Friday, September 25, 2009

Don't drink the water at school...

According to an investigation by the Associated Press, the drinking water at public and private schools in all 50 states in the U.S. has been found to contain various contaminants, including coliform bacteria, lead, copper, arsenic, nitrates, pesticides like 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP), and disinfectants. Contamination is worst at schools that use well water.

Amazingly, this problem has been mostly ignored by the federal government even as the number of violations against the Safe Drinking Water Act have increased significantly over the past 10 years. Apparently, drinking water monitoring is inefficiently spread out among too many local, state, and federal agencies, such that many risks are going unreported, and devising an effective national monitoring plan will be complicated and expensive. Right now, the EPA can only provide guidelines on environmental practices, since it doesn't have the authority to require testing for all schools.

The AP's analysis of a database of federal drinking water violations from 1998 to 2008 revealed that California (which has the most schools of any state) had the greatest number of violations (612), followed by Ohio (451), Maine (417), Connecticut (318), and Indiana (289). The most common contaminant was coliform bacteria, followed by lead, copper, arsenic, and nitrates.

I guess the good news is that the number of schools with unsafe water represents only a small percentage of the nation's 132,500 schools, but something needs to be done. Kids drink more water per pound than adults, so they are more susceptible to the effects of contaminants in water as well as food. It's probably best to give your kids (bottled, if you trust it, or filtered) water to bring to school so that they don't have to drink the school's water.

Sometimes I wonder what's in our tap water at home. We filter it, but even then, what gets through the filter? I honestly don't know, and I'm just assuming it's fine. Anyone have an atomic absorption spectrometer and GC-MS?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Showering can be bad for your health?

This is interesting. Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder report that showering can be bad for your health...when the inside of the shower head is contaminated with a biofilm of Mycobacterium avium, which can cause lung infections in people with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly and pregnant women. Symptoms include tiredness, a persistent dry cough, shortness of breath and weakness, and generally feeling unwell. Bacteria-filled water droplets suspended in the air in a shower can be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs.

The researchers found that of the 50 shower heads they tested (from 9 cities in 7 U.S. states), 30% of them contained M. avium at levels that were 100 times greater than that typically found in household water supplies. In particular, plastic shower heads accumulated more bacteria-rich biofilms than metal ones. Their work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Other illnesses that are known to be spread from showers include Legionnaires' disease and Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections. Hot tubs and spa pools can also spread disease.

It's probably a good idea to let the shower run a bit before stepping in to reduce the amount of exposure to any bacteria.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Study finds people who multitask are often bad at it

I thought this article was kind of amusing. I like to multitask, and I think I do it pretty well, but I also realize that sometimes it's better to do things one at a time.

Stanford University researchers put 100 students through a series of three tests and found that heavy media multitaskers -- those who regularly juggle e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, while watching TV, surfing the internet, and doing homework -- tend to be distracted by everything.

In each test, the students were separated into two groups: those who do a lot of media multitasking and those who don't. In the first test, they were shown two sets of images -- two red rectangles, and two red rectangles surrounded blue rectangles -- and were told to ignore the blue rectangles and determine if the red rectangles in the second image were in a different position than in the first image. While the heavy multitaskers had trouble ignoring the blue rectangles, the low multitaskers aced the test. The second test showed that the heavy multitaskers weren't any better at memorizing things (sorting and organizing information) either. They were shown sequences of alphabetical letters, but they were not very good at remembering when a letter popped up twice. In the third test, they were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and were told what to focus on, and once again the heavy multitaskers weren't any better than low multitaskers at switching from one task to another.

The researchers concluded that when multitaskers are bombarded with multiple sources of information, they can't filter out the irrelevant stuff, which ultimately hinders their performance. But they are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with the inability to concentrate or whether they are hurting their brain functions by taking in so much information at the same time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chemicals leach from packaging into our food

Surprise, surprise. Chemicals from packaging products leach into food -- that's the cover story in a recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News. According to folks in the packaging industry, all packaging materials leach chemicals into food, so it's not a question of whether chemicals will leach but how much will end up in your food...

These chemicals can originate from the chemical composition of the packaging itself, or it can come from chemicals that the packaging comes into contact with during manufacturing, sterilization, and shipping. Plastic is probably the most common packaging material these days, and leachables include plasticizers such as di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, antioxidants like Irganox 1076, benzophenone light stabilizers, and unreacted monomers. Most recently, bisphenol A (BPA) has gotten a lot of attention for leaching out of polycarbonate baby bottles and drinking containers, as well as from epoxy-lined metal cans. Even glass containers have issues. Sometimes glass, especially the recycled variety can leach minerals or metals, and the rubber seals on caps for glass containers can also introduce chemicals such as N-nitrosamines, 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Then there's the waxy paper packaging for greasy things like hamburgers, or for microwave popcorn, that can leach perfluorinated compounds. And there's more... Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority found that 4-methylbenzophenone, a component of printing ink used on cereal boxes, was present in the German chocolate muesli contained within said boxes. Previously, infant formula had been recalled in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and France in 2005, when another printing ink component, isopropylthioxanthone, was found in it. Ink can even migrate through two layers of plastic packaging(!) Health Canada recalled a product after it was found that a drug solution in a plastic pouch was contaminated with ink that was printed on the outside of a second plastic cover pouch...

The main problem is that these materials are sourced from tertiary or quaternary sources that supply a variety of industries that have different cleanliness requirements from food or drug industries. Trying to place controls across the entire supply chain can be difficult and must start with educating suppliers about material safety. At least some packaging companies are looking at ways to reduce the amount of leachables, but it comes at a price -- more expensive packaging, and consequently, more expensive products for consumers.

Now I wonder how much of various packaging and printing chemicals Jessie has already ingested from her uncontrollable habit of chewing on everything, especially (printed) paper products...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Would you like some lead in your lipstick?

The FDA recently (and finally!) released their test results for lead in lipstick -- they found lead in all 20 lipsticks tested. The lead was present at levels as high as 3.06 ppm, with an average of 1.07 ppm, which is 10 times higher than the FDA's limit for lead in candy. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn't have any standard for lead levels in lipstick, and they won't name the three specific manufacturers that make lipsticks with the highest levels of lead in them... Although, Campaign For Safe Cosmetics had conducted its own study back in 2007 and found lead in two-thirds of the 33 different lipsticks it tested, including ones from L'Oreal, Cover Girl, Christian Dior, and Maybelline. Why is there lead in lipstick? Because apparently, some colorants contain traces of lead, and it is also present as a by-product in ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, ozokerite (mineral or paraffin wax), and petroleum-based ingredients. Since lead is considered a "contaminant," you won't find "lead" listed on the ingredient labels, so how will you know if your lipstick is lead-free? I guess the best thing to do is to not wear lipstick. However, apparently there are now lipsticks on the market that are labeled "lead-free," so keep an eye out for those if you trust the claim.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

CafePress takes even more control...

UPDATE: A CafePress rep notes that the shirt in question has been in my shop since May 5. So I guess it's my fault. It's possible that the shirt was created by myself unintentionally -- I would never in my right mind try to put that shirt in my shop. I have now taken it out. I also just got an email from CafePress community relations manager Angela Low informing me of this, and she gave more details indicating that the buyer had purchased the design on a galaxy blue colored shirt, so the black text should show up (but not ideal).

I have to say I'm rather amazed at CP's quick response to my blog post, and it has certainly helped to clear things up. However, I do think this serves as an example of an instance where CP could use their new "changes" to do good -- modify the design so that it looks nice on the final product -- or don't sell it at all.

My original post:
OMG... I just experienced my first CafePress (CP) sale where CP actually put one of my designs on a shirt that wasn't meant to be used for that particular design (see image to the right) -- because the text is in black, and well, the shirt is black... {I have the same design where the text is in white and that was specifically made for "dark" shirts.} How did this happen, you ask?? CP recently made yet more changes to its seller services that gives them even more control over shopkeepers' designs. The following is quoted from an email sent to shopkeepers:
  • CafePress may help determine what products your designs will be available on in the CafePress Marketplace and may automatically add your designs to additional products for you. For example, if a customer wants your design on a sweatshirt, and you don't offer a sweatshirt we can add your design to a sweatshirt.
  • To improve the printing quality, CafePress may automatically modify your designs. For instance we may clean up JPG artifacting, adjust colors for optimal printing on different printers and products, and adjust placement on different products.
What's even worse is that they named the shirt "BaBY" (which is the title for another design I have in my shop, not this one!) -- this shirt is supposed to be called "Future Genius." Here is proof that they have no idea what they are doing, and they are ruining shopkeepers' designs. I wouldn't be surprised if the shirt gets returned to CP because it looks awful. I wish I could contact the buyer and let her know that she can get the same (but appropriate) design on a dark shirt directly from my store...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

DNA to predict your kid's talents?

Here's an interesting yet disturbing article about using DNA tests to determine a child's genetically predisposed talents. The Chongqing Children's Palace in China is conducting such a study on 30 children aged 3-12 years, in collaboration with the Shanghai Biochip Corp. which is performing the DNA tests. Apparently, a simple saliva swab can collect enough cells to isolate 11 different genes, which can provide information about IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability, listening ability, physical characteristics, and more. The scientists claim that this information could potentially help predict their future careers as well. The DNA test costs about $880, plus the kids are sent to a 5-day "summer camp" where they are evaluated by experts in different areas to determine what they should pursue.

The parents -- who just want the best for their (only) children -- believe that this will help them understand their children better and give them a head start, but will it? Just because a child is good at something doesn't mean that they will want to pursue it as a career. What if they have many talents? Are the parents going to choose one for them? It sounds like the parents want to control how their children turn out. What if the test shows that a child has a natural gift for athletics, so the parents push the child into sports in the hopes that they will one day become a successful athlete. Maybe the kid is happy about the choice at first, but one day they discover that they're just not good enough in the highly competitive field of sports. "But, my DNA says I should be a star!" What kind of long-term psychological damage will the parents have inflicted on their child?