Science

Ask the Expert: Finding Out What Chemicals Are In Your Body

What the heck is biomonitoring?

Maybe you've heard of different organizations doing something called biomonitoring. Maybe you have been biomonitored but aren't sure what it means. Or, maybe you have been worried about your own amount of contact with certain chemicals and Googled how to get it checked. Well, we talked to Dr. Megan Latshaw, Assistant Scientist in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to figure out what it is, how it works, and what the benefits are.


Dr. Megan Latshaw

First off, what is biomonitoring anyway? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), biomonitoring is "determining which environmental chemicals people have been exposed to and how much of those chemicals actually get into their bodies."

This provides valuable understanding into the effects certain chemicals can have on an individual or even a community.

"For an individual, biomonitoring can provide insight into whether they are being exposed to a chemical at a higher level than the general population. Results can help physicians make decisions about treatments or interventions, but it can also lead individuals to take action to reduce exposure. So, an individual might say 'okay, I am going to get my paint tested at my house' or 'I am going to buy water filter'," Dr. Latshaw explains.

The results of biomonitoring are an effective way to help individuals learn more about their own health and what changes they can make to avoid certain chemicals. Biomonitoring can also help determine if communities as a whole are being exposed to certain chemicals, say from a factory in the area or water that isn't being properly treated.

"At the community level, biomonitoring can indicate a problem that needs to be addressed on a larger scale. So, maybe cleaning up hazardous waste or deciding to put in place a way to monitor the population's health," Dr. Latshaw says.

Not only can it confirm that people are being exposed to a variety of chemicals or sources of pollution, but is also can determine if the community does not need to worry.

"Biomonitoring can also be used to calm community concern, in cases where levels are found to be similar to the general population," Dr. Latshaw explains.

Not all encounters with chemicals, dust, or other substances are something to be concerned about. In this day and age, everyone is exposed to some mixture of chemicals all the time, but this doesn't mean we all need to be constantly worried. For some chemicals, our bodies can handle small amounts and not be hurt. Biomonitoring helps gauge how much of a certain substance we have in our system, and toxicologists can tell us if that amount might cause harm.

Understanding what it can do is great, but it is important to understand how it works. Often, it requires a sample being sent to a lab.

"It is typically blood or urine sent to a lab that is able to measure it for whatever the chemical of concern is," Dr. Latshaw shares.

It is also important to understand that it's not looking for just the chemical of concern. It's a complicated process.

"Some chemicals of concern only stick around in the body for very short periods of time. Or, they might be metabolized by the body, so what you are really looking for is not the chemical itself, you are looking for a product of the chemical's breakdown. [It could be that] once your enzyme attacks it, it might change it into something else. So, you really need to talk to an environmental health physician or toxicologist or laboratorian who understands what you are looking for. They will ask: Is there a marker for it, how long does that marker stick around, and how long ago was your exposure of interest?" Dr. Latshaw says.

So, if you are interested in being biomonitored, how can you make that happen?

The first step would be to talk to your doctor. Don't be alarmed if your doctor doesn't know much about it though. It is not something that that doctors are really trained about in school.

"If someone is interested [in biomonitoring] and their doctor doesn't seem to know a lot [about it], then what they can do is … call an environmental health physician. There is actually a group called the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. You can go to their website and find a physician who understands environmental medicine," Dr. Latshaw shares.

If you have a large group in your community that is worried about eating, breathing, or touching a specific health-harming substance, communities can also reach out.

"If a community wants to be biomonitored, they should contact their health department. Many health departments don't have a biomonitoring program, so a community might want to contact ATSDR (the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) or the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which recently launched the National Biomonitoring Network" Dr. Latshaw suggests.

The last piece is to understand that because this is such a complicated process, and it is not yet widely available, the cost is highly variable.

"Blood lead [testing] is something that is done on a regular basis, so that is much lower cost. But, if you want to look at perfluorinated chemicals, there are very few laboratories that can do that, so that is probably going to be relatively expensive," Dr. Latshaw explains.

Biomonitoring can be a very useful test, but it is not very common as of yet. If you have a true concern about how often you come in contact with a certain chemical or heavy metal, be sure to talk to your doctor and find someone who understands the biomonitoring process who can help figure out the best option for you.

For more information about biomonitoring, visit the CDC page talking about the National Biomonitoring Program.

Roundups

Healthier Food Storage Containers

Plastic free jars, boxes, and wraps!

Updated for 2022!

We scoured the internet finding an assortment of safer and healthier ways to keep your leftovers and meal prep ingredients fresh. All of these options are sustainable, have many glowing reviews, and are easily available. We also have a roundup more specifically for packing lunch you might also want to check out too!

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Life

Your Summer Guide to Water Safety

How to Promote Fun and Prevent Drowning

Summer has arrived! Cue the backyard BBQs, ice cream sandwiches (or DIY popsicles), and Will Smith jams. During long, hot days, water activities are basically a necessity for creating fun memories and staying cool. Unfortunately, water-related accidents are a leading cause of injury and death for young children (4). So to keep things fun this summer, let's talk about drowning prevention.

Drowning happens in seconds and often quietly (1,3). Permanent disability can result even when drowning isn't fatal (3), since any prolonged oxygen disruption injures our brains. Though it can happen to anyone, drowning is the second most common cause of death for 1-4 year olds (3). Almost 90% of these incidents occur in home pools and hot tubs5,6 (and anything that collects water, even buckets, poses a risk) (3). To keep the children in your life safe and cool, here are 5 water safety tips as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, CDC, National Safety Council, Pool Safely, and Red Cross.

1. Kids' water activities require close supervision at all times

Most drowning incidents occur unsupervised when adults briefly step away or become distracted (4). For this reason, children need vigilant supervision by a designated adult whenever they're around water (4). We can appreciate a relaxing poolside novel or margarita, but the responsible adult/Water Watcher (7) needs to be completely free of alcohol impairment and any distractions (not even Insta). Consider water supervision to be like your greatest Netflix binge – your attention is totally focused, and you don't want to miss a thing. For young children the guiding principle is "touch supervision"– being within arm's reach at all times (3). 5-9 year olds are more likely to drown at public pools (4), so designate a supervising adult even when lifeguards are present (3).

2. Modest safety measures make a massive difference

Physical safety measures are imperative, especially when delightfully curious and unintentionally stealthy toddlers attempt to swim without you! Installing the right type of fence can reduce drowning risk by over 80% – 4-sided pool fences (completely isolating the pool) are far more effective than 3-sided property line fences (3). The safest fences measure at least 4 feet high, prevent climbing, and have self-latching, self-closing gates (3,7). Door alarms and rigid pool covers are also preventive, though their effectiveness is less studied (1). Always check that the pool you use has intact anti-entrapment drain covers (mandated by federal law) to prevent suction-related accidents (7). For portable pools, check out this specific safety guidance.

3. Life jackets are way better than floaties

Sadly those super cute floaty wings aren't designed for safety, according to the CDC, and should not replace life jackets (3) (on the upside, this means less flimsy plastic!). Young children and inexperienced swimmers should wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacketwhenever near water (1,9). And, regardless of swimming ability, all children need USCG-approved life jackets if playing around lakes or the ocean (2). Life jackets are only effective if they fit well, so check the weight and size limits before using (9). Remember that nothing replaces close supervision! (To help start your life jacket search, we tracked down a more eco-friendly option.)

4. Teach children swimming and water safety

Learning to swim is crucial for water safety. We all benefit from learning how to swim, and swimming lessons can prevent drowning in 1-4 year olds (3). It's never too early (or too late!) to learn – YMCA and community centers often provide affordable lessons for all ages. (We get that communal activities are probably not your jam with the current Covid-19 situation, but, at some point, formal swim lessons could be a fun family activity.) Knowing how to swim does not make us "drown proof" though, so we still need to exercise caution with kids of any swimming ability (1). Teaching children not to climb over pool fences, swim without an adult, or play near pool drains is also crucial for preventing drowning incidents (7).

5. Assess surroundings and swimming ability

Being aware of location-specific water dangers and knowing a swimmer's ability can help discern which activities are safe. Every water activity presents an assortment of fun and risk. Case in point: sprinklers are a simple joy but also an understated toe hazard (been there…). Oceans, rivers, and lakes offer wilder adventure yet can even prove dangerous for expert swimmers – rip currents are an infamous threat in oceans, and lakes and rivers can have undertows (6). Older children and adolescents are more likely to drown in these natural bodies of water (3). Since alcohol can impair your ability to assess surroundings and react appropriately, avoid drinking while swimming or supervising others (7).

Prevention first, but CPR can still save lives

We hope you'll never ever need to use CPR...ever. Prevention with the above measures can massively reduce drowning risk for everyone, but CPR is invaluable during a drowning incident and can improve the likelihood of the drowning victim's survival (3). The American Heart Association provides in-person Family and Friends CPR courses, as well as socially distanced, at-home instruction with Family and Friends CPR DVD or Adult/Child CPR training kits (includes a training manikin and DVD – fun for the whole family!).

With safe water play, we know your summer days will be full of adventure and excitement. Have fun!


References

1. https://www.aappublications.org/news/2019/03/15/drowning031519

2. https://www.cdc.gov/safechild/drowning/

3. https://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html

4. https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/2020-Submersion-Report-4-29-20.pdf

5. https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/pdfs/blk_media_SafetyBarrierGuidelinesResPools.pdf

6. https://www.nsc.org/home-safety/tools-resources/seasonal-safety/drowning

7. https://www.poolsafely.gov/parents/safety-tips/

8.https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety/drowning-prevention-and-facts.html

9.https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety/swim-safety.html

Roundups

Plastic-Free (and Melamine-Free!) Outdoor Tableware

They won't break, look great, and are sure to be perfect for you outdoor gatherings

Updated for Summer 2022!

Getting ready for some outdoor parties and dining this summer? We sure are! If you're looking to spruce up your outdoor dining scene, you'll quickly see that most options are made of melamine. Even though melamine dishware doesn't look like plastic, melamine can leach into food after dishes are repeatedly microwaved or used to hold both hot and acidic foods (read this to learn why you might want to skip the melamine). So if melamine is out, and easy to break options like ceramic just don't work for you (children being children, slippery surfaces, clumsy grownups!), check out these stainless steel, enamelware, wood, and tempered glass options. Although we always recommend reusable, we included one disposable option too (without PFAS chemicals). These are our top picks for plastic-free outdoor dishware, serving bowls and platters, tumblers, and more. They are all light weight, hard to break, and will make your outdoor entertaining photos look on point. So pick up some of these plastic-free and melamine-free outdoor dishes and enjoy dining al fresco!

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Food

4 Recipes for Batch Summer Drinks that You Can Spike AND that are Kid-Friendly

Ditch single use plastic and canned drinks at your next party

Summer is basically one big outdoor party. Anyone else wishing it will never end? With all of the heat, it's important to have icy beverages that everyone can enjoy. While it's easy to just load up with flats of canned cocktails or plastic bottles of flavored sparkling water, making a big batch of easy, tasty drinks is more budget friendly and planet friendly! Here are 4 of our favorite drink recipes meant for big containers, so you can quickly prepare them in advance and just set up a glass beverage dispenser as people start to arrive. Kids will love these fruity drinks and so will adults, especially if you add a splash of alcohol into your cup (we won't tell!). Plus you'll be skipping out on single use plastic bottles and BPA-lined aluminum cans. Try out one of these recipes at your next summer BBQ or event!


Spiked Lemonade

-1 gallon of water

-3 cups lemon juice

-3.5 cups white sugar

-Fruit like peach, blueberries, blackberries, mint, etc

-4 cups vodka or 1 shot per glass if adding vodka after pouring

Instructions

  1. Stir the sugar into the water until it's completely dissolved.
  2. Mix in the lemon juice, fruit, and optional vodka. Serve over ice.

Fruit Punch

-8 cups ginger ale

-4 cups orange juice

-4 cups pineapple juice

-sliced fruit like orange

-Optional: 2 cups rum

Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients and serve over ice

Watermelon Refresher

-8 cups seedless watermelon, cubed

-2 cups water

-2 cups ginger ale

-2 cups lime juice

-4 cups gin or vodka or 1 shot per glass if adding after pouring

Instructions

  1. Blend watermelon in a blender until pulverized. If you want a completely smooth consistency without pulp, strain the blended watermelon through a sieve.
  2. Combine all ingredients, including pulverized watermelon, and serve over ice.

Hibiscus Watermelon Cooler

8 cups water

8 hibiscus tea bags

8 cups watermelon juice (puree watermelon in blender)

½ cup honey

1 cup lime juice

4 cups tequila or 1 shot per glass if adding after pouring

Instructions

  1. Add the teabags to the water and let steep for 5-10 minutes
  2. Remove the teabags and add the rest of the ingredients
  3. Serve over ice

As much as we'd like to be the type of person who wakes up early, grabs some buckets and a sponge at home, and spends a few hours giving their car a DIY wash, we often find ourselves pulling into a car wash business instead. It's easy to feel guilty about taking the "convenient" route but in this case you don't have to! It's actually better for the environment to get a professional car wash rather than DIY! We break down the benefits of an automatic car wash below.

Whether you have a brand new car or your car has been with you for a decade and a few hundred thousand miles, chances are you want to take care of it. In addition to regular oil changes and tune ups, you need to give it a good cleaning. Washing your car isn't just for looks. Over time your car accumulates dirt, oil, salt, and other grime. As well as being an eyesore, this debris can damage the performance of your car. Since we want to drive our car for as long as possible, washing it should be part of your normal car maintenance routine! But before you run to grab your hose and bucket- you might want to consider heading to your local car wash.

It's common to think that going to the car wash is worse for the environment and too water intensive, when actually, the opposite is true. Car wash businesses use high powered nozzles to use as little water as efficiently as possible, and many businesses also have a system in place to catch and reuse old water (1). When you wash your car yourself, you probably just use a bucket filled with water and a hose. While your water usage may not seem that bad while you're washing, it adds up fast. Individuals can use between 80 to 140 gallons of water to wash their car, but a car wash business only uses about 30 to 45 gallons of water (2)! Many car washes also recycle the water used, so the water can be used many times. Some states even require car washes to use recycled water; in California, car washes must use at least 60% recycled water (4). During one particularly tough drought season, a city in California went so far as to ban using potable water for at-home car washes and required car owners to go to a car wash to clean their car (5). If you are concerned about wasting water, ask your local car wash if they recycle water and try to go to one that does!

Another reason to consider using a professional car wash business is wastewater. When we wash our cars at home, we're usually in a concrete driveway or on the side of the road and let the water run down to the sidewalk drains. But that water contains dirt, oil, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals that accumulate during normal driving, and those sidewalk drains don't go to a water treatment plant. Instead, that runoff is usually diverted directly into our watershed, which might to a lake, stream, or ocean and negatively impact aquatic wildlife and water quality (3). Professional car wash businesses are required by the Environmental Protection Agency to capture all wastewater and divert it into a sewage system. That means the water is safely processed through a water treatment facility and can be used for future car washes!

If you really want to wash your car at home, there are more eco-friendly options.

1. Look for cleaners that are biodegradable and phosphate-free, to minimize the potential for water contamination (3).

2. Make sure to dispose of any dirty water leftover in the buckets by dumping it down your sink, toilet, or bathtub instead of pouring it down your driveway.

3. Washing your car on an overcast, mild day can help save water, since it won't evaporate as quickly.

4. Use reusable cloths to wash and dry your car.


References

  1. https://www.treehugger.com/eco-friendly-car-wash-4863509
  2. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/top-10-water-wasters/
  3. https://cfpub.epa.gov/npstbx/files/KSMO_CarWashing.pdf
  4. https://www.carwash.com/law-requiring-carwashes-to-recycle-water-passed-in-ca/
  5. https://www.marketplace.org/2015/06/09/one-california-drought-winner-local-car-wash/

Now that you've invested in some glass and stainless steel food storage containers, maybe you're wondering if you should Marie Kondo all the plastic ones you used to use? Instead adding them to the landfill, what if we told you that all those plastic containers can help you achieve a new level of organization zen? While we don't recommend storing food in them anymore (for those of you who haven't heard: these plastic food storage containers often have BPA or phthalates in them, which can leach into your food over time and cause all sorts of health problems), we also don't think you have to throw them away.

So, what can you do? We have 6 great suggestions for you to repurpose those containers throughout your home.



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Food

Tasty, Vegetarian-Friendly Summer Grill Recipes

Trying to eat less meat but don't want to give up your grilling habit? We've got you

School's out for the summer and we're officially swapping out backpacks for shades, sunscreen and the good ole' grill. Yep, you heard us right, we're firing up the grill and believe it or not, no meat is involved. Trying your hand at incorporating more vegetables isn't just good for you, it's great for the environment too. In a nutshell, it takes a TON of energy and water to produce the steaks and pork ribs traditionally grilled (1). The extra carbon dioxide pumped into the air from raising livestock then contributes to increasing Earth's temperatures (2). So, if you're on board to beat the heat, keep on reading for some awesome recipes and ideas to try out this summer.

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