Monday, August 31, 2009

Wacky Weather

Here in the northeast US, summer weather was unusual to say the least. The skies appeared to open up and pour rain for weeks on end while cool temperatures made for a seemingly short season. Could it be that global warming is just a figment of our imaginations?

Not according to Joseph Romm, MIT-trained physicist. Although cool, wet summer weather may make one wish for some warming, heavy downpours and drenching rains are actually part of the global warming phenomenon. “One of the core predictions of climate change is that one-day rain events of 2 inches and 4 inches or more will become more commonplace," says Romm. The rain not only dampens summer fun plans, but creates problems for agriculture, sewage systems, and flood zones.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, global warming will likely continue to bring about severe weather changes including fiercer hurricaines, wildfires, droughts, and floods.
Forecasts for future weather are not encouraging. The Nature Conservancy predicts that by 2100, hot summer temperatures in the northeast could arrive three weeks earlier and last three weeks longer; higher temperatures in the northwest could increase forest fires and summer drought; and increased storm surges from rising sea levels could threaten the southeast. And global warming is exactly that: global. Researchers from the UK's Hadley Centre predict that heatwaves similar to the 2003 one that resulted in more than 50,000 deaths are "now four times more likely to occur due to the rise in greenhouse gases."

So how do we stop - or at least reduce - global warming? We need to minimize the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide emissions in the environment that occur when we burn fossil fuels such as gas, oil, and coal. Here are some practical things YOU can get started with today that will help stem the tide of global warming:

Recycle. Paper, plastic, glass, aluminum - the more you recycle, the better. Estimates indicate "that recycling half of your household waste, you can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide annually."

Ditch the Car. Or at least consider walking or biking more, minimizing your trips, carpooling, or using mass transit. "Every gallon of gas you save not only helps your budget, it also keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere."

Plant a Tree. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, helping to stabilize our environment. Just one tree will absorb approximately one ton of carbon dioxide during its lifetime.

Change Your Temperature. Reduce your thermostat in winter by just 2 degrees and raise it 2 degrees in summer and you could save 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Buy Organic. Organic soil captures and stores carbon dioxide better than soil from conventional farms. If we grew all of our corn and soybeans organically, we’d remove 580 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Health Benefits of Community

Did you know that if you joined and participated in just one group - such as the Holistic Moms Network - you could cut your risk of dying next year in half? Seriously! Sure, it sounds like a great membership building tool, but according to political scientist and author Robert Putnam, being part of a social network has a significant impact on your health. "Joining a group boosts your life expectancy as much as quitting smoking" according to the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America published by Harvard University.

In recent years, we have seen a remarkable decline in the social and civic engagement of Americans. Over the past 25 years there has been a 58% drop in attendance to club or group meetings, a 43% decline in family dinners, and a 35% reduction in simply having friends over ( Oh, sure, we're busy. We have other things to do. So what's the big deal? The problem is that a decline in connection reduces "social capital" or the collective value of our social networks which help build trust and cooperation. A reduction in social capital has been linked to decreased worker productivity, rising rates of depression, higher rates of crime, juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and child abuse. Social capital is also what makes governments more accountable and responsive to their populace. And, on an individual level, a lack of social capital leads not only to loneliness, but also to a lack of trust among people and an unwillingness to help others. In 1960 55% of American adults believed that others could or should be trusted most of the time while by 1998, only 30% agreed. "By virtually every measure, today's Americans are more disconnected from one another and from the institutions of civic life than at any time since statistics have been kept. Whether as family members, neighbors, friends, or citizens, we are tuning out." (Better Together Report)

Reconnecting through social groups by being part of community, serving on a town committee, organizing a neighborhood block party, supporting local businesses and farms, or singing in a choir can help rebuild our social capital, reaping benefits on individual, group, and national levels (click here for more ideas on building social capital). Being part of Holistic Moms is another way to help recreate community and play an active role in strengthening not only social capital, but your own personal health and well-being. It matters for all of us and for the sustainability of future generations!

Monday, August 17, 2009

PVC Goes Back to School

The back to school buzz is in the air. Parents are rushing off to gather up supplies, clothes, and gear for their kids as September peeks just around the corner. But before you head off to stock up for your kids, take a moment to review a new report from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice entitled Back-to-School Guide for PVC-Free School Supplies.

Yup. PVC is lurking in our kids' school supplies! Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a toxic plastic, is neither healthy nor green. Commonly referred to as "vinyl" PVCs are present in many household products, children's toys, and building materials. And school supplies. What's wrong with PVC? According to Greenpeace, PVC "is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics." PVC production accounts for "nearly 40 percent of all chlorine used in the United States" and is a building block for CFCs, which are destroying the Earth's ozone layer. Dioxins are released in the production of chlorine-based chemicals and have been detected in unsafe levels in the bloodstreams of humans and animal life and have been implicated in rising infertility, birth defects and developmental problems among wildlife. According to the CHEJ report, PVCs contain chemical additives including phthalates and lead, among others.

Reducing our children's exposure to toxins and PVCs is important for their health, as is refusing to support the industry creating these environmental pollutants. So what do you need to look for? PVC products may be labeled "vinyl" - as in colorful 3-ring binders or zip-up pencil cases. You may also find the number "3" or the letter "V" or "PVC" under the recycling logo, indicating that the item was made from PVCs. Likely suspects: notebooks with spiral binders covered in plastic, backpacks with shiny plastic designs, colored plastic-covered paper clips, plastic rainwear, umbrellas, and boots, vinyl lunch boxes and plastic water bottles.

To download a copy of the CHEJ report, which also provides suggestions for manufacturers of PVC-free alternatives, just click here! Start the school year off with a commitment to a healthier and greener future!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Rights of Nursing Moms

Gotta love Maine. Oh, the lighthouses, rocky coast, and wilderness are fabulous (not to mention the lobster) but for nursing moms, Maine is a wonderful place to be! A new law, going into effect on September 12, requires employers to make "reasonable efforts" to provide clean, private spaces for working moms to pump and to allow them the time (paid or unpaid) to do so, as well as enforcing that nursing mothers will not be discriminated against in the workplace.

To raise awareness of the new law and of breastfeeding, the city of Portland rolled out life-sized cutouts of breastfeeding moms scattered across the city. As the Portland Press Herald reported, each image also bore a sign reading "When breastfeeding is accepted it won't be noticed."

Maine is certainly not the only state to defend breastfeeding moms. Forty-three US states currently have laws that support a woman's right to breastfeed on public property (these are:
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal legislation, signed into law by President Clinton in 1999 also allows nursing moms to feed their children on federal property. (Yes, the next time you visit a national park or monument, feed away!)

And yet, women continue to be asked to relocate to new locations, cover up, or stop feeding their babes by business owners and their staff. But change is only going to happen if we make it happen. As mothers, we can help educate people about the many benefits of breastfeeding for mom and for baby, as well as to raise awareness by bucking the culture and being open and honest about our breastfeeding. Simple tips on public breastfeeding can help new moms and give them the confidence they need. And the next time you see a nursing mama, give her an encouraging word or, better yet, join her if you're nursing as well!

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer, Portland Press Herald.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Organics No Better?

A study released by the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency (FSA) this week had the media headlines screaming "Organic Food No Healthier", attempting to erode consumer preferences for organically-grown, pesticide-free produce and meats. The study and its touted findings are creating a stir here in the US as well. So, let's take a closer look.

Putting aside consumer preferences for organics due to the environmental impact of factory farming, overuse of pesticides and chemicals, and deterioration of farmland by agribusiness (none of which were part of the FSA study), the researchers focused on the nutritional value of organic foods versus conventionally grown and raised products. What might be surprising to consumers who read the headlines are the findings of the actual study itself as well as the methods used to derive this conclusion.

First, let's start with what the study is. It is not a clinical testing of actual produce to analyze nutritional content. Rather, the study is a review of published literature aiming to investigate findings of other researchers and compare the results to develop a larger-view perspective on the issue. This yields some questions from the start. The authors cite 52,471 citations located, 292 articles found and 281 deemed to be relevant (studies determined to be "unsatisfactory" were not included). In the end 162 actual studies were included in the review. This narrowing will inherently drop out certain research findings and may necessarily produce a different conclusion.

Interestingly, the 2007 University of California Davis study demontrating higher concentrations of minerals and vitmain C in organic foods was included in the review, although potentially diminished by other studies when viewed collectively as not statistically significant. Other studies, such as that by The Organic Center, report findings of higher nutritional content among organic foods than conventional.

The second part of their review examined the health impact of eating organics versus conventional foods. Again, of 91,989 reports only 11 (yes, eleven) studies were deemed relevant for their review based on research critera, methodology, etc. "It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies," state the authors. "Most of the included papers did not study direct human health outcomes" but did look at biomarkers, such as antioxidant status which was reported to have significantly different outcomes between organic and conventional foods. Even with the biomarkers displaying results, the authors were looking for a more measurable health outcome to report on. "Additionally, it is possible that peer-reviewed journals were less likely to publish papers reporting non-significant differences," the authors note, demonstrating that a primary bias may exist in their review.

Even with these data sources, there are some facts the researchers discovered that did not grab the media's attention. For example,

Organically produced crops were found to have significantly higher levels of sugars, magnesium, zinc, dry matter, phenolic compounds and flavonoids than conventionally produced crops. The authors explain these imbalances with regard to magnesium, zinc, phosophorus, and dry mattter (related to mineral content) to be insignificant from a public health/large scale viewpoint as dietary deficiencies in the population are not a publich health concern. However, with regard to the higher phenolic compounds and flavonoids found in organic foods, the authors note:

"Numerous health benefits have been ascribed to the actions of phytochemicals such as phenolic compounds and flavonoids, many of which related to their antioxidant activity. The recent World Cancer Research Fund report suggests that quercetin (a flavonol) may prevent lung cancer (although the strength of evidence for this relationship was graded as “Limited - suggestive”4) (17). There is also some evidence from cohort studies (although not from randomised controlled trials), that high flavonoid intake is associated with lower rates of coronary heart disease mortality (18). "

Polyunsaturated fatty acids were statistically higher in organic meats than conventionally raised products, according to the report. Research shows polyunsatured fats may help to reduce coronary artery disease, along with reducing saturated fat consumption.

On the review of flavonoids and phytochemicals alone, media reporting could easily have announced "New Study Shows Organics Higher in Antioxidants" - a significant finding for the health-conscious. Low levels of magnesium and calcium in conventional foods are also important as magnesium insufficiency is linked to osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and migraines, among others. Low levels of zinc are related to birth defects, depression, and insomnia as well.

Rather than a media explosion, what we should have seen was a more tempered response noting the study's parameters and limitations, as well as noting some of the more balanced results. For holistic moms, organic is better on many fronts: sustainability, reducing toxins, and for good health!