Life

Summer Recap: Here's What's Up with Wildfires

i.e. another way climate change is screwing with our health

Remember how bad the wildfires in the western United States were this year? Maybe you're worried that summer is never going to be the same with the constant air quality warnings? If you're like most people, you're probably a little concerned. And rightfully so! For instance, even if you weren't in California during the wildfires this year, you might have still felt the effects of the wildfires. While it doesn't seem the most direct, wildfires that occur far away still affect the environment you are living in. Climate change is playing a huge role in the number of wildfires and the length of the wildfire season that we're seeing and will be seeing - here's why.


Here's how climate change affects wildfires

In areas that traditionally are warmer, climate change is turning up the heat. There are basically three ingredients that are needed to make a wildfire: fuel, hot wind and some sort of ignition to start the wildfire. Scientists know for sure that climate change affects two of the three ingredients (fuel and hot wind). The increasing temperatures that climate change is bringing makes for hotter weather which then, in turn, dries out more of the vegetation in an area, making it the perfect fuel for a fire (1). The increasing temperatures also ensure that the wind blowing in these areas are hot and dry, the perfect type of wind for spreading a wildfire. In some areas, an earlier snowmelt is also resulting in drier summers – which I'm sure you get it by now – is pretty bad news!

Wildfire and health? Here's the stitch!

Wildfires, as you can probably guess, are not good for you! Wildfires pollute the air with toxic gases, hydrocarbons and oxygenated organics (2). The pollution created, especially if they are small particles (which we call PM 2.5), can travel deep inside your lungs and cause oxidative stress which damages the lungs (2). Oxidative stress is odd to think about, but basically, it's like your cells being overwhelmed. Studies have also shown that wildfires have a direct effect on respiratory diseases; the more wildfires there are, the more people will experience respiratory diseases or a worsening of symptoms (think things like difficulty breathing and more coughing) (2). These situations are even worse for people who already have difficulties, like those living with asthma. And while it is most definitely worse for those who are close to the fires, as we saw with the most recent 2018 wildfires, smoke can spread far and wide. That means that respiratory effects can still be a worry for those living hundreds or even thousands of miles away (8). NASA suggests watching for orange or red sunsets which could be a sign that there is smoke in the atmosphere (8).

For those who have lived near wildfires, mental health is often also affected. Anxiety, fear, and grief are common emotions that are felt during and in the aftermath of wildfires (2). This is partially due to the unknowns of the fire, but also has to do with the isolation felt from being trapped inside because of air quality considerations and not being able to go about a normal daily routine. This is all on top of the direct worry of how close the fire may be to their home. No matter how you slice it, wildfires definitely take both your physical and mental health for a wild ride!

What the future of wildfires will look like for the United States

Basically, wildfires are going to have both direct and indirect effects on our lives. Places that generally are at risk for wildfires (a.k.a. Northern California and the PNW more generally) are going to experience more wildfires, whereas areas that traditionally don't see a lot of wildfires won't really see a spike in wildfires (3). However, wildfires can still increase overall air pollution and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making climate change (and all the other effects associated with climate change) worse (3). Wildfires also impact drinking water; they can heat up the soil and cause it to release more carbon and nitrogen-containing compounds which then react with the disinfectants used to purify water (4). This creates chemicals that are not good for you! Bottom line: even if you don't live in areas that will be directly affected by an increase in wildfires, there are still indirect effects that can impact your safety and health!

You might want to know who's at risk!

Elderly individuals are at higher risk for two reasons – they have a decreased ability to process inhaled chemicals and they have a higher baseline prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Some studies have also indicated that females have a harder time with wildfires because they usually have smaller and more reactive airways (6). This is true for children under the age of 4 as well, so, you want to make sure your little ones are protected from air pollution (6)!

For those of you who love exercising outside, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but exercising outside during periods of bad air quality is not smart! On these days, you end up breathing in more air pollution than if you were working out indoors. This is because your lungs work harder during exercise, and consequently, take in more pollutants (2). This is one of the only cases where exercising might actually be bad for you!

Some quick tips on how to decrease exposure to pollutants

  • Invest in some quality masks. Regular masks that you buy at the drugstore won't protect you from wildfire pollutants. You'll want to buy N95 or N100 masks, which filter out fine particles, but not hazardous gases (7). Take note though, these masks are not meant for small children since they don't create a proper seal on tiny faces!
  • Stay indoors during wildfires. Like we mentioned before, going outside during days with air quality alerts harms you more than it helps you! Check the air quality, even if you're not by where the fires are located. Because of how powerful winds are, wildfire smoke from California has made its way across the country to New York before (5)!
  • Look into an air filter. While these babies cost a lot more than an air mask, they can filter out air pollution for a whole room and might be a good investment if you have small children.
  • Do what you can, when you can, to help slow down climate change, like divesting from oil and gas companies and grocery shopping with climate change in mind.

References

  1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/heres-what-we-know-about-wildfires-and-climate-change/
  2. https://www.healthandenvironment.org/docs/ColleenReidSlides2018-10-1.pdf
  3. https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/impacts/global-warming-and-wildfire.html#.W7T-eWhKjyR
  4. https://phys.org/news/2018-03-wildfire-intensity-impacts-quality-treatment.html
  5. https://mashable.com/2018/08/09/smoke-california-wildfires-east-coast/#sjtsHIXpxkq1
  6. https://oem.bmj.com/content/66/3/189.short?casa_token=D_qI3qulYj0AAAAA:jB8X6cZP9hNZ_j6ADbuqacPPZUKkeJ2SRn6HbP4XlIJ9g_kkJyheo0HVElQdaLI5M1DPDQ5RqOC6ZQ
  7. https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/Pubs/334-353.pdf
  8. https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2017/wildfire-smoke-crosses-us-on-jet-stream

12 Non-Toxic Baking Pan Essentials

for everything from cupcakes, to pie, to cornbread we've got you covered

Updated for 2019!

Whether you are a full on baker or just someone who struggles with the directions on the back of a box of cake mix, having the right pans is always a necessity. While nonstick may seem like an amazing invention to help with this, you should shy away from it (read this to learn why) and check out these great alternatives. Same goes for cooking, so check out our non-toxic alternatives to non-stick pans roundup.

Keep Reading Show Less
Want an easy way to live healthier?
Sign up for our newsletter! Curated environmental health news delivered to your inbox every three weeks.
By submitting above, you agree to our privacy policy.
/ SOCIAL
Food

Wondering What To Do With Your Germ-y Kitchen Sponge?

Here's a simple swap that will maximize cleanliness in no time!

Have you ever walked over to your sink to do the dishes, only to wrinkle your nose at how smelly your sponge is? We'll let you in on a secret… smelly sponge = lots of germs. And too many germs is the last thing that you want in your kitchen and on your dishes. So what can you? We've got a simple swap for you!

If you're using a sponge right now - Stop!

Why, you ask? To put it scientifically, sponges are gross. Studies looking at the bacteria count of "the dirtiest areas of a kitchen" repeatedly found that sponges come in first for harboring the highest germ counts (1). Sponges hold so many bacteria because they're constantly wet and easily catch food during washing (1). The wet environment combined with the food scraps create a perfect storm for encouraging germs to multiply (1). If you're dead set on using a sponge, researchers recommend either replacing your sponge weekly (which isn't good for the environment), or cleaning sponges in a bleach and water mixture (which isn't good for you) (2). Either way, it's a lose-lose. So what's the solution?

Swap your sponge out for a dish brush instead

Yep, it's truly that simple. Simply swapping out your kitchen sponge for a dish brush will help decrease the number of bacteria because:

  • Brushes have bristles that don't hold water and dry faster (3).
  • Food scraps are easier to wash off on bristles than in the nooks and crannies of sponges (3).

And the best part? Brushes don't need to be replaced as often, because they don't harbor as many germs. Hooray for a solution that is budget-friendly and earth-friendly!

References

  1. www.microbiologyjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/JPAM_Vol_11_No4_p_1687-1693.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6379783/
  3. https://time.com/5254808/how-to-wash-dishes-sponge/
Life

Our Top Three Tips for Better Recycling

What to do when you can't reduce or reuse

We all try our best to recycle, but it's not always easy! Reading the labels on plastics can be like deciphering a different language. Although we try to do our best, recycling in America is still a work in progress. Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, only about 10% of it gets recycled (1). The other 90% winds up in landfills and floating in oceans, polluting nearby ecosystems. It's not just plastic that's the problem- plenty of other materials like glass, paper, electronics, batteries, and clothing are discarded in environmentally unfriendly ways.

There are still many misconceptions of what is and isn't recyclable. We've covered what those little recycling numbers actually mean, but there's still a lot to learn. The complicated process can actually discourage people from attempting to recycle, and even when they do, complicated rules can cause significant recycling bin contamination. Until there is a change in the structure of the recycling industry in the United States, we have to step up our recycling game. Here are our top three tips on how you can make your recycling as efficient as possible!

1) Familiarize yourself with your local recycling laws and regulations. A quick google search can inform you on what you your municipality recommends for cleaning, separation, and collection. You can even keep your city's recycling guide posted on your fridge for easy access!

2) Do not, we repeat, DO NOT put your recyclables in the bin inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags, like those from grocery stores, and plastic wrap packaging are major contaminants in recycle bins and cause problems for facilities that process recycled materials. These bags can be recycled but have to be brought to specialty facilities, and can be dropped off at many grocery stores. Try using paper bags instead, and be sure to toss them in the correct bin after use!

3) Purchase items you know to be recyclable! Stick to products that are made from paper, glass, aluminium, or steel. Always check with your local recycling center about what to do with plastic items- you'd be surprised how much plastic can't be recycled! And don't forget to thoroughly clean out any food residue before tossing a product into the recycling bin.

Why is it so important to recycle correctly? Well, bin contamination is a huge issue, especially now that China is no longer buying our recyclable waste. Contaminating recycling bins with non-recyclable products makes the recycling process more difficult, time consuming, and expensive. If batches of recyclables are too contaminated, they will get thrown in the landfill with everything else. Which is exactly what we're trying to avoid in the first place (2,3)!

Contribute to a healthier environment; support the industry by buying materials made out of recycled goods! And be sure to reduce consumption of disposable materials, and reuse items as many times as possible before recycling. If you are still not sure about best recycling practices, this EPA guide is a great resource.


References

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/...
  3. https://theweek.com/articles/819488/america-recycling-problem-heres-how-solve\
  4. https://www.recycleacrossamerica.org/tips-to-recycle-right
  5. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/20/750864036/u-s-recycling-industry-is-struggling-to-figure-out-a-future-without-china
Remember that takeout container you had last night? What color was it? It probably was black, right? While those flexible, bendy and just the right size for packing leftovers boxes might seem perfect, they are far from it. The black color of the plastics actually masks a lot more than that last piece of sesame chicken hiding in the corner.
Keep Reading Show Less
Food

Is Climate Change Making Your Food Less Safe To Eat?

The role of climate change in foodborne illnesses

Do you have big cooking plans this Thanksgiving? Us too! We love cooking when the holiday season rolls around, but did you ever think that climate change is something you would think while prepping your food? Well, the raw ingredients in your kitchen contain harmful microbes that can cause foodborne illnesses, and climate change has been linked to an increase in these diseases.

As the global temperature rises and rainfall patterns change, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other harmful vectors flourish. These changes in climatic factors increase disease transmission efficacy and improve survival rates of these vectors (1). In other words, climate change has allowed these harmful microbes to evolve and be better equipped to cause diseases. On top of that, they are more resilient and harder to kill.

So what should you be on the lookout for? Good question. Below are just a few examples of agents that may be altered by climate variability in the United States (1, 2). All of them can potentially be found on the foods that we consume.

  • E. coli O157: this specific strain of E. coli is particularly prone to climate change. We ingest this microbe through contaminated foods such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk (3).
  • Salmonella: Salmonella is caused by a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of animals. Just like E. coli O157, Salmonella can cause foodborne illnesses through consumption of contaminated ingredients.
  • Campylobacter: almost all raw poultry you see in the grocery store contains this microbe. This bacteria causes foodborne illnesses by cross-contaminating other foods and by surviving in undercooked meat. This makes Campylobacter one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States.

Overall, changes in climatic factors will be the largest culprit of food-related illnesses and mortality (4). This accounts for under-nutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as vector-borne diseases.

The good news is that these foodborne illnesses are highly preventable!

While climate change may improve the environment in which these microbes thrive, we can take steps to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in our own kitchens. The USDA recommends the Be Food Safe prevention steps (5):

  • Clean: Wash your hands and cooking surfaces frequently.
  • Separate: Don't cross-contaminate your foods. Keep your meats and veggies separate.
  • Cook: Cook ingredients to their proper temperatures.
  • Chill: Refrigerate foods promptly.

By following these guidelines, the vast majority of these harmful microbes can be removed or killed. Keep yourself and your family free from foodborne illnesses!


References

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0963996910002231
  2. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/foodborne/basics.html
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/e-coli##targetText=Sources%20and%20transmission&targetText=E.%20coli%20O157%3AH7%20is%20transmitted%20to%20humans%20primarily%20through,meat%20products%20and%20raw%20milk.
  4. https://www.who.int/foodsafety/_Climate_Change.pdf
  5. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cleanliness-helps-prevent-foodborne-illness/ct_index

Artificial food colorings are omnipresent in our daily lives. They are responsible for the spectacular color variety of our candies, the pink flesh of farmed salmon, and even the weirdly bright shade of green of pickles. They are found in so many of our foods, yet we do not think much about them. But are they as safe for us as we think?

What are artificial food colorings and what are they made of?

It has been shown that consumers prefer that the color of their food match its flavor. A lot of the foods we consume are highly processed and end up a different color than we'd expect them to be. Many sports drinks, for example, are translucent before adding food colorings. So we add color to match the taste, like green coloring to apple-flavored foods and yellow coloring to foods that taste like lemon.

The FDA has approved seven artificial food colorings for consumption in the United States. The majority of them are made out of petroleum and crude oil (1). The final product is highly refined and is tested to not have any traces of petroleum.

Are artificial food colorings bad for my health?

In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban artificial food colorings because of recent studies that found a small, but significant, negative effect of these substances on children's behavior (2). These substances were also found to be carcinogenic, cause hypersensitivity reactions, and instigate behavioral problems (3). These findings were largely controversial, and the FDA ruled that artificial food colorings could still be used in food products without the use of a warning label.

Should you avoid artificial food colorings?

The evidence to support the claims that artificial food colorings cause cancer and other negative health outcomes is weak. Much more work needs to be done to definitively attribute any effects artificial food colorings may have on our health.

While we wait for the results of these studies, we can take proactive steps in protecting our health. It has been established that the food we consume plays a large role in our health. Unhealthy, highly processed foods are some of the biggest sources of artificial food colorings. By removing these products from your diet, you will improve your overall health and reduce the amount of artificial food colorings you consume.

However, if you have to bake a ton of cupcake for a bake sale and food coloring is unavoidable, try to consume and use natural alternatives. These substitutes do not have any negative health consequences and tend to be less processed. Some common dyes include beet roots for red coloring, carrot juice for orange coloring, saffron and turmeric powder for orange coloring, spinach for green coloring, blueberries for blue coloring, and blackberries for purple coloring!


References

  1. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/october-2015/food-colorings.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441937/
  3. https://cspinet.org/resource/food-dyes-rainbow-risks
Food

Are Artificial Sweeteners Too Good To Be True?

The effect of these substances on your microbiome and health

Who else seems to have a sweet tooth that just won't quit? It is estimated that the average American consumes six cups of sugar a week (1). That's equal to 152 pounds a year! Our voracious appetite for sugar has resulted in the onset of many diseases like diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, and heart disease. Sugary drinks in particular, are responsible for over 180,000 deaths a year (2).

To replace sugar and combat these diseases, the food industry introduced artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners offer the same taste of sugar, but without the calories. Many consider them to be safe, and even beneficial, due to their low caloric content. Artificial sweeteners are one of the most used food additives in the world, and can be found in sodas, baked goods, candies, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, and dairy products (3). For comparison, a can of regular soda has about 160 calories, whereas a can of diet soda with artificial sweeteners contain nearly zero (4).

So what's the catch?

Recent studies have shown that artificial sweeteners alter our gut microbiota that may result in adverse health outcomes (5). Scientists showed that these substances not only changed our gut microbiota, but were actually toxic to them (6). Specifically, when gut bacteria were exposed to artificial sweeteners, they stopped their healthy activity and grew at a slower rate. Artificial sweeteners also promoted the growth of certain gut bacteria that are highly efficient at converting food into fat.

The combined effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiota are thought to cause a wide range of diseases from certain cancers to type-2 diabetes. One study found that individuals who used artificial sweeteners were more likely to be overweight than their counterparts (7). The effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome may be the reason why people who switch from regular soda to diet sodas in an effort to lose weight fail to do so.

Currently the FDA has approved six artificial sweeteners for consumption in the United States: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame (8). While scientists are still putting in the work to pinpoint the exact role artificial sweeteners have on the gut microbiome, we can take preventative measures to limit our exposure to these substances by being aware of what's in the ingredients list of the food items we consume.


References

  1. https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/nhp/documents/sugar.pdf
  2. https://www.livescience.com/51385-sugary-drinks-global-deaths.html
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936#targetText=Artificial,sweeteners%20are%20synthetic%20sugar%20substitutes.&targetText=Artificial%20sweeteners%20are%20also%20known,no%20calories%20to%20your%20diet.
  5. https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/10/suppl_1/S31/5307224/
  6. https://neurosciencenews.com/artificial-sweetener-microbiome-9935/
  7. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/artificial-sweeteners-may-change-our-gut-bacteria-in-dangerous-ways/
  8. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-intensity-sweeteners#targetText=Six%20high%2Dintensity%20sweeteners%20are,sucralose%2C%20neotame%2C%20and%20advantame.
Want an easy way to live healthier?
Sign up for our newsletter! Curated environmental health news delivered to your inbox every three weeks.
By submitting above, you agree to our privacy policy.
/ SOCIAL