

“Drinking water that does not meet a federal health guideline will not necessarily make someone ill. Many contaminants are hazardous only if consumed for years. And some researchers argue that even toxic chemicals, when consumed at extremely low doses over long periods, pose few risks. Others argue that the cost of removing minute concentrations of chemicals from drinking water does not equal the benefits… Moreover, many of the thousands of chemicals that have not been analyzed may be harmless. And researchers caution that such science is complicated, often based on extrapolations from animal studies, and sometimes hard to apply nationwide, particularly given that more than 57,400 water systems in this country each deliver, essentially, a different glass of water every day.”

However, independent studies published by the National Academy of Sciences suggest that contaminated water is the source of millions of Americans maladies (upset stomachs, birth defects, cancer) each year.

This is super tricky, folks. I urge you to read the article in its entirity here. Duhigg addresses the actual risk posed by small traces of arsenic (which is roughly equivalent to risks associated with receiving 1,664 x-rays although it sounds like it will turn us all into mutant ninja turtles); risks and studies surrounding the presesnce/development of bromates (particularly out in LA); a handful of contaminents associated with manufacturing pollution (some regulated, some not) such as perchlorate, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene; other chemicals associated with liver and kidney disease (lead, mercury) and Parkinson’s disease (manganese) and what the EPA intends to do about all this.

In a statement, the E.P.A. said that a top priority of Lisa P. Jackson, who took over the agency in January, was improving how regulators assessed and managed chemical hazards… “Since chemicals are ubiquitous in our economy, our environment, our water resources and our bodies, we need better authority so we can assure the public that any unacceptable risks have been eliminated,” the E.P.A. wrote. “But, under existing law, we cannot give that assurance.” …Ms. Jackson has asked Congress to amend laws governing how the E.P.A. assesses chemicals, and has issued policies to insulate the agency’s scientific reviews from outside pressures. But for now, significant risks remain, say former regulators.

For a long time, I have sat complacent and content with my tap water and  urged those around me to trade their BPA rich plastic bottles in for reusable ones. But perhaps it’s time I start putting a little more emphasis on home purification systems and a little less trust in the “America has the safest tap water” mantra I’ve undertaken up until reading this article.

Slowly slowly

Illustrator, author and designer Maira Kalman posted a wonderful photoblog today about our nation: spattered with cities filled with fast walkers, fast talkers and fast food. She had a chance to spend time with Alice Waters, Bob Cannard and Michael Pollan and bring those experiences together in this photo essay on the democracy of healthy eating.

Considering the focus of Back to the Land, you’d think this would be my favorite of hers to date but I am still rendered speechless and peaceful when I revisit Time Wastes Too Fast, which she posted earlier this year (June).

Polluted Pacific

After a loyal reader pointed me towards a recent NY Times article about the island-sized patches of garbage afloat in the Pacific Ocean, I realized that I must not have given this topic enough attention when I was reading Thomas Kostigen’s chapter “Where the Currents Take Our Trash” in his book You Are Here this past spring.

We’re talking about huge islands of trash floating in remote areas of our oceans, folks. Here’s a sampling of what these toxic whirlpools consist of (some still in their original shapes and form, others broken down into tiny, confetti-seized pieces that are gobbles up by marine life):

Light bulbs, Tooth brushes, Plastic water bottles and caps, Glass, Pill bottles, Buoys and fish nets (more on this momentarily), Traffic cones, Plastic bags, Tires, Disposable lighters, Paper, Oil and oil cartons, Wood, Rope, Toys…

The patch  Lindsey Hoshaw explored for the Times is about 1,000 miles east of Hawaii and is said to be doubling in size every decade. It is one of five ocean areas where heavy currents and slack winds keep the trash swirling in a giant vortex known to experts as a gyre. The impact of these patches on marine life is tremendous. There is a passage from a portion of Kostigen’s book looking at the growing number of animals endangered by ocean debris that really hits it home:

“[Dr. Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education aboard the Charles Moore’s Alguita vessel that discovered the Eastern Garbage Patch] spent time on Midway Island examining the effect of trash on albatross. ‘I found birds with syringes sticking out of their stomachs and toothbrushes caught in their mouths,’ Marcus says. He explains that albatross have two stomachs: one where they store food to feed their young and another where they digest food for themselves; plastic filled both. When he arrived on Midway he was shown a series of Laysan albatross skeletons. ‘Every single one had plastic in it. Every single one.'”

Scientists have identified more than 250 species known to have been injured or killed by this ocean debris and bear in mind: this is only one aspect of the problem. These dangers eventually make their way to us.

Let’s start at the bottom. Plankton is the base of the marine food chain. The amount of plastic fragments in the central Pacific outweigh zooplankton sixfold.  Zooplankton are non-selective feeders and ingest anything small enough which is inevitably plastic. Then marine mammals feed on zooplankton and so forth up the chain. Our fate and the oceans’ are certainly looking more and more parallel. I’ll let Hoshaw take it from here:

“PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals cannot dissolve in water, but the plastic absorbs them like a sponge. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles. Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat.

The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.”

If you can’t picture it from words alone, I urge you to view the collection of photographs in this slide show from Hoshaw’s visit to the patch with Charles Moore, the captain who came upon the patch in 1997 during the Transpacific Yacht Race and has dedicated his vessel to researching it since 1999. Keep in mind, the pictured patch is said to pale in comparison to the Western Garbage Patch, just south of Japan, that captures trash from Asia, Russia, India and the Malaysian Peninsula.

We’re all in this together. What the what are we going to do!?

NYT Food Issue

So many wonderful articles in today’s New York Times Magazine I don’t even know where to start!

You may recall Michael Pollan’s call for dietary dos and don’ts back in March for his new book “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” publishing in January 2010. Well good ol’ MP previewed 20 of his favorite reader submissions and they certainly are insightful. Check out the corresponding interactive feature here. One of my faves: If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry.

Might I also recommend spending some time with novelist Jonathan Saffron Foer’s contribution: Against Meat – Or At Least 99 Percent of It. I’m looking forward to reading his new book “Eating Animals” due out in November. His article alone captures the thought process and constant debate (internal and external) of a conscious eater. Or, as MP would call it: the omnivore’s dilema. The attempts at vegetarianism. The careful consideration of what your children will eat based in not only your belief system but in honoring traditions and gratitude. Even the early mention of the moment he realized that the chicken in his mouth was a chicken that was once alive on a farm resonates. It’s an excellent read. The whole issue is excellent

Tough To Digest

Yesterday, the NY Times reported about the Education Department’s decision to ban bake sales in public schools as part of a new wellness policy aiming to reduce students’ trans fat and sugar intake. From the article:

The previous regulations limited sales to once a month and allowed them at any time during that day, but they were loosely enforced. Officials say they will do more to monitor the new regulations.

“We have an undeniable problem in the city, state and the country with obesity,” said Eric Goldstein, the chief of the office of school support services. “During the school day, we have to focus on what is healthy for the mind and the body.”

Unsurprisingly, the rationale is getting a cool reception among students. At Fiorello H. La Guardia High School on the Upper West Side, students are used to having bake sales several times a month. Now, Yardain Amron, a sophomore basketball player, laments that his team will not be able to raise money for a new scoreboard.

Another La Guardia student, Eli Salamon-Abrams, 14, said that when the soccer team held a bake sale in May, his blueberry muffins sold out in 15 minutes. He said of the ban: “I think it’s kind of pointless. I mean, why can’t we have bake sales?”

Today, I ask: Is this really the best solution, Mayor? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Bloomberg fan and definitely appreciate and applaud his efforts in this case as well as the case against plastic bags but I gotta say that a bake sale ban seems a bit misdirected. Perhaps it addresses a small symptom that may or may not mean obesity for some percentage of brownie bakers or buyers – but it certainly isn’t the root of the problem.

EDUCATE these children. Granted, putting the lesser of snack evils in the vending machines and saying no to sodas are steps in the right direction, but steering kids away from baking and fundraising for their sports teams? Not so cool. Give a kid $5 for school lunch (healthy or not) and you feed him for a day. Teach a kid to cultivate, garden, harvest, cook, spice, BAKE, dice, mix, braise… put work into making something edible with real, whole foods and you feed him for a lifetime. Just saying.

MP on American Diet Reform

Michael Pollan addresses the elephant in the health care debate room: chronic disease linked to diet. From his NY Time piece:

“. . . According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.

We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.

The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. The president has made a few notable allusions to it, and, by planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, Michelle Obama has tried to focus our attention on it. Just last month, Mr. Obama talked about putting a farmers’ market in front of the White House, and building new distribution networks to connect local farmers to public schools so that student lunches might offer more fresh produce and fewer Tater Tots. He’s even floated the idea of taxing soda . . .”

Read the entire Op-Ed here. Please. It’s excellent and addresses everything going through your mind right now.