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Monthly Archives: May 2011

According to Oxfam International, world food prices for staples such as corn, wheat and rice will rise 120-180% by 2030.  Between April 2010 and April 2011 alone, the world has seen a doubling of the price for corn and wheat has risen about 60 -80%.
A study by Oxfam found that the world's poorest communities spend as much as 80% of their income buying food causing people to slip into "food insecurity." Food insecurity occurs when a community does not have enough food to eat on a regular basis.  The struggle currently impacts over 800 million people world wide with about 60% of these communities in Asia and around 25% in Africa.  With the global population likely to reach 9 billion by 2050, food security advocates are worried the trend will have devastating impacts for already vulnerable areas.
The cause of soaring food prices is under debate.  The role of biofuels, inflation, the cost of oil, natural disasters and a growing population of the developing world are all contributors; but Oxfam attributes the crisis to the changing climate.  According to a study by Standford University, Columbia University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, warming temperatures has already taken a toll on crop yields.  Corn yields in the U.S. have dropped 3.5% while wheat has dropped 5.5% since 1980.
The report stresses that solutions must include world governments cooperation to avert a crisis by investing in climate adaptation, disaster risk reduction and social protection.  Oxfam also called out subsidies awarded to mega agricultural produces advocating for the needs of small scale farmers in developing countries to be prioritized. 

Scientists suggest that lithium could become as ubiquitous as fluoride in drinking water after finding that it may have the power to reduce suicide rates.  The study from the Medical University of Vienna  examined naturally occurring lithium concentrations in drinking water across 99 districts in Austria and compared it against those towns' suicide rates.
The study found that regions that have the lowest concentrations of lithium have suicide rates of 16 for every 100,000 people versus 11 for regions with the highest concentrations.  The study agrees with a similar Japanese study that examined natural lithium levels of 18 communities in the Oita prefecture.  The levels ranged from 0.8 micrograms per liter to 59 micrograms per liter and areas with higher concentrations were less likely to commit suicide.
Lithium is currently used to treat bipolar disorder in doses starting at 600mg.  Theory has it that lithium increases the amount of neurotransmitters such as serotonin which acts as a mood stabilizer for both the manic and depressive sides of the disorder.  Now, some are using the study's findings to advocate for using trace amounts of lithium in drinking water.
Adding chemicals to drinking water for public health benefits is nothing new to the US.  Since the 1940s, the U.S. has put trace amounts of fluoride in drinking water to prevent tooth decay.  University of Vienna researchers claim they are not advocating for therapeutic amounts of lithium to be added to water but to increase the amount in lithium-depleted areas to level out with areas where lithium is naturally rich.
What do you think?  Are you comfortable with lithium being added to make you feel happier?

When strolling the isles of the supermarket one is likely to find a wide array of nonstick cookware.  Non-stick cookie sheets, pots, pans, sets, bakeware; the list goes on.  But the rise of the convenient technology has environmental health advocates worrying that the non-stick chemical may cause cancer.
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known as Teflon and Perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), a chemical compound found in Teflon are used in the non-stick coatings of cookware.  PFOA never breaks down in the environment and is releases toxic gasses when heated at 396º F resulting in flu like symptoms.  An EPA study found that 90% of Americans have PFOA in their bloodstream and labeled the toxin as a "likely carcinogen".
Teflon's manufacturer, DuPont Co. denies any allegations that their product threatens human health.  In the wake of the controversy, cookware companies such as GreenPan and Swiss Diamond are offering non-stick alternatives as being more environmentally friendly and healthy.
Swiss Diamond claims that their non-stick cookware is pressure cast aluminum that is reinforced with diamonds offering a safe alternative to Teflon.  The precious rock justifies the $80 price tag for one pan when a regular Teflon coated pan can be bought for around $20.  The FAQ section on their website boast when asked if they use Teflon "No! Swiss Diamond is not using DuPont Teflon non-stick coatings.  Teflon is a trademark of DuPont and describes a big range of products…Our unique coating composition is manufactured by us, and without any components from DuPont. Teflon and PTFE are not the same."   The company goes on to explain that their diamond reinforced coating allows them to reduce PTFE. 
The devil is in the details.  Swiss Diamond says that they are not using "DuPont Teflon" non-stick coatings and that Teflon and PTFE are not the same.  But Teflon and PTFE are the same.  Teflon is the brand name that DuPont gave PTFE when they invented it in the 1930s.  Teflon sounds a whole lot better than PTFE or Polytetrafluoroethylene.
Swiss Diamond is fooling consumers into believing that if they pay a premium, they can eat off of diamonds and avoid Teflon. Don't be fooled!  Do your research before you invest in any cookware boasting to be "green" or forget non-stick, just stick with traditional cookware and butter it up!  

Soon after the Environmental Protection Agency announced that they would be holding regulations that would clean up industrial air pollution, Administrator Lisa Jackson sat down with Jon Stewart.  On the Daily Show interview she Jackson discusses the discrepancy between what Americans want the EPA to do; what politicians want, and her role trying to find the balance; "we can cut red tape but we can't cut the protection." Here are the broadcast interview and extended web extra.

In the extended clip, Lisa Jackson elaborates on how EPA actions have saved trillions of dollars in health care costs.

If you want to learn more about the stalled regulations that would've put restrictions on industrial air polliution, including mercury emissions, check out Living on Earth's report this week.

You don't have to go on safari or even to the zoo to see lions. Lion meat is showing up in the cooler section in select butcher shops across the country. I found some "Free Range African Lion" steaks about a block from my house in Cambridge, MA.  But asking where this meat comes from took me from my backyard to a shaddy, little-known corner of the meat industry. 

Learn more about this strange dish, including the documents mentioned in the story, over at  Living on Earth.

For nearly a century, DC’s Anacostia River and the communities that surround it have been a dumping ground for the city.  While DC’s favorite river, the Potomac, is lined with upscale housing and designer shops, the Anacostia is home to an underprivileged, nearly 92% black population.
The people who reside along the “forgotten river” live in the shadows of industries that pollute it.  Residents of River Terrace, Kingman Park and Parkside complain of having to scrub soot off their cars and window sills; and fishing tumor-ridden catfish out of the river. Nobody who lives here was surprised to learn that the polluted Anacostia river presented a health threat- they could see illness in each other.
Long-time resident, Linda Hamilton-Gilbert has called Kingman Park home since the 60s.  Hamilton-Gilbert is a 17-year survivor of lung cancer but her mother and father weren’t as lucky.  Her father died seven years ago from lung cancer and her mother was recently diagnosed with what doctors believe is liver cancer. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that something is going on…no one has really paid any attention” says Hamilton-Gilbert.
Three likely culprits contribute to the health problems rampant in South East DC.  The Kenilworth land fill, one of the EPA’s Superfund sites, was a former dumping ground for the city’s garbage. For nearly 30 years beginning in the 60s, everything from abandoned refrigerators to stoves and car parts were thrown away at this open dump.  The city eventually shut it down after realizing that companies were dumping hazardous waste such as asbestos.  
The second major source of pollution comes from an incinerator, the Benning Road Transfer Station (BRTS). It has spewed toxic air pollution since 1972. For 22 years 1500 tons of trash were burned every day.  The plant’s furnaces were eventually forced to shut down by the city for failing to meet standards. Today, the site disposes 250 tons of waste every day including hazardous e-waste, cleaning chemicals, gasoline, pesticides, mercury thermometers and paint.
The third major polluter is Pepco, the DC area’s electricity provider.  For more than a century, Pepco has operated a small plant along the Anacostia River called the Benning Road facility.  Today, the plant is used only during peak seasons and as a storage site for trucks and equipment.   However, decades ago the facility was used as a disposal area and held PCB contaminated oil.
PCBs can cause a variety of health problems including cancer.  They do not easily breakdown and so remain in the air, water and soil for a long time once released.  PCBs are bioaccumulators meaning once they enter the body they build up.  A common way people are impacted by this phenomenon is through the consumption of fish that have years of accumulation in their flesh.
The District’s Department of Environment (DDOE) filed a complaint against Pepco alleging that the oil and leaking equipment migrated to the river after finding PCBs immediately downstream from the plant.  This year, Pepco agreed to investigate whether they are responsible for the PCB contamination.  While Pepco has been cooperative, residents fear that having Pepco investigate itself would produce less than honest findings.  
In an interview with Planet Harmony, Paul Connor, the Deputy Director of DDOE assured residents that Pepco would be held responsible. “We will oversee every aspect of this study…We will be reviewing every document that they prepare…and the end result of this initial study will be a decision by DDOE, not PEPCO, as to what kind of clean up is necessary.”   
Mindy Mitchell, a member of Friends of Kingman Park, a community advocacy group, was fed up with local D.C. officials’ apathy about the pollution.  With shovel in hand, she collected soil samples from Kingman Island, located about five minutes from Pepco.  She sent her samples to a lab at the University of Massachusetts.   
They returned findings of very high levels of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, nickel, chromium, zinc, iron and copper which registered levels over 4,000% the legal limit. In the comments section of the report, the technician wrote “These are some of the most contaminated soils we have ever received.”
Pepco plans to retire the Benning Road facility by May 2012, making way for development plans the city has eagerly been waiting to launch.  Despite major environmental problems, the city hopes to build thousands of new apartments and houses, shopping districts, offices, bridges, roads, a river walk, a light rail system, and even an environmental center.   
The area is already celebrating its first ribbon cutting ceremonies from the new development.  An early childhood education center has been built behind Pepco at a cost of $12 million.
The community is more than deserving of the benefits from development.  Residents are not only exhausted from environmental problems but also high illiteracy, crime and poverty rates and are eager for a positive change.
However, residents are concerned that the city is putting developing in front of the community’s public health.  Neighbors worry what will happen to students and staff who attend class on toxic land. “In elementary, the children sometimes go there for six years, if they have a day care, that makes it seven and if you’re a faculty member you could be there for 30 years. So think about the level of exposure for the people who are there”  says Mitchell.  
It has taken decades and still is yet to be determined who is responsible for what pollution, how will it be cleaned and who will be responsible for paying for it.   While the Anacostia river has become known as “DC’s forgotten river,” the people who live there, do not want to be ”DC’s forgotten community.”

Photo by John Devine

Child labor laws in this country stopped depression-era minors from working factory lines.  It has been over 70 years since FDR signed into law restrictions preventing many forms of child labor. Yet today, kids as young as 12 years old, still legally work long days on cash crops.  Tonight on 60 minutes, Byron Pitts spends time with a family of Mexican-Americans whose children have tilled American fields for four generations.

A recent congressional report has found that the FDA is to blame for lax safety regulations on imported seafood.  The FDA relies on records from importers in the U.S. and in 2009 only inspected 0.1% of foreign producers.
The U.S. represents the world's third largest seafood market behind Japan and China according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  The U.S. imports about half of its seafood supply half of which is grown by farming known as aquaculture. 
Fish raised by aquaculture help to sustain a hastily growing global seafood market but are also more prone to bacterial infections and environmental pollutants.  To quell disease, producers use antibiotics that are often not approved in the U.S. to treat the fish.  According to the Government Accountability Office report, the residues of these antibiotics pose a threat of both cancer and antibiotic resistance.
In a landmark Canadian study, just one serving of farm raised salmon contained three to six times the World Health Organization's daily intake limit of dioxins and polychlorinated bisphenyls (PCBs).  The study found that farmed salmon from certain areas have risks that out weigh the benefits of eating fish.  Farmed salmon from Europe had some of the highest pollutants while Chile had some of the lowest followed by North America.  
PCBs are not easily broken down and accumulate in the body.  The toxic substance were commonly used as coolants and insulating fluid for electrical equipment and as a plasticizer for paint and cement.  In 1977, the EPA labeled PCBs as "probably carcinogens" and banned their use.
To reduce your exposure to contaminated seafood you can choose domestic over imported fish and choose local over fish that has been shipped from far away.  Food & Water Watch provides a free online guide to help you make healthier choices when buying seafood.  The guide lists the "Dirty Dozen" that fail to meet two or more of their standards for safety and sustainability.  It's worst offender is imported coastal-farmed shrimp which it says is often raised in overly crowded, dirty farms and laden with chemicals, anitbiotics and pesticides.

Green loss and green hope: Both young men in training were at the crossroads. One jumped aboard a new career but the other was felled by ghetto violence before he could leap.

Jashon Gadlin, 23, was working on a car—and training for a green collar job in Richmond, California –when he was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Mother Jones Magazine writer Kristina Rizga tells this tragic story in MJ's May 2011 issue . But the writer also tells a hopeful tale about Jashon's classmate, Ali Thompson, aged 20.  

Learning how to retrofit homes for renewable energy and conservation became Ali Thompson's 's ticket to a full time job. The experience has also grounded his aspirations for a college education.  He now wants to go to business school.

Going green has meant home Thompson can bring home the green.

The picture (courtesy of Mother Jones) shows  Lawrence Albert "Jahon" Craig Gadlin with his partner, Latina Cash, and son, Jahon Jr.

A program to monitor what kids are eating in school is turning some San Antonio cafeterias into lunch-time laboratories.  Once students go through the lunch-line, a camera snaps a picture of their loaded tray.  When the bell rings a camera snaps another picture of what’s left on their trays.  The pictures are then analyzed; calories are counted, nutrition assessed.  

Over the next three years, the researchers will share their findings with parents.  They hope the data will shape menus at home by showing what and how much food kids are eating.  The researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and diabetes risk are higher.  

Full article from the Associated Press below. 

SAN ANTONIO – Smile, schoolchildren. You're on calorie camera.

Health officials trying to reduce obesity and improve eating habits at five San Antonio elementary schools unveiled a $2 million research project Wednesday that will photograph students' lunch trays before they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers.

A computer program then analyzes the photos to identify every piece of food on the plate — right down to how many ounces are left in that lump of mashed potatoes — and calculates the number of calories each student scarfed down.

The project, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, is the first of its kind in the nation. The cameras, about the size of pocket flashlights, point only toward the trays and don't photograph the students. Researchers say about 90 percent of parents gave permission to record every morsel of food their child eats.

"We're trying to be as passive as possible. The kids know they're being monitored," said Dr. Roger Echon, who works for the San Antonio-based Social & Health Research Center, and who is building the food-recognition program.

Here's how it works: Each lunch tray gets a bar code sticker to identify a student. After the children load up their plates down the line — cole slaw or green beans? french fries or fruit? — a camera above the cashier takes a picture of each tray.

When lunch is over and the plates are returned to the kitchen, another camera takes a snapshot of what's left. Echon's program then analyzes the before and after photos to calculate calories consumed and the values of 128 other nutrients. It identifies foods by measuring size, shape, color and density.

Parents will receive the data for their children, and researchers hope eating habits at home will change once moms and dads see what their kids are choosing in school. The data also will be used to study what foods children are likely to choose and how much they're eating.

Nine-year-old Aaliyah Haley went through the lunch line at W.W. White Elementary with cheesy enchiladas, Spanish rice, fat-free chocolate milk and an apple. Two cameras, one pointed directly down and another about tray-level, photographed her food before she sat down to eat.

"I liked it. It's good food that was good for me," Haley said.

Just how healthy it was researchers don't know yet. Echon is still developing the program and expects to spend the first year of the four-year grant fine-tuning the equipment. By the 2012-13 school year, the Social Health & Research Center plans to have a prototype in place.

Echon has already made some changes to the project. Echon learned that mashed potatoes served on some campuses are lumpier than those served on others. The program now accounts for consistencies and texture.

The database already includes about 7,500 different varieties of food. Echon said he started from scratch because there was no other food-recognition software to build upon. He insisted on creating technology to record meals because asking 8-year-olds to remember what they ate and write it down is seldom accurate.

Researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and diabetes risk are higher. Among those is White Elementary, which is just off a busy interstate highway on the city's poor east side, on a street dotted with fast-food restaurants and taquerias.

In Bexar County, where the five pilot schools are located, 33 percent of children living in poverty are obese.

Researchers warn that obesity is not always the result of children eating too many calories. A previous study by the nonprofit center reported that 44 percent of children studied consumed calories below daily minimum requirements, but nearly one-third were still obese. Seven percent screened positive for type 2 diabetes.

Mark Davis, the school's principal, said getting consent from parents hasn't been a problem. He suspects the small number of parents who withhold consent don't understand the project, perhaps thinking it limits what their child can eat at school.

"Nothing in the program says they can't have something," Davis said. "It just says we're tracking what it is."