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There’s a new generation of water pollutants in your medicine cabinet

Lee Blaney, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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Every day we each use a variety of personal care products. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps and clean our faces with specialty cleansers. We wash and maintain our hair with shampoo, conditioner and other hair care products. We use deodorant and perfume or cologne to smell nice. Depending on the day, we may apply sunscreen or insect repellent. The Conversation

All of these products contribute to our quality of life. But where do they go after we use them?

When we bathe, personal care products wash off of our bodies and into sewer systems that carry them to regional wastewater treatment plants. However, these plants are not designed to treat the thousands of specialty chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Many of the active and inactive ingredients present in these products pass through our wastewater treatment plants and ultimately end up in rivers, streams or oceans.

Once in the environment, these chemicals may cause hormonal effects and toxicity in aquatic animals. In my laboratory we are studying these emerging water pollutants, which are turning up in surface water, groundwater and even treated drinking water. Although they are typically found at low concentrations, they may still threaten human and ecological health.

New pollutants, present worldwide

Personal care products and their ingredients are widely distributed throughout our environment. In one recent study, our lab aggregated over 5,000 measurements of active ingredients from a variety of personal care products that were found in untreated wastewater, treated wastewater and surface waters such as rivers and streams. They included N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, or DEET, an insect repellent; galaxolide, a fragrance; oxybenzone, a sunscreen; and triclosan, an antibacterial compound.

Other studies conducted near the Mario Zucchelli and McMurdo & Scott research bases confirmed that chemicals in personal care products were even present in Antarctic seawater. Those reports identified the presence of plasticizers, antibacterials, preservatives, sunscreens and fragrances in the Antarctic marine environment. Together, these studies suggest that the active ingredients in personal care products can be found in any water body influenced by human activity.

These substances are typically present in the aquatic environment at concentrations of 10 to 100 nanograms per liter, which is equivalent to 1 to 2 drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But even at these low levels, some still pose a risk.

Moving up the food chain

Depending on their chemical properties, we can classify some of these products as hydrophilic (“water-loving”) or lipophilic (“lipid-loving”). The fat layers in our bodies are comprised of lipids, so lipophilic personal care products can accumulate in the tissue and organs of aquatic animals like fish, birds and even dolphins.

Our group has recently detected a suite of sunscreen agents and 17α-ethinylestradiol, a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen that is the active ingredient in birth control pills, in crayfish from urban streams near Baltimore, Maryland. We have also measured sunscreens in oysters and mussels collected from the Chesapeake Bay. The uptake of these chemicals by aquatic animals raises environmental concerns.

Specifically, as lipophilic chemicals from personal care products accumulate in animals at higher concentrations, there is a greater potential for them to cause toxic effects. For instance, many personal care products disrupt hormone systems in the body. Some chemicals used in personal care products affect reproductive systems and function, causing the feminization of male fish.

These reproductive effects can have important consequences for aquatic animals in the environment, and they may even represent a potential health risk for humans. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan and a number of other antibacterial agents in antiseptic wash products due, in part, to health risks associated with hormonal effects.

U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists sampling shallow groundwater near septic systems on New York’s Fire Island in 2011. The scientists found hormones, detergent degradation products, fragrances, insect repellent, sunscreen additives, a floor cleaner and pharmaceuticals, indicating that contaminants were moving from the septic systems into groundwater.
Chris Schubert, USGS

Recent research has shown that oxybenzone, a sunscreen agent used in many personal care products, is toxic to corals. For many coastal communities, coral reefs are critical to local economies. For example, the net value of Hawaii’s coral reefs is estimated to be US$34 billion.

Earlier this year Hawaii introduced legislation to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in order to protect coral reefs. While research and policymaking are still ongoing in this area, it is important to note that a number of new consumer products have started using labels like “coral safe” and “reef safe.”

Multiple solutions

Typical wastewater treatment plants are designed to treat multiple pollutants, including organic carbon from human and food waste; nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; and pathogenic bacteria and viruses that cause disease. However, they are not equipped to handle the many ingredients of concern that are present in personal care products.

Protecting the environment and human health from these substances will require progress in several areas. They include improving technologies for wastewater treatment plants; conducting more testing and regulation of personal care products to avoid unintended toxicity to aquatic animals; and designing “green chemicals” that do not pose toxicity concerns. This multi-pronged approach will help us to ensure that personal care products continue to improve our quality of life without harming the environment.

Lee Blaney, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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FASTING: A Holy and Spiritually Healthy Diet

People break fast after evening prayer outside Eyup Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan on June 15, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. The holy month of Ramadan is observed by Muslims across Turkey and worldwide. A month of fasting takes place to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad and is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Lack of self discipline will soon put more Americans in a hospital than all infectious diseases combined. About one third of the of the 600,000+ Americans who died from various types of cancer in 2010, died due to their own life style behavior. Smoking, over eating and drinking, and physical inactivity will do them in. The same set of self indulgences will also afflict those who died from heart disease last year.

The lack of self restraint so evident in much of modern life leads us first to pleasure seeking, and then increasingly to self induced suffering. Americans  spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books and gym memberships but lack the self discipline to restrain themselves from over eating. And young people are leading the way in increasing self indulgence. In the majority of states (30 of 50) the percentage of overweight or obese children is now at or above 30%.

In our consumer driven cultural, we have largely lost the spiritual value of self restraint that is so important in the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim tradition. Self-restraint will be the single biggest factor influencing life expectancy in the 21st century. With self-restraint most people will have a good chance to live into their 80s or 90s.

However, indulgent pleasure seeking and lack of self restraint will increasingly  cut short the lives of tens of millions of people. Almost all religions have always taught that self restraint is a virtue. Fasting and ritual dietary restrictions are the most wide spread example of spiritual self-restraint and self discipline.

The idea that people, even thin people, should restrict their culinary pleasures sounds outrageous to our 21st century ears. Dieting is hard enough. Why should we torture and afflict ourselves by fasting? Don’t most people think that being happy is the most important thing? Isn’t eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have? Why should religions restrict our pleasures? For example, why should the Torah decree a day of total denial of food and drink for every Jewish adult? (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27). For twenty-four hours Jews (over age 12 and in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything at all.

What we do not eat may be even more important than what we do eat. All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Some people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons. Hindus do not eat beef, and Jews and Muslims do not eat pork, for religious/spiritual reasons. And on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement Jews do not eat or drink anything at all for twenty-four hours.

Every year for the entire the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food and drink. The Qur’an says “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint,” Qur’an 2:183. What is the Torah and the Qur’an trying to teach us by decreeing the importance of fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?

First of all, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one can actually feel it in one’s own body is the impact truly there. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself; that’s why it has so many different outcomes.

But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor”. (Isaiah 58:3-7)

Second, fasting is an exercise in will-power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard. But actually the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces. I have on occasion fasted for three days, and found that after the first twenty four hours the pain decreases slightly as the stomach becomes numb. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it so easy to stop. Food and drink is all around, and in easy reach; all you have do is take a bite or a sip. Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat or drink.

Our society has increasingly become one of self indulgence. We lack self restraint. Fasting goes in direct opposition to our increasing “softness” in life. When people exercise their will-power and fast, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can do it, because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined.

The third outcome of fasting is improved physical health. Of course, one twenty-four hour fast will not have any more effect than one day of exercise. Only prolonged and regular fasting promotes health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur can, however, awaken us to the importance of “how much and how often we eat or drink”.

For many years research has shown that when animals are somewhat underfed, receiving a balanced diet at below the normal quantity for maximum physical health, their life spans were prolonged from 50% to 100%. A 20 year study of rhesus monkeys published in Science in July 2009, found that the group on a reduced-calorie diet was two thirds less likely to  die from cancer, heart disease or diabetes than those fed the normal diet.

Even if people do not follow a permanent restricted diet, the annual example of a 24 hour fast keeps the issue in mind. Also with all the additives placed in food these days we need to be reminded of the advantage of eating organically. More important, since our society has wide spread problems with overabundance, fasting provides a good lesson in the virtue of denial. Health problems caused by overeating and over-drinking are the most rapidly growing health problems in affluent Western countries.

A good example is the increasing spread of diabetes. More than sixteen million adults in the United State have diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in thirteen adults in the Western World now have diabetes. According to a 2011 report from the World Health Organization, diabetes deaths will double by 2030. A substantial number of future diabetes cases are preventable. These people will have an illness which is serious, debilitating, and shortens their lives. But it doesn’t have to happen if we submit our desires for God’s desires. Thus going without any food, or even water, for a twenty-four hour period challenges us to think very seriously about the benefits of the spiritual teaching; less is more.

Fourth in our list of outcomes, fasting is a positive struggle again our dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular or wise. By fasting we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for twenty-four hours, how much more our needs for all the non-essentials.

Judaism doesn’t advocate asceticism as an end in itself. In fact it’s against Jewish law to deny ourselves normal pleasures. But in our overheated consumer society it is necessary periodically to turn off the constant pressure to consume, and to remind ourselves forcibly that “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Fifth, fasting serves as a penance. Though self inflicted pain may alleviate some guilt, it is much better to reduce one’s guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why, for Jews, contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur. The same is true for Muslims during Ramadan. Indeed, fasting that doesn’t increase compassion is ignored by God. Also, the concept of fasting as penance helps us understand that our suffering can be beneficial. Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil.

Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past that suffering can help one grow, or that an existence unalloyed with pain would lack certain qualities of greatness, many today seem to think that the primary goal in life is ” to always be happy and free of all discomfort.” The satisfaction one derives from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we have to experience anyway. Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain especially if by doing so we allay the symptoms without reaching the root cause.

The sixth outcome of fasting for Jews is the performance of a mitzvah (a religious duty), which is, after all, the one fundamental reason for fasting on Yom Kippur. We do not do mitzvoth (religious duties) in order to benefit ourselves, but because our duty as Jews requires that we do them. Fasting is a very personal mitzvah, with primarily personal consequences. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to the God of Israel from each member of the family of Israel. For over 100 generations Jews have fasted on this day. A personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God. The principal reason to fast is to fulfill a mitzvah. The outcome of your fast can be any of a half dozen forms of self-fulfillment. But simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as an adult Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.

Finally, fasting should be combined with prayer and the study of Sacred Scriptures (the five books of Moses specifically or Scriptural texts in general). Indeed, the more one studies, the less one needs to fast. A medieval text states, “Better to eat a little and study twice as much, for the study of Torah is superior to fasting.”

Fasting is a very personal, experiential offering. However, though study is also a personal experience, it takes place with a text and/or a teacher. The Divine is often more readily and truly experienced in dialogue with others than in solitary meditation.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com