Fish: Methylmercury on your Plate

Fish on a plateDuring this Lenten season, those of us who give up meat on Fridays will be eating fish. We know including fish in our diet can offer nutritional benefits–a 6-ounce serving offers a hefty dose of B vitamins, some minerals, and those beneficial omega-3 fats.

But we’ve also heard other things about fish. Every year an advisory is issued for pregnant women and young children that calls for a limit on the amount and types of fish they eat. That’s because all fish, all fish, is contaminated with methylmercury, a neurotoxic element that is particularly dangerous for a fetus or young child.

Because the amounts of methylmercury in fish vary greatly, to eat fish safely, you need to know what fish are more likely to contain more methylmercury.

But as a recent NPR article points out, lists can be confusing. For starters, you have to know what they are filtering for. Very often it’s for sustainability, not methylmercury . Only two out the most commonly referred to guides take mercury content into consideration.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Regional Consumer Guide or App

  • Recommendations help you choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment.

Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector

  • Scientists analyze many aspects of wild fisheries and fish farming operations for more than 200 types of seafood frequently sold in the US market.
  • They collaborate with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program.
  • They rank mercury content in fish with a vague category: unknown, moderate, or elevated.

Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guide to Seafood

  • Since government and independent scientists have not reached a consensus on a safe level of mercury exposure, it makes recommendations that are aimed to steer people to toward seafood with the best safety profiles.
  • Until the EPA completes its multi-year process to revise its assessment of mercury toxicity, this guide recommends that pregnant women and children consume no more than 75% of the EPA’s safety level. This builds in an extra margin of safety.

Similar to our ubiquitous and unknown levels of exposure to fluoride, mere avoidance of mercury is not only complicated, but political.

Since 1994, when the first published advisory about methylmercury in fish was issued, the FDA and the EPA have come under scrutiny. This year’s advisory is no different. A public health watchdog organization,  the Environmental Working Group, fired back on the “shocking” EPA-FDA advice about eating fish and shellfish. As an eater, you have to wonder, who do you trust and what do you do?

Concern is a good indication that we need more information, for example:

The answers to these questions don’t mean you can’t eat fish. But they do suggest it may be best to check with a guide or a print off list. Things can, and do, change.

Image by Art Siegel

 

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A Look Back at…10 Tips for Eating Organic on a Budget

A recent article over at Vox goes into “the shifting economics of organic food.” But while some organic food is getting cheaper, the fact remains that it can be pricey. But as we point out in this post from October 2013, buying organic doesn’t have to break the bank…

 

You often hear complaints about how expensive organic food is. And if you rely on lots of processed food products or measure value only by calories-per-dollar, then foods grown with chemicals or bioengineered or manufactured in factories might seem the best deal.

But in terms of human and environmental health, they’re only a bargain in the short run. As they say, you can

pay

Why are organic foods priced higher than conventionally grown? Rest assured, the pricing’s not arbitrary. The fees organic farmers pay for certification are hefty and frequently go up. Operations are small, and special facilities are often needed. Organic is more time-consuming and not focused on the subsidized commodity crops at the heart of the modern, conventional food supply. (You can read more reasons for the cost differences here.)

Still, it’s entirely possible to eat organically even on a tight budget. Here are 10 ideas for keeping your food bill low without compromising your health:

  1. Plant a garden! Probably the cheapest way to have organic food is to grow your own. Mother Earth News has a great guide on growing organic food by crop. And if you rent or don’t have the space to garden, there are community gardens that offer space across the country.
  2. If you do grow a garden, consider using heritage seeds – seeds collected from harvested foods and saved for the next growing season. Doing so maintains trusted plant varieties and encourages diversity in our gardens.
  3. Prioritize and buy organics selectively. The Environmental Working Group provides a handy list of what it calls the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 – respectively, foods to buy only in organic form due to their tendency to retain pesticide residues and foods that are acceptable whether conventionally or organically grown.
  4. Buy whole foods – unprocessed grains, vegetables, fruits and meats. Whole foods have the most nutrition and give you more bang for your buck.
  5. Buy food in season. Seasonal food is usually cheaper and always better than off-season. There is greater nutrition per dollar than in the same product during the off-season.
  6. Stock up when there’s a sale. If the food is perishable, consider canning or freezing it for later use.
  7. Buy in bulk – not Sam’s Club bulk but things like grains, dried beans, seeds and nuts. Because you’re not paying for fancy labeling, packaging or marketing, you save money. And you also reduce your environmental footprint by using less disposable packaging. Many natural food stores allow you to bring in pre-weighed containers for shopping their bulk aisles, and they may even offer a discount at the register for bringing your own.
  8. Buy local. Support your local economy, help save the environment and get better and cheaper food by doing business with your friendly, neighborhood farmer. If the produce at the farmer’s market food isn’t marked as certified organic, it still may be organic, so don’t be afraid to ask! Remember that cost of certification is prohibitive, so some farmers may forgo certification. If these reasons don’t convince you, here are 10 more reasons to enjoy shopping locally.
  9. Sign up with a CSA, or community supported agriculture. You get local, seasonal food delivered to you or you can pick it up each month. This may not be significantly cheaper per product, but the vegetables are much fresher than you’ll find in a grocery store, which makes the actual nutrition far cheaper.
  10. Shop online. Is there an organic product you like, such as a sunflower seed butter? Try comparison shopping at your computer to see if you can get cheaper through the mail.

The important thing here is to eat food that is good for you and that you enjoy. You shouldn’t have to be wealthy in order to enjoy good, wholesome food.

Have tips of your own for eating healthfully on a budget? Share them in the comments!

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New EPA Rule Aims to Keep Dental Mercury Out of the Environment

no dental mercury amalgamReady for some good news?

At long last, the EPA has proposed its rule to limit mercury discharges from dental offices. The agency estimates that it will prevent 8.8 tons of metal – half of which is mercury – from from polluting our water supply.

This is a very big deal, for there are about 160,000 dentists in the US who either use or remove amalgam, “almost all of whom discharge their wastewater exclusively to [Publicly Owned Treatment Works].”

Studies show about half the mercury that enters Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs) comes from dental offices. Mercury from amalgam can then make its way into the environment in a number of ways, including through discharge to water bodies. Contact with some microorganisms can help create methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that builds up in fish, shellfish and fish-eating animals.

That would include us. It’s one way those of us who never get a so-called “silver” filling are affected by dental mercury, as well. By reducing mercury discharges, we all win.

So how does the EPA propose we put an end to this pollution? Dentists would be required to use amalgam separators, a technology that catches and traps the mercury before it goes down the drain. (Of course, if it’s still being put in your teeth…) Twelve states already mandate them. We’ve used them in our office for years.

“This is a common sense rule that calls for capturing mercury at a relatively low cost before it is dispersed into the POTW,” said Kenneth J. Kopocis, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water. “The rule would strengthen human health protection by requiring removals based on the use of a technology and practices that approximately 40 percent of dentists across the country already employ thanks to the ADA and our state and local partners.”

Even so, we still have a lot of work to do to create a mercury-free future. Even with the new rule, mercury amalgams will still exist. Untold numbers are already in the mouths of patients. Some dentists continue to place them. Some patients still agree to them.

More, as Charlie Brown of Consumers for Dental Choice notes,

Separators cannot stop dental mercury from reaching the environment via other pathways, such as the cremation of human bodies containing amalgam. So what’s the best way to stop dental mercury pollution? Stop using mercury amalgam dental fillings.


TAKE ACTION!
If you haven’t already done so, sign the Consumer for Dental Choice’s petition that calls on Secretary of State John Kerry to help bring the FDA in line with State Department policy now that the US has signed the global mercury treaty known as the Minamata Convention. Please take a moment to sign and share it through social media or email. The petition is available here.

What the Research Says About BPA

What a not-so-long but rather strange trip it’s been…for the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) with respect to human health.

In 2008, it was thought to be totally safe. In 2010, not so much…until 2012, when it was declared safe for adults but not for children. It was then banned from use in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Two years later, the FDA claims that BPA is A-OK. Again. How can this be?

chemical structure of BPABefore we go on, it’s important to understand just what BPA is, and what it is is a chemical that’s used to make plastics. It’s also a brilliant mimic of estrogen – a hormone we all need to function (yup, men and women alike!). In fact, though it was never used as a drug, BPA originally came into use as a synthetic estrogen.

The thing is, you don’t want to overdo it with estrogen. Too much of the stuff? You’ve got problems. Among the health issues that BPA has been scientifically linked to: heart disease, diabetes, liver problems, hormone development problems in youth, sexual dysfunction in men and some cancers.

Unfortunately, our environment has been increasingly loaded with the stuff from a boundless array of consumer products – from plastic water bottles to carry-out boxes to metal can linings to receipt paper.

BPA is also found in some of the dental resins that are used for composite (tooth-colored) fillings and sealants, a byproduct of ingredients that are deteriorating or a result of manufacture. The American Dental Association apparently finds no real reason for concern.

The utility of composite resin materials for both restoring dental health and preventing caries is well established, while any health risks from their use are not. The ADA fully supports continued research into the safety of BPA; but, based on current evidence, the ADA does not believe there is a basis for health concerns relative to BPA exposure from any dental material.

Even so, some dentists will raise the matter of BPA risks to justify continued use of mercury amalgam. Not only do they completely skirt the issue of amalgam’s well documented dangers, they omit a crucial detail: While each and every amalgam contains 50% mercury, not all composites contain BPA.

That some do is a reminder of why biocompatibility testing and conscientious materials selection so important in biological dentistry: to exclude all potential toxins in support of the patient’s health.

BPA: Toxic or Not?

The FDA’s latest proclamation on the matter comes courtesy of a recent study that numerous scientists at work on a related project have taken issue with. In fact, they say the study was really messed up.

On a conference call the previous summer, officials from the FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had informed these researchers that the lab where the study was housed was contaminated. As a result, all of the animals—including the supposedly unexposed control group—had been exposed to BPA. The FDA made the case that this didn’t affect the outcome, but their academic counterparts believed it cast serious doubt on the study’s findings. “It’s basic science,” says Gail S. Prins, a professor of physiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was on the call. “If your controls are contaminated, you’ve got a failed experiment and the data should be discarded. I’m baffled that any journal would even publish this.”

Yet the FDA study glossed over this detail, which was buried near the end of the paper. Prins and her colleagues also complain that the paper omitted key information—including the fact that some of them had found dramatic effects in the same group of animals. “The way the FDA presented its findings is so disingenuous,” says one scientist, who works closely with the agency. “It borders on scientific misconduct.”

Strong words.

Meantime, other papers published around the same time suggest caution remains the right tack to take.

  1. Research published in the Journal of Endocrinology showed that BPA hinders mating. Scientists found that female mice exposed to an oral, low-dose form of BPA suffered poor endocrine production, resulting in poor reproductive health.
  2. A study in the International Journal of Impotence Research demonstrated that male reproduction suffers, too.
  3. Research in Neurotoxicology and Teratology showed that BPA may disrupt a mother’s nurturing instincts, causing her to display non-maternal behavior. It may also cause development delays in offspring.

Additionally, a study in PLoS ONE offered some evidence of childhood heart disorders as a result of maternal exposure to BPA. Earlier research showed that lambs exposed to BPA in utero were born with inflamed fat tissue and later tended toward obesity and poor metabolism.

Especially considering that there are plenty of alternatives available – for instance, stainless steel, glass – the evidence to date gives plenty of reason to minimize your exposure. A few guides to finding healthy alternatives:

anti-bpa comicAs for plastics? Your best bet may be to avoid them as much as possible, particularly when food is involved, for unfortunately, “BPA-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy.” Evidence has begun to emerge that some of the replacements may be just as bad or even worse. Recent research from the Center for Environmental Health found some plastic sippy cups “had significant amounts of estrogen-like activity, while [most] of those cups had higher activity levels than those made with BPA.”

You can read much more about this research and the quest for BPA replacements here and here.

Bottom line? As University of Missouri biologist Frederick vom Saal, a specialist in endocrine disruptors, recently told Prevention Magazine,

“Until we have some idea of what chemicals are added in all stages in making a final product, we will not be able to determine the safety of any plastic product….” For now, sticking to leach-free materials like glass or stainless steel as much as possible seems to be your best bet.

Comic by DES Daughter, via Flickr

10 Tips for Eating Organic on a Budget

You often hear complaints about how expensive organic food is. And if you rely on lots of processed food products or measure value only by calories-per-dollar, then foods grown with chemicals or bioengineered or manufactured in factories might seem the best deal.

But in terms of human and environmental health, they’re only a bargain in the short run. As they say, you can

pay

Why are organic foods priced higher than conventionally grown? Rest assured, the pricing’s not arbitrary. The fees organic farmers pay for certification are hefty and frequently go up. Operations are small, and special facilities are often needed. Organic is more time-consuming and not focused on the subsidized commodity crops at the heart of the modern, conventional food supply. (You can read more reasons for the cost differences here.)

Still, it’s entirely possible to eat organically even on a tight budget. Here are 10 ideas for keeping your food bill low without compromising your health:

  1. Plant a garden! Probably the cheapest way to have organic food is to grow your own. Mother Earth News has a great guide on growing organic food by crop. And if you rent or don’t have the space to garden, there are community gardens that offer space across the country.
  2. If you do grow a garden, consider using heritage seeds – seeds collected from harvested foods and saved for the next growing season. Doing so maintains trusted plant varieties and encourages diversity in our gardens.
  3. Prioritize and buy organics selectively. The Environmental Working Group provides a handy list of what it calls the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 – respectively, foods to buy only in organic form due to their tendency to retain pesticide residues and foods that are acceptable whether conventionally or organically grown.
  4. Buy whole foods – unprocessed grains, vegetables, fruits and meats. Whole foods have the most nutrition and give you more bang for your buck.
  5. Buy food in season. Seasonal food is usually cheaper and always better than off-season. There is greater nutrition per dollar than in the same product during the off-season.
  6. Stock up when there’s a sale. If the food is perishable, consider canning or freezing it for later use.
  7. Buy in bulk – not Sam’s Club bulk but things like grains, dried beans, seeds and nuts. Because you’re not paying for fancy labeling, packaging or marketing, you save money. And you also reduce your environmental footprint by using less disposable packaging. Many natural food stores allow you to bring in pre-weighed containers for shopping their bulk aisles, and they may even offer a discount at the register for bringing your own.
  8. Buy local. Support your local economy, help save the environment and get better and cheaper food by doing business with your friendly, neighborhood farmer. If the produce at the farmer’s market food isn’t marked as certified organic, it still may be organic, so don’t be afraid to ask! Remember that cost of certification is prohibitive, so some farmers may forgo certification. If these reasons don’t convince you, here are 10 more reasons to enjoy shopping locally.
  9. Sign up with a CSA, or community supported agriculture. You get local, seasonal food delivered to you or you can pick it up each month. This may not be significantly cheaper per product, but the vegetables are much fresher than you’ll find in a grocery store, which makes the actual nutrition far cheaper.
  10. Shop online. Is there an organic product you like, such as a sunflower seed butter? Try comparison shopping at your computer to see if you can get cheaper through the mail.

The important thing here is to eat food that is good for you and that you enjoy. You shouldn’t have to be wealthy in order to enjoy good, wholesome food.

Have tips of your own for eating healthfully on a budget? Share them in the comments!

.