Polyethylene shopping bags are a big convenience but they also present a big problem. While they can be recycled, many just get carelessly discarded and end up in the environment not only as an eyesore but as a danger to wildlife. Estimates are that only about 3% of plastics that can be recycled actually are. Polyethylene does not degrade easily in the environment and the bags can end up as pollutants for decades. Some clever chemistry can, however, help the situation.
If certain salts of iron, manganese, nickel or cobalt are incorporated into the polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrenene molecular chains during manufacture, they will catalyze the breakdown of the polymers. But the breakdown requires the presence of oxygen because the mechanism of the degradation involves “oxidation,” which means forming bonds between some of the carbon atoms in the polymer and oxygen atoms supplied by oxygen in the atmosphere. Exposure to ultraviolet light speeds up the reaction
Once the chain has been “oxidized,” the bonds between the oxygen bearing carbons and their neighbours are significantly weakened and begin to break apart. The resulting short chains are then biodegraded by microbes basically to carbon dioxide and water. Depending on the extent of UV and oxygen exposure, and ambient temperature, oxo-biodegradable plastics visually disappear in as little as two months, although the process can take up to a year and a half. These bags will not degrade in a landfill and therefore will not generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They cannot be composted, but they can be recycled just like other polyethylene bags. The big advantage is a reduction in all those bags that end up fluttering from trees or floating in the ocean. Of course, until the plastic breaks down, it can still pose a risk to wildlife but there is no doubt that the oxo-biodegradable plastic is preferable to the conventional variety in terms of impact on the environment.Read more
Pick an apple off a tree, buff it a little and it will shine! That’s because the fruit is coated with a layer of natural wax that protects it from drying out and helps to prevent fungi from getting a foothold. The wax is a mixture of up to fifty different compounds, most of which fall into the chemical category known as esters. There are also alcohols like heptacosanol and malol as well as hydrocarbons such as triacontane, C30H62. This compound can also be isolated from petroleum and is sometimes applied to fruit to supplement its natural wax. In that case chemophobes kick and scream about a petroleum derivative being applied to their fruit but there is no difference between triacontane produced by an apple isolated from petroleum.
Natural wax also contains compounds in the triterpenoid family. Ursolic acid has a variety of biochemical effects that have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments. For example, it can inhibit the proliferation of various cancer cells and also has weak aromatase inhibitor activity. Aromatase is an enzyme that leads to the synthesis of estradiol, the body’s main estrogen that is implicated in some cancers. This of course does not mean that the amount of ursolic acid in the peel of an apple can have a beneficial effect on human health, but it is at least another plus for eating apples.
After apples are picked they are washed before they appear in the supermarket to remove dirt and chemical residues. This process also removes the wax. Since the waxy layer prevents moisture in the apple from escaping, its loss shortens the storage time for the fruit. Producers therefore spray the fruit with a thin layer of wax to prevent such moisture loss as well as to make the apple look more appealing. The applied layer is very thin, only about 3 mg of wax coat an apple.
Several different types of wax are used, mostly Carnauba wax that comes from the leaves of the Brazilian palm, Candelia wax from a dessert plant, as well as food grade shellac from the Indian lac bug. There are also some synthetic esters made by combining sucrose with fatty acids. Polyethylene, the same plastic used to make disposable shopping bags can also be applied in a very thin layer. Interestingly, this can be termed as being vegan because it is made from ethylene which in turn is made from ethanol that is produced by the fermentation of corn. A trace of an emulsifier morpholine oleate is added to allow the wax to be spread in a thin layer. Some concerns have been raised that the wax seals in pesticide residues that cannot be removed by washing but studies have shown that the prior washing removes most traces of pesticide residues. As far as the wax itself goes, it presents no health issue since it is not absorbed and passes right through the digestive system. Wax coatings can also be used on organic produce with the proviso that they must come from a natural source like beeswax or Carnauba wax or wood resin. While there is no worry about eating the wax on fruits, they should be well washed mostly to remove bacteria that may have stuck to the surface.
A video has been circulating in which boiling water is poured over an apple resulting in the formation of white splotches as a voice drones on warning people not to eat waxed apples because of the pesticide residues. The message is that the boiling water reveals the pesticide residues. That is not the case. The heat cracks the wax coating allowing air to enter between the wax and the skin of the apple resulting in white patches due to the way the air pockets reflect light.
It is not just apples that are waxed. Citrus fruits, rutabagas, cucumbers, many tomatoes, melons and peppers also are treated with wax. Even jellybeans are coated with beeswax to prevent them from drying out and to increase their appeal.Read more
We are certainly well aware that whatever we post on social media has an affect on the way people perceive us. But imagine if the type, frequency and even grammar of our posts could affect the services we receive? Imagine if every key strike impacted the type of insurance you receive? Well this actually happened. Last week. Well, fine, it almost happened but the fact that we were almost there is crazy enough. Admiral Insurance, a company based out of the UK, announced the launch of “firstcarquote”, a service offered to people who were buying or driving their first car. And how would the rates be calculated? By looking at these people’s Facebook profiles, that’s how. A profile with a post consisting of lists and/or short sentences served to indicate that the particular individual was conscientious and therefore assumed to be a safer driver. Needless to say, this plan never launched due to an outcry from Facebook users. (Most probably, Facebook users whose posts largely consisted of many an exclamation point, thereby making these individuals appear “overconfident”, according to “firstcarquote” standards).
I now can’t help but wonder…
The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors has recently produced several television ads featuring Naturopathic doctors sporting white lab coats and stethoscopes highlighting their apparent medical training. “True or false? Naturopathic doctors are medically trained. Of course we are. I’m a naturopathic doctor,” responds Dr. Jennifer Forgeron, as her name, along with the dubious title “ND” appear next to her on screen. Other commercials attempt to dispel the notion that Naturopathic Doctors aren’t regulated, as small text in the corner of the screen subtly notes that ND’s are currently only regulated in five provinces. The screen then fades to the slogan “Medically Trained. Naturally Focused. ™” Just like their medical training, the validity of these television spots should be seriously questioned.
While the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), one of the two accredited Naturopathic schools in Canada provides some refreshing clarity on the pre-requisite basic sciences courses, as well as medical science-based courses in the ND curriculum as far as the names of the courses go, there is a depressing drop off in information subsequently. For example, the CCNM course description for Embryology lists the following only, “Basic principles and mechanisms of human development from conception to shortly after birth are discussed. The normal development of each of the body's systems is reviewed, and examples of how abnormal development may occur are given.” No suggested texts are offered, or qualifications of the professors are included. Compounding the concern, it is immediately striking to see that courses such as “Homeopathic Medicine I” and “Massage/Hydrotherapy” are taught alongside these more legitimate courses.
Perhaps as confusing as the slogan CAND has adopted, is the near-ubiquitous association Naturopaths have with the stethoscope. If there was one instrument that isn’t more intimately tied to a doctor, I am not aware of it. A survey of the CCNM course list shows courses such as “Physical and Clinical Diagnosis Practicum I” which offers “competence in taking a patient history and performing a physical examination efficiently and accurately…the skills necessary to conduct a thorough systems-based physical examination, interpret physical findings, elicit a complete medical history, and document the information appropriately.” This would imply training in the use of a stethoscope under the supervision of a Naturopath preceptor, which raises the concern on whether students are being taught to use the device correctly, and more importantly, what conditions are being taught to diagnose. It is difficult to make a sweeping statement about a Naturopath’s proficiency with a stethoscope, but one thing is certain – they are not cardiologists.
The ultimate demonstration of proficiency however, is successfully passing an accreditation exam. One would suspect that in order to boast about being “medically trained,” an aspiring ND should have to complete the same medical licensing exams as a Medical Doctor. This is not the case – not by a long shot. The Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX), while similar in structure to the American USMLE and Canadian LMCC exams are fundamentally different exams. The NPLEX is consistently shorter than the LMCC and USMLE in terms of questions asked and time allotted to write, notwithstanding that it has the additional burden to testing Naturopathic in addition to the Medical content. I wonder how Naturopaths would fare writing the USMLE…
Most concerning about these videos is the underlying message that a Naturopath is sufficient on their own to treat a health issue. The saddening events surrounding the death of Ezekiel Stephan from meningitis after being misdiagnosed and treated with echinacea instead of antibiotics by a Naturopathic doctor is a reminder of the harm those claiming to have a medical training can do. Meningitis is a diagnosis that fundamentally cannot be missed, and one that is taught to medical students early on and repeatedly throughout their training.
Allopathic, or medically-trained doctors are certainly not immaculate when put under the spotlight either. It would be foolish to not suggest that some MD’s have abused their training in similar ways to ND’s, or failed to treat serious medical issues to a reasonable standard. The separation lies with the fact that medicine is a science that subjects itself to the dominion of evidence over all else. What can be proved to not be effective is discarded from the arsenal of medical science, a concept quite the contrary to naturopathy, which makes a nest from the discarded scraps of evidence-based medicine, and then calls it “alternative.”
No doubt, these videos by the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors have been produced reflexively to the increasing public and media attention they have received after cases like Ezekiel Stephan. They insidiously mask that beneath the stethoscope-wielding, white-coated pseudophysician lies an organization in turmoil, struggling to increase their legitimacy and breadth of care, paying little attention to the training they provide and even less to the impact they will have.
One has to wonder then, when a Naturopathic doctor asserts to you that they are medically trained, will they point to a poster in their office, written in small hardly visible text, listing the terms and conditions?Read more
Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, was a big hit for Disney studios in 1964. The film was a musicalized version of the children’s books about a magical English nanny written between 1934 and 1988 by P.L. Travers. The movie featured a number of songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman including the catchy tune sung by Andrews with the line, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
The idea for the lyrics came from a real life situation. Robert Sherman was working on ideas for a song but was drawing a blank until one day he came home and learned from his wife that his children had received a polio vaccine. Thinking that the vaccine had been a shot in the arm, he asked one of his children whether it had hurt. Not at all, the child replied. There had been no jab. A drop of liquid was placed on a sugar cube that had to be swallowed. At that moment the title for the song was born!
The oral vaccine that the Sherman children received had been developed by Albert Sabin and was introduced commercially in 1961. It used a weakened form of the polio virus that triggered the production of antibodies against the active virus. The oral version to a large extent replaced the original injectable vaccine introduced in 1955 by Jonas Salk based on an inactivated form of the virus. Thanks to these vaccines, polio has been largely eliminated from the world.
Of course, every sort of medical intervention is associated with some risk. In very rare cases, the vaccine can cause polio symptoms, but the benefits greatly outweigh any risk. Both vaccines are on the World Health Organization’s Model Lists of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system. Had the vaccine been available earlier, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt would not have contracted polio in 1921.
The spoonful of sugar in combination with a medicine may have an impact other than just pleasing our musical appetite. It seems that infants given a little bit of a sugar solution feel less pain during injections. British pediatrician Paul Heaton found that a few drops of sucrose solution put on their tongues before an injection was capable of blocking the pain felt in their arms or bottoms. He theorizes that: “The sweet taste works through nerve channels in the tongue that perceive sweetness in the brain.” The brain reacts by producing endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. Furthermore, in babies, sucking releases endocannabinoids that also alleviate pain. Heaton noted that once babies taste the solution, they cried less and recovered more quickly from the jab. He recommends giving babies just enough sugary solution to taste, but not enough to swallow before vaccination. Interestingly, the relationship between sweets and pain relief was first mentioned in historic Jewish texts that document baby boys being given honey before circumcision. What about adults? Well, chocolates, sweet pastries and soft drinks make for a less painful life for many people.
The Sherman brothers also composed the song that has been played more often in the world than any other. It’s a Small World After All is featured at all the Disney theme parks, an adaptation of an attraction introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The Sherman Brothers wrote the song in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which influenced the song’s message of peace and brotherhood. They also wrote a song for the Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction that was presented in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland from 1967 to 1985 designed to simulate humans shrinking to a size smaller than an atom. Visitors boarded Atommobiles and began a journey that passed through snowflakes into the inner space of molecules, then atoms. They got an idea of crystal structure, bonding between atoms and the composition of an atom. The journey was accompanied by the song Miracles from Molecules.
From the beginning until 1977, Adventure Thru Inner Space was sponsored by the Monsanto Company, which later transitioned from being a chemical manufacturer to a biotechnology firm. Founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny and named after his wife’s family, Monsanto initially produced food additives like saccharin and vanillin before expanding into industrial chemicals such as sulphuric acid and PCBs in the 1920s. By the 1940s, it was a major producer of plastics, including polystyrene, as well as a variety of synthetic fibres. Monsanto scientists had a number of notable achievements, like the development of “catalytic asymmetric hydrogenation,” that made possible the production of L-Dopa, the major drug used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. They also laid the foundation for the mass production of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that have revolutionized the lighting industry.
Monsanto has been criticized for once manufacturing such controversial products as the insecticide DDT, PCBs used as insulators in electronic equipment and the notorious Agent Orange that was widely deployed as a defoliant during the Vietnam War. At the time, DDT and PCBs solved immediate problems, with DDT saving millions of people from contracting malaria and PCBs in transformers making electricity widely available. The environmental issues that eventually emerged concerning these chemicals were not, and probably could not have been foreseen at the time.
Today, most people associate Monsanto with genetic modification and the company serves as a lightning rod for anti-GMO activists. Indeed Monsanto was among the first to genetically modify a plant cell and one of the first to conduct field trials of genetically modified crops and now markets canola, soy, corn and sugar beet seeds that yield plants capable of resisting herbicides and warding off insects.
Let me end with a stanza from the Sherman brothers’ song Miracles from Molecules that once captivated visitors to Disneyland and which I believe is still meaningful today:Now Men with dreams are furthering, What Nature first began, Making modern miracles, From molecules, for Man Read more