Fragrance, chemicals, cancer and the environment

For some time now, I have had been having allergic reactions to the fragrance found in products such as perfume, soap, candles, etc. Early morning meetings and trips in the elevator are hard for me to handle, with perfumes and colognes competing to make my nose itch and eyes water. Recently while walking through the mall, I walked by the Bath and Bodyworks store (not even that close to it) and got an instant headache! It seems like it’s gotten worse since I gave birth to our son.

Curious to know how prevalent this reaction is, I looked it up online and found that fragrance sensitivities are common. WebMD offers an excellent article on the topic, that includes fascinating information such as:

  • Some 5,000 different fragrances are used in products today.
  • The fragrance may not be the real problem, as it’s just one part of a mix of chemicals (sometimes as many as 200 or more!) used to create the smell or that act as the masking agent in unscented products.
  • How our bodies respond to a particular fragrance lies in our individual physiologic makeup.
  • Women, particularly during their reproductive years, have the ability to detect odors much more vividly than do men, and they become more sensitive with repeated exposures
  • Doctors don’t agree on what’s behind any fragrance reaction, and whether it’s even a true allergy or simply a response to an irritant.
  • As a health problem, this sensitivity alone affects more than 2 million people, and studies suggest that sensitivity is on the rise.
  • Sensitivity to one fragrance or odor can snowball into a crippling disorder known as multiple chemical sensitivity.
  • There have been several recent legal actions taken on the topic of fragrance, relating exposure to second hand smoke.

So it’s not just me!

In related news this week, a study conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group found that 17 of most popular fragrances contained 38 secret chemicals, including alarming things like hormone disrupters. I’m wondering if there’s a way I can subtly bring this up to coworkers to get them to tone down the scent use, perhaps post it on the mirror in the bathroom? 😉

All joking aside, I really believe that consumers have a right to know what’s in the products they buy, whether it be the food they eat or perfume they wear. By taking advantage of the loophole that allows chemicals to be lumped together as fragrance, it makes it hard for consumers to truly assess the product and identify potential allergens. While true that most would not read it anyway if all listed out, there’s something to be said for making the information available for those that do care and/or need the info.

The FDA has the ability to restrict or ban any ingredient they consider unsafe, should they desire to do so.  Perhaps they may reconsider the role of fragrance and other related chemicals in light of the landmark report by the President’s Cancer Panel?

It concluded that the government has failed to prevent unnecessary exposures to carcinogens, potentially causing cancer, and suggests that the challenge for the Obama administration is to intensify research efforts into environmental toxins. “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.” Obviously, more studies are needed to determine the effects of pollutants all around us.

It also includes the suggestion that America must rethink the way we confront cancer, including much more rigorous regulation of chemicals. Instead of solely focusing on self screening and preventitive care visits to the doctor, they are finally making other practical recommendations such as to avoid microwaving food in plastic and get your house tested for radon!

Doctor Google

Perhaps I’ve reading into things, but this article on the BBC web site alarmed me just a little bit.

Some UK researchers looked up child health related topics on the Internet and then vetted their findings. If the story were that not everything you see on the Internet should be believed, I would buy that. However, I question whether the point of the piece is to tell people that the only credible source of medical information comes from the government, with statements like, “Government-run sites were the only completely reliable source, they found” and “In total, 11% of the 500 results gave inaccurate information, and 39% gave the right answer.”

I can see why doctors might be concerned that people are relying solely on Google for medical diagnosis, and rightfully so. But while they have a point that not all information found online can be considered credible, I am hoping this is not a push towards censorship. 

When I search for information on a problem, I want to see the alternative viewpoints. I like to see the CAM techniques for solving a problem, as well as the allopathic options. It’s useful for me to know that a doctor would recommend antibiotics for a UTI, but also that some would have you cure it with cranberry.

In addition, several of the topics they looked up are controversial. Even within the mainstream medical community, there is no one single answer or diagnosis.  For example, we don’t know what causes autism. That’s a fact right now. There is no medical conclusion as to why it happens. So how can they say the government has the only credible advice on that topic?

This brings me back to something I touched on in a previous piece. Isn’t it a cornerstone of science that we are always testing new theories, trying to find the answers for why something is the way it is? Then why is it that the medical community and the government insists that theirs is the one and only correct viewpoint? Why aren’t we welcoming additional theories into the fold and investigating those to in order to see if they have merit? Much easier to dismiss something out of hand I suppose.

There was one takeaway from the piece that I did appreciate, and it was also highlighted on the web site. “Healthcare professionals should continue to strive to be the main source of information for patients but we should be aware that most will continue to use the internet to gather information.”

While I’m not sure that I’d agree that healthcare professionals should be the ONLY source of information for patients, and I highly advocate being an informed consumer, I do believe that medical staff need to know that many of their patients do and will continue look things up online. Doctors need to be aware of what’s out there and be willing to look at information a patient brings to their attention. Combining knowledge to tackle the problem seems to be a smart solution.

No surprise that spanking leads to agression

Another study on corporal punishment has been issued that shows that physical discipline is not the ideal when considering the overall well  being of the child and can lead to long term consequences, including aggressive behavior and bullying.

I’m very happy to see the story getting lots of mainstream press. There were some excellent quotes and statements in this version such as that physical discipline, whether wielded by a parent or another authority figure, “fails to teach correct behavior in the long run.” and  “…consider discipline as an opportunity for education — to teach your child impulse control, understanding of cause and effect, and effective ways to manage difficult situations”.

It makes sense to me that kids will model their parent’s aggressive behavior. They imitate everything else!  In my opinion, what physical discipline often shows kids is that the biggest, strongest, or most coercive person or entity gets their way. When you don’t know what else to do to control the situation, hit! So when they’re frustrated or upset, it should be no surprise when kids use similar coping techniques to those they’ve seen their parents use.

I was very disappointed to see the reader comments that followed that same story, and others across the web. Many, many people stepped in to defend hitting their kids, or their parents for hitting them.

Quite a few jumped into the discussions using the rationale that it must not be that bad because they turned out OK. I guess that definition is relative! Some flat out said the study was wrong, or that it couldn’t possibly be  accurate because -insert example here- was spanked and turned out to be a productive member of society.

Whether or not the kid will go on to get an engineering degree or lead the country is not the point of the study or the article!! The children in this study (and others) showed aggressive and bullying behavior with a direct correlation to how often they were spanked.

Several others chimed in to point out that there is a difference between types of spanking said of course that they only do the “appropriate”  kind. You know, not beatings — just a good old fashioned whooping or a slap when their kid just won’t comply. 🙁

It makes me sad to know that there are so many kids out there getting hit on a regular basis, but also to know that they are not learning more  appropriate coping strategies and may not even know what they did wrong, let alone how to correct it. Fear is not an effective parenting technique, at least not in the long term. Logical consequences make a whole lot more sense.

This being said, I recognize that every parent has different strategies for raising their kid, and similar to how I don’t want others to make decisions for me on things like mandatory medical treatment, it’s not my job to make discipline related decisions for others. Unlike the issue of corporal punishment in schools, something I also wrote about recently, this issue is not one for government or the masses to determine.

That doesn’t mean I condone it, not at all. Maybe all this information in the press will show some that there is an alternative? As mentioned in that previous post, children reflect the treatment they receive.

Aspartame now known as AminoSweet

When I started to see the various stories and alerts roll in saying that Ajinomoto had re-branded aspartame as AminoSweet, my first thought was Ajinomoto- who’s that? The next was concern that consumers might be duped into consuming aspartame again after finally coming to the realization that it is just not good for you.

The PR spin on this one is that, “Ajinomoto believes that the time is right to remind the industry that aspartame tastes just like sugar, and that it’s made from amino acids – the building blocks of protein that are abundant in our diet.”

In other words, they have figured out that consumers are wising up to the fact that their product may be harmful. They’ve decided to switch their name in an attempt to avoid the ill effects of past bad press and other attacks on their reputation (boo hoo!) and convince people anew to buy items containing their chemical concoction.

Ajinomoto doesn’t just say that their product is safe, they actually call it healthy! I don’t know how they dare say it’s beneficial, but they do. Claims on their web site include that it it can help you achieve a healthy diet, that its role in this area is increasingly important, it’s tooth friendly. Apparently it does not bring anything new into your diet because it’s “just like those found in everyday foods such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs and milk” and is digested by the body the same way as other proteins. To that I saw pfffffht.

Aspartame is about as far away as one can get from a healthy ingredient, simple construction or not. The fact that it is “constructed” and not found in nature should be the first red flag. Then consider that aspartame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Combine this with studies showing aspartame as carcinogenic, the possibility it is an immune system disrupter, responsible for seizures, vision loss, etc. and you can easily see why consumers are shying away from their product. There are other reasons that aspartame has been under attack since the 70s too, and the story includes corrupt FDA officials, fabricated lab results, and more.

(Before people bring it up, I do realize that there are studies showing that it is OK  to consume aspartame in moderation. It’s sometimes said that it’s one of the most studied products in history. However, I look at this similar to other things the FDA has approved for use that are also harmful, such as BPA, mercury, fluouride, etc . When you add in the history behind the FDA approval, and look at how many of the positive studies have industry ties,  I am just not comfortable with the product.)

Add to this that I know lots of people that have problems with aspartame, myself included. Years ago before I stopped consuming soda, every time I had a drink containing it I got a headache. Other diet products, or other sodas from the same manufacturer were not a problem for me, just the ones containing aspartame. There are many such stories, and even some books, that lay it all out.  It seems particularly harmful when given to kids (which is probably why it is banned from children’s products in Europe).

And a final minor point, but as far as the actual name goes from a marketing standpoint, I disagree with their contention the name AminoSweet is either appealing or memorable. It’s not like the average person even knows what an amino acid is, let alone considers it a positive thing.  I think they’re overestimating their audience’s ability to make that association. And it might become memorable to those downing their several diet soft drinks a day, but that’s only if their memories aren’t compromised by the affects of the ever-so-healthy protein!

Let’s hope the mainstream media decides to inform consumers of this name change so people can continue to make educated decisions.


Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means “to do no harm”. I’d like to think that I live by this concept, but what I’ve determined is while I’m doing a good job of making sure cruelty doesn’t touch my plate, I’ve been doing a poor job of consistently applying this principle to other spheres of my life.

As I read recently, “Ahimsa or non-injury means entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand.”

My vegan status goes a long way towards the avoidance of killing other living beings, however there are other ways to inflict harm. My consideration needs to extend to treatment of others as well. I seem to have little problems exhibiting willpower when it comes to food, but I need to gain some mastery over my mind and mouth. Unkind or villifying behaviour, things like dishonesty, hate and gossip, are all incompatible with the ideal.

In order to become more consistent with what I believe, I’m going to try my best to improve in this area– focus in on the positive and try to avoid the negative thoughts and speech. I’ve got some ideas on why I slip into injurious behaviours and need to consciously make an effort to cut back and quit.

Self improvement is never ending, a vast continuum.

Drink carton recycling

We buy  a lot of beverages that come in cardboard containers. For some reason milk alternatives (soy, hemp, almond, rice, etc.) rarely come in plastic or glass like cow milk does, and instead come in boxes similar to those used for juice. At our previous residence they took these types of boxes along with the rest of the recycling, but when we moved here just a few miles away, to my surprise they did not.

Not wanting to just throw the containers away, I collected them and hauled them to the local recycling center, figuring our city just didn’t want to handle them curbside. Despite the fact that the bin says right on it not to throw in containers that are coated, lined, etc. one of the workers told me that it was OK to put them in there. For over a year I’d been hauling the containers there on a regular basis and dumping them in the bin, somewhat stealthily at times since I still wasn’t sure if they belonged in there or not.

After doing some research into shelf stable products recently, I’ve found that they most definitely do not belong in with the rest of the cardboard! The boxes used for liquids are also known as aseptics. (Some people call them Tetra Paks, as that’s the most recognizable brand.) Aseptics are made from several layers of different materials – including paper, plastics and metals – and are thus somewhat harder to recycle.  See diagram.

Aseptic containers, and other coated or lined containers like those used for juice,  must go through a completely different processing method called hydrapulping. Hydrapulping facilities are rare and thus the packages are rarely recycled. My main go-to for locating recycling facilities,, shows no place in our state that will take these containers. Only 26 U.S. states have access to a facility that can handle them.

As of last week I started throwing the containers away and I cannot believe how much our trash load has increased as a result! I really, really don’t want to send them to the landfill but feel I don’t have a choice. I would avoid buying those boxes outright if possible, but some of the products we purchase don’t come any other way and are staples in our diet.

There are efforts underway to expand recycling for these types of containers. The Carton Council and four leading carton manufacturers have teamed up to improve U.S. availability. Last year Tropicana joined forces with Waste Management to increase the recycling opportunities for their boxes. I’m hopeful that it will happen quickly so we’ll soon have a proper way to recycle our drink containers.  Countries like Canada and Germany are already doing it well; there’s no reason we can’t too.

100 years of science and medicine

A couple of recent NPR radio pieces talked about the state of medicine in the late 19th century, how doctors were educated largely by private medical schools that let anyone in that could pay tuition. Those doctors were not trained in the scientific method, had no labs, and did not necessarily study anatomy or physiology. Going to them had about a 50% chance of being beneficial for the patient!

It was after the automobile, the airplane, the telephone and other discoveries that people begin to see the value of science and started to believe in the use of a learned medical professional. Doctors eventually became ingrained in our culture and known as respected members of a community rather than as snake oil salesmen.

One of the main things that started to change medical schools for the better was the Flexner Report. This was a comprehensive report commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation that reviewed all the major American medical schools at the time. It was a game changer. It brought curriculum that was based on science, created standards and pushed medical education to the realm of universities.

I think lately we’re seeing the reversing trend. After 100 years faith in experts many people are increasingly skeptical of those who claim to know it all. (I find myself among that group.)  Medicine seems to be based on science less and less, with business influence and profit taking a lead again. A negative outcome from going to the doctor is still a very real possibility, with an increasingly likely chance of picking up some nasty bug at a hospital or getting the wrong dose of prescription drug.

On the 100th anniversary of the Flexner report, academics are wondering what the focus would be if a similar study were underway today.  I surmise a new report might include information on how doctors should deal with patients who disagree with them or bring them research they find on the Internet. There would be a recommendation for training on complementary and alternative therapies (if nothing else but to better converse with their patients on these topics). There should also be a major focus on wellness and prevention rather than just treatment. Good science would take precedent over the recommendations of professional organizations, lobbyists or big business.

A rethink of medical education is in order and I’m remaining hopeful that we’ll eventually see a trend towards better care  that takes a holistic approach to health.

Mad as Hellers

An interesting radio piece from a couple of days ago commented on a new group U.S. President Obama should pay attention to in his State of the Union speech, the Mad as Hellers. The presenter was talking about how there are essentially two groups- those on the right who are worried about big government and those on the left who are worried about big business and finance. Personally, I’m worried about both. But what I find even worse is the collusion of the two.

When the former head of the CDC goes on to lead the vaccine divison at Merck or the former Monstanto exec gets nominated to negotiate agricultural policy, this hardly seems like coincidence.

I’ve heard some say that it’s because these folks are highly trained in their field and have industry experience, so are desirable recruits for the administration. That could be true. However, it doesn’t give me much faith that they’ll focus on doing the right thing. We need to be able to trust watchdog groups, like the Center for Food Safety or the FDA, will safeguard the public interest. How can this leadership come from people who spent their careers aligned so strongly with one side of an issue over another?

Getting money out of politics in the way of campaign finance reform, Robert Reich’s solution at the end of his piece, is likely to help. However, I think it’s going to take a much bigger change to shake the foundations of our current system. Americans are starting to wake up, but what is that really going to do? Just being mad as hell is not enough. It’s going to require action, and at this point nobody seems to have the pull to bring the various groups together towards any meaningful consensus.

Winter car seat safety

Maybe I’ve been living in the dark, but I learned something new today that I’ve never heard mention of before,  something that seems quite important to let others know about given how often it occurs. Having a kid wear a winter coat underneath the straps in their car seat is VERY unsafe, unsafe to the point that it could seriously injure or kill the child, even in a low speed crash.

We’re in the middle of a cold snap here that has us seeing temperatures around the zero mark. With the winter weather, I have been guilty of snapping our boy  in with his coat on, adjusting the straps if necessary to accommodate. Until today I had no idea this was such a risky move.

Why this is so dangerous is a matter of physics. The force exerted in a crash is great, especially with severe deceleration, and can be several hundred or thousands of pounds in most instances. For example, a 40 pound child in a 40 MPH crash exerts 1600 pounds of force! The coat will compress in a crash and leave the harness slack, allowing excessive movement of the child’s head or even ejection. The more slack there is, the greater the chance of serious head or neck injuries. Ejection from the seat is especially of concern with infants.

This blog has an example that shows the difference in slack between a child strapped in with their coat on and the same child without.  It may seem like you’ve tightened the straps properly even with the coat, but it’s not enough. There is no way you can exert the amount of force needed to counteract the effects of compression.

So what are some alternatives??

  • Have the child wear the coat backwards, putting their arms in after they’re buckled in.
  • Use a blanket tucked around the child.
  • Add a thin coat or shirt underneath, like a fleece.
  • Use special products, made just for use in car seats. Make sure they do not come between your child and the straps.
  • If you are unwilling to leave the child sans-coat, try this trick of fastening the front of the coat OVER the straps. This leaves a little bulk for compression in the back but is much safer than leaving the coat on as-is.

The rule of thumb (even for non-winter car seat use) is that you should not be able to get more than one finger width between the strap and the child.

Car crashes are the number one killer of US children ages 1-14. Many of the children killed were in child seats, just not restrained correctly.  I plan to work harder to make sure that my son is restrained properly. The inconvenience of removing his coat in no way compares to the increased risk of leaving it on.

Additional info:
Directions to check your coat for car seat safety, and other tips to keep your child warm and safe

Winter Car Seat Safety

Car Seat Basics

Cell phone radiation exposure

For a long time now I’ve been considering getting a new cell phone. I simply don’t like the hardware or the interface for my existing phone and it may be just my imagination, but using it for any length of time makes my face and teeth on that side feel “funny”.

Ever since learning about the potential dangers of cell phone radiation, number one on criteria list for a new model (after the simple ability to place and receive calls) is that it emits only a low level of radiation. Since I’m changing phones anyway, there’s no better time to get a safer phone and reduce exposure for myself and my family.

As I’ve been considering different options, I’ve been evaluating them using the Environmental Working Group’s cell phone radiation look up tool, however not all potential phones are on there. (With the rate cell phone manufacturers produce new models I don’t expect them to be able to keep up either!)

When looking at phones today it occurred to me that for those not in the database, I could research to find the radiation level from the manufacturer. I found that what I need to search for is called the SAR Value. SAR stands for Specific Absorption Rate and gives an indication of the amount of radiation absorbed by your head when using the phone. The higher the number, the more that is absorbed. Using the EWG scale as a model, it looks like the best phones on the market right now have a maximum SAR under 0.55 W/kg.

Some manufacturers have pages or search engines that allow you took to look up the SAR value for all their phones. For others you might have to resort to a Google search. Typically if you use the phone model plus SAR you will find the number.  You can also attempt to look them up on the Mobile Manufacturers Forum site.

Alternatively, if you just happen to have the phone handy, or can capture the information from a display model or other source, you can also look this up using the FCC ID number. This info is found on the label under the battery — hardly practical when researching a new phone.

As more consumers learn about the potential dangers, especially to kids whose brains are still developing, I feel confident we’ll see a rise in the number of phones designed to emit low levels of radiation. In the meantime, in addition to getting a low radiation phone, following some of the EWG’s safety tips seems like a wise move. I’m hopeful that the FCC will soon wake up and re-examine the regulations in order to improve the standards. There’s also a lot that could be done to make this kind of information more readily available to consumers.