Let’s Get Real

Environment Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, September-October 2016 edition

To date, my mode of operation has been to post articles onto my blog previously printed in The Boonslick Weekly. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of writing a weekly environmental column in our local newspaper for over four years.  That came to an abrupt halt after this article ran. My column was deemed “too political and no longer inspiring”.  Seems I pushed the envelope too far for this small conservative community. I’m still processing this piece of information and will share my reflections on my next posting.  For now, this is how I chose to get real.

Let’s Get Real

I try my best to not be too “political” while writing this column but sadly, the environment has become a partisan issue.

While industry enjoyed business as usual dumping their toxic waste into our waterways, by the 1960s the accumulated pollution was no longer acceptable. Fish were dying in the Great Lakes, rivers were catching on fire, and smog was inundating our larger cities; all threatening our health and well being. Federal laws in the 1960s addressed those concerns – The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and others began to regulate what industry could do, all receiving bipartisan support. By the 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the tradition of Earth Day began, all were on board.

Gradually a shift occurred as documented by the League of Conservative Voter’s scorecard. In 1973, 59% Democrats and 28% Republicans in the Senate, while 63% Democrats and 32% Republicans in the House supported pro-environmental laws. In 2016, 96% Democrats and 14% Republicans in the Senate and 94% Democrats and 5% Republicans in the House cast pro-environmental votes.

I’ve been studying this phenomenon for a while now. Best I can understand, everybody, public and politicians alike, loves the environment; it appears the divide occurs when it comes to regulating pollution. Federal regulations are seen by some as a threat to economic growth or individual liberty. It seems the “big picture” is being lost.  With change always comes the opportunity for innovation – if we had worked together from the get-go, solutions prioritizing our individual liberty and health would have been found. Unfortunately this collective effort didn’t occur.

To get around the discomfort of scientific evidence, industry and politicians started questioning science, the very science that has protected us, brought innovation and enriched our lives. It seems the flash-point was when scientific evidence confirmed humans were contributing to global climate change and the risks it posed. When serious discussion began about further regulating greenhouse emissions in the 1990s, the political divide escalated. Those who were most concerned about “conserving” our earth were dismissed as liberals or socialists. Again we had the opportunity to seize the opportunity for innovation.  If we had chosen to subsidize renewable energy over oil, we would have painlessly decreased emissions, while creating a robust economy enhancing the health of our earth and populace.

Here is my dilemma; I’m not one to post fuzzy cat postings on Facebook. While I enjoy writing about my love of nature, these are not typical times. We are experiencing an unprecedented escalated assault on our health and environment. Industry and big money are firmly pitted against the environment, all too willing to compromise the health of our bodies and environment. In that effort “alternative facts” are now treated like facts and scientific evidence questioned, ignored and buried.

To honor my subject matter – the environment –you may have noticed I have been speaking a bit more candidly. Many of my readers, who too are quite worried, have thanked me for those efforts. While now wracked with concern, I hope to return to a lighter message soon.



Our Environmental Champion is at Risk

Eliminating or reducing the influence of federal agencies can have wide range implications. When the Environmental Protection Agency is at risk, I take notice as they are our Champion. Their sole mission is to prioritize the health of our Earth and our well-being! Per their website, “The United States Environmental Protection Agency is an agency of the Federal government of the United States which was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.” Given the important role of the EPA, I was quite alarmed when Scott Pruitt was appointed to head the organization given his deep fossil-fuel ties and long history of suing the EPA, undermining its core mission.

Given this appointment, our president’s 2018 budget request came as no surprise. He proposes a 31 percent cut (2.6 billion) eliminating over 50 individual programs and nearly 4,000 full-time EPA employees, the lowest budget allocation for 40 years. Given the EPA’s wide spectrum of programs including Agriculture, Air Quality, Energy Efficiency and Global Climate Change, Pollution Prevention, Product Labeling, Technology, Transportation Programs, Waste Management, and Water, such a cut would diminish our quality of life.

Health – The EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and the Radon Program would both be threatened severely.  It would be virtually impossible to screen and test endocrine disruptors that threaten reproductive health and children’s growth and test for radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, believed to cause lung cancer.  Recently Pruitt chose to ignore the EPA’s agency chemical safety experts and lift the ban on chlorpyrifos, concluded to cause learning and memory declines among farm workers and young children, exposed through drinking water and other sources.

Air – The Clean Air Act of 1970 funding designed to control air pollution, would be cut in half.  According to the EPA, between 1970 and 2015 emissions have dropped an average of 70 percent.  This program has been hugely successful, projected to save trillions of dollars in 2020 alone.  Cleaner skies have enhanced our health and reduced suffering.

Water –The two largest budget slashes suggested are The Great Lakes Program and Chesapeake Bay Program, up to 90%. Given industrial pollution, close monitoring is critical. The Great Lakes are the largest surface of freshwater in the world, 84% of North America’s surface freshwater. This cut would impact millions as the Great Lakes provide drinking water to around 40 million people in the United States and Canada and serve as a major food source. The Chesapeake Bay also relies on close monitoring to assure good water quality and healthy fish supporting local economies in several states. Grants to help states monitor public water systems stand to lose almost one third; certainly bad news for reeling Flint, Michigan!

Enforcement – The budget proposal reduces spending on civil and criminal enforcement by almost 60 percent making it difficult for the EPA to implement the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, assuring public health.

Clean-up programs – Proposals are to eliminate assistance with regional clean-up efforts in all our major bodies of water. And the Superfund program in charge of cleaning up the most polluted sites in the country would also be compromised.  The EPA identifies the polluters and makes them pay for the clean-up, saving taxpayers money. Per the EPA website, on 5/9/17 there were 1180 National Priority Sites and 50 proposed sites.  The proposed budget reduces enforcement and remedial components by 45%. The Brownfields program which helps towns and cities redevelop former industrial sites is proposed to lose 30% of its funding.  Sadly, contaminated sites disproportionately impact the disadvantaged who tend to suffer silently. This program gives them the opportunity to clean up and revitalize contaminated sites, boost their local economy and enhance their public health.

Climate Protection Program – Plans are to eliminate this program which provides expertise on climate solutions including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and adaptation to climate impacts.  While communities are already struggling with climate change ocean-rise and destructive weather patterns, no funding is proposed to advise or help those displaced communities. As for not pursuing energy efficiencies and renewables, we are missing a huge economic opportunity being enjoyed world-wide.

Nonpoint Source Grant Program – These funds help states deal with pollutants from sources that aren’t regulated by the Clean Water Act; all funds would be eliminated.

Radiation Protection and Response Preparedness – The EPA’s RadNet system monitors fall-outs from nuclear accidents making science-based decisions on how to protect the public. Proposals are to defund the protection program and keep some funds for “essential preparedness work”.

Science – Funding would be cut for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and funding eliminated entirely for the EPAs Environmental Education and Regional Science and Technology programs. Programs to study environmental hazards including lead, poor indoor air quality and radiation would be eliminated, while programs in place to minimize the damage of pesticides would be nearly eliminated.  Five scientists have already been fired with plans to replace them by the heads of polluting industry the EPA should be monitoring.

All these proposals will have a direct impact on our lives and well-being, particularly low-income, and minorities. Plans are already in motion to reconfigure and restructure the EPA’s activities so they will no longer place a “burden” on industry.  When science is questioned, ignored, and slighted with under-funding, it’ll be difficult for the EPA to develop sound regulations that protect us. Without sound science and regulations, how can they possibly fulfill the mission of protecting human health and the environment? When the EPAs mission is undermined, we are the ones who suffer and in turn bear the burden of a polluted Earth. Profits over people in its worst form.

Sources include recent summaries from The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Union of Concerned Scientists.


Obesity Epidemic – Part IV

Taking back our health requires much more than taking a pill to mask symptoms.  While it will initially take a lot of discipline and effort, in most cases obesity and related health issues can be overcome.  Being heavy and unhealthy doesn’t have to be our new norm. While the food industry will tell you the answer is to simply exercise, specialists say reducing targeted calories is the first step, and all calories are not alike.  Eating healthier takes off the pounds and exercise builds muscles to keep off the weight.

Any lifestyle changes take time – it’s a process, not an event.  While many serious health issues require drastic measures, it is more nurturing to “ease” into a healthier lifestyle. A moderate approach might mean starting by eating fast foods one less day a week, eating vegetarian one day a week, drinking more water, not eating at a desk or while driving, enjoying more family sit-down meals, or shopping at a Farmer’s Market. Gradually adding movement to your day might mean stretching more often, taking a fifteen minute walk, playing catch with your kids, take up gardening, strengthening your balance by standing on one foot or joining a yoga or fitness class. Study labels, try new foods, gradually shift to a healthier diet and move more.  Positive results lead to more positive changes – you will be on your way.  Change is invigorating.  Just keep in mind, for optimal health, the Department of Health and Human Services and American Heart Association recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination).

I find the Environmental Working Group dietary guidelines to be quite helpful.

Eat more vegetables and fruits, avoid pesticides when you can.

Eat less meat, especially red and processed meat – “Red and processed meats are believed to cause cancer and heart disease, and their production is bad for the environment”.

Skip sodas, sugary and salty food.

Eat healthy and sustainable seafood that’s low in mercury.

Beware of processed foods – “The federal Food and Drug Administration allows more than 10,000 chemical additives in food.  Some of these substances are linked to serious disorders.”

While the issues surrounding obesity are quite complex, during my discussion I have focused on dietary changes and a more active lifestyle. Minimizing stress, staying well rested and maintaining a strong support system all help to prevent emotional eating. Cutting down on screen time filled with advertisements, especially those targeting vulnerable kids can also be extremely effective. If you feel the need, continue researching on your own and see what works for you.  Feeling healthy, happy, and energetic is worth the effort!

This is the last of my Obesity Epidemic series – Thanks for staying tuned in!

Obesity Epidemic – Part III

Fortunately by wielding our power of choice, we can mindfully choose what we eat and how we move our bodies, enhancing our quality of life. In the late 1970s, I was propelled into a healthy lifestyle while co-managing a natural food grocery store.  Already quite active physically, my diet drastically improved as I voraciously studied all things related to nutrition; those studies continue today. While I have read widely on the topic and found what works for me, I’m not a medical professional.

My approach is pretty simple.  I avoid most processed foods preferring whole and nutrient-dense foods.   I spend most of my time at the grocery store shopping on the perimeter; spend ample time in the produce and health food sections and very little time among the stacks of processed food in the center aisles.  I’m an avid label reader and avoid high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, food enhancers, artificial ingredients, and saturated fats.  I buy organics as financially able, eat very little meat, and avoid products made from genetically modified organisms (GMO) with a vengeance.  Fortunately, it seems my taste buds have evolved along during this process, as I love vegetables and crave healthy foods. That’s good because the closest I come to dieting is limiting my dark chocolate intake!

I feel my best when I exercise regularly, usually a rigorous walk every other day. I have found, if I get too busy and forget to exercise, my stress level increases so I get back out there and walk. I start and stop, still striving to commit to a weight-lifting regimen as it’s empowering when I feel strong.  I also stay quite active while involved with what I like to do. Outdoors is always alluring as I immensely enjoy nature and hiking. I have a large yard to maintain, Food Bank shelves to stock, and litter and cigarette butts always need to be picked up.

I recently watched “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan and highly recommend it, as I like his approach to food.  Here are some of his recommendations – Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants; Eat only foods that will eventually rot; Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans; Avoid foods you see advertised on television; Make water your beverage of choice; Stop eating before you are full; Fill your plate with color, without artificial colors; Eat slowly to maximize the pleasure of food; Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; Break the rules once in a while – what matters is not the special occasions but the everyday default practices; and cultivate a relaxed, non-punitive attitude toward food.

Obesity Epidemic – Part II

According to the Mayo Clinic, 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug, more than half take two, whereas 20% take five or more. The Union of Concerned Scientists site studies predicting for the first time in a century, many children will have a shorter life span than their parents!  It’s time to take our health back.  While researching this topic, the most frequently mentioned culprits were artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, unhealthy fats, and refined grains, all common in processed foods.

Artificial sweeteners – We can’t “trick” our bodies and just keep eating. When we eat or drink, our body is poised to receive nutrients, when they don’t come the body continues to crave food so we keep eating, then the body quickly converts calories to fat as a survival mechanism.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – Widely studied, this pervasive ingredient has a direct link to weight gain, diabetes II, and heart disease.  This type of sugar confuses the metabolic system in such a way you don’t realize you are full, sugar cravings increase, and calories are efficiently stored as fat. It is inexpensive to produce and highly addictive, consequently everywhere! Consider soda alone; after drinking one 8 oz can of soda a day for one year, 35 pounds of sugar is ingested. Burning off one soda requires running 50 minutes; if 35 pounds of sugar isn’t burned off, it potentially converts to 14.4 lbs. of fat – all in one year.  Now, think about those Big Gulps up to 64 ounces!  Make water your beverage of choice – our best hydrator. Meanwhile, watch for HFCS common in breakfast cereal, cookies, cakes, granola bars, crackers, condiments, salad dressings, canned goods, sauces, cough syrups, and more – Read Food Labels.

Fats – All fats are not created alike.  Our body needs and feels fulfilled when we eat monosaturated and polysaturated healthy fats – salmon, avocados, olive oils and nuts.  We need to eat minimal saturated fats (fried foods, chips, junk food, red meat) and completely stay away from trans-fats and partially hydrogenated oils -French fries, and a common ingredient in packaged goods including cookies, cakes and crackers.

Following a 20 year grain promoting USDA food pyramid stint, in 2011 the MyPlate guide was developed to promote healthier eating. New recommendations are portion control, reduction of salt and sugar, and eating a wide variety of food with your plate proportioned as follows – 40 percent vegetables, 30 percent grains, 20 percent protein, 10 percent fruits and some dairy on the side. Nutritionists voice concern the food industry used its influence to make these new guidelines watered down and confusing.  An independent science advisory panel clearly advised the guidelines recommend eating less meat, cutting down on soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages, mention the risk of eating fish high in mercury, and encouraged food sustainability practices; all were ignored.


The Obesity Epidemic

Granted it’s a sensitive topic and almost even taboo to discuss, but I’m going there anyway. When I hear projections such as one in three children will get diabetes in their lifetime unless they get more exercise and improve their diet, it’s time to get the dialogue going loud and clear. Obesity typically leads to multiple health risks including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Obesity has become a major health issue both diminishing our quality of life and straining our healthcare system.  Some fear the upswing of obesity related diabetes alone will break the bank of our healthcare system.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports one third of US adults are obese, weighing 26 more pounds than they did in 1950. Children and adolescents from ages 2-19 years have a 17% obesity rate.  All rates continue to increase at a quick pace across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.  A National Institutes of Health report states from 1962 to 2006, obesity in adults more than doubled, from 13.4 percent to over one third.  Another third are overweight.  Since 1975 Americans with diabetes has more than tripled.

Our modern diet filled with processed and fast foods has caused a lot of suffering.   Fortunately, if we take responsibility as individuals, this is a national health problem we can prevent.  How did we get here and what can we do to stop this trend?

With subsidized corn in the 1980s came inexpensive high fructose corn syrup and cheap junk food ingredients flooding the market, making “super-sizing” possible.  Sadly, as taxpayers we pay millions of tax dollars annually to subsidize these practices.  The food industry has gotten really good at manipulating food. They use chemicals to make it taste great, with the right texture, color and smell to keep people over-consuming and craving. By spending billions of dollars advertising, and using appealing packaging, they have created a secure market for their highly profitable products.  Fast foods and chains compete by increasing portion sizes. Our bodies aren’t satisfied when we eat nutrient-deficient food; we overeat as our body signals for more food in search for nutrition.

These days, a typical diet includes larger meals filled with an increasing amount of low nutrient refined grains, red meat, unhealthy fats and sugary drinks along with less fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.  With this high calorie intake has come a more sedentary lifestyle.  Days past, survival required hard physical work; now we have more leisure and enjoy “screen time” – television, computers and smart phones.  To add to the injury, during much of that “screen time” advertisements bombard us encouraging us to keep eating!

This topic is so important and complex, it morphed into a four part series.

Image by – Huffpost Healthy Living, 11/5/13 “So This is Why Children are Craving That Fast Food

Progress on Our Behalf

Sweeping changes are occurring in the food industry, perhaps escaping your notice. It’s encouraging to see changes. As we gain momentum gravitating toward healthier choices, the industry responds. They study our patterns and give us what we want, or rather, “need”. Decisions are made based on our feedback in the way of purchases, phone calls, written comments, and petitions. Maybe they see our nation’s health has declined or perhaps they are responding to our feedback and purchasing patterns and realize it makes good business sense.

WebMD highly recommends avoiding the following seven food additives – food colorings, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium benzoate and trans-fats. Recent food industry shifts are focusing on these particular additives. While the level of commitment varies greatly and it’s still not apparent whether all the ambitious time-lines for 2015 have been met, here is progress in the works –

The Aldi Supermarket chain (about 1,400 stores in the US) recently announced by the end of 2015 all their branded products, will be free of synthetic colors, partially hydrogenated oils and MSG.

Taco Bell states by the beginning of 2016, they will remove artificial flavors and colors, added trans fat, high fructose corn syrup, and unsustainable palm oil from its core menu items, introduce aspartame-free diet Pepsi and convert to 100% cage free eggs by the end of 2016. Pizza Hut plans to remove artificial colors and flavors from most of their menu items in 2015. Burger King is committed to converting to cage-free eggs by 2017; whereas, McDonalds and Denny’s plan to convert within a ten year period. Noodle and Company is committed to removing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from their soups, sauces and dressings by the end of 2015. Panera plans to ditch 150 artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and preservatives from its menus by the end of 2016. Papa Johns will eliminate all synthetic ingredients from its recipes by the end of 2016, removing corn syrup and preservatives. Subway also plans to make changes over the next 18 months removing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives from their menu.

Chipotle serves GMO-free tortillas and soybean oil. Kroger, Safeway, Aldi, Cosco, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and Red Lobster have all stated their commitment to not stock recently Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved GMO salmon. Sadly against over-whelming public outcry, the FDA approved what many now call “frankenfish”.

Chipotle, Panera and Chick-fil-A all now serve meat raised without antibiotics and McDonalds plans to switch to hormone-free chicken by spring 2016. Milk products are more frequently boasting “hormone free”. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly warned about the public health threat of antibiotic resistance due to the overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry.
More good news next week.

Campbell’s announced it will disclose GMO ingredients across their entire product line and are calling for a national, mandatory GMO labeling regimen. Contrary to the chemical’s primary justification against such labeling, they said GMO labeling will not cause food prices to go up. Campbells Soup plans to remove artificial and unhealthy ingredients in all products by mid-2018. Given the Senate recent defeat of the bill dubbed as Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, General Mills has stated it’s intention to start labeling GMO products nationwide in preparation for Vermont’s GMO labeling mandate that goes into effect July 1st.

Nestles says it will remove artificial flavoring and colors, including Red 40 and Yellow 5, from all of its chocolate products by the end of 2015 and reduce the sodium content of their frozen pizza and snack products by ten percent. Krafts iconic neon orange macaroni and cheese will take on a new hue with plans to remove Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 by 2016. General Mills is working on removing their artificial color and flavors by 2017. Trix eaters will lose their blue and green crispies! Kelloggs plans to remove artificial colors and flavors from their cereals by 2018.
Schwann Foods plans to remove artificial and unhealthy ingredients from their offerings as well as high-fructose corn syrup by 2017.

Lowes and Home Depot have pledged to phase out neonicotinoid pesticide tainted garden plants, the chemical associated with the decline of bees and other pollinators. Home Depot reports it has removed neonicotinoid pesticides from 80% of their flowering plants, committed to a complete phase-out by 2018, Lowes being 2019. Pop Weaver and Pop Secret are phasing out neonicotinoid seed coatings. As a side note, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced their plans to ban neonicotinoid insecticide use in all wildlife refuges nationwide by January 2016 and the European Union already has a moratorium on all uses.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports 61 percent of the food Americans buy is highly processed. Removing some of the harmful chemicals is a step in the right direction, but fact remains a diet based on junk food, fast foods and processed food will always be lacking. Basic combinations of saturated fat, calories, sugar with minimal fiber is never healthy. Studies have shown 80% of the contents in processed foods come from just four ingredients – corn, wheat, soy, and meat. Industry is happy to fill our shelves with those ingredients as farm subsidies have made them inexpensive to produce. While removing harmful chemicals is certainly progress, eating whole foods and unprocessed foods will always remain the healthier option.