Thursday, May 27, 2010

You, You Make Trash Fun!

Happened across a very cool blog entitled "Ideas Inspiring Innovation" today while looking for a reading for my Urban Environmental Policy class on waste management issues.  I was thinking trash and sewage, but don't worry - this blog doesn't go there.  It's mostly just creative product design.  I landed on the page about reducing or doing away with waste.  For example, ways to make tossing trash so much fun that people will wanna do it.  Here's a video I lifted from the blog.  I hope you'll check out the rest of it!

Plastics - Don't Microwave that Chicken in It!

Plastics.   That was the advice given to Dustin Hoffman's character in the graduate, and boy was that fella right.  If you'd been in on the ground  floor of plastics, you'd be riding pretty right now.  Plastics are ubiquitous. 

Unfortunately, it turns out that some of our favorite uses of the miracle material create toxic effects that can be measured and correlated to health impairments that range from chromosome damage to cancer.  

A recent New Yorker article,  by one of my favorite and most trusted medical writers, Dr. Jerome Groopman, is long but entirely worth the read.  He explores some of the unintended, unexpected side effects of some of our most common and well-loved products.

Here's a couple of quotes from the article to get you thinking:

Excerpt #1:

"Findings for chemicals like PAH, which can also be a component of air pollution, are passed from mother to child during pregnancy has now been replicated for more than two hundred compounds. These include PCBs, chemical coolants that were banned in the United States in 1979 but have persisted in the food chain; BPA and phthalates, used to make plastics more pliable, which leach out of containers and mix with their contents; pesticides used on crops and on insects in the home; and some flame retardants, which are often applied to upholstery, curtains, and other household items.

Fetuses and newborns lack functional enzymes in the liver and other organs that break down such chemicals, and animal studies in the past several decades have shown that these chemicals can disrupt hormones and brain development. Some scientists believe that they may promote chronic diseases seen in adulthood such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, and cancer. There is some evidence that they may have what are called epigenetic effects as well, altering gene expression in cells, including those which give rise to eggs and sperm, and allowing toxic effects to be passed on to future generations."

If this is all true, why haven't these toxins been banned?  Well, possibly because the plastics industry doesn't want to see them banned.  Check this excerpt:

Excerpt #2

"Critics such as Elizabeth Whelan, of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer-education group in New York (Whelan says that about a third of its two-million-dollar annual budget comes from industry), think that the case against BPA and phthalates has more in common with those against cyclamates and Alar than with the one against lead. “The fears are irrational,” she said. “People fear what they can’t see and don’t understand. Some environmental activists emotionally manipulate parents, making them feel that the ones they love the most, their children, are in danger.” Whelan argues that the public should focus on proven health issues, such as the dangers of cigarettes and obesity and the need for bicycle helmets and other protective equipment. As for chemicals in plastics, Whelan says, “What the country needs is a national psychiatrist.”

To illustrate what Whelan says is a misguided focus on manufactured chemicals, her organization has constructed a dinner menu “filled with natural foods, and you can find a carcinogen or an endocrine-disrupting chemical in every course”—for instance, tofu and soy products are filled with plant-based estrogens that could affect hormonal balance. “Just because you find something in the urine doesn’t mean that it’s a hazard,” Whelan says. “Our understanding of risks and benefits is distorted. BPA helps protect food products from spoiling and causing botulism. Flame retardants save lives, so we don’t burn up on our couch.”
Really?  One more excerpt:

Excerpt #3:

"To help strengthen epidemiological analysis, Sir Austin Bradford Hill, a British medical statistician, set out certain criteria in 1965 that indicate cause and effect. Researchers must be sure that exposure to the suspected cause precedes the development of a disease; that there is a high degree of correlation between the two; that findings are replicated in different studies in various settings; that a biological explanation exists that makes the association plausible; and that increased exposure makes development of the disease more likely.

When epidemiological studies fulfill most of these criteria, they can be convincing, as when studies demonstrated a link between cigarettes and lung cancer. But, in an evolving field, dealing with chemicals that are part of daily life, the lack of long-term clinical data has made firm conclusions elusive. John Vandenbergh, a biologist who found that exposure to certain chemicals like BPA could accelerate the onset of puberty in mice, served on an expert panel that advised the National Toxicology Program, a part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, on the risks of exposure to BPA. In 2007, the panel reviewed more than three hundred scientific publications and concluded that “there is some concern” about exposure of fetuses and young children to BPA, given the research from Vandenbergh’s laboratory and others.

Vandenbergh is cognizant of the difficulty of extrapolating data from rodents and lower animals to humans. “Why can’t we just figure this out?” he said. “Well, one of the problems is that we would have to take half of the kids in the kindergarten and give them BPA and the other half not. Or expose half of the pregnant women to BPA in the doctor’s office and the other half not. And then we have to wait thirty to fifty years to see what effects this has on their development, and whether they get more prostate cancer or breast cancer. You have to wait at least until puberty to see if there is an effect on sexual maturation. Ethically, you are not going to go and feed people something if you think it harmful, and, second, you have this incredible time span to deal with.”

PLEASE read the rest of this story here:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


No, I'm not turning this column into a food column all of the sudden in hopes of a movie deal like "Julie & Julia," or even to increase my readership (food blogs are some of the most widely read blogs of all time - people love to cook and eat!). 

But my facebook friend Lynne Magrone was bragging about her healthy peanut butter cookies, and we asked for the recipe.  It's so unusual that I decided to share it.  To make it extra healthy, make sure you're using organic, no-sugar-added peanut butter.  Lynne uses a low-fat version to lower the calorie count, but I do not trust the impact of fat-substitutes on our health, and until the jury's in on that, try to avoid them.  And if you're diabetic, or watching your glycemic index, try substituting the unbelievably low GI food chana dahl, a chickpea relative that looks and cooks like lentils, but tastes like chickpeas.

Spiced Peanut Butter Cookies
Servings: 30 cookies

1 c. canned chickpeas, not drained*
1 c. peanut butter
1/4 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 1/4 c. whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper, or more to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper (or coat with cooking spray); set aside.

*Drain chickpeas and reserve liquid. Pour drained chickpeas into a 1-cup measuring cup and pour in enough chickpea liquid just to cover the beans; puree chickpeas and their liquid in a blender or mini food processor.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream peanut butter, butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and egg; mix well again. Add pureed chick peas; blend thoroughly with mixer. Add flour, salt, baking soda and red pepper flakes; mix again.

Shape rounded tablespoonfuls of cookie dough into small balls. Place dough on prepared cookie sheets, leaving at least 2-inches between cookies.

When a cookie sheet is filled, press each ball down with palm of your hand to flatten. Then flatten cookies even more by making cross-hatch marks with back of a fork.

Bake until cookies turn slightly golden, about 10 - 13 minutes depending on desired crispness. Let cool on cookie sheet for 1 to 2 minutes and then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

By the way, the yummy cookie picture is borrowed from the very interesting blog of an Egyptian muslim woman (name unknown), who fills her column with photos and writing about the food, celebrations, and customs of her culture.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pesticide Traces Double Child ADHD Risk

Unbelievably, a recent study links mere trace levels of pesticide by-products found on grocery store fruit to double the incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder [ADHD] in kids.  Below is a short excerpt.  The entire article can be found here:

"Researchers measured the levels of pesticide byproducts in the urine of 1,139 children from across the United States. Children with above-average levels of one common byproduct had roughly twice the odds of being diagnosed with ADHD, according to the study, which appears in the journal Pediatrics." 

* * *

Organophosphates are “designed” to have toxic effects on the nervous system, says the lead author of the study, Maryse Bouchard, PhD, a researcher in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Montreal. “That’s how they kill pests.”  

The pesticides act on a set of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD, Bouchard explains, “so it seems plausible that exposure to organophosphates could be associated with ADHD-like symptoms.”

* * *
Detectable levels of pesticides are present in a large number of fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S., according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cited in the study. In a representative sample of produce tested by the agency, 28% of frozen blueberries, 20% of celery, and 25% of strawberries contained traces of one type of organophosphate. Other types of organophosphates were found in 27% of green beans, 17% of peaches, and 8% of broccoli.

Although kids should not stop eating fruits and vegetables, buying organic or local produce whenever possible is a good idea, says Bouchard.

“Organic fruits and vegetables contain much less pesticides, so I would certainly advise getting those for children,” she says. “National surveys have also shown that fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets contain less pesticides even if they’re not organic. If you can buy local and from farmers’ markets, that’s a good way to go.”

Beautiful fruit photo courtesy of

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tampering With Evolution

"All it takes to wreak havoc in a colony of common murres is one bald eagle.  Gulls spot the eagle from a distance and sound the alarm, and the murres nesting on the cliff bob their heads nervously.  As the big rapter swoops down, the stocky black-and-white seabirds flee, leaving their eggs and chicks behind.  Gulls and crows then quickly move in and gobble as many as they can....

In the 1960s, the bald eagle nearly became extinct; widespread DDT use had thinned its eggshells.  Once the pesticide was banned in 1972 and conservation efforts increased, populations rose dramatically, and the bird was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007.  But human activity had altered the raptor's habitat in many ways - development encroached, available food sources shifted, the populations of some species rose while others declined.  The bald eagle was brought back in the hopes of helping restore ecosystem balance, but wildlife managers lacked information about what that balance originally looked like.  Now, along the Pacific Northwest coast, reports abound about eagles creating havoc among cormorants, murres ,and other seabirds.  Biologists are at a loss about what, if anything, to do about the charismatic troublemaker they worked so hard to bring back."

This excerpt, from the March 2010 issue of High Country News, represents the opening two paragraphs of a very important story about the complex relationship among species, and what happens when humans experiment unintentionally (e.g. DDT) and intentionally (conservation measures) with evolution.  Even if you're more apt to read about politics than wildlife, I encourage you to read the remainder of this story, written by Isabelle Groc, for its elucidation of the complicated relationship we have with the planet's wildlife.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oil Across America

This is a representation of the oil spill, layered over its actual location on Google Earth. 

While there's little I can say about the April 20th, 2010 Gulf oil spill that hasn't already been said, Paul Rademacher, Engineering Manager for the Google Maps "frontend" (whatever that is), put the entire affair into visual perspective.  He's developed an online application that will overlay the size and shape of the oil spill onto any location on earth.  Below are a few shots I took with Jing, my screen shot program.  And here's the link so you can play with this application yourself.

By the way, as of a week ago, the oil spill covered about 2500 square miles of ocean surface.  And it's still sliding.  Thanks to my very good friend, Gail Gordon Ober, for sharing Rudamacher's site with me.

Spill over Long Island, NY

Spill over Chicago

Spill over Kansas City

Spill over Phoenix

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Hunger Games

Something startling just came through my email box and I had to share.

I teach for Kansas State University, which, despite being in Kansas, is an incredible institution. Since I also teach for the University of Missouri - a school which is struggling economically right now - I have some basis for comparison.  I can say without hesitation that K-State has become a model institution for research and teaching, that the calibur of its faculty (me not withstanding) is incredible, that it's financial and institutional support for both students and faculty is strong - in short I cannot say enough good about K-State.

Today I received an announcement that all incoming freshmen would be reading a particular book, and that the remainder of the institution's students, faculty and yes, even the staff, are encouraged to read the same book. Over the course of the year, events and discussions around the topic of the book have been planned, etc, etc, etc.

What could this book - deemed important enough to encourage an entire institution to take it up - possibly be?

IMAGINE my surprise to find out that the book is "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins. This is a book about a futuristic state that holds a once-a-year roman-like arena competition that pits 24 kids against each other. Winner gets a life of ease. The rest get killed. The only "unspoken rule": you can't eat fellow contestants.

I should also note that it's a coming-of-age book, and there is a love triangle among the heroine and two of the contestants.

This book sounds so outside of anything I would normally read, but because K-State has deemed this book important enough for the ENTIRE INSTITUTION to read, I have decided to read it, and am proposing it to all of you too.  Perhaps we'll have some discussion here on the book in future posts. Here is a review:,,20223443,00.html

If you've read this book, please let me know what you think of it!