Top 10 “Alternative Medicine” Stories of 2016

Top 10 Alternate Medicine Stories of 2016

The end of a year offers us a chance to reflect on, and make listicles of pop culture moments that have impacted our lives: albums, movies, even celebrity deaths. We would be remiss as science communicators if we didn’t make a few lists of our own. Voila, my dearest reader, I present to you my top ten list of the alternate medicine stories of 2016.

I wanted to make this article funny, really I did. But, the consequences of using unproven “alternative” medical treatments are real. At the least, real treatment may be delayed for a troubling condition, or you’ll just be out-of-pocket the cash it takes to procure these miracle snake oils. While the horrific reports of maiming and deaths that occurred in 2016 in the name of “alternate medicine” were anything but funny, they were tempered with a few ‘wins’ for science.

I’m ready to put a postage stamp on 2016 and send this “post truth” (HOW IS THIS A THING?) year packing!

10. AMBER TEETHING NECKLACES & HOMEOPATHIC TEETHING GELS: Amber teething necklaces make my list at #10 for being the perfect storm of magical thinking. Every crank’s favorite magic token- a semi-precious stone or crystal- combined with some pseudoscience, the supposed ability of amber to absorb “warmth” and release ‘succinic acid’ to a baby’s gums in a high enough concentration to ease the pain of teething. Additionally, the transfer of electrons is of particular interest to believers of “woo”- they believe the human immune systems function optimally and inflammation is suppressed when there is an adequate supply of electrons. It has been known for centuries that amber can acquire a static electric charge when rubbed with wool. Infant deaths from choking, suffocation, and strangulation have all been reported. Additionally, FDA is investigating 10 infant deaths and over 400 cases of seizures, fever, and vomiting that may be connected to the use of homeopathic teething treatments. These treatments include the ingredient belladonna, which, if not diluted down to “none” can cause the above symptoms.

9. ESSENTIAL OILS: Make my list at #9 for destroying the environment and for being poisonous to babies and pets. The rule of thumb in toxicology is ‘the dose makes the poison,’ so all essential oils are potentially harmful. Four out of every five toxic exposures to oils occur in children. Oils like camphor, clove, lavender, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree, and wintergreen oils can cause hallucinations, seizures, chemical burns, breathing problems, liver failure and brain swelling. Not only are these oils potentially harmful, and don’t actually treat anything, but the demand for rare, indigenous plants is causing habitat destruction. For example, only around 200 critically endangered Arabian leopards remain in the wild and their habitat is being threatened by frankincense hunters serving the essential oils industry.

8. CUPPING: Thinking of trying a pseudoscientific “alternative therapy,” like the cupping therapy made popular by Olympic athletes in 2016? Know your risks! This practice is typically performed unsupervised, usually by people without any medical background. There are no certifications or regulatory bodies overseeing this treatment. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that cupping has any health benefits, what-so-ever, and the available research actually suggests that cupping can be harmful, especially in people who are thin or obese. Cupping can result in capillary expansion, excessive fluid accumulation in tissues, blood vessel rupture, bruising, skin burns, infection, and blood borne disease transmission.

7. FAKE CANCER CURES: The timing of detection and treatment is a critical determining factor for successful cancer treatment. Delaying conventional treatment while searching for an alternative cancer cure is a fatal mistake. The FDA lists over 187 fake cancer cures that are actively being marketed to victims. It’s not just the United States. Australia is also seeing epidemic levels of fake cancer cures, and 1000s of unnecessary deaths have been estimated this year. Recently, in one of my social media groups a woman reported applying bloodroot salve to her cervix to treat cervical dysplasia at home. As you might think, she was in excruciating pain, and needed to seek medical care, but sadly turned to social media instead! I have not read an update about this unfortunate woman (with extremely poor decision making skills) yet, but wish her the best!

You cannot cure cancer with vitamin B17.

6. INFANT CHIROPRACTIC: *Les Sighs*. There is no evidence of any benefit or even an assurance that chiropractic care for infants is even reasonably safe. Proponents believe that spinal adjustments can help alleviate non-musculoskeletal conditions such as colic, asthma, recurrent ear infections, cancer (I can’t even) and prevent general illness by “removing the nerve interference” causing these conditions. Thankfully, reported paralysis and strokes are rare BUT WHY would anyone take that risk? Not only that, but chiropractors tend to give all sorts of medical advice attempting to act as primary care doctors, where they do everything from negatively influence parent’s decisions about vaccinating their children, to delaying real care and treatments, and often ordering x-rays, exposing children to radiation for NO medical REASON.

5. VITAMIN K SHOT REFUSAL: There is a new way to worship the “all natural” that also tends to target new mother’s deepest anxieties: Vitamin K shot refusal for newborn babies. This dangerous trend is piggy-backing on the anti-vaccine sentiment gripping the nation. All babies are born vitamin K-deficient, putting them at risk for uncontrolled bleeding, until they start eating solid food. Vitamin K deficiency bleeding can have catastrophic consequences, resulting in; gross motor skill deficits; long-term neurological, cognitive or developmental problems; organ failure; or death. Approximately 0.25% to 1.7% of newborns that don’t receive vitamin K at birth will experience “early” vitamin K deficiency bleeding. But, late vitamin K deficiency bleeding (between 2 and 24 weeks old) affects an estimated 4 to 10 of every 100,000 babies who don’t receive vitamin K at birth and is, in a way, much more dangerous, because it happens after mom and baby have gone home from the hospital, it is “silent,” internal, and much more likely to be diagnosed after irreversible damage has occurred. About one in five babies who develop late vitamin K deficiency bleeding die, and two of every five who survive have long-term brain damage.

4. ORGANIC TAMPONS: Women have a MILLION things to worry about when it comes to their vaginas, and 2016 sought to add one more. A wave of celebrity fueled “chemophobia” (an irrational fear of chemicals), brought us the catchy “Vajingle” and 7th Generation’s Organic Tampons. Tampons are already highly regulated as medical devices by FDA (surprise, the government REALLY IS IN OUR VAGINAS!), and organic varieties are not better or safer, and they have not been proven to contain fewer chemicals than conventional brands. (For the last time, just because something is purportedly organic, does not mean that it is grown without pesticides!) I also discovered this random crowdfunding campaign that claims to make feminine hygiene products that “release negative ions which eliminate odor-causing bacteria, relax the body during pain and promote positive mood.” On top of these outrageous health claims, the campaign goes one step further- defining anions as “naturally occurring negative ions that are released in high quantities in places like forests, beaches, and waterfalls.” Organic feminine hygiene products make my list at #7, because not only are the health claims that are being made spurious, but also because organic cotton is awful for the environment in terms of its carbon footprint.

3. TRICLOSAN: Antibiotics are, of course, an invaluable part of standard medical practice. However, triclosan and similar antibacterial compounds were seized on by manufacturers of non-regulated health and beauty products, everything from toothpaste, to hand sanitizers to facewash, with these products marketed as being more effective at controlling germs than plain soap. Luckily for consumers, FDA demanded safety and effectiveness data to back up those claims that manufactures were unable to provide, leading FDA to ban their use. Terrific news for consumers, as some data suggest that long-term exposure to triclosan and related antibacterials—may pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.

2. BOB SEARS CHARGED WITH NEGLIGENCE: “Dr.” Bob Sears promotes an alternate vaccine schedule (there is no such thing), has influenced thousands of parents not to vaccinate at all through his fear-mongering, which has been traced back to notable communicable disease outbreaks (measles at Disneyland), and he ALSO tries to convince parents that getting the measles isn’t all that bad. 2016 however, disagrees. New evidence sheds light on a complication of measles occurs many years after contracting the illness and is 100% fatal. 100%. FATAL. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) was previously thought to only occur in 1/10,000 cases of measles, but this gem of way to die, by brain inflammation, was recently discovered to actually affect 1 out of every 600 babies that contract measles. I was soooooo thankful to finally see ‘Dr.’ Bob Sears charged with negligence. Although, these charges relate to his other highly objectionable medical practices, I am hopeful that his anti-vaccine atrocities will catch up with him as well.

1. HOMEOPATHIC LABELING: Saving the BEST for last in my countdown, 2016 saw the Federal Trade Commission cracking down on homeopathic “drugs.” Americans spend BILLIONS a year on homeopathic potions even though “curing like with like” using ultra-highly diluted substances defies the basic principles of chemistry, biology, and physics. The new FTC rules will now require homeopathic packaging to effectively communicate two key ideas, that: “There is no scientific evidence that this product works” and “This product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.” Ok, I lied- we end on a sad note after all — the FTCs own study on homeopathy and advertising (page 21) shows that up to 45% of consumers think that homeopathic products are FDA approved—even after looking at a package with a disclaimer that says they aren’t.

The “alternate medicine” stories that made headlines in 2016 range from tragic to hopeful for the future. This list is only a small selection: tell us some of the headlines that caught your attention!!

Is the Flu Shot Safe During Pregnancy? Yes.

Pregnancy during flu season can be particularly dangerous.

A pregnant woman’s heart and lungs are already doing extra work handling the pregnancy, so a serious illness like the flu can put her in danger of complications like pneumonia. The flu has also been linked in previous studies with preterm labor and premature birth; and fever from the flu can lead to birth defects. The flu shot has been given to millions of pregnant women over many years. Flu shots have never been shown to cause harm to pregnant women or their babies, but pregnant women have been shown to be at increased risk for morbidity and death from flu.

Pregnancy is a dangerous time for women. Your fetus is comprised of your own, plus “foreign” non-self DNA. Normally, your immune system will do anything it can to kill off a foreign invader. But, you don’t want to mount an immune response against your baby during pregnancy. In fact, your immune response will be repressed, so that you can successfully carry your fetus to term. Pretty neat. except….. during flu season.

Studies showing safety and efficacy of flu vaccine during pregnancy.

A recent study analyzed 58,008 births in Western Australia between April 2012 and December 2013. Among the women, 8.8 percent had received the flu vaccine, and 377 stillbirths occurred at a rate of 5.0 per 100,000 pregnancy days for women without the vaccine and 3.0 per 100,000 days for women who received the vaccine.

Overall, stillbirth was 51 percent less likely among vaccinated mothers, as opposed to unvaccinated mothers, with the largest reduction in stillbirths coming just after flu season ended. Maternal vaccination against flu was recommended as far back as 1960 in the US and in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO). In England, it was first recommended for pregnant women during the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
It is safe, and very important, for a woman who is pregnant to receive a flu vaccine. Pregnant women who get the flu are at increased risk for severe illnesses from influenza and their babies are also at risk. Complications from the flu can include premature labor, babies that are small for gestational age, hospitalization, and, death. Pregnant women can receive the flu shot at any time, during any trimester. In addition, because babies younger than 6 months are too young to receive flu vaccine, it is important that everyone who cares for your baby also get a flu vaccine.

Influenza is the most frequent cause of death from a vaccine-preventable disease in the United States. In a study of influenza seasons from 1976–1977 through 2006–2007, the estimated number of annual influenza-associated deaths from respiratory and circulatory causes ranged from a low of 3,349 (1985–1986 season) to a high of 48,614 (2003–2004 season), with an average of 23,607 influenza-associated deaths. In addition to fatalities, seasonal influenza is also responsible for more than 200,000 hospitalizations per year.

No study to date has demonstrated an increased risk of either maternal complications or adverse fetal outcomes associated with inactivated influenza vaccination. Moreover, no scientific evidence exists that thimerosal-containing vaccines are a cause of adverse events among children born to women who received influenza vaccine during pregnancy.

“Inactivated influenza vaccine reduced proven influenza illness by 63% in infants up to 6 months of age and averted approximately a third of all febrile respiratory illnesses in mothers and young infants. Maternal influenza immunization is a strategy with substantial benefits for both mothers and infants. (ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT00142389.)”

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0708630

“Inactivated influenza vaccine can be safely and effectively administered during any trimester of pregnancy. No study to date has demonstrated an increased risk of either maternal complications or adverse fetal outcomes associated with inactivated influenza vaccination. Moreover, no scientific evidence exists that thimerosal-containing vaccines are a cause of adverse events among children born to women who received influenza vaccine during pregnancy.”

http://www.ajog.org/art…/S0002-9378(09)01108-9/abstract…

Infants born to women reporting influenza immunization during pregnancy had risk reductions of 64% for ILI, 70% for laboratory-confirmed influenza, and 81% for influenza hospitalizations in their first 6 months. Maternal influenza immunization during pregnancy is a public health priority.”

Effects of influenza on pregnant women and infants. Rasmussen SA1, Jamieson DJ, Uyeki TM.Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012 Sep;207(3 Suppl):S3–8. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2012.06.068. Epub 2012 Jul 9.

Seasonal Trivalent Influenza Vaccination During Pregnancy and the Incidence of Stillbirth: Population-Based Retrospective Cohort Study. Annette K. Regan, Hannah C. Moore, Nicholas de Klerk, Saad B. Omer, Geoffrey Shellam, Donna B. Mak, and Paul V. Effler

Safety of influenza vaccination during pregnancy. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Dec;201(6):547–52. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2009.09.034. Epub 2009 Oct 21. Tamma PD1, Ault KA, del Rio C, Steinhoff MC, Halsey NA, Omer SB.

Agricultural Scientists use Social Media to Amplify their Voices for Public Health

“Fed” up with the aggressive and damaging marketing tactics of the $45 billion dollar per year organic industry, academic scientists and teachers are biting back, despite being ill-equipped for the personal and professional risks of taking on a well-funded industry.

For three decades the organic industry and anti-biotechnology extremists have worked to deploy and further a very poignant and specific narrative: that opposition to genetically engineered crops (“GMOs”) is based on corporate greed and dangerous pesticide use, and that organic products are safer and more nutritious than conventional varieties.

The scientists, professors, and teachers that are working to feed and clothe the world through agricultural biotechnology have been horrified that their life’s work is being vilified and turned into a marketing tactic, so they have turned to social media to communicate the story behind their work directly to the public.

Concurrently with this movement, several genetically modified organisms have also gone “off patent” (their corporate patents have expired), several GMOs have been developed, which are free from any corporate ties, nonprofit crop trials have been destroyed- catching the attention of the media, and lastly, over 2,000 independently funded academic studies have proven the safety and utility of GMOs over the last thirty years, most recently cumulating in a “trillion-meal” study. This study by University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science, is the most comprehensive study of GMOs and food ever conducted. While the sheer size of the dataset was extraordinary (more than 100 billion animals covering a period of nearly 30 years, the findings were not- the authors showed zero extraordinary impact on animals fed GMOs.

In other words, the tightly controlled organic industry narrative of “corporate greed and dangerous pesticide” use has been disrupted by the scientists and teachers that make up the agricultural “science advocacy” (sometimes called agvocacy) community as well as further developments in the field.

Disconcertingly, the “agvocates” who engage in public discourse through social media have been underprepared to delve into the sometime troubling waters of digital activism. Their jobs, families, research, and property have been threatened and harassed.

A few examples illustrate this point well.

In 2015 Cornell University, with funding primarily from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began a fellowship program called the Cornell Alliance For Science with the goal of “reclaiming the conversation around agricultural biotechnology so that science- and evidence-based perspectives drive decision-making.”

The organic industry funded blog GM Watch has targeted Cornell Alliance For Science in a string of coordinated attacks. They accuse Cornell University as “complicit in a shocking amount of ecologically destructive, academically unethical, and scientifically deceitful behaviour.” Followers of the blog have been encouraged to harass a coop where Cornell was hosting a talk in order to cancel the event. Another anti-biotechnology blog, Agra Watch, has specifically assigned an individual to “investigate” Cornell University and their public relations activities.

Agra Watch also waged a campaign against Iowa State University’s biofortified banana,disrupting publicly funded research, which has the potential to prevent blindness in thousands of people in Uganda.

Kevin Folta of the University of Florida is a well-respected scientist, who has worked since the dawn of GMO technology 29 years ago in academic laboratories, producing dozens of Ph.D. graduates and mentoring over 120 undergraduates, while making significant contributions to the field of plant nutrition.

Folta has been a target of these attacks for years, starting first with a FOIA requests on his emails, and progressing to cyber bullying and real-life breaks-ins and threats against his family. Anti-biotechnology activists were encouraged to call Dr. Folta’s employer to complain about him. Recently, he garnered the wrath of the activists with a podcast discussing the success of GMO eggplant (bt-brinjal) in Bangladesh. This crop variety was developed to resist the endemic pest called fruit and shoot borer, and therefore requires drastically less pesticides than is conventionally applied by farmers. This is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution by the government to poor smallholder farmers, so that they can use up to 80% less insecticide.

Folta said of the incident:

“It appears that science has hit a nerve. Some of the poorest people are growing food and eating, sustainably. You’d think that critics would be celebrating. But to an emotional and science-free movement, when the technology they oppose serves others, they are caught between acknowledging that it is doing good and abandoning their sacred belief that this technology can do no good– ever.”

Greenpeace has a long history of disrupting GM research in foreign countries, and most recently Greenpeace activists destroyed publicly funded research in Australia- test fields of a new strain of GM wheat developed with a lower glycemic index and increased fiber content to improve bowel health.

It is clear that universities and public research institutions should provide a framework of best practices and an established support mechanism for scientists who are engaging directly in science advocacy through social media. Additionally, storytelling is an essential component for nonprofit communication, and may be especially important for effectively communicating complicated and emotional stories about science and the food supply and environmental sustainability.

Originally published at the Georgetown University Social Impact Communicator Blog

Co-Written with Stephan Neidenbach, Executive Director and Founder of We love GMOs and Vaccines

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Top 10 Vaccine News Stories of 2016

 

Top 10 vaccine News Stories of 2016

The end of a year offers us a chance to reflect on, and make listicles of pop culture moments that have impacted our lives: albums, movies, even celebrity deaths. We would be remiss as science communicators if we didn’t make a few lists of our own. Voila, I present to you my top ten list of Vaccine News Stories 2016. So much HOPE for the future!

Tell us your favorite vaccine moments, conspiracies, or news stories of 2016!!!

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  1. Ebola Vaccine 100% Effective

We will not be defenseless when the next Ebola outbreak hits. An Ebola vaccine was developed in Canada that is 100% effective, and is now owned and manufactured by Merck, Sharp & Dohme. It’s currently being fast-tracked by US and European regulatory agencies.

  1. Detection of Intussusception with RotaVirus Vaccination

Before the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine, almost all children in the US were infected by the age of 5, and rotavirus infections were responsible for 400,000 doctor visits, 200,000 ER visits, 55,000-70,000 hospitalizations, and 20-60 deaths each year. Recently, a very small increased risk for a complication has been observed with rotavirus vaccination, leading to better education of parents for the symptoms and new recommendations for children with a previous history of intussusception. This indicates that our post-vaccination monitoring systems work well to help scientists and doctors detect very rare events!!

  1. SSPE, a Measles Complication now at 1:600

Unfortunately for Californians, who are experiencing yet ANOTHER measles outbreak, 2016 shed new light on a complication of measles that occurs many years after contracting the illness, and is 100% fatal.

100%. FATAL.

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) was previously thought to only occur in 1/10,000 cases of measles, but this gem of a way to die, by brain inflammation, was recently discovered to actually affect 1 out of every 600 babies that contract measles. In the past, hucksters like “Dr.” Bob Sears have tried to claim that contracting measles isn’t all that bad. Lucky for us, 2016 also saw “Dr.” Bob indicted on negligence charges.

  1. Polio Eradication Efforts

After many months of coordination, planning, training, procurement efforts, and logistical preparations, all countries in the world have switched to a bivalent oral polio vaccine, moving us one step closer to global eradication.

  1. Zika Vaccine Enters Clinical Trials in Humans

An investigational Zika vaccine developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) entered phase 1 clinical trials in 2016. Never before have so many companies (a dozen) and government organizations worked so quickly to develop a vaccine from scratch. Vaccines usually take a decade or more to develop. But researchers say a Zika vaccine could be available as early as 2018!

  1. FluMist Effectiveness Decline

In yet another win for the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, the FluMist vaccine, made by MedImmune, was found to be only 3 percent effective last flu season, leading the CDC to discontinue its use for this year. Human immune systems are fickle things, and we are engaged in a “Red Queen” like race with the viruses around us. Thank goodness for vaccines and for the public reporting systems that keep us out of harms way!

  1. HPV Vaccine Effective After Just 2 Doses in Children

The CDC advisory committee has decided that children who start getting vaccinated against human papillomavirus before 15 need only two doses, instead of the previous recommendation for three. Experts predict that the simpler, more flexible timeline will result in higher rates of HPV vaccination, which has lagged among both girls and boys.

  1. New HIV vaccine Clinical Trails in South Africa

Since the HIV virus was identified in 1983, efforts to develop an effective vaccine have been unsuccessful. The first large study of an HIV vaccine’s effectiveness since 2009, is currently being tested in South Africa. The vaccine is a reformulation of a one previously tested in Thailand that yielded a 30% effective rate. This is only the seventh full-scale human trial for an HIV vaccine- for a virus that infects more than 2 million people and kills more than 1 million every year.

  1. Universal Flu Vaccine

In 2016, researchers at McMaster University and two American universities took a step forward in developing a universal flu vaccine. They discovered antibodies, that can “train” the immune system to recognize a portion of the virus that does not change from year-to-year. This discovery paves the way toward a universal vaccine that could be given just once and potentially protect against all future strains of the flu, including mutated strains.

  1. Universal Cancer Vaccine

An international team of researchers took pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in advanced stages of the disease, fanning the flames of hope for developing a universal cancer vaccine. Early studies like this create an enormous amount of interest. But studies in animals often don’t work out so well when they’re carried out in humans. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings us!

Organic Tampons: 7 Reasons They Are No Better Than Conventional.

This article appears originally on www.fitnessreloaded.com
Chemophobia sweeps over the feminine hygiene aisle as new fears are being marketed up close and *ahem* personal to women by the multi-billion dollar organic industry. 

Women have a MILLION things to worry about when it comes to their vaginas.

  • Will it go back after I have this baby?
  • Does it smell weird?
  • Does it look funny?
  • Can you see camel toe through these yoga pants?
  • Are blood clots the size of chicken nuggets normal?
  • Is my daughter worrying about the “panty challenge” on Instagram… and by god, I will kill her.

Were you worried about putting CHEMICALS where BABIES COME FROM? No?

Well, now you can be! “Chemophobia” or an irrational fear of chemicals is being stoked by the organic industry in a slick, celebrity-studded marketing campaign aiming to get up-close and personal with us, and I do mean personal.

Maya Rudolph (she’s an “every” girl, just like you and me of course!) croons in her low, somewhat off-key comedic-voice about how the feminine care should be free of perfumes, unnecessary chemicals and chlorine processing for nearly two minutes and by the time she is done, you are filled with self-doubt and new fears about our most intimate lady parts.

Why would anyone want to make you worry about putting chemicals in your vagina? The organic industry would.

It is BIG business. U.S. organic sales set a new record in 2015 of $43.3 billion in sales.

For example, in 2012, The Honest Company, a company that started out with natural baby products but has since expanded, made $150 million in revenues last year.

Industry insiders are predicting revenues in excess of $250 million for this year, with an overall valuation of $1 billion dollars

The feminine hygiene industry in the U.S. alone is $3 billion/year. This is a good chunk to add to this growing industry.

Let’s take a look at some of the organic tampons marketing claims and the science behind them.

#1. Organic tampons are healthier and safer than non-organic: Not really.

Most of the marketing claims I found say that organic pads and tampons are “healthier and safer for your body.”

Do you know who worries about things you stick in your vagina more than you ever could? The FDA. That’s right. Tampons are actually a class II medical device– heavily regulated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

Just like something you stick inside your body right next to sensitive mucus membranes and where you grow your babies should be. Regular tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products do not use toxic chemicals.

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The government actually IS in our vaginas. FDA regulations cover every aspect from selection of tampon size and absorbency, to tampon insertion methods to how tampons should be worn and the wear-time, to tampon removal and disposal.

Clinical testing for all tampons must provide proof that meets rigorous criteria for:

  • irritation,
  • allergy,
  • effects on vaginal microflora,
  • abrasions,
  • ulceration,
  • laceration and
  • residual fiber retention.

#2. Organic tampons are made without chlorine bleach: same for conventional ones.

I found some variation of this marketing claim on every website I visited:

“Made without bleach, pesticide-treated cotton, fragrances, deodorants, rayon, or synthetic superabsorbents — everything you need, nothing you don’t!”

Is this claim based in science or is it more fiction?

First lets tackle chlorine bleach and rayon, because they are really one and the same issue. We worry about bleach in our home cleaning products, coffee filters, and face tissues.

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So why not in our feminine hygiene products? In the 1980s, after the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency we discovered many environmental contaminants. Dioxin was one of them.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report stating that dioxins are known to cause cancer in animals, and probably cause cancer in people.

Dioxin is the byproduct of the process from converting wood pulp into a synthetic fiber called Rayon, which is also used for fabric.

Tampons are usually made of cotton and rayon. Up until the late 1990’s, bleaching the wood pulp resulted in traces of dioxin in tampons, but that method has since been replaced with a chlorine-free bleaching process for all tampons.

In general, the dioxin hazard has been reduced because of the new, non-chlorine bleaching methods, but it can still be detected in low levels tampons — even those made of 100% cotton.

This is due to the previous decades of pollution; dioxin can be found in the air, water, and ground.

Therefore, small amounts of dioxin may be present in the cotton or wood pulp raw materials used to make tampons, regardless of whether they are organic or not.

The FDA requires all tampon manufacturers to monitor dioxin levels in their finished products.

#3. Organic tampons are made without synthetic supeabsoerbents: Same for conventional tampons!

What about synthetic superabsorbents? That sounds legit, right?! In the 1980s some superabsorbent tampons were associated with “toxic shock syndrome,” a systemic blood infection.

However, the CDC and FDA moved quickly to protect our health after this complication was discovered and the superabsorbent materials have been banned in ALL tampons since then.

#4. Organic tampons are fragnance-free: You can find conventional fragrance-free tampons as well!

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The fragrances used in tampons do meet the strict safety standards set by the International Fragrance Association, and are tested extensively for irritation.

However, some people may have extremely sensitive skin and want to avoid fragrances and deodorants altogether. There are plenty unscented conventional choices available by all major brands.

#5. Organic tampons are pesticide-free: False! Organic uses pesticides, sometimes even more toxic than the ones used in conventional crops.

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And what about pesticide levels in cotton? Cotton is neither a fruit nor a vegetable, it is a seed crop; like sunflowers, soybeans, or safflower.

However, cotton is regulated as a food crop by the FDA: The Food & Drug Administration states in its Code of Federal Regulations: Title 21: Food and Drugs, Part 172 that “cottonseed products may be used for human consumption.”

As such, it is a subject to the same rigorous government oversight as food crops, even if it is to be used for textile purposes.

If you don’t trust our own FDA to test accurately for harmful residues, then perhaps use can trust the German Bremmer Cotton Exchange, which carries out extensive testing of cottons from all over the world according to the Eco-Tex 100 Standards (a global standards organization headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland).

They have found that US cotton is among the cleanest in the world, no matter how it is produced, with pesticide levels nearly undetectable.

Over 60 chemicals, both “naturally derived” AND synthetic, are allowed in “organic” production methods. Some natural pesticides can be even more dangerous that synthetic ones, neem oil, used in organic cotton farming is a great example.

In a study funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Council of Canada, six different insecticides were analyzed: four were synthetic and two organic; the organic ones turned out to be more toxic than their synthetic counterparts.

#6. Organic tampons are made with GOTS Certified Organic Cotton: This is worse for the environment.

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Many of the brands I found use “100% GOTS Certified Organic Cotton.”

Sounds like it is good for the environment, right? Wrong.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is one of the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. It defines high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well. Organic cotton must be non-GMO.

Like many non-gmo crops, non-GMO cotton suffers from a “resources” problem, it uses too much of them and yields a much smaller amount of cotton. The yield for non-GMO cotton crops is roughly 50% less than conventional cotton (for area of land.) This means you need double the land to produce the same amount of cotton.

  • The requirement for more land and more resources means that organic cotton has a much larger “ecological footprint” than conventional cotton.
  • On top of that, organic cotton is necessarily sprayed insecticide application for organic cotton (usually externally applied Bt protein,) and these additional applications require more tractor passes, which contributes to the large carbon footprint of organic cotton.
  • Lastly, organic cotton growers can’t use synthetic herbicides (or GMO Round-Up Ready seeds). Cotton is a very sensitive and slow growing crop that will produce NO yield if weeds are allowed to grow near the trees. Organic weed control methods are entirely dependent on tillage, tractor passes and rotary hoes. Tillage and cultivation is necessary two to three times per week. This means more fuel emissions, wear and tear on equipment, with a higher carbon footprint.

GMO cotton varieties produce 25–50% more yield worldwide, compared to the cotton varieties grown 40 years ago. The use of genetically improved (Bt trait) cotton strains has allowed some countries to reduce their cotton insecticide use by up to 90%! They are drought resistant; therefore they need less irrigation and use less water.

The bottom line is these miracle, good for the environment, GMO cotton varieties cannot be used to produce “100% GOTS certified organic cotton.”

#7. Organic tampons include no phtalates or BPA — these don’t cause issues in conventional tampons either.

Join the conversation at www.fitnessreloaded.com

The last of the claims I found center around the applicator itself. For example “Made without phthalates, the innovative compact plastic tampon applicator is made from 90%+ bio-based materials” and “BPA-Free plastic applicators”

Both BPA and phthalates are “endocrine disruptors.” Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects.

A wide variety of products are used by women in the genital area and, therefore, come into contact with the genital mucosa. The largest category is those used for cleanliness and odor control, such as soaps and body washes, douches, premoistened wipes and towelettes, dusting powder and deodorant sprays.

The next largest are those that absorb fluids, such as products used for menstrual protection (tampons, pads and panty liners) and incontinence protection. Lubricants and moisturizers, and aesthetic products (hair removal products and dyes), and fungal treatments are also fairly common.

Studies have looked at the urine of women who use these products, and found that the only substantial increase in the level of phthalates (not whether this level relates to any disorder or condition what-so-ever) is related to douching, NOT to feminine hygiene product use.

Organic pads and tampons: They are no better for you or the environment.

So, should you buy organic tampons and organic feminine hygiene products? In many states, feminine hygiene products are already taxed as “luxury items” in most states, and going green “down there” can double those costs:

  • A 10-pack of Honest Company regular pads costs $6, whereas a 16-pack of Always goes for just over $3.
  • For $7, you could get 16 Honest Company organic tampons or 34 from Kotex.

Going organic is no better for you or the environment. But the marketing is as brilliant as the vajingle is catchy.

Now join the conversation at Fitness Reloaded and leave a comment and let us know: Are you buying organic cotton tampons? Why/why not?

References

Bahlai et al., Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011250

Branch F. et al., Vaginal douching and racial/ethnic disparities in phthalates exposures among reproductive-aged women: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001–2004. Environ Health. 2015 Jul 15;14:57. doi: 10.1186/s12940–015–0043–6.

10 Great Reasons to Avoid Organic

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1) Organic is a production term— it does not address the quality, safety or nutritional value of a product. It is a myth that organic farming does not use pesticides or chemicals. You can find the “approved” list of organic pesticides here.

2) The USDA and EPA Pesticide Data Program does a great job of monitoring the environment and protecting our health: The 2013 PDP Annual Summary shows that over 99 percent of the products sampled through PDP had residues below the EPA tolerances. Residues exceeding the set tolerances were only detected in 0.23 percent of the samples!!!

3) Organic foods have NOT been proven to be safer: Fruits and vegetables labeled as organic are grown with fertilizers and pesticides, the same as conventional farming, however the pesticides that are allowed to be used are different (although, many synthetic chemical agents are actually “exempt” and allowed in organic farming) between the two production methods. “Organic” pesticides can be more toxic than their synthetic counterparts.

4) Organic pesticides can pose the same health risks as nonorganic ones. For example, neem oil, a bug killer, is considered “natural” because the substance is found in the seeds of a tree, but “natural” doesn’t mean safe. Neem oil is known to cause seizures and comas in humans if consumed in large doses, and it kills bumblebees at very low concentrations. Copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, borax and borates are all known to cause some harm to humans and are approved members of the organic list. Among “synthetic” pesticides, pyrethrums are still allowed, and Vitamin C that is chemically derived (and therefore synthetic) is allowed, as are various forms of alcohol.

5) Organic pesticides often need to be applied more frequently than their synthetic counterparts: Many people think that organic farming is inherently gentler to the environment, and that organic farming practices are designed to be more sustainable, emphasizing conservation and reducing pollutants. But that is a myth. The equation is simple really: the same outcome, pest management must be achieved, so more pounds or applications of less toxic compounds are used to achieve the same effect.

6) Pesticide residues are often present at unacceptable tolerance levels on organic fruits and vegetables and these results have been independently analyzedIn a larger 2014 USDA survey, over 10,000 samples of 15 crops were taken from ordinary retail food channels.  The scientists then used extremely sensitive laboratory methods to check for traces of hundreds of different chemicals.  409 of the samples were labeled as organic, and residues were detected in 87 of them.  Thus 21% of the organic samples had detectable residues representing 142 detections in 78 crop/chemical combinations.  That detection percent is lower than for conventional, but the  PDP testing does not have the capacity to detect several of the most commonly used, organic-approved pesticides like sulfur, copper compounds, mineral oils or Bt.  However, the other 40 of the 41 different pesticides detected on the organic foods were synthetic chemicals that are not approved for use on organic.

Below are some very important words taken from the pilot study. The take home message here is, whatever type of produce you buy, please wash it thoroughly!

“In the pilot study, 327 samples (57.3 percent) had no detectable levels of pesticide residue and 244 samples (42.7 percent) had detectable pesticide levels. Of the 244 samples with detectable pesticide levels, 21 samples had values that were greater than 5 percent of EPA tolerance levels and in violation of the USDA organic regulations. The values of the other 223 samples with detectable residues were less than 5 percent of the EPA tolerance level. This outcome was consistent with the results from previous studies and reviews. The pilot study was an observational study that was not designed to collect and analyze data representative of the organic industry as a whole. It focused on method feasibility. However, the pilot study did identify specific areas of concern that warrant increased scrutiny to prevent contamination. The residue detections varied widely by commodity:

Apples. Two pesticides, diphenylamine and thiabendazole, were present within the allowed range (but over 0.01 ppm) for several samples. Diphenylamine and thiabendazole are applied post harvest within the apple packing sheds to control scald (diphenylamine) or disease (thiabendazole). The levels of these compounds indicate inadequate separation and cleaning within organic packing houses. Additionally, three apple samples contained residues of chlorpyrifos—an insecticide used in conventional apple production—at 0.001 ppm. These residues most likely indicate pesticide drift from neighboring orchards.

Bell peppers. Thirteen samples were in violation of the USDA organic regulations for having levels over 5 percent of the EPA tolerance for at least one pesticide. These violations were scattered across 12 pesticides, with 3 samples having levels in violation for 2 pesticides. The high levels and number of detections indicate that some samples may have been mislabeled, improperly handled, or misrepresented as organic.

Broccoli. No broccoli samples were in violation, nor were any detections over 0.01 ppm. 7 Potatoes. One potato sample was in violation of the USDA organic regulations. Over half of detections in the compliant range (under 5 percent of the EPA tolerance level) came from potatoes containing chlorpropham, a post harvest sprout inhibitor used when storing conventional potatoes. This pesticide’s label cautions that the product may remain active up to 6 months post use. Separate storage areas or documented clean out procedures are already required for organic products, but these results show that additional efforts to separate organic potatoes are necessary.

Strawberries. Two strawberry samples were in violation of the USDA organic regulations. Additionally, one pesticide, piperonyl butoxide, was present at allowed levels (but over 0.01 ppm) in several samples.

Tomatoes. Four tomato samples were in violation of the USDA organic regulations. Additionally, two pesticides, imidacloprid and piperonyl butoxide, were present at allowed levels (but over 0.01 ppm) in several samples.”

7) Organic foods are no “healthier” than conventionally produced foods: Many people seem to think that organic foods might be higher in nutrients than their traditional counterparts, however, the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or safer than conventional foods.

It has been proposed that foods produced under organic systems have to “work harder” to defend themselves from the environment, therefore, they must be making more of the antioxidants, phytochemicals, and micronutrients that will make them healthier choices, however, it has been shown that organic versus conventional management systems contribute the smallest source of nutrient variation when compared to plant genotype, growth region, or spring vs. fall season.  That doesn’t mean there is NO variation, it just means that organic vs. non organic contributes the LEAST amount of variation, and these small amounts likely have no significant impact on the health of people in a well-fed country, such as ours (if there is any effect at all on human health).

8) Organic food is expensive: “Organic” is a $32 billion dollar a year industry. Many people think that they are buying from small family-owned farms, however, most seemingly quaintly named organic labels, are actually owned by big corporations, and they are no longer managed by their organic founders. When you pay a premium for organic food, often you are assuming that you are supporting a family farm. A better way to do that is to buy local, if that is your motivation.

9) 99.9% of all of the pesticides you eat are produced by the plant ITSELF. It has been estimated that we consume 1.5 grams of natural pesticides per person per day (based on the content of toxins in the major plant foods (e.g., 13 g of roasted coffee per person per day contains about 765 mg of chlorogenic acid, neochlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, and caffeine; see refs. 22 and 23 and Table 2). Phenolics from other plants are estimated to contribute another several hundred milligrams of toxins. Flavonoids and glucosinolates account for several hundred milligrams; potato and tomato toxins may contribute another hundred, and saponins from legumes another hundred.) Are natural pesticides safer than synthetics? Of all the chemicals tested for chronic cancer tests in animals, only 5 percent have been natural pesticides and half of these were carcinogenic.

10) Lastly, “Organic” often means non-GMO. One cannot legitimately take a pro-science position on the environment and an anti-science position on GMOs. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (Isaaa.org), the positive impacts of crop biotechnology equate to removing 11.9 million cars of the road for one year.

“The reason why 90 percent of American farmers have embraced biotechnology is because it has substantially reduced their carbon footprint, while improving yields, farmer safety, and the environment at the same time.  Use of GMO crops benefit the environment in 3 ways:”

1) Much safer herbicide products to control weeds.
2) No-till farming, crop rotation, cover crops keep carbon in the soil and conserves organic matter, and further protects the topsoil.
3) Practically eliminates the need for insecticides.

There is so little non-GMO corn and soy available in the US, that most organic corn and soy are imported from Canada, China, and India. So buying organic often means cutting American farmers out of the economy.

“Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.”

GMOS - Env

Graphic Credit: Genetic Literacy Project. 

Cross-posted to Medium 

References

  1. http://blogs.usda.gov/2012/01/25/organic-101-allowed-and-prohibited-substances/http://blogs.usda.gov/2012/01/25/organic-101-allowed-and-prohibited-substances/http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdamediafb?contentid=2014%2F12%2F0276.xml&printable=true
  2. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdamediafb?contentid=2014%2F12%2F0276.xml&printable=true
  3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-entine/glyphosate-chemophobia-gr_b_10223842.html
  4. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/11/03/glyphosate-is-no-bee-killer/
  5. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/06/18/organic-pesticides-used-as-replacement-for-dangerous-neonicotinoids-found-far-more-toxic-to-bees/
  6. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?
  7. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/05/09/popular-organic-pesticide-copper-sulfate-compare-synthetic-ones-like-glyphosate/
  8. http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=9874504b6f1025eb0e6b67cadf9d3b40&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.7&idno=7#se7.3.205_1601
  9. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Pesticide%20Residue%20Testing_Org%20Produce_2010-11PilotStudy.pdf
  10. https://www.scribd.com/presentation/142002990/An-Independent-Analysis-of-the-2011-USDA-Pesticide-Residue-Data
  11. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685
  12. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/organic-food-no-more-nutritious-than-conventionally-grown-food-201209055264
  13. http://mentalfloss.com/article/72624/12-natural-and-organic-brands-owned-big-food
  14. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/business/18organic.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  15. http://www.pnas.org/content/87/19/7777.full.pdf
  16. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/07/15/myth-busting-are-synthetic-pesticides-used-with-some-gmos-more-dangerous-than-natural-ones/
  17. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/03/30/care-future-planet-heres-support-gmos/
  18. http://www.science20.com/agricultural_realism/example_how_much_pesticides_have_changed-127931
  19. http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensavage/2015/09/23/the-role-of-organic-pesticides-in-california/#7742f6d551c5

  20. http://fitnessreloaded.com/organic-food-kids/

 

45 Shots of Straight Talk- Vaccines Edition

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I live in San Diego, California, an area of the USA that is experiencing a preventable disease renaissance. I’ve been observing my friends take part in so-called “Facebook Challenges”. These challenges are typically to post a flower picture or maybe something you are grateful for every day for one month.

I decided to make up a challenge of my own, and one that I hope will have a positive impact, you are welcome to join me! Please share, like, or make your own posts! I am going to use this blog to document my research, as well as the questions, comments, and arguments that come my way over the next 45 days. Please send me any questions you have or topics you would like me to write about, and check back frequently for a “shot” of straight vaccine talk.

It may seem like “everyone” is questioning vaccines or attempting to space them out differently, but that is not true. 90% of kids in the USA are vaccinated on time. Which means 28 immunizations in the first two years of life to prevent 14 different diseases. It is this sheer number alone that  frightens some parents.

Day 1

In San Diego County alone in 2015, 45 infants under the age of 4 months contracted whooping cough. I have committed to writing about childhood vaccinations every day for 45 days to honor the 45 infants in San Diego County who contracted whooping cough last year due to low herd immunity.

However, I’m worried about my challenge. The danger in doing this is real- I might do more harm than good. We know that presenting clinical information to parents who are “vaccine hesitant” actually causes them to vaccinate less. In other words, somehow, presenting real clinical data actually strengthens their belief that they are being lied to by the “establishment”.

“Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive.”(1)

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871 cases of whooping cough in 2015 alone in California- a staggering number.

Day 2

Did you know that immunizations are associated with cutting the risk of SIDS by one half (1/2!!)? On-time immunizations are an important part of SIDS prevention strategies. (2) Epidemiological evidence indicates infants immunized against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) are at decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Asymptomatic whooping cough and pyrogenic toxins of Staphylococcus aureus have been implicated in the etiology of SIDS. (3)

Day 3

I would like to take this time to remind everyone, I am not an MD, none of this is medical advice, and of course, you should talk to your own doctor.

I am just discussing the EVIDENCE BASED recommendations. I am surprised by the positive response this experiment has generated, already, in just two days! A half a dozen people have messaged me to ask me to discuss the research behind questions that have been bugging them. One of those questions was: “If vaccinated kids are “safe” then why are those parents concerned about unvaccinated kids?”

This is a GREAT question! The “immunity” that you develop in response to vaccines, is only as good as your own immune system’s response to it. The effectiveness does not come from the vaccine, it comes from you. If your body creates a strong response to the vaccine then your immunity will be high. If you have a weak response then your immunity will be low, and you may still get the illness. That is why the effectiveness of vaccines can vary between people. Most childhood vaccines are nearly 100% effective. Nearly. For example: measles antibodies develop in approximately 98 percent of children vaccinated at 15 months or older. It is estimated that about 2–5 percent of children, who receive the vaccine at 12 months of age or younger or who only get one dose of MMR, fail to be protected.The CDC says that vaccine-induced immunity “appears to be long term and probably lifelong in most persons.” However, some studies show that immunity does not last forever. Measles is a terrifying disease. It is extremely almost 100% contagious (spread through the air, just from BREATHING, not coughing).

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Interactive world map of vaccine preventable disease outbreaks 

Diseases like measles exist in all inhabited continents and kill approximately 122,000 people every year — that’s 14 deaths every hour. What’s worse? Most of these people are children under five years old (see red dots on map above). There are studies that show measles outbreaks CAN AND DO occur in fully vaccinated populations. For example, an outbreak of measles in the spring of 1985 in Corpus Christi, Texas, occurred in a school where more than 99 percent of the students were fully vaccinated. (4,5,6)

Children, and adults that have not received “boosters” as well as the thousands and thousands of children who can’t get vaccinated for legitimate reasons; immuno-compromised (kids who have seizure disorders, kids who have had chemotherapy, kids who have allergies), are at risk from unvaccinated kids. I believe, we need to protect these people. It has been estimated that there are as many as 10 million “immuno compromised” people living in the USA.(7)

The BIGGEST worry for parents of vaccinated kids is simply that the vaccine schedule takes several years to fulfill. When your child is too young to get the vaccines, or when a series of spaced-out shots is needed to make him/her fully immune, that is when they will be at the most risk, and the least able to fight off getting a virus if they are exposed. Parents are usually the most worried when they have older kids going to school with unvaccinated kids, while they also have very young children at home.

Day 4

Many parents are worried about the risk of seizures following vaccination.

Sometimes, fevers can cause a child to experience spasms or jerky movements called seizures. Seizures caused by fever are called “febrile seizures.” They are most common with fevers of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, but they can also happen at lower body temperatures or when a fever is going down. Most febrile seizures last for less than one or two minutes.

Febrile seizures can be frightening, but nearly all children who have a febrile seizure recover quickly. Febrile seizures do not cause any permanent harm and do not have any lasting effects.

Of course, if your child is prone to febrile seizures, they can have one regardless of whether the fever is a mild symptom of vaccination, or from acquiring say.. the actual chickenpox.

There are many genetic childhood seizure disorders which start in infancy, right around the time that vaccinations start to be administered, therefore, the two have become linked together in the minds of the public. For example, Dravet syndrome, (also known as Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI)), is a rare and catastrophic form of intractable epilepsy that begins in infancy, with an estimated incidence rate of 1:16,000 to 1:21,000.

Vaccinating children at the recommended age may prevent some febrile seizures by protecting children against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, influenza, pneumococcal infections and other diseases that can cause fever and febrile seizures. A recent study (8) found no significant association between vaccination in the first year and acute seizure events regardless of the type of vaccine or whether the vaccine was received on time or delayed. However, in the second year of life, delay of the first MMR vaccine until 16 months of age or older resulted in 3 times greater risk for seizures in the 7 to 10 days after vaccination than if administration of MMR vaccine was on time.

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This is the problem with science! Who can read the table above and decipher it, except a trained scientist? So to make it easier to understand – The IRR is the metric you are looking at (for MMR). Divide the 6.53 by 2.65, and you get nearly 3 times the risk.

Regardless of vaccination, young children are at their greatest risk for febrile seizures at ∼16 to 18 months of age (9,10). However, the data are clear, delaying vaccination not only puts your child and others at risk for getting and spreading disease, but also at a higher risk for seizures as well.

Day 5

Vaccination during pregnancy is a powerful way to “close the gap” of time after birth, but before an infant can be vaccinated.

This post is part of a three day series that will also include discussions of flu and whooping cough vaccination during pregnancy. Many times these days we hear about people not vaccinating, but there are some really-really-really bright spots!! For example, the biggest maternal vaccination success story — on a global scale — is against tetanus (muscle spasms until you die (11).

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Referred to in the Old Testament as the “seventh-day death,” neonatal tetanus strikes rapidly, killing newborns soon after birth. Tetanus occurs when a bacterium, Clostridium tetani, enters the body through an open wound or puncture. The bacterial spores are ubiquitous — they live in the soil, in animal dung, and in human feces. Birth and delivery is a particularly dangerous time for women and infants as there are ALWAYS open wounds (umbilical cord.. for example, or the dreaded episiotomy or tear between your vagina and anus) and feces everywhere due to unsanitary and unhygienic conditions in many places around the world where women deliver babies!!!

Tetanus is called the “silent killer” because so many of these women and newborns die at home, and both the births and the deaths go unreported.

In the USA, Tdap is often recommended (I will discuss why tomorrow!). To maximize the “maternal antibody response” and transfer across the placenta to the infant, optimal timing for Tdap administration is between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation. This is an “evidence based” recommendation, it is not arbitrary! (12)

More than one million people died each year from tetanus in the 1980s, about three-quarters of them, infants in the first month of life. Today, the toll of neonatal deaths has been reduced by over 90% and maternal and neonatal tetanus has been eliminated from all but 22 countries.

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Large studies on use of the tetanus vaccination during pregnancy have not uncovered any clinically severe events (13, 14).

There are still 58 countries where tetanus is a public health problem, and there are plans to eliminate it in every one of them, except two.

Day 6

Many people don’t think that “flu” is a big deal, and so they think, “why should I get the flu shot?” However, the flu season can be particularly dangerous, as pregnant women are at greater risk for coming down with the flu because of their lowered immune system. Not only that, but pregnant women have been shown to be at increased risk for morbidity and death too (15). A pregnant woman’s heart and lungs are already doing extra work handling the pregnancy, so a serious illness like the flu can put her in danger of developing complications like pneumonia. The flu has also been linked in previous studies with preterm labor and premature birth; and fever from the flu can lead to birth defects. The flu shot has been given to millions of pregnant women over many years. Flu shots have not been shown to cause harm to pregnant women or their babies. It is very important for pregnant women to get the flu shot.

Pregnancy is a dangerous time for women. Your fetus is comprised of your own, plus “foreign” non-self DNA. Normally, your immune system will do anything it can to kill off a foreign invader. But, you don’t want to mount an immune response against your baby during pregnancy. In fact, your immune response will be lowered, so that you can successfully carry your fetus to term. Pretty neat. except….. during flu season.

A recent study analyzed 58,008 births in Western Australia between April 2012 and December 2013. Among the women, 8.8 percent had received the flu vaccine, and 377 stillbirths occurred at a rate of 5.0 per 100,000 pregnancy days for women who did not get the vaccine and 3.0 per 100,000 days for women who received the vaccine.

Overall, stillbirth was 51 percent less likely among vaccinated mothers, as opposed to unvaccinated mothers, with the largest reduction in stillbirths coming just after flu season ended (16).

DAY 7

The Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics (published by Johns Hopkins University Press) is looking for parents to share their story on why they are vaccinating. The call for papers can be found here (http://www.nibjournal.org/…/documen…/Vaccine_Call-9-1-16.pdf), and it includes specifics on what the journal is looking for. Selected articles will be published in the issue, but they might publish more of the stories online. This is a unique opportunity to share your story and why vaccines matter to you.

References

1) Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial Pediatrics, April 2014, VOLUME 133 / ISSUE 4, Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Sean Richey, Gary L. Freed

2) Do immunisations reduce the risk for SIDS? A meta-analysis.Vaccine. 2007 Jun 21;25(26):4875–9. Epub 2007 Mar 16, Vennemann MM1, Höffgen M, Bajanowski T, Hense HW, Mitchell EA.

3) The protective effect of immunisation against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) in relation to sudden infant death syndrome. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 1999 Aug 1;25(1–2):183–92. Essery SD1, Raza MW, Zorgani A, MacKenzie DA, James VS, Weir DM, Busuttil A, Hallam N, Blackwell C.

4) Measles Outbreak in a Fully Immunized Secondary-School Population. Gustabson TL, Lievens AW, Brunell PA, et al. N Engl J Med. 1987 Mar 26;316(13):771–4.

5) Infection on Maintaining Immunity Against Measles in Vaccinated Children in West Africa. Whittle HC, Aaby P, Samb B, et al. Effect of SubclinicalThe Lancet. Jan. 9, 1999. Vol 353, Issue 9147, pp 98–102.

6) CDC.gov. Measles Outbreak among Vaccinated High School Students — Illinois. MMWR. June 22, 1984. 33(24);349–51. Online. (Accessed March 2012).

7) Expected Adverse Events in a Mass Smallpox Vaccination Campaign. Effective Clinical Practice, March/April 2002, Alex R. Kemper, MD, MPH, MS, Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP, Gary L. Freed, MD, MPH.

8) Timely versus delayed early childhood vaccination and seizures. Hambidge SJ1, Newcomer SR2, Narwaney KJ2, Glanz JM3, Daley MF4, Xu S2, Shoup JA2, Rowhani-Rahbar A5, Klein NP6, Lee GM7, Nelson JC8, Lugg M9, Naleway AL10, Nordin JD11, Weintraub E12, DeStefano F12.

9) Febrile seizures: an update. Waruiru C, Appleton R, .Arch Dis Child. 2004;89(8): 751–756 35.

10) Childhood febrile seizures: overview and implications. Jones T, Jacobsen SJ., Int J Med Sci. 2007;4(2):110– 114

11)http://www.unicef.org/immunization/files/SOWVI_full_report_english_LR1.pdf

12) Preventing infant pertussis: a decision analysis comparing prenatal vaccination to cocooning. Terranella A, Asay G, Messonnier M, Clark T, Liang J. Presented at the 49th Infectious Diseases Society of America Annual Meeting, Boston, MA; October 20–23, 2011.

13) Neonatal tetanus in New Guinea. Effect of active immunization in pregnancy. Schofield FD, Tucker VM, Westbrook GR. Br Med J 1961;2:785–9.

14) Newell, KW, Dueñas Lehmann, Leblanc DR, Garces Osoria N. The use of toxoid for the prevention of tetanus neonatorum. Final report of a double-blind controlled field trial. Bull World Health Organ 1966;35:863–71.

15) Effects of influenza on pregnant women and infants. Rasmussen SA1, Jamieson DJ, Uyeki TM.Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012 Sep;207(3 Suppl):S3–8. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2012.06.068. Epub 2012 Jul 9.

16) Seasonal Trivalent Influenza Vaccination During Pregnancy and the Incidence of Stillbirth: Population-Based Retrospective Cohort Study. Annette K. Regan, Hannah C. Moore, Nicholas de Klerk, Saad B. Omer, Geoffrey Shellam, Donna B. Mak, and Paul V. Effler

 

The United Supplements of America

How fear (of cancer) and loathing (of regulation) allows America’s supplement industry to thrive, unfettered by scientific data.

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women of most racial/ethnic groups in the United States, including; African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites. I almost never hear anyone talk about heart disease, as it seems, cancer stalks my friend’s and the public’s imaginations like no other disease does. Almost 1 million people die every single year of heart disease in the U.S. It claims more lives than ALL FORMS OF CANCER combined. In the U.S., someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds. That is a staggering number. One out of every 3 women will die of heart disease (1 out of 31 of breast cancer).

Death rates for female breast cancer have declined 36 percent from peak rates in 1989, while deaths from prostate and colorectal cancers have each dropped about 50 percent from their peak, a result of improvements in early detection and treatment. Overall, cancer death rates fell 23 percent between 1991 and 2012.

The “organic” and homeopathic/ supplements industries have grown out of the public’s fear of cancer: “toxins,” herbicides, and pesticides seem to be the target with GMO crops taking much of the blame. This is followed closely by recommendations for antioxidant supplements, vitamin pills or even something as outlandish and unlikely as “alkaline water”. In 2010, the vitamin supplement industry grossed over $28 billion.

There are some very real ways to prevent cancer: avoid smoking, alcohol, and sun exposure- in fact, you might as well add “avoid consuming supplemental vitamins” to that short list, as we will discuss in a bit.

We know that less than 1 percent of U.S. adults’ diets meet the American Heart Association’s definition for an “Ideal Healthy Diet.” Eating patterns have changed dramatically in the past few decades. Research from 1971 to 2004 shows that women consumed an average of 22 percent more calories in that span and men consumed an average of 10 percent more than previous years. The average woman eats about 1,900 calories a day and the average man has nearly 2,700, according to government figures.

The number one dietary recommendation to decrease both risk of heart disease and cancer, is to increase the amount of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in the diet. The second recommendation is to get more physical activity. High protein, low carb, and gluten-free fad diets make it nearly impossible to meet the first recommendation. Yet… most Americans think that, along with these eating restrictions, they should also increase their vitamin intake. In 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements.

Even as a scientist, before researching this topic, I assumed the following disclaimer,

 “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease,”

meant that, even if they didn’t perform exactly as claimed, at least they couldn’t do any harm. Right?

I was unaware of the dozens of well-controlled clinical studies, which conclusively demonstrate the negative impact of supplements on our health. For example, recent studies have shown that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t, that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer, and at least seven other previous studies have shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. In 2008, a review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did (or did not) receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease. These studies are listed in the references below.

Because these data are so clear, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends taking vitamins. That is, unless you have a demonstrated deficiency, and have been prescribed them by a doctor (a real doctor). The effect is so well known in medical literature that it has a name “The Antioxidant Paradox”. As it turns out, your body NEEDS free radicals to kill cancer cells and bacteria. Sometimes the immune system needs big guns to kill harmful invaders. If you neutralize them with an overload of supplemental antioxidants, you essentially reduce your body’s ability to fight back.

Consumers have no guarantee as to the safety or effectiveness of supplemental products, as the FDA does not review dietary supplements before they come onto the market. Several recent studies have shown that vitamins supplements can be contaminated with heavy metals in trace amounts and pesticides in amounts exceeding legal limits.

The vast majority of supplement suppliers are located overseas — principally in China. Nearly all of the vitamin C and many other supplements consumed in the United States are made from ingredients manufactured in Chinese plants. Those plants are almost never inspected by the FDA. Many brands claim to be made in the U.S.A. It doesn’t matter what the brand name is on the product — the raw materials that make it up almost certainly came from China or India. There is no requirement for labels on supplements to indicate the country of origin of the ingredients. They are imported separately and many manufacturers compound them in Utah. More on that in a bit as well.

Additionally, DNA testing of herbal “medicinal” supplements, demonstrates rampant adulteration, contamination, and mislabeling. The herbal market is a 5 BILLION dollar industry. Pills being sold as herbals were found to be diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice, or other plants in their entirety, which could be hazardous to health, for example:

1. Echinacea supplements – used by millions of Americans to prevent and treat colds contained ground up bitter weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive plant found in India and Australia that has been linked to rashes, nausea, and flatulence.

2. St. John’s Wort – contained Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative.

3. Gingko biloba supplements-  promoted as memory enhancers were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.

4. One product advertised as black cohosh — a North American plant and popular remedy for hot flashes and menopause symptoms — actually contained a related Asian plant, Actaea asiatica, which can be toxic to humans.

Why don’t consumers have any guarantee as to the safety or effectiveness of supplemental products? Following the money and politics trail back to 1994, we find Senator Orrin Hatch, from a small state with a large economic stake in the supplements industry, Utah. In 1994, Congress enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which Hatch helped author and push through. This act allows for the marketing and sales of “dietary supplements” with little or no regulation. Prior to 1994, Utah’s supplements industry was worth less than 1 billion dollars, now it is worth over 7 billion and is considered by some to be the State’s top industry. It has been estimated that nearly one in four dollars in the total supplement market passes through this state.

This legislation must go. It’s dangerous and costly for consumers, and provides protection for business entities whose apparent purpose is to promote their profit above general health and safety. Many claim that their products can treat almost anything from the common cold to diabetes, to cancer and heart disease.

As if the above mentioned negative clinical study data were not enough, in the last two years, federal records show that 2,292 serious illnesses, including 33 that were fatal, were reported by consumers of nutritional supplements. It’s amazing to me how public perception has reframed these risks to focus on GMO labeling, pesticide, and herbicide use, and how anti-vaxxers squawk about adjuvant mercury in vaccines, but do not blink when their supplements are not tested for heavy metal contamination or even contain what they say they do.

All evidence including federal reports make it clear; that manufacturers of herbal dietary supplements and vitamins use deceptive and questionable marketing practices, that consumers do not have access to clear, concise, scientifically supported information so that they can make informed choices concerning a product’s purported health benefits, that consumers face health risks because federal laws and agencies do not consistently ensure that these products are safe or effective.

This article also appears on Medium.

References-

1. Velicer CM, Ulrich CM: Vitamin and mineral supplement use among US adults after cancer diagnosis: A systematic review. J Clin Oncol 26:665–673, 2008.

2. Rock CL, Doyle C, Demark-Wahnefried W, et al: Nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors. CA Cancer J Clin 62:243–274, 2012.

3. Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al: American Cancer Society Guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention: Reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity. CA Cancer J Clin 62:30–67, 2012.

4. Lawenda BD, Kelly KM, Ladas EJ, et al: Should supplemental antioxidant administration be avoided during chemotherapy and radiation therapy? J Natl Cancer Inst 100:773–783, 2008.

5. Klein EA, Thompson IM, Jr., Tangen CM, et al: Vitamin E and the risk of prostate cancer: The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). JAMA 306:1549–1556, 2011.

6. The effect of vitamin E and beta carotene on the incidence of lung cancer and other cancers in male smokers. The Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group. N Engl J Med 330:1029–1035, 1994.

7. Omenn GS, Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, et al: Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med 334:1150–1155, 1996.

8. Gaziano JM, Glynn RJ, Christen WG, et al: Vitamins E and C in the prevention of prostate and total cancer in men: The Physicians’ Health Study II randomized controlled trial. JAMA 301:52–62, 2009.

9. Bairati I, Meyer F, Jobin E, et al: Antioxidant vitamins supplementation and mortality: A randomized trial in head and neck cancer patients. Int J Cancer 119:2221–2224, 2006.

10. Davies AA, Davey Smith G, Harbord R, et al: Nutritional interventions and outcome in patients with cancer or preinvasive lesions: systematic review. J Natl Cancer Inst 98:961–973, 2006.

11. Pocobelli G, Peters U, Kristal AR, et al: Use of supplements of multivitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin E in relation to mortality. Am J Epidemiol 170:472–483, 2009.

12. Baron JA, Cole BF, Mott L, et al: Neoplastic and antineoplastic effects of beta-carotene on colorectal adenoma recurrence: Results of a randomized trial. J Natl Cancer Inst 95:717–722, 2003.

13. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/83/4/895.abstract

14. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=184898

15. http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/297/21/2351.abstract

16. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-16/hidden-dangers-of-vitamins-and-supplements-revealed/7412382

17. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/health/policy/26herbal.html

18. http://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-11-222

19.http://www.cancer.org/healthy/eathealthygetactive/acsguidelinesonnutritionphysicalactivityforcancerprevention/acs-guidelines-on-nutrition-and-physical-activity-for-cancer-prevention-common-questions

20. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10662t.pdf?version=meter+at+9&module=meter-Links&pgtype=article&contentId=&mediaId=&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&priority=true&action=click&contentCollection=meter-links-click

Frankenfoods!! Found in the Organic Aisle

In my last post, “10 Amazing GMOs” we discussed little-known GMOs that are ubiquitous. Now I would like to discuss some food crops that are not thought of as GMOs, however their genomes are anything but “natural”.

You might have a feeling that mini, seedless vegetable varieties are not simply found in NATURE. But, have you ever wondered how these varieties get on store shelves? Maybe you imagined a monkish farmer, puttering around an idyllic farm with stooped shoulders, painstakingly cross pollinating plants by hand with a Q-tip. You may have never imagined that a scientist using DNA mutating technique like intense radiation bombardment and toxic chemical baths was most likely the source of these endless and wonderful varieties. Does this sound scary? It’s not, we promise!

                                             Credit: Genetic Literacy Project

Crop scientists are folks who improve our food crops and the productivity of our fields. They apply soil and plant sciences to crop production, incorporating the smartest use of natural resources and conservation practices to produce food, feed, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceutical crops, while maintaining and improving the environment.

Lettuce, for example, is a hugely important crop. It is the second most consumed vegetable in the USA. Lettuce grew in the wild prior to domestication by humans. It is still not exactly clear which species turned into today’s lettuce. “Boston Bibb” has a soft buttery texture that is compelling. It has been selectively (meaning the mutation was found in the field and propagated from there) bred to resist the herbicides sulfonylurea, imidazolinone (imazethapyr) and triazolopyrimidine (flumetsulam).

Farmers wanted lettuce that was specifically resistant to these herbicides because they are some of the safest herbicides in use today. They are also some of the most potent and highly selective, so therefore farmers only need to apply a small amount. The biological pathway they affect exists only in plants, not in animals. This food crop would never be labeled as a “GMO” under current guidelines, even though the mutated gene produces an effect that people insist they want to be informed about (i.e., herbicide resistance).

                                                        Boston “Bibb” Lettuce

“Mutation” breeding techniques have generated a vast amount of genetic variability and they play an enormous role in modern agriculture- food, flower and tree breeding. There is a handy website that collects SOME of the non-transgenic mutant varieties (for a basic explanation of what IS transgenic visit Nature Education). They list more than 3200 mutant varieties, which are sold in more than 70 countries. I poked through the database, it’s easily searchable by country of origin, mutation method, trait that was changed, and plenty of other search criteria.

The database lists physical and chemical mutation agents (agents that can cause a change in DNA) that have been used to make mutations in plant genomes, such as; X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, neutrons, protons, alpha, beta, and gamma rays, and ethyl methane sulfonate (EMS) treatment.

These are used to either increase mutation rates or yield mutants unavailable from natural sources. “GMOs” (i.e. transgenic) crops are regulated by three federal agencies- FDA, EPA, and the Department of Agriculture. This is not the case for crops where new traits have been created by non-transgenic methods- even though the OUTCOME is often the same (for example, glyphosate resistance). There is no mandated requirement to list new mutant varieties in the database. Many small seed developers use a whole range of new, emerging genetic technologies that fall outside the current range of regulated processes.

Looking for peaceful uses for radiation, the International Atomic Energy Agency oversees a plant breeding program.

A couple of great examples are:

Sometimes scientists modify crops for no real reason other than profit, for example, to turn a once unwanted fruit, albeit one that grows well, into something that consumers love to buy.

Created sometime in the 18th century, a grapefruit is a hybrid of an orange and a pummelo. It was bitter, thick skinned, and unappetizing, but citrus crops grow well in southern USA. Dr. Richard Hensz of the Texas A&I Citrus Center (now known as the A&M Citrus Center) spent many years in the laboratory, working to produce the reddest grapefruit possible through mutations induced by ionizing radiation, to give us the dark pink, sweet, seedless, thin-skinned variety we love today “Star Ruby” and “Rio Red”!

Scientists use radiation mutagenesis commonly to breed resistance to diseases. Some examples include in Ghana, which produces about 15 percent of the world’s chocolate, where scientists used radiation mutagenesis to fight a virus that was killing and crippling millions of cocoa trees. In the USA “verticillium wilt” a disease with no known chemical control was contaminating all of the regions where peppermint can grow, until radiation induced resistance was bred.

Often, the characteristics that are manipulated are to produce higher crop efficiency, to make more off of less land. Scientists used gamma rays on barley to produce Golden Promise, a mutant variety with high yields and improved malting. After its debut in 1967, brewers in Ireland and Britain turned it into premium beer and whiskey. This barley is still used today to make premium Irish whiskey and is even made into organic beer (Golden Promise Organic Ale)!

One of my heroes: Dr. Barbara McClintock discovered “jumping genes” in maize.

Other (non-transgenic) methods exist to transfer genes between species of plants, such as by “somaclonal variation” (plant tissue culture), activation of endogenous transposable elements, or irradiation facilitated translocation. Basically, plants have their own ways to swap genes back and forth, they do it “naturally” all the time.

What most people think of as “GMOs” are really produced through recombinant DNA technologies, a very small subset of techniques used to modify the genomes of plants. WHY DO GMOs get THE BAD RAP?! The above mentioned breeding methods are considered non-transgenic, they face little opposition from environmentalists, governments, growers, and the general public. Under organic regulation radiation breeding and induced mutagenesis are completely acceptable. Mutated food crops that are currently sold as organic include, lettuce, beans, grapefruit, rice, oats, and wheat.

One example of “translocation”, transfer DNA from a very distantly related plant to one that is commonly grown, genes from wild relatives of wheat can be transferred into common (bread) wheat. These hearty genes from these distant relatives provide resistance to diseases like “powdery mildew” and “leaf rust” that strike wheat crops.

All of the techniques mentioned above are really pre-cursors to today’s “genetically modified organisms”. Plants developed via these older techniques possess random, multiple and unspecified genetic changes. These imprecise methods can and do occasionally generate food with potentially hazardous traits. Scientists prefer using newer methods to genetically modify crops, i.e. inserting just one or two specific and targeted genes into well known locations in the genome (the old techniques are like pounding the genome with a hammer, the new techniques are like slicing the genome with a scalpel).

In the United States, the plant breeding community is mostly self–monitored. Regulatory agencies do not evaluate conventional new crop varieties for health and environmental safety prior to commercial release, except for those crops (and animals) produced through recombinant DNA technologies. In the past 5 years, up to 30 genetically modified organisms have worked around the USDA regulatory system on technicalities of process— most recently a mushroom developed with CRISPR/Cas9 to resist browning.

We wanted to introduce you to some other ways that scientists modify crop genomes other than by recombinant technologies and the reasons why they do. What is or isn’t a GMO is practically impossible to define. I will leave you with this quote so you can ponder and decide!

There are GMOs that reduce pesticide spraying, and GMOs that increase pesticide spraying. There are GMOs designed to serve monoculture, and GMOs made for small farmers with mixed plots. There are GMOs made to work hand-in-hand with herbicide, and non-GMOs made to work hand-in-hand with herbicide. There are GMOs controlled by big corporations, and GMOs given away for free by universities.”

This article also appears on Medium.

Seeds and Grains of Change

It has been estimated that there are over 400 million rice-consuming poor people in the world. Imagine; eating rice every day, for three meals a day. No flax seeds, almonds, chia, acaia berries or cacao nibs to add to your morning oatmeal. Your nails would fray. Your cheeks would be sunken and sallow. Your hair might fall out in clumps when you brushed it.

400 Million people live on a diet of mostly rice.

And those would be the least of your problems; the threat of blindness and death would be your constant companion. Rice alone does not provide the vast array of nutrients needed for nourishment. The horror of malnutrition is all too real for these millions of people.

Advanced societies, like ours, believe we have an obligation to help people and reduce the burden of human disease and suffering. Some may argue that malnutrition is the result of corrupt governments and bad national policy and resource management. It is very hard for us to force governments to rule over their people and land the “right” way.

But it is “relatively” easy for us to perform crop research. So we screened thousands of naturally occurring rice varieties for a strain that would produce higher vitamin content. Unfortunately, even after screening thousands of varieties, a more nutritious strain of rice was never found. This is where biotechnology, specifically genetic modification, enters our story.

Are GMOs Safe to Eat?

If you use social media, chances are you have seen memes or read articles that claim that “GMOs” or Genetically Modified Organisms, are threats to our health and to the environment.

But what are genetically modified foods? Are they really safe to eat? How can we understand why farmers choose to plant them, how they are approved and regulated, and how to separate the hype from the fact to protect our families and our health?

It’s worth starting right off by stating the conclusion: in over 2,000 independently funded studies no one has yet detected any allergy, harm or risk to humans, animals or the environment from commercialized GM crops. (For those who want to read some of those studies, a non-profit group called Biofortified has collected over all of these independently funded studies and published them here http://www.biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/independent-funding/.)

In America and Europe, it’s easy to protest the consumption of genetically modified foods when we can eat three separate “super foods” on our cereal in the morning. But health-conscious first world people are not the only ones worrying about the use of GMOs, to disastrous results.

When the Zambian government turned away GM maize intended for its starving people because of a theoretical health risk, it created a real risk and turned a disaster into a tragedy. Denied the food, people died of starvation. Even though that same type of GM maize has been consumed by Americans and Canadians for more than a decade.

GM seeds are more efficient, give higher yields and require less pesticide use.

Farmers use GM seeds because they’re more efficient, give higher yields and require less pesticide use. Yield potential is important because the world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050. Farmers will need access to tools and technologies to help themselves feed the world because the question remains; how can we grow more food for an increasing population on a planet of the same limited size???? (A great read: National Geographic’s special multipart series, The Global Food Crisis).

What happens when we eat GMOs?

To really understand GMOs, we need to know a little bit of basic biology. For those of us who have not studied biology since 8th grade, don’t worry! I will break it down for you.

Do you remember making a model of a cell? Maybe you remember some of the funny names for the cell’s little organs, like Mitochondria or Golgi Apparatus. All plants and animals, including us, are made up of hundreds of thousands of cells; nerve cells, muscle cells, skin cells etc.

The basic blueprint of life, our genes (DNA) exist in every one of our cells and in the plants cells- in the cell’s nucleus to be exact. To picture this, think of an egg. An egg is a single cell that you can see with your naked eye. The yolk is the nucleus of the egg cell. The white is the cytoplasm, and the shell is like the cell membrane. Eggs have all of the other little organelles too, but they are not visible to the naked eye, like the large nucleus is.

Every time you eat any plant or animal, you are eating all of their hundreds of genes that exist in every one of their cells. When we eat plant or animal cells we not only eat all of their genes, but their gene products too. The protein of our all-white-meat chicken breasts is a gene product. The sweetness of garden-ripe tomatoes is a product of the tomatoes’ genes. The healthy vitamins in spinach are a gene product too. The genes in the animal and plant cells instruct the cells to make these delicious and healthful things.

When we swallow the cells from a plant and an animal at the same time, both of those species DNA molecules are inside of us at the same time. Our stomachs digest the cells, breaking down all of the things the cells contain, including the DNA, the organelles, and the products of the genes. Our body re-uses all of those components in our own cells.

Genetic material is digested to nucleotides: adenine (A) guanine (G) cytosine (C) and thymine (T)and used by our bodies to make new DNA.

It is easy to imagine this action with the more common items, like protein. If we are trying to build muscle mass, we eat a lot of protein. It is much harder to imagine this with the basic chemical building blocks of life- like the “nucleotides” that make up the DNA of the cells. All life, with a few minor exceptions, uses the same four basic components to build DNA — the nucleotides adenine (A) guanine (G) cytosine (C) and thymine (T). DNA is very fragile, and one of the first things to get broken down in our digestive systems.

When we eat food, it is rich in non-human DNA. In our digestive system, this DNA, whether genetically modified or not, gets broken down into its components — the nucleotides ATC and G, the building blocks of human DNA. These can get broken down even further into smaller molecules, which are reassembled by our cells to make all sorts of things, including new nucleotides. These nucleotides get restrung together in our own cells to form strands of DNA identical to the DNA already in our cells. That is, they get made into new human DNA. That is how our bodies make new cells to replace old, diseased or injured cells.

The Many Meanings of “Genetic Modification”

So now that we have taken this basic look at what happens to genes and DNA in our bodies, let’s take a look at what GMOs actually are.

We tend to only read or hear about “genetic modification” in the context of large corporations who are trying to sell us products, like Monsanto’s “RoundUp” ready genetically modified crops. But there are many, many other types of genetic modifications, created both by corporations and by University researchers.

For example, some genetic modifications help farmers use less insecticides on their crops, some genetic modifications raise the protein content of crops, some allow the crops to be immune to deadly diseases (like viruses), and some genetic modifications are aimed at reducing human suffering around the world, such as the addition of Vitamin A to rice.

Some GM crops are aimed at reducing human suffering, such as the addition of Vitamin A to rice.

The genes that are transferred around often already exist in other foods or animals that we eat every day. In some examples of genetic modification, the genes that are transferred are taken directly from bacteria (like E. Coli) that live inside every single one of us, in our very own guts.

Remember, each gene transfer must be reviewed on its own merit. Theoretically, scientists could insert a “bad” gene just as easily as a beneficial one. For my money, it’s not good enough to know that an organism has been genetically modified, but what I really want to know is, with what gene? Is it a gene from spinach, a food that we feed to babies, or is it a gene that allows for the copious application of RoundUp to plants?

Genetically modified foods are among the most extensively studied scientific subjects in history. Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies — in some cases numbering in the hundreds.

In the United States GM crops must meet the extensive regulatory requirements of not one, but three separate agencies; the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.

In the US GM crops must meet regulatory requirements of not one, but three separate agencies.

But what about the Evil Monsanto?

And I am not saying that shady corporate shenanigans don’t contribute to the mistrust of GM crops. Selling more of your own products? Suing farmers found to be accidentally growing GM crops? Making outrageous profits by encouraging the over planting of Bt-Corn, thereby increasing the risk of creating Bt Toxin resistant bugs? Sure, all bad… but none of those things have to do with the safety or science of genetic modification. And Monsanto is hardly the first company to increase its bottom line through lobbying to influence public policy.

Lets look at three examples of GM crops that were not created to increase corporate profit, but for the benefit of humanity.

1. Golden Rice

The most damaging micronutrient deficiencies in the world are the consequence of low dietary intake of iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is prevalent among the poor whose diets are based mainly on rice. A group of European scientists spent over a decade inserting two genes from daffodil and one gene from a bacterium into rice to solve the problems outlined in the first paragraph of this article. Dr. Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Dr. Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany created what is known as “Golden Rice”, rice with the inclusion of a Vitamin A pathway that creates a characteristic golden hue. Golden rice was said to be the first recombinant DNA tech crop that was unarguably beneficial. The technology was licensed from those Universities by companies (AstraZeneca and Monsanto) for commercialization. The companies have since granted free licenses for “humanitarian” use. The cutoff between humanitarian and commercial use is set at US$10,000. Therefore, as long as a farmer or subsequent user of golden rice genetics does not make more than $10,000 per year, no royalties need to be paid. In addition, farmers are permitted to keep and replant the seeds.

2. Rainbow Papaya

The Hawaii papaya industry began suffering severe economic losses due to the impact of the devastating papaya ringspot virus on the island of Oahu as early as the 1950s. Papaya production then moved to the Puna area of the Big Island in the 1960s. But by 1997, the virus had almost destroyed the papaya industry. Production of Hawaii’s fifth largest crop fell by nearly 40 percent, farmers were going out of business, and Hawaii’s once $17 million papaya industry was struggling to survive. That same year, the U.S. government concluded its regulatory review of the first genetically engineered papaya variety named Rainbow, which is resistant to the papaya ringspot virus disease, and allowed about 200 small papaya farmers to begin planting the Rainbow papaya. Commercialized in 1998, the Rainbow papaya produced immediate results. Within four years, the genetic improvement had not only stopped the rapid decline of the Hawaii papaya industry, but production actually returned to levels near where they were before the papaya ringspot virus invasion.

3. Florida Oranges

Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil. Its $9 billion citrus industry contributes over 76,000 jobs to the economy. Recently, 8,000 Florida citrus growers (who supply most of the nation’s orange juice) as well as the Department of Agriculture have banded together to fight the disease called citrus greening, which is currently destroying our orange tree populations at an incredible and alarming pace, just like the ringspot virus did to the papaya on Hawaii.

The Florida orange industry may be saved by genetic modification

They have discovered that a gene from spinach can make orange trees resistant to this terrible disease. The gene that has been found to be effective exists in slightly different forms in hundreds of plants and animals, including in our own cells- it produces a protein that attacks invading bacteria. This strain is still undergoing regulatory approval.

There are dozens of more examples.

Should we ban GMOs?

Even the much hated “RoundUp Ready” crops have good reason to be planted and used by farmers. Farmers use herbicides, like RoundUp when they practice a style of farming called ‘conservation tillage” or no-till farming, which leaves the soil undisturbed between cropping seasons. This type of farming practice greatly reduces soil loss due to wind and water erosion. Farmers choose to plant “RoundUp Ready” crops like corn and soy so that they can apply RoundUp between plantings.

As of 2013, no GM wheat has been approved for release anywhere in the world.

But isn’t it true that GM wheat is the cause of the increased wheat sensitivities and gluten intolerances that we see in the US? Even though this assertion is patently false, it doesn’t stop people from believing it, because #gluten #amiright? As of 2013, no GM wheat has been approved for release anywhere in the world. We’ll save the discussion of fad allergy diagnoses’ for another post.

In summary, the GM crops that have been approved for consumption have gotten that way through an extensive regulatory process, farmers choose to plant them because in some cases they are better for the land, and the genes involved are often genes that we eat in other plant or animal cells or that exist in bacteria in our own bodies. GM crops are here to stay and instead of being afraid of them and their use, we need to actively engage with public policy makers to regulate them sanely, safely, and to the benefit of human society.

This post was originally published as a guest post on the site YouTrition.