Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sol Survivor: Shedding light on sunscreen ingredients Part 1 of 2

I’m very excited about this post for two reasons. One: it’s the first time I’ve recruited a guest blogger to write for It’s MomSense. This is cool to me because it means someone thinks my blog is influential enough to take their own (unpaid!) time to research and help us parents wade through the misinformation running rampant in parenting circles. The second reason is that this is a topic that I have meant to look into for some time. I am very fair skinned and burn easily and I’ve managed to pass this trait on to my red-headed son. I feel like I’ve spent every summer since he was born running around after him with a tube of sunscreen and a hat. Every once in a while there’s a small voice in the back of my mind asking if I’m actually doing him a disservice by routinely rubbing chemicals into the skin on the back of his neck. As a result, a while ago I added “sunscreen ingredients” to my running list of things to research and blog about.  Now that summer is in full swing and the sunscreen and I are best buds again, I’m glad to check this one off my list.

Because this topic is pretty involved, we decided to split it into two posts. So today and next week you’ll be hearing from Jen Phillips instead of me! Jen is the mom of two kids (one teen, one darn close) who has a PhD in biology.  She is a Senior Research Associate at Westerfield Laboratory Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. There she uses zebrafish to study the molecular genetics of human diseases. When she’s not hunkered down in a dark microscopy lab, she likes to romp in the sunshine with her family and dog. Jen plans to start her own blog at some point this year under the name Clutch Science. For now, you can follow her on twitter @ClutchScience. Here’s Jen to shed some light on sunscreen ingredients. Hope you enjoy. -Sara

 
Part 1:  The dark side of our closest star

Confession time:  I love the sun.  Swimming, running, working, reading, eating, lounging, it’s all better done outdoors, as far as I’m concerned.  But, as a fair-skinned woman, and mother of two lightly pigmented kids, I’d be foolish to ignore the risk involved, or to fail to take preventative steps to keep us healthy.  I am a stickler for sunscreen use, and, much to the chagrin of my children, I will not hesitate to halt a fun outdoor activity if it’s time to reapply.

It’s not news that sun protection is an important part of preventative health.  Ultraviolet radiation damages skin in a number of ways, the most serious of which can lead to cancer.   Recently, though, concerns about sunscreen ingredients have made headlines, raising questions about whether sunscreens are effective at skin cancer prevention and even whether the use of sunscreen carries inherent health risks.   **Spoiler alert:  sunscreen is safe and effective and you should use it with confidence.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the basis for the concerns and why you don’t need to worry, though, please read on!**

In the first of this two-part series, I’ll outline a bit of the biology and strategic chemistry behind the interactions with our closest star, in order to set the stage for discussing the most popular current controversies in Part II.

UV radiation:  what’s in a wavelength?

UVA_UVB raysUV radiation occupies the electromagnetic spectrum between visible light and x-rays.  The UV portion of the spectrum can be divided into quite a few subcategories, but the two that we’re most concerned about in sun exposure are known as UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays (also known as “burning rays”) can’t penetrate beyond our epidermis, or outer skin layer.  In addition to causing sunburn, DNA damage to epidermal cells by UVB rays is a driving factor in the development of skin cancer in light skinned people.  Until recently, UVA rays were alternatively called “Tanning rays” or “Ageing rays” depending on what product was being marketed.  In contrast to UVB rays, UVA rays penetrate more deeply, through the epidermis to the dermis below.  UVA rays cause inflammation and damage to structural proteins in the dermal layer, which have historically been associated with wrinkles and saggy skin.  More recently, UVA radiation has also been implicated in DNA damage that can lead to skin cancers.  This reclassification led the FDA to upgrade its caution on the use of tanning beds, by the way, which use primarily UVA wavelengths and were often advertised as a ‘safe’ form of tanning before the carcinogenic potential of UVA rays were better understood.  Now that we know better, let’s talk about skin cancer.

Your epidermis is showing

Cancer of any type arises through DNA mutations that alter cellular behavior.  UV radiation has been used in laboratories to induce mutations in cells for nearly a century.  Our skin is exposed to UV radiation on a regular basis, and while the pigments in darker skin offer protection against cell damage, those of us with fair skin have an increased risk of skin cancers as a result of sun exposure.

All skin cancers originate in the epidermis, which is composed of a tightly packed basal cell layer and a more mobile layer of cells known as squamous cells.  Our skin sheds and renews itself regularly, so the epidermis is constantly cranking out new cells that progressively travel from deep in the epidermis up toward the surface, changing shape as they go.

Skin cancers are classified into three broad categories according to the cell type affected:  Basal cell carcinoma, Squamous cell carcinoma, and Melanoma. Genetics and environment influence susceptibility, but in light-skinned people, sun exposure is a major risk factor for all three types.

Epidermis

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer in people of European and Hispanic descent, with nearly 3 million cases diagnosed each year.  It is also the most benign, as it rarely spreads to other cells beyond the original tumor site.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) Is the most common form of skin cancer in dark-skinned people (who have a lower incidence of skin cancer overall because of the protection of higher melanin levels in their skin) and the second most common form in light-skinned individuals.  About 700,000 cases are reported each year.  SCC can be disfiguring if left untreated, and can, more rarely, spread to other regions of the body.

Melanoma, a cancerous overgrowth of melanocytes, accounts for only 2% of all skin cancers overall, but has the highest death rate of them all.  Melanocytes, which produce skin pigment, are found in the basal cell layer of the epidermis, but their developmental origins and cell biology are distinct from the other cells in this layer.  These differences, which amount to different gene regulation for things like cell division and migration, contribute to the uniquely aggressive nature of malignant melanomas.

Considering the varied ways that things can go wrong in living skin cells, it’s important to understand what preventative steps we can take.  Limiting sun exposure during the peak hours is always a wise recommendation, as is the use of hats and clothing to cover the most exposed areas. But as lots of outdoor activities aren’t compatible with those guidelines, protection that can be applied directly to the skin is a great advantage.

How does sunscreen work?

All available sunscreen products contain UV filters that absorb, reflect, or diffuse UV radiation.  Ingredients with these properties are classified as either organic (carbon-based), or inorganic (based on other elements).

Lots of chemistry goes into choosing compounds that make the best sunscreen ingredients.  Compounds are tested for the particular range of UV wavelengths they can intercept and for durability.  The best compounds will block a wide swath of the UVB spectrum without being easily degraded.  No one wants to wear sunscreen that has to be reapplied every 15 minutes, right?  These qualities must then be weighed against the utility of the ingredient in a product designed to be applied to human skin:  Does it stink? Does it have a texture or color? Does it irritate skin or cause allergies?  Are there other safety or toxicity concerns?  FDA approval is required for all sunscreen ingredients, and their standards for safety testing are quite rigorous.  In fact, a number of organic sunscreen ingredients approved for use in Europe haven’t made the grade as far as the FDA is concerned.

What about SPF?

Sun Protection Factor of a product, or SPF, is usually framed for marketing purposes as the amount of time you can spend in the sun before burning when using the product versus time spent in the sun without it.  More specifically, the SPF value is the quantifiable effectiveness of the UVB filtering capacity of any given ingredient—or combination of ingredients. This is a non-linear numerical scale.  An SPF of 15 corresponds to blocking about 94% of UVB rays, while an SFP of 30 increases blocking capacity to 97%.

Note that SPF rates the product’s effectiveness of blocking only UVB rays. Since learning more about the damage that UVA rays can create, Sunscreen formulas have expanded to include UVA filtering alongside UVB (SPF-rated) protection.  Again, there’s a bit of a difference between how we do things in the US vs. abroad.  Other countries have a rating system (out of 5 stars) to indicate the strength of the UVA blocking compounds.  The FDA hasn’t implemented any such system yet.  The presence of UVA filters added to the SPF-rated UVB compounds in US products isn’t quantified, and only the words “broad spectrum” let you know that your sunscreen contains both UVA and UVB blocking ingredients.

To sum up this overview of the science behind sunscreen, both UVA and UVB rays can have detrimental effects on the health of your skin, so in addition to limiting exposure in as many ways as are practical, having a good sunscreen product on board is essential.

However, for the past several years a number of controversial warnings about the safety and effectiveness of sunscreen products have emerged.  In Part II of this series, I’ll examine those claims one by one to determine if there is really cause for concern.

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The Summer of Truth

Today is the first day of our summer – school got out yesterday and the kids and I have exactly 11 weeks of (mostly) unscheduled freedom.  Usually, that great big yawn of unscheduled-ness freaks me out. I’ve never been very good at the “stay-at-home” part of being a stay-at-home mom. While I’m not a proponent of scheduling every minute of my kids’ lives, I do usually sign them up for camps or plan activities over the summer to break up the long stretches of nothingness.  I like to think it’s for them, but admittedly, it’s mostly for me – to give myself a week or so of kid-free hours. But not this summer. I haven’t signed them up for anything partly because I’ve been so busy I never got around to it, but primarily because this could very well be the last summer that I’m a stay-at-home mom.

summer-1Next fall my youngest starts kindergarten, and it will be my moment of truth: what do I do now that both my kids are in full-time school? My daughter turns seven this month, marking the seventh anniversary of me becoming a stay-at-home mom. That is the longest I have done any “job.” In fact, it’s twice as long as my longest paying job at Monsanto.  While there are lots of things I don’t like about staying at home (always putting my schedule last, never having more than ahandful of hours to myself, being fully in charge of every mundane detail about running the house, not having much intellectual stimulation, to name a few) there have been lots of things that I do like. Aside from getting to be present for virtually every moment of my kids’ lives before the age of five, my favorite part has been the complete freedom to dictate our time. I don’t really have to be anywhere at any specific time, and I have no one to answer to. In fact, until this month, neither of my kids was even legally required to be in school (that starts at age 7 in Oregon.) I have the freedom to decide at 8:30 in the morning that we’re going to the beach for the day, and I don’t have to explain it to anyone.

The potential end of my stay-at-home career is kind of bittersweet. I’ll be honest, I used to dislike it a lot more than I do now because it used to be a lot harder than it is now. It used to be exhausting with all the diapers and breastfeeding and chasing toddlers around before they injured themselves or someone else. It’s a testament to our species’ endurance and resilience that human children even make it to age three. Back then it was all I could do to just survive the day without breaking into the liquor cabinet. It was essential that we get out of the house and meet up with other moms because I was actually afraid I might lose my mind if we didn’t. I was the only one in the house for ten hours straight that could form a coherent sentence, and even that was a stretch some of the time. Looking back, it feels like utter chaos, and I can’t believe we all made it out alive. Now, it’s so much more peaceful – my kids (sometimes) have interesting and funny things to say, and they can (sometimes) entertain themselves for long stretches of time without me having to constantly wonder if they’re still alive in the other room. There are no diapers, they get themselves out of bed, there are no nap schedules to abide by, and they’re actually cool little people summer-2(most of the time). That makes it a little harder to close the door on this part of my life. But even if I wanted it to continue, it can’t. Time marches on – my daughter already prefers being with her friends to being with me. I’m no longer the most interesting thing in her life. And that’s as it should be. My job here as a stay-at-home mom is (mostly) done.

To some degree, then, I want to force myself to soak it up this summer. I want to take advantage of my last few weeks of freedom, from staying in our pajamas all day to packing a lunch and heading off to Mt. Hood to explore a trail we’ve never hiked, to having a playdate at the park that ends up rolling into dinner and a sleepover at a friend’s house.  My kids are right in that sweet spot – old enough to do lots of stuff on their own but not old enough yet to hate being with me. And next summer I might actually have a job (fingers crossed) that brings with it something I’ve been longing for since I left the workplace: using my brain to bring in some income and shedding the stay-at-home title. But it also brings the end to my untethered-ness with the kids. There’s a lot of unknown for me between now and then – like, for example, what that job will actually be – but I’m going to put off thinking about those questions until September. Now is the time for going camping and having picnics and spending the afternoon swimming in the river.

All that is to say expect fewer blog posts from me this summer. I’ve lined up some guest bloggers and I’m still planning to continue to (slowly) work on a few stories as time allows, but I’m not going to send the kids off to soccer camp so I can research a blog post. I can do that next year when they’re in school, and I will. Now I will sit here with my coffee and watch them splash in the kiddie pool.

Or, wait, they’re actually pointing squirt guns at the sleeping dog. Gotta go.

Crater Lake-1

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Farming in Focus: May – Green beans and more

I know, I know. I’m late on this post again. Think of it this way – my Farming in Focus post will just surprise you – you never know when it will show up! I have a really good reason for holding this post for almost a week, though. I was waiting for the pea harvest! The peas in my garden were getting pretty close to picking in May a few weeks ago, so I emailed a farmer friend who I know grows peas and said, “Hey, when do you guys harvest peas? I’d like to profile you for my May Farming in Focus!” Unfortunately, they weren’t harvesting peas, but they were getting ready to plan green beans, so I jumped at the opportunity to photograph some green beans going into the ground. I was all ahead of schedule with this post until I got an email just a few days before the end of the month that said, “We’re getting ready to harvest peas now!” So I decided to hold it to include some pea harvest photos (because… obviously that’s worth waiting for.) But then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Which is a good lesson about farming – you can’t control the weather. I took the pea harvest photos just yesterday. Hope you enjoy.

This month I visited Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, OR and met up with third generation farmer, Brenda Frketich.

Frketich-5Frketich and her family grow nine crops on a total of 1,000 acres. About 300 of those acres make up the home farm where Frketich’s parents live. Right down the road Frketich lives on 55 acres with her husband, Matt, and son, Hoot. Those nine crops include hazelnuts, ryegrass seed, tall fescue grass seed, green beans, peas, wheat, radish seeds, cabbage seeds and crimson clover seeds.

Frketich-7Until recently, Kirsch Family Farms only grew two crops: grass seed and hazelnuts. For years they did what a lot of farmers do – they regularly traded fields with neighboring farmers in order to rotate crops on the same land to preserve soil quality. But, as Frketich said, “Every farmer has their own way of farming,” and in order to maintain consistency in practice, they decided to learn how to grow their own rotation crops. Over recent years they’ve picked up seven additional crops that allow a rotation model they control. Frketich told me it’s definitely harder this way, and some of the rotation crops are riskier to grow, but it’s still better to not have all your eggs in one basket.

Frketich-6Frketich told me her favorite crop continues to be hazelnuts, even though for a long time her family wasn’t planting additional hazelnut trees because eastern filbert blight made it really difficult to grow them profitably. Eastern filbert blight is caused by a fungus that creates cankers and die back on branches and requires multiple fungicide applications to control. That changed when Oregon State University recently released a blight-resistant hazelnut tree. Now, as Frketich is doing,  many Oregon hazelnut growers are planting new orchards once again.

Frketich-8As I drove to meet Frketich, I kept seeing fields of crimson clover dotted with tiny seedlings, and I could not figure out what was going on. It turns out that in the first few years while the hazelnut trees are getting established, farmers can grow crops in the rows between the trees. This makes total sense – the trees are not big enough yet to form a canopy and block the sunlight to the ground, but they must be planted far enough apart to accommodate their future growth leaving a bunch of open ground. That seemed so clever to me until Frketich told me that it’s actually more of a constant trade-off. Sometimes you want to spray to control weeds in the crimson clover but you’re limited in what you can apply and the timing of that application because it might damage the hazelnut trees, and vise versa. For these trees in the picture above, this will be the last year they grow side-by-side with any other crops.

Frketich-2There are only three crops Frketich grows to actually eat, and green beans are one of them (peas and hazelnuts are the other two).  This year they are planting about 52 acres of green beans, split into two different plantings – one in May and one in June. Frketich told me this is basically to split the risk; the weather in Oregon is iffy this time of year and splitting the planting dates helps alleviate some of the risk associated with lack of control over the weather. They know the risk all too well. This year one of their pea fields got too much rain after planting and rotted in the ground. Fortunately, they were able to rent the land to a pumpkin grower, but that’s not always the case, and it’s a huge investment of time, labor and input cost to have that field not produce a crop. Before the green bean seeds even go into the ground, Frketich told me they’ve already been over this ground about 15 times. That includes passes to work the soil, and incorporate fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicides and moisture. I asked Frketich why they didn’t use a no-till approach with green beans and she told me no-till only works for some crops. Crops like green beans and cabbage need loose soil to establish a root structure, whereas crops like wheat don’t, but they do use a no-till approach when possible.

Frketich-1This is what a green bean seed looks like before it goes into the ground. Why is it pink? It  has a seed treatment on it that helps protect the seed as it germinates and emerges. The planter creates a furrow in the ground and drops ten seeds per foot and then covers the furrow back up as it passes by. The green beans will emerge in about seven days.

Frketich-11While green beans are getting planted on one part of the farm, Frketich’s husband Matt is applying a fungicide to their grass seed fields on another part of the farm to treat for rust. You can see why it’s called rust – it looks just like metal rusting on the blade of grass. The fungus restricts nutrients that the plant needs to develop seeds, which is exactly the kind of thing a grass seed farmer doesn’t want. Kirsch Family Farms grows turf grass seed (as opposed to forage grass seed for animals). Most of the seed they grow ends up in residential use and golf courses.

Frketich-10I had never been on a sprayer before, so I was pretty excited when Matt agreed to let me climb up on the truck and go for a few passes with him. I was particularly impressed with the technology the truck uses to apply the fungicide. The GPS guided sprayer is so precise that it knows exactly where it’s already been, so even if you drive over the same area you’ve already sprayed, the “auto boom” feature will turn the sprayer off so you can’t over-spray. So I said to Matt, “You mean you could just drive around willy nilly all over the field and it would turn on and off as necessary so you’d never apply twice in the same spot?!” “Well, yes, you could do that,” he said. His tone told me that was probably the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but I thought it sounded pretty fun. The truck also has auto-steer which means he doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel on fields that are more or less rectangular.

Frketich-3I grow cabbage in my own garden, and most people know what a cabbage plant looks like, but I’ve never seen cabbage flower and go to seed. If you’re growing the crop to eat the cabbage, you don’t want it to bolt (produce a flowering stem) because it impacts the flavor of the cabbage. But when you’re specifically growing the plant for the seeds, that’s exactly what you want. Frketich told me they even split the cabbage heads to induce bolting.

Frketich-4Another thing I didn’t know is that cabbage seed production requires a pollinator. Sitting on the corner of this field of cabbage were about 40 bee hives that Frketich rents for the duration of the bloom on their 26 acres of cabbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the bees need the pollen and nectar to produce honey for the beekeeper, and Frketich needs the bees to pollinate the cabbage flowers so they get a good seed crop.

Frketich-14This is a pea harvester! Kirsch Family Farms has a contract with Norpac Foods, so all of the peas they grow end up in bags of Flav-R-Pac frozen peas.  Norpac determines the variety of peas Frketich plants as well as the planting date so they can properly stagger all the harvesting contracts they have. When it’s time to harvest, Norpac sends out its team of harvesters  operating on a 24-hour schedule. The workers put in 12-hour shifts from 7:00 to 7:00. In fact, the harvesters arrived on Frketich’s fields at 3:00 a.m. so by the time I got there Friday morning at 10:00, they had already moved on to the neighbor’s field. But, no matter, we just drove over to the neighbor’s farm to watch these bad boys harvest at one acre of peas per hour! The team operates four harvesters for a combined rate of four acres per hour.

Frketich-15That’s right, I climbed up on a moving pea harvester to get this shot! I could actually hear the pea pods crunching as I stood up there. Inside the harvester is a giant drum that spins and throws the pea pods against a screen to break open the pods and filter out the peas, leaving all the pods and plant material behind. I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of this beast – imagine having to pick and shell all those peas by  hand.

Frketich-13When the harvester is full of peas, it off-loads them into this “dump chief.” Then…

Frketich-16… the peas are dumped into a truck to be carried off to the cannery for cleaning and packing. That’s a lot of peas.

Frketich-12In the end, all that’s left behind on the field are the empty pea pods and plant material. Frketich has a nice trade set up with a cattle farmer – he comes and rakes up the leftover plant material and carries it off to feed his cattle. He gets the feed, and it cleans up the field for Frketich. She says she’s talked to other farmers who have tried not cleaning up the field, but the vines take so long to break down that you end up fighting them for a long time after the peas are gone.

I hope you learned something, because I sure did. And I had a blast climbing up on farm equipment! If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations of Kirsch Family Farms – check out Frketich’s blog Nuttygrass.

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