Dear EarthTalk: With summer officially here now, what can you tell us about which sunscreens are safe and which are not? — Clara Rosen, New York, NY
Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more new cases each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. And the rate of newly diagnosed cases of the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma, has tripled over the last three decades. But many of the sunscreens on the market do not provide enough protection from the sun’s damaging rays. Also, some of them contain chemicals that can also cause health problems in their own right.
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which assessed the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,400 “SPF” (sun protection factor) products for its 2014 Guide to Sunscreens, only one in three sunscreens for sale on the shelves of American stores offers good skin protection and is free of ingredients with links to health issues. “That means two-thirds of the sunscreens in our analysis don’t work well enough or contain ingredients that may be toxic,” reports the group.
A big part of the problem is the lack of tougher rules from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). “The FDA’s first major set of sunscreen regulations, 36 years in the making, took effect in December 2012 and proved far too weak to transform the market,” reports EWG. While the new rules did restrict some of the most egregious claims on sunscreen labels (such as the “patently false” waterproof and sweatproof claims) and ended the sale of powder sunscreens and towelettes that were too thin to provide protection against ultraviolet rays, they didn’t address inhalation threats from spray sunscreens or take into account the risks of exposure to so-called “nanoparticles” from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide varieties.
While the FDA is currently reassessing its stance on sunscreens, EWG warns it may be a while before new rules address these and other concerns, especially given push-back from regulatory averse members of Congress and some manufacturers. So what’s a health-conscious sun worshipper to do about sunscreen?
For starters, read labels. Some common sunscreen ingredients to watch out for and avoid include: oxybenzone, which can cause allergic reactions and hormone-like effects; Vitamin A (AKA retinyl palmitate), a skin irritant and possible carcinogen; and fragrances which can contain allergens and chemicals. Also, spray sunscreens are suspect because inhaling some of the ingredients can irritate breathing passages and even potentially compromise lung function. And EWG warns to avoid products with SPF ratings higher than 50, as their use can tempt people to apply too little and/or stay in the sun too long. Sticking with products in the 15-50 SPF range and reapplying often makes much more sense.
Some of the best choices are those sunscreens that employ either zinc oxide or avobenzone, both which have been shown to block the most damaging ultraviolet rays effectively without the need for other potentially troublesome additives. Some of the leading brands that meet EWG’s criteria for both safety and effectiveness include Absolutely Natural, Aubrey Organics, California Baby, Elemental Herbs, Goddess Garden, Tropical Sands and True Natural, among others. Find these and other winners on the shelves of natural foods retailers as well as online. For a complete list of all 172 recommended sunscreens and to learn more about the risks, check out EWG’s free online 2014 Guide to Sunscreens.
CONTACT: EWG’S 2014 Guide to Sunscreens
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that, above and beyond our bad eating and lifestyle habits, some chemicals in everyday products are contributing to the obesity problem. Can you explain? — Alyssa Israel, Fairfield, CT
Obesity is a huge problem in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates have doubled for American adults and tripled for kids and teenagers aged six through 19 since 1980. Today, 31 percent of American adults and 15 percent of youngsters are classified as overweight.
The rise in obesity and related health problems like diabetes is usually attributed to an abundance of high-calorie food coupled with the trend toward a more sedentary lifestyle, but there is more to the story. A growing number of researchers believe that certain chemicals collectively known as “obesogens” may be a contributing factor to the growing obesity epidemic. Exposure to these chemicals has been shown to interfere with the way we metabolize fat, leading to obesity despite otherwise normal diet and exercise.
Bruce Blumberg, a biology professor at the University of California at Irvine, first coined the term “obesogen” in 2006 after discovering that certain tin-based compounds known as organotins predisposed lab mice to weight gain. In the intervening years, hundreds of research studies have found similar connections between weight gain in humans and exposure to organotins, as well as several other common chemicals found in everyday consumer products, agricultural pesticides and even some drinking water.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that as many as 20 synthetic chemicals — from the BPA in plastic food storage containers and the lining of cans to phthalates used in the manufacture of non-stick coatings to the parabens in many personal care products — have been shown to cause weight gain in humans, mostly from exposure in utero or as infants. These early effects can last a lifetime, permanently altering one’s metabolic “set points” for gaining weight. “If you have more fat cells and propensity to make more fat cells, and if you eat the typical high-carbohydrate, high-fat diet we eat [in the U.S.], you probably will get fat,” Blumberg tells the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Adult exposure to obesogens has also been shown to trigger weight gain and other endocrine issues while exacerbating the effects of earlier exposure. Certain pharmaceuticals (including some of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants) have been found to be particularly egregious in this regard. Meanwhile, nicotine, air fresheners and many household cleaning products also contain obesogens. Also, soybeans (consumed by both humans and the livestock we eat) contain a naturally occurring obesogen.
There may not be much we can do about the damage already done, but avoiding obesogens, whether from natural or synthetic, might be the best thing we can do to prevent making our obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other health problems that much worse. Says Blumberg: “Eat organic, filter water, minimize plastic in your life…If there’s no benefit and some degree of risk, why expose yourself and your family?”
Of course, avoiding obesogens alone won’t keep people from getting fat. Eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise are as important as ever to keep one’s weight and overall health in check.
Dear EarthTalk: How does the Rocky Mountain Institute think we can get off of oil and coal by 2050 and save money in the process? — James Greenville, Redding, CT
Colorado-based sustainability think-tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) was founded in 1982 by American physicist and environmentalist Amory Lovins to research and promote market-based solutions to our energy crisis without breaking the bank. The group is focusing efforts on transforming domestic and eventually global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure energy future by mid-century.
“We can eliminate our addiction to oil and coal by 2050 and use one-third less natural gas while switching to efficient use and renewable supply,” says Lovins, adding that doing so could actually cost less and support a more robust economy than continuing with business-as-usual: “Moreover, this transition needs no new inventions and no acts of Congress and no new federal taxes, mandate subsidies or laws….”
To get there, Lovins acknowledges that we have to start thinking differently now. RMI is advocating cutting U.S. electricity consumption by 18 percent over the next 10 years while almost doubling renewable energy’s share of generation from 16 to 30 percent.
Few would argue with the cost savings and environmental benefits of such a plan — implementation is the challenge. According to Lovins, we already have the technologies to help foster a rapid evolution of our electricity system, but we still need the political and institutional will to make it happen. RMI has begun a dialogue with utilities and other entities to align incentives and create more opportunities for electricity users to contribute clean power to the grid themselves through technologies like rooftop solar power.
One key feature of RMI’s plan is rate structures that reflect the true benefits and costs of moving to more distributed (small scale/decentralized) energy resources. The group is working with utilities to launch six “Electricity Innovation Labs” nationally, as well as a “Solar Development Excellence Center” to highlight the feasibility of distributed renewables. RMI also wants to simplify commercial photovoltaic financing, incorporate renewables into real estate finance and make solar financing affordable to underserved markets.
RMI also wants to make large buildings much more energy efficient, and aims to make a billion square feet of commercial space 35 percent more efficient by 2025 through so-called “deep energy” retrofits, including the adoption of more renewables. RMI is targeting four of the largest, most influential segments of the buildings market — major companies, the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense and “activist” cities (those already on the green cutting edge) — for major energy retrofits, and is working to persuade private investors to consider overall impact and long-term costs, not just short-term gains.
Another major part of RMI’s plan is to work with large metro regions with upwards of 10 million residents, and with university campuses, to make major efficiency gains. Other keys to getting us off oil and coal by 2050 include transforming how we design and use vehicles, and getting Fortune 500 corporations to rejigger their energy supply chains to facilitate procurement of more renewable energy. Beyond the U.S., RMI is working along similar lines with China and other large developing countries to help them avoid some of the energy development missteps undertaken here at home.
CONTACT: Rocky Mountain Institute
Dear EarthTalk: We often see and read reports about environmental threats to women’s health, but aren’t there also concerns about which men should be especially vigilant? — Jay Walsh, Boston, MA
Indeed, women aren’t the only ones who should be worried about environmental threats. A recently released report (“Men’s Health: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You”) by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) concludes that environmental exposures may have major negative impacts on men’s health as well, and outlines ways that guys can avoid some of the major risks.
“Most men understand that smart lifestyle choices — such as exercising regularly, eating a healthful diet and not smoking — make a big difference in staying healthy,” says EWG researcher and report author Paul Pestano. “However, what many men might not know is that research in the last few decades has shown that environmental exposures may contribute to major diseases and health concerns that especially affect men, including heart disease, prostate cancer and infertility.” He adds that toxic substances in drinking water, food, food packaging and personal care products have all been linked to serious health problems that affect millions of American men.
According to EWG, men’s heart disease risks are exacerbated by exposure to mercury in certain seafoods, Teflon chemicals in non-stick cookware, and bisphenol-A (BPA) in hard plastic containers and canned foods. Additionally, arsenic and lead in drinking water supplies is a contributing factor in elevated heart disease risks for men. Meanwhile, certain agricultural pesticides common on fruits and vegetables as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that build up in meat and dairy products have been associated with prostate cancer, the second most common cause of cancer for American men. And exposures to lead, pesticides and chemicals in personal care products contribute to low sperm counts, infertility and other reproductive issues for men. EWG also underscores the importance of limiting sun exposure, as men face a higher risk of developing melanoma than women.
“While genetics can predetermine certain health outcomes, there are a number of ways men can dramatically reduce their potentially harmful environmental exposures,” Pestano says. Some tips include:
- Investing in a water filter system specifically designed to reduce exposure to lead, arsenic and other drinking water contaminants (see EWG’s “Water Filter Buying Guide” to find the right one);
- Avoiding canned foods and plastic containers with the recycling code #7 to limit BPA exposure;
- Using personal care products that don’t contain phthalates, parabens or other potential contaminants (see EWG’s “Skin Deep” database that lists toxic chemicals in some 69,000 personal care products);
- Choosing conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that have the fewest pesticide residues and buying the organic versions of certain types of produce that otherwise rely heavily on chemicals (EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” guide lists apples, grapes, strawberries, celery, peaches, spinach and sweet bell peppers as the worst offenders among others); and
- Using proper sun cover and getting regular skin checks with a dermatologist to reduce melanoma risks.
By following these guidelines along with eating a healthy, varied diet and getting regular exercise, men can significantly reduce their health risks and potentially add years to their lives.
CONTACT: Environmental Working Group
Dear EarthTalk: What can communities do to keep polluters out of their neighborhoods? — Wendell Bovey, Los Angeles, CA
It’s unfair that communities that are less organized and less wealthy often shoulder the burden of hosting polluters like landfills, incinerators and power plants. “Frequently, these facilities end up in the places that put up the least resistance, either because residents are unaware of the projects planned for their area, or because they don’t have the money, organization, knowledge or political clout to mount effective opposition,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading non-profit.
The key, says NRDC, is to stay informed: “A lot of bad projects slip into communities under the radar,” they caution. Companies looking to site unpopular projects that need approval from local zoning boards count on local residents being absent from the public meetings where the projects get discussed.
Attending planning and zoning or city council meetings is a first line of defense against letting polluters in. Be prepared by getting meeting agendas in advance and looking for red flags that can be discussed with the powers-that-be in person or at public sessions. And keep up with the Public Notices section of the local paper, where public hearings concerning local land use must be announced by law.
Staying informed is one thing, but knowing what to look and listen for is another: “Certain types of development pose potential environmental and health problems for host communities,” reports NRDC. “They need not be automatically opposed, but they should be carefully scrutinized.”
NRDC recommends paying close attention to plans for incinerators, landfills, waste transfer stations, water pollution control or sewage treatment plants, bus or truck depots and parking lots, power plants, highways, airports, metal plating and auto body or auto repair shops. Beyond looking out for these and other types of polluting projects, community residents should be aware of and ask questions about any proposed change in zoning or in the local municipal or county “Master Plan” or “Community Environmental Plan.”
Finding out about a bad project coming your way is only the beginning: “If you find that a proposed change might adversely affect your community, gather as much information about the proposal as possible and inform your neighbors about your concerns,” says NRDC. Arranging for a time and place where locals can meet to discuss what’s happening and organize around preventing it is the next step.
Some of the tasks necessary to mounting a good defense include thoroughly researching a proposed facility’s potential impacts (including contacting people in other areas where similar types of facilities have been sited), bringing in experts and reaching out to more community members to align them accordingly.
If community members are focused on their goals and have enough support from neighbors they can succeed in either blocking a proposed new facility or expansion, or at least in increasing pollution controls. Another positive outcome could be a revision to local ordinances to prevent future polluters from moving in. For more information, see NRDC’s free online guide, “You Can Beat City Hall,” which outlines how to watch out for and organize against polluting entities in our own backyards, so to speak.
CONTACT: NRDC’s “You Can Beat City Hall”