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Sh*t. There’s more arsenic in rice products than we thought.

Consumer Reports rice arsenicI hate it when healthy things turn out to be tainted with not so healthy things. Take arsenic in rice. We first heard about rice being contaminated with arsenic a few years ago, but there’s new data out this month and it ain’t exactly consoling. First, a UK investigative TV show teamed up with a university there and tested over 80 products for arsenic. They found 58% would fail the European Union’s proposed standards for arsenic in rice for kids. Popular products like Rice Krispies and infant rice cereal (both organic and regular brands) failed to meet those standards. This is a good time to mention that Canada and the US don’t have standards regulating arsenic in rice. (Yeah, I know, best to harass your federal politician about this). I discovered that particular UK report when I was researching my column on pasta (To Wheat or Not to Wheat?). Then Consumer Reports released a new updated report on arsenic in rice this week and it was even less comforting for anyone that enjoys gluten-free products heavy in rice (ahem). Based on the bad news in there I had to update my pasta guide. I also folded some of this info into my holiday cracker guide. So what did Consumer Reports find exactly?

The bad news

  • Brown rice averaged 80% higher levels of inorganic arsenic than white rice (rats!). Why? Because arsenic accumulates in rice’s outer layers, which are removed from white rice.
  • Parboiled rice is the worst of all the white rice.
  • Rice pasta and infant rice cereal has way more arsenic than they previously thought. CR says kids shouldn’t have rice pasta more than once every two weeks.
  • Kids under 5 shouldn’t drink rice milk. 
  • Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen. Consumer Reports says: “regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system.”
  • There was no difference between certified organic and non-organic rice on the arsenic front (insert sad face).
Lundberg brown basmati

California brown basmati had the lowest arsenic levels of all brown rice.

The good news

  • Basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan is the lowest in arsenic, as is California sushi rice. CR says that you can eat 4.5 weekly servings of these – twice as much as they recommend for other rice – and not boost your lifetime cancer risk.
  • Medium grain California rice had lower levels than most.
  • Brown basmati rice from California had the lowest of all the brown rice and was lower than some white rice.
  • This all bodes well for the Lunberg rice company which grows offers lots of California grown options in both organic and non.
  • Other grains don’t have the same arsenic problem (phew), so you can happily eat quinoa, barley, farrow, millet, buckwheat, polenta and amaranth without breaking a sweat. Well,unless they’re really hot. Then all you have to worry about is your dinner burning your tongue.

Why is there even arsenic in rice? 

Well, arsenic can be naturally present in soils, but inorganic arsenic in rice is there because of pollution in the soil from things like pesticides and poultry feed. That arsenic could have been there from decades past (like old cotton fields converted to rice fields in the southern US).  Rice is really good at soaking it all up, unfortunately.

So how much rice is okay to eat? 

Consumer Reports analyzed all the data out there and developed a point system. Turns out we should only eat 7 points worth of rice products a week, max. Take a look and do your own math, especially if you have kids.


Connecting the dots…breast cancer and everyday chems

breast cancer chemsAre chemicals in our environment connected to the rise in non-genetic causes of breast cancer? For lots of us following environmental toxin news, it seems like a no-brainer, but scientists are still trying to firm up the connections. A recent study by the Silent Spring Institute and Harvard School of Public Health published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives notes that exposure to chemicals that cause mammary gland tumours in rats is common, but “few studies have evaluated potential breast cancer risks in humans.” In the studies that have been done, researchers found that chems that cause tumours in rats are often associated with breast cancer in women.

The scientists eventually narrowed the list from 216 chems known to cause breast tumours in rodents to 17 common groups of chemicals that should be “top targets for breast cancer prevention.” On the list are substances found in gasoline/diesel fuel, flame retardants, stain-resistant fabrics, paint strippers and (gulp) disinfection by-products of chlorinated drinking water. The list goes on.

The study makes it clear that more research is definitely needed. Silent Spring’s goal was to identify high-priority toxins for further research and biomarkers for these toxins in women. While scientists continue to learn more about these chemicals, the authors of this latest study say there’s enough information to begin reducing our exposures.

On that note, here’s the Silent Spring Institute’s list of the most effective strategies:

• Avoid fuel and exhaust: Turn the engine off instead of idling. Give up gas-powered mowers and leaf blowers. Walk or take transit when you can. Don’t store gasoline in your home.

• Quit smoking, and avoid secondhand smoke.

• Limit consumption of carcinogens in charred foods and use ventilation fans when cooking.

• Go to perc-free dry cleaners or ask for “wet cleaning.”

• Avoid stain-resistant rugs, furniture and fabrics.

• Don’t buy furniture with polyurethane foam, or ask for foam not treated with flame retardants.

• Make sure you’re protected from toxins on the job. Push for good ventilation and protective equipment.

• Reduce exposure to chemicals in household dust by removing shoes at the door, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter and cleaning with wet rags and mops.

• Use a solid carbon block filter for drinking water.

This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine.

Rain or shine: my month long nature bootcamp

hCan you believe May is almost coming to an end? Rain/shine/gloriously torrential downpours/surprise scorchers (is it really 28 degrees in Toronto today?) – I’ve soaked every bloomin’ day of it in. That was NOT that case in April when I was drained of all life force knocked over sideways with a crazy multi-tentacled flu virus for much of it. All that time cooped up indoors sapped my spirits to the point that I morphed into at least 4 of the 7 dwarves.

I have to give props to to the David Suzuki Foundation and Suzuki’s own Queen of Green herself, Lindsay Coulter, for encouraging me to sign up again this spring for their inspiring 30×30 Challenge. No matter the weather, no matter your mood, you had to spend 30 minutes outdoors in nature for 30 days straight. Sounds easy when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and you’re itching to get out there walking, running, hiking, biking, gardening, whatever, but some dreary drizzly days are, hm, shall we say, less than motivating. In the end, I loved them all.

Here’s my original piece from early May. I feel like I should have done a before and after pic. One with a bad case of cabin fever (and a literal fever) and one beaming from ear to ear, soaking in spring’s life force, moment by moment. Thank you, Nature, for being so naturally awe-inspiring.  And thank you, Suzuki Foundation friends. I needed that.

Soggy grey clouds are wringing themselves out on the streets of Toronto, and I’m at my computer ticking boxes asking how agitated or energized I’ve been feeling. “Have I felt so alive I just want to burst?” Hmm. Clearly this is a sign I need a kick in the ass. Thankfully, I’m signing up for one from David Suzuki himself.

Suzuki’s not doing the actual kicking, but every May his foundation signs Canadians up to commit to 30 minutes in nature for 30 days as part of its 30 x 30 Challenge. The national well-being-boosting campaign asks participants to take an official psychological pre- and post-nature-injection survey. The whole thing kind of made me want to lie down on a shrink’s couch at first.

I consider myself a pretty happy, upbeat person. But from the look of my survey answers, something was obviously off. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but the solution smacks me upside the head: I need to get outside.

Committing to 30 minutes in nature sounds like a breeze, I know – until you realize that May can be a pretty wet month. Grey skies are a little uninspiring, and on drizzly days I park the bike and opt for transit. (I’d never survive Vancouver.) But now I’m committed to track down a park, a ravine – anything green really – and stroll tree-lined side streets no matter the forecast.

It takes a little internal goading at first, but making time for those 30 minutes, well, it’s magic. I’d normally bypass the ravine near my house to speed-walk to the bus, but today the trickling brook, chirping birds and rustling leaves (mementos of fall) envelop me in nature’s surround-sound amphitheatre. It doesn’t matter if the sun hasn’t been seen for days. Between the budding treetops, flashes of neon-green moss and purple violets, it’s as though nature is warming up its best singers and dancers for a wild cabaret to celebrate spring. 

If you’re far from decent hiking grounds, have your morning coffee outside, skip the gym and jog outdoors, suggest a walking meeting at work. Even a little parkette should have a tree under which you can read/sketch/write. All I need is a single big ol’ tree. There’s something expansive, transformative that happens when you really stop to take in the vibes and wondrous skyward twisting limbs of those giant woody gods. It’s like a mini-meditation without the ponytailed guru. 

Take 30 minutes to escape the concrete jungle and the heady traffic jams of the information highway, and your day, no matter how it started, is enchantingly purified. Less than a week in, I feel relaxed and healthier. Have I felt so alive I just want to burst? Actually, check.

*This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine. 


Is that asbestos in your reno dust?

asbestos home

It’s National Asbestos Awareness Week. Do you know where your asbestos is? Canada’s asbestos mines may finally be shuttered, but people are still finding the cancerous fibres tucked into all sorts of hidden corners of their homes. If your house was built before the 1980s/90s, it could contain asbestos in a dizzying number of spots. All fine and dandy if not disturbed. But if you’re planning any renos, you should really head to WorkSafeBC’s very useful According to WorkSafeBC, one of the most common places is under vinyl flooring tile. The tape around old ducts and piping could have been made with asbes- tos fibres, too; just peeling it off will release it into the air. Ditto for drywall with sprayed-on texture (like stucco), drywall mud, acoustic ceiling tiles, roofing shin- gles and more.

Breathing in asbestos is astoundingly damaging. Just watch the video below for Heather’s startling story. Her husband Cameron contacted me about sharing her story with readers to help raise awareness about the ongoing dangers of asbestos. You might assume the story couldn’t happen today because asbestos isn’t allowed in this country, but any people working with brake pads (ie mechanics), cement pipes and reno materials are just a few of those potentially exposed to hazardous levels on the job. If you’re worried about disrupting asbestos in your home, get suspect materials tested by an accredited lab. And call a trained professional to remove it.

An Ocean of Trouble: the slippery world of sustainable fish oil

NMFSC_036_0306 fish oilMy family pops a lot of supplements. We could probably each start a mini health store with the vitamins cramming our cupboards and counters. And like a lot of North Americans, most of us are taking fish oil. Fish oil has grown to be a billion dollar business on this continent. The question is, which ones are safe, sustainable and healthy? Slippery subject. I’ve written about fish oils in past columns and in Ecoholic Body and I have to say good, green fish oils are a moving target. I’ve always told people to choose supplements from small fish, though in 2010 warned you guys against buying supplements from overfished American menhaden or European anchovies. Small fish tend to be low in contaminants and reproduce quickly. At the time, Peru’s small fish sector seemed to be doing swimmingly well. I started popping Ascenta fish oils (made of Peruvian anchovy, sardines, herring) and recommended the Canadian brand in Ecoholic Body. But the ocean doesn’t stay still for long.

Peru happens to have the world’s largest anchovy fishery, most of that going to fishmeal (feeding industrial cattle, chicken and fish fish farms the world over) and fish oil. After collapsing a couple times in previous decades, Peru’s anchovy fishery was, by all accounts, thriving, on course to get Marine Stewardship Council certified. Then last year, Peru’s president said “The Peruvian anchovy is in danger of disappearing…We recognize the irresponsibility and corruption of large companies NOR-03790-4that have pillaged the anchovy.” Then came a federal crackdown, slashes to quotas, introduction of million dollar fines and voila, as of October, the announcement that anchovies had rebounded. Brands using Peruvian anchovy, like Nordic Naturals, maker of the most popular fish oil supplements in America, assured me the dip came from warming El Nino waters, not industry pillaging and shared stats on how stocks were now healthy. Could all be rosy? Greenpeace’s ocean campaign coordinator Sarah King told me not to hold my breath. That these large fishmeal fisheries are too volatile to score favourably.

Turns out Marine Stewardship Council (a certifier that enviros often criticize for being too lax) says Peru still has some work to do beefing up patrols and laying out longer term “harvesting strategies” before MSC will give them the thumbs up. And now weather experts say there’s another El Nino coming in 2014, destined to wreak havoc on Peru’s fishery. Add to that recent news that climate change is going to double extreme El Nino weather events and Peru’s anchovy seem destined for a rollercoaster ride. I hope supplement makers like Ascenta and Nordic Naturals, which pride themselves on sustainability policies, are taking note.

All this to say, there was a lot of back story behind this week’s column that just couldn’t be squeezed into my little product guide (above). No fish oils, in the end, got really high scores. Wild Alaskan salmon oil is still doing well, mostly because it’s not all that wild – the feds actually spawn rivers with salmon eggs to boost stocks.  And Nordic Naturals’ Norwegian cod seems to be relatively in the clear sustainability wise, though fish oils from larger fish are generally higher in trace contaminants, they’re just tested to fall below federal standards, which have their critics. Honestly, I could write a dozen columns on fish oils alone and barely cover the tip of the iceberg but I tried to distill as much as I could into the column you see above. Swim on over to NOW Magazine’s site to read the column there.

As for me, I’m going to finish the Ascenta NutaSea fish oil in my fridge but you can bet I’ll be trying a vegetarian algae oil next.

Getting to the bottom of your yoga mat & lessons from Wisdom 2.0

NMFSC_036_0227yogaWhere do you find your bliss? Face first on a yoga mat? In a quiet moment to yourself? In a bowl full of ice cream? Well, this week, we dive into two of three, anyway. First up, you’ll find my Ecoholic guide to yoga mat materials, which I think may be pretty controversial. Long story short, too many eco mats claiming to be green are totally stretching their credibility (some puns can’t be avoided). It’s pretty astounding how many companies just say their eco mats contain TPE, when TPE is a broad category of synthetic rubber that can be all kinds of things. Turns out most of those “eco” TPE mats are made of styrene-butadiene-styrene – hello, styrene and butadiene are both human carcinogens! I dug up some government reports that document the elevated cancer rates in workers who make SBS. These compounds may not leach necessarily, the way hormone disrupting phthalates would from PVC mats, but these mats are certainly famous for crumbling (proof, manufacturers say, that they’re “biodegradable”). I’d say these mats are less biodegradable (returning to compounds found in nature) and more just degradable, breaking down into smaller bits over time – two totally different things. Creating SBS dust in your home isn’t what I’d call a selling feature. The whole thing makes me want to take a few deep breaths, just not next to most yoga mats.

Speaking of deep breaths, you’ll find my mini write-up on some of what I learned from the Wisdom 2.0 conference I was talking to you guys about. So much happened over the 3 days it’s hard to squeeze it into 500 words. I’ve got a way bigger piece coming out in the next issue of Corporate Knights magazine discussing the rise of corporate mindfulness and what it all means from an environmental angle so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, hope you enjoy the latest Ecoholic! If you can’t read the version above (click on it then click again to blow it up full size), head hear from the full online story.

Mindful Living 2 Go: Resolutions & Apps for Mind, Body, Planet

Planet GoodwillWe’re only ankle deep into the new year and if you listen closely you can hear resolutions straining, cracking, and, wait for it, shattering left, right and centre.  All it took was a snotty cold to knock me off track with my resolution. Lying in my bed the morning of Jan 1, my vow was to turn love into a verb and put more mindfulness and heart-centred consciousness into each and every day. Hokey? Definitely, but life-shifting? 100%. My theory is if we choose to put more heart and awareness into literally everything – making breakfast, walking to work, working, shopping, eating, interacting with the world, including our family, friends and total strangers, well, we just can’t help but be better to ourselves and the world around us, including the planet as a unified ecosystem. Okay, fine, it’s not just my theory – there are a few thousand monks and yogis who’ve been saying it for eons, quite literally. And now a growing army of people around the world are turning on and tuning in to that very idea. I touch on it in my resolutions article.

Ratcheting up my morning meditations and yoga classes, I was feeling all zen and alive…until my face turned into a faucet and my body started begging for blankets and a soft couch. Goodbye enlightenment, hello, six of the seven dwarves (Cranky, Snotty, Sleepy, Grumpy, Sicky and Foggy). But now that the cold’s lifted, it’s time to get back into gear. So, I’m sharing here with you my Meditation on the New Year and Mindful Living to Go….5 apps that can help boost your mind/body/planet connection. Buddify‘s fun because you can take small ‘mindfulness’ breaks while at your desk, on the bus, on break, at the gym, eating lunch. Kind of cool. I’ve tried a lot of meditation apps and too many of them are just new age music on timers. There are, however, two others I didn’t have room to mention in print. Headspace is a proper good meditation app guided by a pretty hip British monk but after 10 free meditations, there’s a monthly fee – just a heads up. Omvana‘s got a big library of various self-help guru-led audios for meditation, sleep, relaxation, focus, inspiration. A bit hit n’ miss but worth exploring.

The other apps I mention are more about making conscious choices in our everyday routines, from the products we buy and food we cook up to the goodwill we spread. Go ahead try ‘em. They might just help keep you from falling off the resolutions wagon (it’s too soon to give up on ‘em!). To get the full low down, read on…

Toxin Toxout: the new brave book, the authors, and me?

Toxin Toxout coverI’m a huge fan of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the bestselling book by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, so when Rick called me up and asked me if he could interview me for his next tome on toxins, I was pretty pumped. We met in a sunny east end Toronto park and chatted about the rise of green consumerism along with pseudo-natural and genuinely green products for a couple hours. He also asked me if he could include an excerpt of Ecoholic Body’s guide to label decoding. What an honour!

Now, drum roll please, I’m excited to announce Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World is on shelves and it, my friends, rocks – and not just because I’m in it, of course. You’ll learn more about how easily everyday toxins seep into our bodies, in the most up close and personal way, as the authors, once again, turn themselves into human guinea pigs. This time they take on the often whacky world of detoxing in some pretty hilarious experiments. If you’ve ever eyeballed ionic footbaths or infrared saunas and wondered whether they actually pull toxins from your bodies, well, the boys dig up some answers. I sample a few of those answers in the latest Ecoholic product guide (hint: organic food and green products actually do lower your body’s chemical levels!). You’ll also find my Q&A with Bruce and Rick. Click here for the full story, Ranking Detox Strategies. If you pick up the book, I promise you this: you’ll laugh, you’ll wince, and you’ll learn a hell of a lot.


Worry-free water canisters, latest on BPA-free plastic suit & more

NMFSC_024_0808In honour of the end of summer (did I just say that?), I’m reviewing the vessels that carry the very key to life on earth. Yep, I’m talking water canisters. Ever since purportedly leach-free polycarbonate plastics found in old Nalgene bottles were caught seeping estrogen-mimicking BPA, then Sigg finally came clean about the BPA in its linings back in 2009, the whole topic of a safe place to put H20 on the go has gotten, well, complicated. We get into some of the newest options on the block in the latest issue of NOW Magazine. You’ll also find the dirt on a lawsuit and countersuit between one of the world’s biggest BPA-free plastics makers and a lab that accused them of “estrogenic activity.” All this, greenwash of the week and more in the latest issue of Ecoholic! Just click on the pic above to read on…

Natural vs green: what does it really mean?

Natural vs green labels

After a lunch time talk I gave at Edmonton’s city hall last month, one woman approached me and asked me if I could spend more time talking about the difference between green/eco-friendly and natural. The terms, she said, were too often used interchangeably, and she’s right. We tend to flip back and forth between the two as though they’re twins, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes there are gaping distances between them (more like Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Twins). So I clarified the issue in this week’s Ecoholic column. To dive into the details, read more here.

You know I love to call out companies that claim they’re natural, claim they’re green but are really just full of BS. What of companies that can honestly claim to be both, to some degree? I had a lengthy conversation with a chemist at Nature Clean, one of Canada’s oldest ‘natural/naturally-derived,’ ‘nontoxic,’ ‘biodegradable’ cleaning companies, certified by EcoLogo. I’ve given good reviews to their Tub and Tile cream and all purpose cleaner, but started getting agitated by the fact that it contained a palm-derived ingredient. Natural, yes? But green? Well, not so much. I’ve been itching to know why they’d use palm-derived fatty polyglycoside when palm is such a controversial ingredient plagued by sustainability woes (hence why it’s on my Ecoholic Body Mean 15 list). So I gave Nature Clean a call and ended up in a surprisingly open, frank dialogue on green versus natural with their chemist Martin Vince.

Nature Clean LabelMartin first tells me their palm ingredient is fully certified via the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. I know the RSPO is the only sustainable palm certifier out there and is the only organized attempt at greening the industry, but the RSPO has faced a lot of flack for letting violations slide, I point out. Martin responds, “We know the Roundtable is not the ideal situation, but it’s better than not having it.” Why not avoid the ingredient altogether then? “We are actively looking for alternatives. We’re looking at grapeseed derived surfactants, but they’re not suitable for cleaning products currently. Alkyl polyglucosides are one of very few surfactants that are 100% natural (palm oil mixed with dextrose). Most are hybrids like alcohol ethoxylates, which has chances of contamination with [carcinogenic] 1-4 dioxane. We’ve chosen the purest we can currently use. And we do need surfactants because that’s what does the cleaning.”

What do you think? I know Martin’s right when he says says that replacement ingredients aren’t without impact either. Coconut plantations (like all monoculture crops) also encroach on natural habitat and basic table salt (used in natural cleaners) can certainly be ecologically disruptive to mine. Everything we buy has an impact somewhere, whether we’ve taken it from nature or concoct it in a lab, but let’s agree some are worse than others.

I’ve got to admit that at least Nature Clean has put itself out there more than other “green/natural” cleaners who refuse to list their full ingredients and simply offer up vague terms like “plant-based surfactants” or, in the case of Eco-Mist, “potatoes, corn, grains” (come on, that’s a recipe for stew not a clear, watery cleaner). Ultimately, as consumers, we’ve got to keep reminding companies that we’re watching and that yes, we want it all. Not everything we buy will be totally green (in its many senses of the word) and natural, but we’ve to push them and ourselves to come close.