Thursday, August 30, 2007

On tap: bottled water that’s safe to drink

Water is simple and abundant, but somehow we’ve managed to complicate it. We chlorinate it, fluoridate it, pipe it through copper, lead, steel and PVC. At this point, most tap water tastes so bad and has such a bad rep, many of us have taken to drinking it out of bottles instead. It comes from a spring or is filtered and “purified.” It costs $1.50, $2, $3 or even $4 a bottle, so it must be better than what comes free from the tap, right? Wrong.

First of all, a good deal of what tastes bad isn’t actually bad for you. We need some minerals in our water. Some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world drink mineral rich water. Okinawa sits on a coral reef and its population boasts more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world.

All those plastic bottles are worse for the environment than your giant SUV. "Forty-seven million gallons of oil are used and 1 billion pounds of CO2 emissions are produced each year to supply America with plastic water bottles"! (Gaiam)

Last, but certainly not least, the bottle itself is bad for your health. Here’s a new truism: you can take the water out of the bottle but you can’t take the bottle out of your water—not after time and temperature have caused the components of the plastic to leach into your drink. Judging from what I’ve read on other blogs, most people think this is rare and only happens when the plastic is compromised by a scratch or is very old (even though you can often taste and smell the plastic in the water). Or they think some types of plastic, usually polycarbonate, are safe even though other plastics may not be. Or they think the government wouldn’t allow unsafe plastics to be used with food and drink. But according to “Hard to Break” in Mother Jones this month (Elizabeth Grossman, September/October 2007), “The Centers for Disease Control has found two compounds—phthalates, used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic [and many other products including cosmetics], and bisphenol-A, a building block of polycarbonate plastics—in the urine of a majority of Americans tested. Both chemicals… [are] being scrutinized for their potential to mimic and disrupt our hormones—even before we’re born.” This stuff has been linked to birth defects (genital abnormalities), breast and prostate cancer, even obesity and, because of all the plastic in our lives, it’s coursing through our veins! Don’t hold your breath waiting for the government to warn you, it’s more interested in the economic health of major corporations than it is in your health and that of your family.

But I need to carry a bottle of water, you say. I can’t drink tap water, it tastes gross!

There are other alternatives. The ideal is a reverse osmosis filtering system built into your home but this may run you $3,000 or more (if you’ve got the cash, check out the link to Radiant Life in the right hand column). I use a Brita filter but don’t allow the finished water to stand for long periods in the polycarbonate pitcher. You can put it in a glass or stainless pitcher or jar, or just filter it as you use it.

For travel, there are light, slim stainless steel bottles with a choice of caps available from various companies (, www.gaiam .com are two) for a reasonable price. The price is even more reasonable when you consider that you may never have to replace your bottle again. Stainless bottles take dishwasher heat and all sorts of abuse and keep on being inert. Stainless can be filled with acidic beverages, since it is non-reactive. It can be filled with hot beverages safely (though a stainless thermos is recommended for this use). Klean Kanteen even has a smaller size and sippy lids for your toddler.

So the safest, best tasting bottled water is tap water you bottle in stainless steel.

(I don’t recommend Sigg bottles which are made of aluminum on the outside and some unspecified, proprietary lining. Aluminum should never come in contact with food or drink because this can cause heavy metal poisoning. And given that I recently found out I’ve been poisoning myself by drinking out of plastic most of my life, I’m not about to drink out of a secret proprietary lining or anything else unknown.)

According to the Mother Jones article, plastics numbered 3 (PVC), 6 (Polystyrene), and 7 (polycarbonate) should be avoided, while 1, 2, 4, and 5 are ok with food. I go a step farther and try to use none of them with food.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

On reinventing the wheel:

The USDA now recommends that people eat whole grains. The same government mandates that refined white flour (and white rice, corn grits, cereal and pasta) be enriched with synthetic B vitamins, folic acid and iron. But why reinvent the wheel? Mother Nature, or God or whoever you credit for this sort of thing, has provided an abundance of foods that meet our needs perfectly. We humans feel it necessary to improve upon perfection. We’ve improved the nutrition right out of flour. And as if that weren’t enough we've improved it even more by adding a “healthy” dose of poison (and some poison for our environment too).

If we did eat whole grains we wouldn’t need “enrichment.” Whole wheat flour, other grains (particularly sprouted ones), legumes and brown rice are loaded with the same B vitamins processors put back in. Well not quite the same. Actually, twenty or more nutrients, including the Bs (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin), "pyridoxine, folate, pantothenate, biotin, vitamin E, calcium, copper, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, chromium, fluorine, molybdenum, and selenium, are lost to the extent of 50 to 90% in the milling process."* Those are the lost nutrients we know about.

One hundred years ago we didn’t know that there were vitamins. It’s widely known that our bodies need to have some nutrients in combination in order to use one or both—vitamin D and calcium, for example. It’s entirely possible that we still don’t know about many of the compounds in our foods and how they act and interact. What we do know—what even the government will admit—is that the real thing is better for us than anything that can be synthesized in a lab.

Furthermore, the process of making synthetic vitamins wastes resources and creates so much pollution that they are no longer produced in the US but in developing countries like China, which have looser environmental laws. (And looser quality controls—witness the recent spate of recalls on Chinese goods.) Not to mention that just refining and whitening flour in the first place involves dangerous and toxic chlorine gas.

The compounds used in fortification themselves are also questionable. The form of iron widely used in flour enrichment is also a very effective weed killer.

In contrast, organic farming and simple home or small mill grinding are sustainable activities. Whole grains require no fortification to prevent beriberi, Korsakoff's disease, pellagra, and anemia. When you eat them, you won’t be eating weed killer, and you’ll be getting, among other things, your daily dose of selenium-- which will help protect you from heart disease, radiation and toxic minerals.

There’s just no improving on perfection.

*A fiftieth anniversary - cereal enrichment -
Nutrition Yesterday: Reminiscences and Reflections,
part III Nutrition Today, Feb, 1992
by W. Henry Sebrell

Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger

Friday, August 17, 2007

On how our stuff owns us:

“I have to work.” I hear that from moms all the time. I say it myself. But is it strictly true?

I am not taking issue with individual moms or families and the choices they make within the societal context. We all do the best we can. I’m taking issue with the context. Somehow, the end result of women’s quest for the freedom to make choices about our lives is that we’re locked in to the two-earner household model which, ironically, leaves us with little choice.

Come to think of it, it’s not just women, but men too. Not only do we work, but we work harder, faster and, enabled by technology, we work during a greater percentage of our time than our parents did. American workers are more productive than ever, but employers still demand more. In fact, many workers demand so much of themselves that leisure time ceases to exist-- carrying PDAs, bringing laptops home for the weekend, answering cell phones at the park or mid-conversation with friends.

Why do we do it? In order to own the things many in the middle class have come to think of as necessities: a home with a bedroom for each child, 2 cars, many of the same electronic devices that allow us/goad us to work more!

My answer is: I love beautiful clothes, to decorate my house like a picture in a magazine, to drive a nice car, to eat out at restaurants and cook with the highest quality food at home. I live in Boston, Massachusetts, which boasts some of the highest home prices in the country.

Call me over-privileged. I am. We are. We have more, and more expensive stuff than our parents ever dreamed of.

It’s possible that we’ve been duped into believing that we need all this stuff in order to fill the coffers of the makers of the stuff and the lenders of the credit that allows us to buy all the stuff we can’t even afford.

I have fantasies of jettisoning most of my stuff, buying a farm, installing solar panels or a windmill, growing my own food and home-schooling my kid. It doesn’t seem like a very realistic view from my current vantage point in our consumer society. But it sure would be liberating to own stuff that allows me to live my life rather than living-- and working-- to own my stuff.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On a real patriot act:

I flew in from DC today. Flying, with its attendant security routines and prohibitions, has become an unwelcome chore for many, but for the most part we put up, shut up and shed our shoes because we want to get there in one piece. Today I’m feeling a little less willing to accept that this is our only option, thanks to a colleague and travelling companion who’s not quite as docile as most—I’ll call him J.

J and I got into the security line behind two women who were elderly and infirm. One was in a wheel chair with a cast on her foot. We waited as a line which had previously moved at a good clip stalled completely, but that wasn’t what raised J’s ire. The woman was made to take off the boot that covered her cast (and, of course, her other shoe), get out of her wheel chair and limp assisted through the metal detector.

Miffed, J announced to me his intention to leave his pancake-thin flip flops on instead of removing them and standing barefoot on the bacteria laden floor where legions of others had done the same. This is my least favorite part of the process and I was interested to see if he’d be allowed to pass. He wasn’t. And to add insult to injury he was reprimanded for bringing a gallon-sized plastic Ziploc bag rather than a quart-sized one even though it was only about ¼ full and all his containers were 3 ounces or fewer. With a smugness born of useless authority, the TSA employee actually provided him with a standard issue quart-sized bag for the next leg of his trip. It was all J could do to remain somewhat polite.

In the relative comfort of an airport eatery—flip flops on—we discussed what had happened. J felt what the elderly woman was put through was cruel and unnecessary. Brainwashed, I defended the stupidity of the policy saying they have to treat everyone the same, otherwise it would be profiling when they subjected people who seemed more likely suspects to more thorough checks. Of course that is true, but it misses the point. J said requiring us all to be subjected to this level of inconvenience and humiliation because of fear means the terrorists have already won. I had to admit he was right-- which is particularly disturbing considering that David Mackett, the president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, says: "[TSA’s] entire approach to airline security is almost completely ineffective."* They’ve got us jumping through hoops and for what? All that jumping doesn’t even protect us from what we fear. It also begs the question: who is the “they” we really need to fear, the terrorists or the fascists in our government who are using 9/11 as an excuse to gain unchecked power and run roughshod over the bill of rights?

The scariest part of all this for me is that when J got a tone of defiance in his voice while talking to a TSA agent, I wanted to shush him. I wanted him to just go along.

In explaining his position, J referenced the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, which I recognized because they are engraved on the Holocaust Memorial in Boston:

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me -
and by then there was no one left to speak out for me."

We need to speak out-- about the security line at the airport and about the Patriot Act itself. This is a question of our most basic rights. How much are we willing to give up for what is, in reality, a hollow promise of safety? Our shoes? Our dignity? The very freedoms all this security is meant to protect? J shouldn’t just go along, and neither should any American patriot.

*Read the full text of David Mackett's comments at: