Friday, 1 June 2012

Of Dipped Tomatoes and Toxic Breast Milk

There’s the stuff you know you know, and the stuff you know you don’t know, but beyond that is a vast smudge of smoke on the horizon of stuff you don’t even know you don’t know. I know, for example, that my cat would rather eat raw steak or canned Alaska salmon than regular cat food. And I don’t know how to grow mushrooms or fix a broken carburettor, although I’m pretty sure I could learn to do either if I needed to.  But from time to time, things drop into my consciousness that I simply haven’t been aware of, or thought about previously.

Last Sunday (May 27, 2012), the NZ Sunday Star Times ran a couple of articles with information that caught my attention. The first was Laura Faire’s regular weekly column on seasonal foods, in which she explained why, in winter months, she rarely buys fresh tomatoes.  She reports, “At this time of year when our tomato supply usually switches to Australian product, the tomatoes are picked green, dipped in the insecticide dimethoate, then ripened while travelling or on arrival.” She goes on to say, “Tomatoes NZ chair Wim Zqart says the dip is essential for the control of the currently topical fruit fly. Chemically, he says, dimethoate is ‘as safe as we can get it’.” Dimethoate is, according to Faire, a systemic insecticide that penetrates the tomatoes and does not wash off.

In the past I have briefly wondered about how many of our imported fresh foods are sprayed to kill insect pests. I assumed our bananas were fumigated, but we peel those. Imported supermarket pineapples never look like the healthy fresh fruit I remember from childhood days in Hawaii, so I’ve mostly opted for canned. And I’ve wondered about our table grapes, usually imported from Chile, Australia, or the U.S., and have always been careful to wash them thoroughly. But the idea that our food authorities would require imported produce be treated with systemic sprays or treatments that penetrate the food and don’t wash off brought me up short. Nasty! Like Laura, I’ll be eating fewer imported tomatoes this winter too!

The other story that caught my attention in that issue of the Sunday Star Times was the cover story for the Sunday supplement titled “Breasts: The Toxic Truth”, which is based on an interview with American author and journalist Florence Williams. Williams recently published a book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. When she was nursing her second child, she did a story about the leaching of industrial chemicals into human milk. When she sent a sample of her own milk to a German  laboratory for testing, she was surprised and not a little dismayed when it scored 10 to 100 times higher than normal (for European women) for several industrial chemicals including flame retardants and a chemical used in jet fuel.

For the first time I think ever, I heard the question asked, “How safe is breast feeding?” The answer, not surprisingly, is still “breast is best”. “Benefits outweigh the risks,” says Williams. And I think, of course that’s true. What better alternative is there? Formula? What’s really in that? Cow’s or goat’s milk? What have those animals been exposed to that comes through their milk? And, indeed, when we drink or eat any commercial dairy products, unless we can afford to go organic, what industrial chemicals, herbicides, antibiotics and other environmental toxins are we absorbing into our own bodies?

The situation regarding breast tumours/cancers are also addressed in the article and book. Williams is quoted as saying that although some 200 chemicals have been identified as causing breast tumours in laboratory animals, it is difficult to definitively link those chemicals to human breast cancer. After all, we can’t isolate humans in a cage and test for specific responses to single substances. Nevertheless, she notes that breasts store fat and fat-loving toxic chemicals, the wealthiest industrialised nations have the highest rates of breast cancer in the world, and that most of the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis have never actually been tested for human health effects.

As part of her research, Williams and her daughter experimented with their exposure to toxins from food and ordinary household staples. For three days they ate food that had been packaged in plastic or cans, used fragrant shampoos and soaps, and ate dairy and meat products. Then they had their urine tested for toxins. Then for three days they ate no foods that had been in contact with plastic or metal, used fragrance-free beauty products, and ate a vegan diet. Tests from the second three day period showed a “spectacular” drop in most body toxins, although for some toxins there was little change. I thought that was pretty interesting, and not a little scary.

I’m not ready to completely forgo canned or plastic-wrapped foods, or eliminate imported produce from my diet, nor do I think it is practical or possible to retreat from all the known and unknown risks of the modern world, but I do think knowledge of potential risks is valuable.

I’m seeing a growing awareness expressed in popular media of a variety of environmental hazards that ten years ago we never even imagined were issues. Stuff we didn’t know we didn’t know. These are just two little ones, tucked into the Sunday-morning-over-coffee read. Good one, Sunday-Star Times. Keep ‘em coming.