Plastic, Plastic Everywhere


By now, I think everyone has heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“, a much-publicized area in the Pacific ocean where water currents, wind, and other ocean features have naturally converged, allowing various debris to accumulate.  While the name immediately conjures a vast swathe of garbage, mostly in the form of bobbing plastic bottles, that’s not exactly true.   Most of the plastic there has already been broken down into tiny particles closer in size to confetti than yogurt cups.  But this shouldn’t diminish our concern about the ubiquity of plastic in our environment, and what this means about the health of our oceans, and for the sea creatures that live there.

Now, it seems we have even more to worry about.  According to a new investigation performed by scientists at the State University of New York in Fredonia, and commissioned by Orb Media, tiny micro-particles of plastic have been found in our own water supply.   Our bottled water, to be exact.  In this investigation, 250 different different bottles of water were analyzed from nine different countries.  A whopping 93% had microscopic pieces of plastic floating within them, despite claiming to follow rigorous standards for purity.

On average, 325 particles were found in each litre of bottled water being sold, although some brands contained as many as 10,000 per litre.  For the most part, all the particles were larger than the width of a human hair.   Because all brands of bottled water were contaminated, the investigators didn’t feel able to recommend, or warn people away, from any particular company.

You may now be thinking it’s time to switch back to tap water, but a previous study found that it also contained these same micro particles of plastic, although in roughly half the number.  How about water in glass bottles?  Well, the investigators also tested one batch of water from glass bottles for comparison,  and guess what?  That water contained micro-plastics too.

This information is sobering, and appears to mean a couple of things:  1)  our water filtration systems are in bad need of modernization.  Somehow, we need to advance the science of purification so that microscopic pieces of plastic can be removed from our water before we consume it.  And more importantly, 2)  we really need to stop using so much plastic!   Scientists are now estimating that within three decades, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

In response to this revelatory news, the World Health Organization has announced that it will review the potential health impacts of plastic in drinking water, but this is cold comfort.  We already know that some of the chemicals in plastics, namely BPAs and pthalates, have estrogenic activity, and may also increase the risk of asthma, ADHD, low IQ, autism, male infertility, obesity and cancer.  Particularly frightening is the knowledge that there are other chemicals in plastics whose health effects we do not yet know.

Some researchers have attempted to allay concerns by stating that most of these microscopic plastic particles probably pass right through our systems without having any negative effect.  But this is hardly reassuring considering that they also admit they don’t know enough to be sure.  Microparticles of plastic are so small it’s very possible that they are absorbed into our liver, kidneys, and bloodstream.

So, what do we do with this information?  Considering the ubiquity of plastic in our modern environment, it’s hard to make a recommendation that would make much difference for the safety of ourselves and the people we love.  Individually, you can stop buying bottled water, and use tap water in refillable water containers instead.  Tap water may still contain micro-particles of plastic, but at least it has a lower amount – and it’s free.  As for the rest of the food we eat, we don’t have much of a choice since the majority of products on grocery store shelves are wrapped in plastic of one form or another.

Right now, I’m trying to have faith in human ingenuity, and in science and technology, hoping that they’ll discover some way around this mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into.   We’ve found life-saving solutions to plenty of problems in the past, from the discovery of antibiotics, to the development of vaccines, and refrigeration.  Let’s hope we can find a solution to this problem too.





The Trouble With Rice


Rice has had it rough lately.  Long considered the most easily digested grain, it is often the first solid food given to infants.  It is free of gluten and rarely causes allergic reactions.  It’s a staple food for more than half the world’s population, particularly in Asian countries like China, Japan, and India.

But in recent years, rice has been getting a lot of bad press.  First, there was the revelation that rice can be contaminated with surprisingly high amounts of arsenic.  A category one carcinogen, arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans.  It occurs naturally in soil, but has become increasingly present in our environment because of industrial pollution and fertilizer runoff, which contaminates water supplies.  Unfortunately, rice accumulates more arsenic than most foods, and as a result, is the single, largest food source of arsenic.

But you can select varieties of rice that are less likely to contain arsenic, such as basmati rice, jasmine rice, or sushi rice.  Even more important, you can choose to purchase rice only from areas with less arsenic pollution, such as California, India and Pakistan.  White basmati rice from these areas has, on average, half the arsenic present in other types of rice.  According to Consumer Reports, the highest levels of arsenic were found in rice from Arkansas, Louisiana or Texas.

Unfortunately, the more nutritious brown rice, which still retains the hull of the bran and is high in B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and fibre, is even more likely to suffer from arsenic contamination (80% more arsenic, on average than white rice), but if you choose brown basmati rice from California, India or Pakistan, it has about a third less arsenic than other brown rices.   In the case of arsenic contamination, there is no point in choosing organically grown rice, as it accumulates arsenic just as easily as conventionally-grown rice.

You can also considerably reduce your exposure to arsenic by rinsing and then soaking your rice overnight before you cook it.  Also, instead of using just enough cooking water to be absorbed by the grains, you should use a higher ratio of water to rice.  For example, by using six cups of water for each cup of rice, you can remove an additional 30% of the rice’s arsenic content. Just drain the excess water before eating.  More of rice’s nutrients are lost when cooking this way, but you also lose more of the arsenic.

Aside from these arsenic concerns, a second blow against rice has come from Singapore, a country whose population typically eats 5-6 cups of rice daily.   In response to rising rates of diabetes in Singapore and throughout Asia, Singapore has begun a campaign to reduce white rice consumption among its people.   The heart of the campaign is based on a recent meta-analysis from the Harvard School Of Public Health, and published in the British Medical Journal, showing that for each bowl of rice eaten daily, the risk of diabetes rises by 11%.  Even more sobering is the news that one bowl of white rice contains twice the carbohydrate content of one can of soft drink, and raises blood sugar just as quickly.

Many Asians consider their diet to be better than that of the Western world, as it is mostly devoid of the soda pop and processed junk foods so readily consumed here.   However, as Asians are genetically more susceptible to diabetes, and as they are increasingly adopting a more Western, sedentary lifestyle, the rate of diabetes is beginning to rise there too.  Hence, the warnings about white rice.  Singaporeans are being advised to reduce their white rice intake, or substitute some brown rice for the white rice, to lower their glycemic load.  And to further spur his countrymen into action, Dr. Stanley Liew, a diabetes expert at Raffles Hospital in Singpore, has warned that in terms of sugar content, white rice is just as bad as sodas, pastries, and other junk foods.

Does that mean we, in the West, should also be avoiding white rice?  Not necessarily.  Westerners typically consume a fraction of the rice that Asians do, and most experts here are more concerned about our consumption of soft drinks, and our rising obesity rates when it comes to diabetes risk.   Even in Asia, experts note that rice consumption hasn’t been increasing, and so should not be considered the true culprit in this new diabetes epidemic.  If diabetes is becoming a health issue in Asian countries, it’s more due to a general decrease in physical activity and an overall increase in food intake that’s taking place as Asians become more affluent.

So, where does that leave us, when it comes to eating rice?  Well, in spite of the higher arsenic content of brown rice, it is still a better choice than white rice, health-wise.   If you choose long grain, jasmine or basmati brown rice from California, India or Pakistan, and then rinse and soak it before cooking in plenty of water, you can avoid most of the difficulties with arsenic exposure.   And since long grain brown rice has a lower glycemic index than white rice, it’s better for your blood sugar too.

Just be sure your diet is well diversified, and you eat plenty of different foods.  Rice should not be eaten with every single meal, and should be substituted with other, healthy, whole grains from time to time.  Most dietary issues result from eating one type of food over and over again.  To ensure you are getting a wide variety of nutrients, you should make sure you are eating a wide variety of foods.  After all, as its always been said, “variety is the spice of life”.


















Why Your Older Sibling is Smarter Than You


Why are sibling studies so fascinating?  I suppose it’s because they provide us with another window through which to view ourselves, and we are all narcissists at heart.  They also have the added advantage of being guilt-free.  After all, we had no control over when we were born, and what place we took in our families.  As a result, we can look at these studies and evaluate the course of our lives without shame.

This new sibling study will have later-born children feeling short-shrifted, once again.  According to a study published in the Journal of Human Resources, which examined data from the US Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, first-born children score higher marks on IQ tests, and perform better on reading and picture vocabulary tests, by the time they are just one year of age.

The IQ scores of first born children were not dramatically higher than later borns, but researchers say the difference is big enough to allow entrance into better schools, with better opportunities.  These higher IQ and reading scores could explain why first-born children usually enjoy higher wages and better education than their younger siblings.  After all, it can’t be coincidence that first born children are over-represented as CEOs, astronauts, Rhodes scholars, and university professors, can it?

Because this new study also evaluated the behaviour of the mothers, not just the children, it attempted to confirm why first borns have such an advantage.  In this case, the researchers found that mothers took ‘higher risks’ with each succeeding pregnancy, and were less likely to stop smoking or drinking each time.  The mother’s behaviour after birth was also substantially different:  first borns were more likely to be breastfed, and were offered more mental stimulation from activities such as reading, craft-making, and the playing of musical instruments than children born later in the family.

This recent study was the largest sibling study ever performed, following 5,000 children over more than a decade, with evaluations done every two years from birth until 14 years of age.  Its findings would be hard to refute.  However, I found it interesting that a study published in 2007, which evaluated the IQ scores of 250,000 male, Norwegian military conscripts, came to a slightly different conclusion.

The subjects in this study were not evaluated as children.  Their IQ scores were merely noted as adults, at the time of enlistment.  However, in this study the effect of birth order on IQ scores disappeared if an elder sibling died.  In that case, the second-born took on the responsibilities of the older sibling, without having had the same attention as a child. Here, the researchers concluded that higher IQ scores could be better determined by a child’s social rank within the family, and not necessarily by birth order.

This begs the question of whether these higher IQ scores are truly set by the age of one.  It would seem that whenever children face higher expectations from parents, they struggle to fill the role.  This could raise IQ scores without any extra reading time or instrument playing as a young child.  It may be that it is merely parental expectations that cause children to become more ambitious, disciplined, responsible, and well-behaved, as first borns tend to be, and not necessarily the order of their birth.

While sibling studies such as these may feel guilt-free from the perspective of a child, they can generate plenty of soul-searching from parents.  If IQ scores and test results are that dependent, not just on parental attention, but also parental expectations, then we would all do well to make sure we hold our younger children to the same standards as we do our oldest, and read and play with them just as often.  It makes a hard job even harder, but it would ensure all of our children have the best chance of success.