Tag Archives: being a mom

On Captive Audiences and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Jen

Ah, the halcyon days of elementary school. Cheery greetings at drop-off and pick-up, daily opportunities for parent involvement in the classrooms, chatty, colorful newsletters keeping you up to date about your child’s day, countless social interactions with other school families, and reliably uncontroversial, predictable lesson plans.

By contrast, the journey through secondary school is marked by reduced contact with parents and a shift in focus to the main stakeholder: the student. I quickly became aware of this when my firstborn entered middle school. Suddenly he had six teachers instead of one. He had friends I’d never met. He had homework in subjects I hadn’t given much thought to in 30-odd years (hello, Algebra!), as well as exposure to new perspectives, ideas, curricular materials, and, importantly, an expanded role in his own education.

Although it took a bit of adjusting on my part, I have learned to embrace my diminished role in the day to day school experience, largely because taking ownership of their academic affairs has been a key component of my kids becoming more self-reliant and developing independent critical thinking skills. We converse daily about school, but the onus is on them to be their own advocates whenever possible. If they have a question about an assignment or a grade, they’re fully capable of contacting the teacher directly and resolving the issue.

Now some years into the secondary school routine, both kids are comfortable with their current levels of independence and corresponding accountability. I’m enormously proud of both of them for taking initiative to solve problems when needed, and being truly engaged, committed students. All that said, my comfort in sending them into the wilds of public education unaccompanied is rooted in the trust of the quality of the education they’re receiving. For the most part, this trust is warranted, but there have been rare missteps.

Both of the recent incidents I’m about to relate centered around topics that were completely appropriate fodder for the teen classroom. But the materials chosen to introduce them were so outrageously biased and inaccurate, I felt like I had to intervene. The larger issue that these episodes bring into focus is that there is a significant different between preaching critical thinking and practicing it. ‘Critical Thinking’ is a phrase that many of our secondary school teachers use in describing their classroom dynamics, but, as these incidents show, building critical thinking opportunities into the learning process does not always occur.

The general formula is as follows:

1. Kid comes home and voices concerns about the accuracy of a ‘documentary’ presented in class
2. We do some research together and quickly realize that said ‘documentary’ is indeed rubbish.
3. With the consent of the kid, I formulate a polite email to teacher, endorsing discussion of the topic, but questioning the choice of material and inquiring about future plans to give students a more balanced picture.
4. Teacher replies with generally unsatisfying promise of balanced discussion and critical thinking.
5. I counter that a great opportunity for critical thinking has been presented in the form of discussing the validity of the material in question.
6. The unit wraps up quickly with notable scarcity of critical thinking and is never revisited.

In the first instance, without preamble or context, a middle school Social Studies teacher showed the class the HBO Vice episode entitled “Savior Seeds”, a decidedly biased take on the use of GE traits in agriculture. I’ve never watched VICE, though I’ve heard good things and it’s apparently won some awards, but considering that one of the executive producers is Bill Maher, inaccurate reporting of science-based issues isn’t exactly surprising.

After viewing the GE portion of the program and discussing the content with my kid (step 2) I proceeded to step 3: first contact. The response contained much bloviating about critical thinking and letting kids do their own research. I opined that, while that was a stellar idea in principle, biased introductory materials were detrimental to this process.

The next day, my kid came home with a lengthy printout of websites through which to ‘do his own research’. The printout was from the resource page of ‘The Future of Food’ website, which contains a long list of links to anti-GMO organizations. Sigh. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule (1)On the final day of the ‘research’ phase, the kids were instructed to go to the Monsanto website during class and look things up for themselves. Finally, while no ‘debate’ was held, students were encouraged to share whatever they wanted about their research. According to my kid, most of the class was either neutral or slightly in favor of GE technology, and it was clear from the teacher’s response that this was not her desired outcome. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the direction of the unit had changed due to my intervention. And it was hard not to think that whatever critical thinking had occurred in the class was in spite of, rather than because of, the way in which the material had been presented.
The second incident occurred a few months later, in a high school Health class. This time, the questionable material came in the form of a film called “Forks over Knives”, which presents an argument for a plant-based diet being superior to all others. On the face of it, that’s not a controversial claim at all. Consuming less animal fat and more fresh fruits & vegetables is one component of the standard recommendations for reducing disease  risks across the board.

The problem, described in some detail here and here, is that ‘Forks over Knives’ grossly overstates the benefits of their particular plant-based diet based on some notoriously shoddy research. This, combined with the scary implications that all other diets are a fast-track to pain and death, concerned me mightily. Adolescents already have a whole lot of risk factors for disordered eating, so adding these unsubstantiated claims to their pile of things to worry about—again, with no context or balance given, seems like a terrible approach to ‘Health’.

Again, steps 1-6 proceeded. Again, the classroom outcome was underwhelming. No other materials were presented, and there was no discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the film. The teacher announced at the conclusion of the unit that some parts of the film were accurate and some were not, but didn’t give examples of either. Again, a golden opportunity for actual critical thinking was squandered.

Again, I wondered what the outcome would have been had I not raised concerns about the source material.

Part of the underlying issue here is the relative ease in finding misinformation vs. accurate material. The internet is full of outrageous lies, many of them packaged in attractive, professional-looking, plausible formats. Science-based information, by contrast, doesn’t always rise to the top of a Google search. It can be hard to find in the first place, and often inscrutable when located. No wonder the pretty lies can travel so much farther—even as far as our K-12 classrooms.

This makes me wonder how many times this sort of thing plays out in various classrooms everywhere, and how many—or how few–times parents like me speak up. Recognition that a classroom full of kids is the very definition of ‘a captive audience’ is one key reason why action is so unambiguously warranted when a teacher’s religious views influence their curriculum. But there’s no recourse when broader unscientific views are taught as objective truth. Teaching kids how to think critically would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such sub-par source materials, but in our experience thus far there have been disappointingly few opportunities to develop these skills in any practical sense.

One big positive in all this is the awareness that my kids clearly have excellent BS detectors. One could argue that, since they clearly know not to believe everything they hears without verification, there’s no need for me to intervene. But it’s not just them I’m thinking about. All the promises of critical thinking as a tenet of modern instruction aside, most secondary students still view classroom materials as objectively true and accurate. When inaccurate information enters the classroom, it’s the kids who haven’t been cultivated to think for themselves whom I worry about.

You might disagree with my choice to voice these concerns on the grounds that it doesn’t respect academic freedom and/or disrespects the efforts of already overworked public school teachers. I absolutely do not mean to malign teachers in general, or even these particular teachers. I know how hard they work. I know how challenging the job is. I know how much both my kids have benefitted from the efforts and dedication of their teachers over the years, and I know that much of that benefit has come from the individual passions and personal interests that these teachers have brought into their classrooms. I know that teaching kids how to think is much, much harder in every possible way than telling them what to think.

All that said, I don’t regret my decision to challenge their choices in how these materials were presented. It may not make any difference to the way they teach these topics in the future, but it might. I hope it will, and I think it was worth it to try.

I’m under no illusion that this is the end of classroom controversies for our family. Already I see that ‘Alternative Medicine’ is on the syllabus for one child’s class later this school year, so stay tuned for how that plays out!

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a lesson here in the importance of staying engaged with your child’s education, even as they grow more self-sufficient and autonomous. These experiences are adding to the critical thinking toolkit my kids are currently assembling for themselves. My efforts to foster this are an investment in their futures, just like their extensive orthodontic interventions, or the college plans we’ve been paying into since they were babies. Learning how to sort out good facts from bad will pay dividends, no matter what academic, professional, or personal pursuits lie ahead.

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New Year, New Job, New Voices

Remember over a year ago when I wrote about how difficult it is for stay-at-home moms to return to the work force? Not because you might want to continue to stay home (please kill me now) but because it’s very hard to overcome the stigma associated with women who voluntarily leave their careers to raise kids? And how I was feeling shocked by the very real possibility of not being able to get a job I thought was worth my time and experience? Well, scratch all that. I got a job.

No big deal, it only took me two years. Given the fact that Portland is a city full of highly educated hipsters all willing work for pennies just to live in Portland, I’m kind of impressed that I managed to get a job at all. I’m patting myself on the back about that.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how I should write this post, and there are two points I want to make. The first one is easier; it’s the advice I’d give to other stay-at-home moms who want to return to work at some point. Here it is: make certain you’re looking for a career in something you genuinely care about, and keep your toe in the water even if you have to do it for free or even pay out of pocket. Don’t pursue a career in something just because that’s what you did before. If you didn’t like it then, you’re not going to like it any better now. Pick something you feel passionately enough about that you might be willing to do it in your spare time. Because you probably should be doing it in your spare time. There were definitely times my husband said, “What? You’re going to pay your own money to go to a professional conference?” or “Why are you getting up at 6 am on a Saturday to take pictures of a Christmas tree harvest … for free?” or “That’s not worth your time, you’re hardly making any money on that job.” I felt strongly enough about advocating these issues that I kept doing it anyway; so find something you feel that strongly about and make yourself valuable in that industry by continuing to do it in some capacity. Even if that means re-training. Do some soul searching and if you have to go back to night school for a few years, do it.

The next point flows naturally out of the above, but is a little trickier. In the end, I’m a journalist, and I’m guided by those ethics classes I took in journalism school (even though I get the feeling many journalists can’t seem to be bothered with that). I feel compelled to be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. I don’t want you, readers, to feel like now I’m getting paid to have an opinion and so somehow that lowers my trustworthiness. At the same time, I’m not willing to give up my anonymity for all the very real reasons I’ve written about before. So, I’m not going to tell you where I work. But here’s what I will tell you – I got hired into my job because of my passion, knowledge, and voice of reason on many of the issues I have discussed on this blog. I’m not getting paid to have my opinions, I’m getting paid because I already had those opinions. That’s an important distinction. This blog has always been and continues to be based on my own well-researched opinions. Nonetheless, I’ll promise you that I will not write posts on topics that directly conflict me or would have an immediate impact in my field.

Now, on to some more exciting news: I’m adding three new writers to It’s MomSense! I’m really looking forward to diversifying the number of voices on this blog – we’re coming up on two years since I started this and bringing in more opinions will help transform this blog into something even more valuable. It’s also necessary. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to work a full-time job, exercise, spend time with my family, sleep AND create regular compelling content for this blog. Enter the new writers.

I’ve asked them each to introduce themselves to you below, but all four of us have a few things in common: we’re all moms, we all live in Oregon, and we’re all passionate about evidence-based thought. You’ve also already met all three of them: Jen wrote a guest post on sunscreen last summer, I profiled Tiffany’s farm last fall, and although she’s unnamed in my post, Sarah was part of the March Against Myths campaign I blogged about last May.

Joining me on the new It’s MomSense team:

——– Jen ——–

JenI’m a scientist and mother based in Eugene, Oregon.  My husband and I moved to Eugene for me to attend graduate school at the U of O and loved it here so much we never left.  I had both my kids in grad school, and graduated with my PhD in Biology in 2003.  After completing a postdoctoral fellowship, I was invited to stay on as a non-tenure track research associate. My work focuses mainly the molecular biology of Usher syndrome, a hereditary form of deaf-blindness.  You can read some of my blog posts on this topic on the Usher Syndrome Coalition blog, where I’ve been a contributor for the past eight years.

My children, now teenagers, have taught me a lot about who I am as a parent, an educator, and a person, and some of my contributions here will be about what I’ve learned on that journey so far.  I am the product of a parenting style in which all that I did–every action, accomplishment, and misstep–was evaluated solely by how it reflected on the parent. My own parenting approach is pretty much 180 degrees from that.  My kids are their own people, increasingly accountable to and responsible for themselves as they grow. To facilitate them being the best versions of themselves, I have tried to create the structure and security for them to explore their interests and obligations in the way that feels best to them.  I usually let them figure things out for themselves rather than providing the answers. I encourage them to question the information that comes to them from all sources and form their own opinions.

Living an evidence-based, grounded life in Eugene, Ore. has its challenges, given that the culture here tends to skew more toward fairies than facts. The community vibe as a whole is often in stark contrast to my work and home life, but it definitely makes for some interesting conversations!  I strongly believe that effectively communicating science—and debunking pseudoscience—requires respect and genuine acknowledgement of different points of view.  No matter how clear cut the facts are, science can only speak for itself if people are willing to listen.

You can follow me on Twitter @ClutchScience, and soon on Facebook, as soon as I get around to activating my professional page.

——– Tiffany ——–

TiffanyFarming in real life; that’s what my family does. Not what the media says, not what the latest issue of Natural News says, and certainly not how that meme that your BFF shared from the Food Babe says. We farm in the real world. The everyday, not-so-exciting, get-your-hands-dirty, sweat-in-your-eyes real world of farming.

Keith and I are 4th generation family farmers working alongside his parents in the Willamette Valley, right next to the state capital of Salem. Our farm focuses on seed crops like wheat, grass seed, barley, oats, turnip seed, and field peas. In the last few years we started to plant hazelnuts (It’s MomSense blog post) and that has added a lot of excitement to our lives.

I work off the farm right now in the corporate world as an assistant for agricultural appraisers in a small but growing company. Balancing being a working mom after being a SAHM has been an adjustment for the whole family. I am sure that there are many of you that could relate and maybe even give me a few tips!

We have two funny/smart/awesome/infuriating/charming daughters from my previous marriage who are initiating us into parenting the teen years. Go US! Also we have a scattering of pets that seem to show up in my social media channels often because, well, pets are fun.

I grew up “in town” so when I married Keith, I was not only marrying him but this way of life. Culture shock is the best way to describe it.  Several years later, I am still adjusting but I’d like to think I am getting the hang of it.

If you want to know more about me or our farm, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter. I also started a Facebook page recently, where I will be focusing on farming posts. A couple of years ago I did a spot for KATU Channel 2 for the Celebrate Agriculture campaign. Check out the video!

——– Sarah ——–

sarahI’m a twenty-something vegan mom of a rambunctious three- year-old boy and full-time student working toward a B.S. in Biology at Portland State University. When not busy with school and child-rearing, I enjoy spending my time communicating and advocating for science and biotech as well as completing the occasional craft project and eating copious amounts of soy ice cream.

As a young vegan growing up in Portland, I once fell prey to many myths associated with health and nutrition. I believed that organic food was safer and more sustainable than conventionally-farmed foods, that it was important to avoid “toxins” and processed foods and that genetically-modified crops were a science fiction horror story waiting to happen. Although I considered myself a skeptic and science enthusiast, I subscribed to these views because of how pervasive they were and continue to be. Becoming a mother further compounded these beliefs, as I was surrounded by misinformation from both the internet and well-intentioned friends and family members who had me believing that unmedicated birth, long-term breastfeeding, “clean” eating and attachment parenting were the only ways to ensure that my child would have a healthy and happy upbringing.

Once I realized that many of the views I held were not supported by empirical evidence, I immediately felt compelled to learn more and to educate others. I now understand that genetic engineering is not only as safe as traditional breeding methods but that it also holds many advantages for the environment, for global economy and for human and animal welfare. My current focus is educating other vegans about crop biotech, as I believe vegans especially should acknowledge and embrace the benefits this technology has for animals and the environment. In May 2015 I helped co-organize the Portland chapter of the international March Against Myths movement and have since become involved in pro-science activism both online and in person.

As a mom, I want my son to live in a society that values education, rationality and human progress. When parents decline to vaccinate their children, citizens vote against water fluoridation and misguided activists fight to oppose new breeding technologies I believe that human health suffers and progress is hindered.

————-

That’s the new team. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this next year brings and how this blog will grow and change. Thanks for coming along with us for the ride.

 

 

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Ending the Over-Scheduled Schedule

Last night I made a declaration to my kids: we’re cutting back on activities. At the end of this week, soccer and swimming sessions will be over and I am looking forward to it coming to a close.  I don’t know about everyone else, but I am not allowing my kids’ schedules to supersede our lives. Somehow we’ve slipped into a situation I swore up and down I would never be in: there are only two days out of seven each week that don’t have an activity holding down a recurring block of time on the calendar.  And now they’re asking me to sign them up for basketball and rock climbing and gymnastics. And can we please squeeze in a playdate between when the bus drops us off and before we have to be at swimming? I’ll just eat dinner in the car.

No.

And the reason is not because I’m mean. I want my kids to participate in fun activities that they enjoy. I see the value in team sports; they’re both very athletic and I want to encourage that.   I want them to have friends and play and do all the regular things kids do. But over the last two months, I’ve noticed the side effects of that kind of schedule. We only have a few hours with them each day and a full day of school maxes them out. Adding anything else to it just leads to bad tempers and grumpiness.

I thought when both my kids were in all day school I’d be more patient because I’d only have a few hours with them. I’d be totally available to listen to their stories about school and help with homework and we’d have a nice relaxing dinner and play a game. And I am available, but they aren’t. They’re emotionally and physically exhausted and my patience runs thin because they unload all the feelings their little bodies are churning up on me.

When did we become this society that feels like our kids need to have every moment of their lives scheduled? When are they supposed to just relax and process all the stuff going on? I was talking to a speech pathologist recently who told me she sees high schoolers who are passing out on the sports field. Their parents thinkSoccerMom-1 they have a health problem, but it turns out they’re just wound so tight they literally can’t breath and they collapse. She has to teach them how to relax. She told me she was seeing a five-year-old for speech therapy and his parents couldn’t figure out a way to fit his therapy into his soccer schedule so they dropped therapy because there just wasn’t time. When the pathologist suggested maybe they cut out some of his other activities (like soccer) they baulked and said he had to continue soccer so he could get a soccer scholarship to this private elementary school.

I see the stressed-out, frazzled parents all the time, so I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. When I didn’t sign my daughter up for soccer like every other kindergartner (because she has no interest in soccer) one of the moms said to me with a concerned look, “But aren’t you afraid she’ll get behind?” No. I’m just really not concerned she’ll get behind at soccer. Parents contact me to take their family pictures but when we go to schedule it, there isn’t a free weekend on the calendar for two months because of soccer tournaments and double-header baseball games and dance recitals.

It doesn’t have to be like that. You can just say no. No, we don’t need to be doing something every minute of every day. It’s ok to just do nothing after school. Whether or not you enroll your six-year-old in baseball is not going to make or break his future as a baseball player, or, likely, have any impact on his future at all.  Half the time it seems like the kids like the idea of soccer more than they actually like playing it. Parents end up having to force them to get out on the field and even then they just kick the dirt. I understand sometimes kids say they want to do something and then after they go to one practice they say they don’t want to anymore, but maybe just don’t sign them up next time. Maybe just play soccer with them at the park sometimes.

So I’m saying no, at least for the time being. We can play basketball in our own backyard. We can go on family hikes for exercise. Want to learn something new? Great, I can teach you piano and Daddy can help you identify trees. We can go rock climbing together on a Saturday; you don’t have to be part of an after-school rock climbing club. I know the kids will still bicker with each other, but I want to re-align our priorities to put extra-curricular stuff way down on the list. I’m going to do my best to resist the pressure to enroll them in everything under the sun just because it exists and everyone else is doing it. At least, that’s my plan. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Gwyneth Schmyneth

Wouldn’t it be cool if I were a celebrity? Like, say for example, that I got rich and famous for some beautiful landscape photographs that I took, or for some song I wrote on the piano, or for some movie I acted in. Let’s say I got so famous that millions of complete strangers knew my name and cared about what clothes I wear and where I go on vacation. You’d see my face on magazines in the checkout aisle at the grocery store and you’d stop to read about whom I am dating or what clothes my kids wore on their glamorous beach vacation. I’m not sure I’d actually like that, because then I wouldn’t be just a regular person anymore, but at least I’d have super powers. I’d have the power to sway how you feel on controversial topics that I have no expertise on simply because I am famous. That would be pretty awesome.

But, unfortunately, I’m not famous. I don’t have millions of dollars. I don’t fly in a personal jet, I don’t own any private islands, I don’t hire someone to take care of my kids while I’m out posing for the paparazzi in my expensive, designer clothes.  So I guess my opinion is not as convincing and not as important because I’m just a regular, not-famous mom.

At least, that’s the impression that I get when I read in the news that Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a news conference in Washington D.C. to try to influence how Congress votes on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that would create a uniform, science-based labeling standard and prevent costly state-by-state GMO labeling laws. Somehow her opinion on GMO labeling is very important because she’s not just famous, but she’s also a mom.  And as a famous mom, she’s going to stand up there and represent all of us poor, not-famous moms who are too busy taking our kids to soccer practice and microwaving pre-packaged frozen dinners to understand about GMOs. We need that warning label on our packages of Oreos because otherwise there’s just no way to know if it’s bad for our kids.

moms4gmosOnly, that’s bullshit.  I don’t need Gwyneth Paltrow to represent me. And I have absolutely no idea why anyone would give a flying you-know-what about what Gwyneth Paltrow thinks about GMOs. She did not become famous by being an expert in biotechnology, or food, or nutrition – she’s just a good actress. She is not any more of an expert on GMOs than some random mom at the supermarket, so why does anyone think her opinion matters? What she thinks doesn’t matter any more than what Jenny McCarthy thinks caused her son’s autism or how Neil Young feels about Monsanto or how Sarah Palin feels about climate change.  The only people who should be influencing how you feel about science are scientists.

What do the scientists think about GMOs? That’s who’s important. Those are the real celebrities we should be listening to. Like the scientists at the FDA. Or the ones at the American Medical Association, those at the National Academy of Science, and the ones at the European Commission.  They think GMOs are safe and are the same as non-GMO foods. They think putting a label on foods that contain ingredients derived from GMO crops doesn’t provide consumers with any useful nutritional information any more than putting a label on foods grown with irrigation would provide useful nutritional information. I think those scientists are convincing because they understand the thousands of studies that have been done on GMOs, including the same studies that anti-GMO groups who score celebrity representation claim demonstrate GMOs are unsafe or damaging to the environment, and they’re still not changing their minds. Not because it’s a conspiracy, but because those studies aren’t convincing. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have any information that the FDA doesn’t have. For me, at least, I’m going to listen to the people who are truly experts at determining what’s safe and what’s not instead of actresses and song writers. Unless, of course, I’m looking for advice on acting or writing songs.

This is exactly why I recently participated in a campaign to support the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act and challenge celebrity moms who are trying to represent all moms.  A bunch of us “regular” moms got together and wrote an open letter to the celebrity moms demonstrating that we do, in fact, accept the scientific consensus on GMOs and don’t feel that GMOs need a stigmatizing mandatory warning label. Most of those “regular moms” aren’t just offering their run-of-the-mill opinion on the subject, either. Most of them (like Julie Borloug, granddaughter of Nobel Peace prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug) actually are subject matter experts – scientists, science communicators and farmers.  If you’re going to listen to how moms feel about GMO labels, you should listen to these moms.

But here’s the thing – you don’t have to listen to any moms to decide how you feel about mandatory GMO labels, particularly celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who are not a reliable sources for science-related issues.  Inform yourself – read evidence-based information, talk to a farmer, or talk to a real expert on GMOs.  Then, if you agree with us non-celebrity moms on GMOs, join us: sign this letter and pledge to judge GMO food with facts, not fear.

 

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The Miracle Mineral Solution Sham and What You Can Do About It

I’m thrilled to share today’s article, written by another volunteer summer guest blogger, Mommy PhD (also known as Alison). As her stage name suggest, Alison has a PhD in Biology and Biomedical Sciences and post-doctoral training in neurotoxicology and epigenetics. Aside from being a mommy, she also currently works at Emory University as a post-doctoral fellow.

I follow Mommy PhD’s page on Facebook (you should, too!) and we’re in a few sciencey groups together, so I’ve been following along with her recent efforts to bring attention to what can only be described, in my opinion, as a group of terribly misguided parents engaging in horrific acts of (hopefully) unintended child abuse led and encouraged by a fanatic cult. This topic is a bit outside my usual realm of issues, but I asked Alison to write this post because, as a mother (and a human), I was appalled when I learned about it, and I think parents should be aware that this is happening and know of ways to help. Fair warning: some of the information and images below are a bit shocking – it turned my stomach, it might turn yours as well, but I hope bringing attention to this underground movement will help stop it. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Alison for her hard work.

——By Mommy PhD ——

Over the past few months, I have been working with an amazing group of people from all over the world to raise awareness about the use of Miracle Mineral Solution (chlorine dioxide, or CD, an industrial bleaching agent) as an enema to “cure” autism. Proponents of MMS claim that autism is caused by parasites and that bleach enemas remove these parasites and thereby “cure” autism. But what they think are parasites are really the lining of these children’s intestines that have been stripped away.

Some people blame the parents, but the real blame lies with the proponents of MMS who take advantage of parents who are searching for support and are overwhelmed with trying to help their child. In a way, as a mother, I can understand this. Parents will try anything to help their child. I have two kids and when it comes to protecting my children, I can turn into quite the mama bear. So when the proponents of MMS sell the false hope that autism can be cured, I can see how parents who can’t figure out what to do might fall for this. However, the proponents of MMS misrepresent science and flat out lie to support their lies. MMS has no benefit and can only cause harm.

  • There is no scientific basis for the use of MMS to treat autism (or anything else for which it is claimed to be used).
  • At the suggested doses, the chemicals in MMS are toxic. In fact, the most concerning effect observed in the toxicity studies of chlorine dioxide and sodium chlorite is neurodevelopmental delay.
  • Using untested, unproven and unregulated treatments on children is childhood experimentation. To experiment on children without appropriate regulation and approval is highly unethical.
  • There are many resources for support for parents and evidence-based information on autism. You can contact these places for recommendations in your area.
  • The authorities are beginning to crack down on those who sell and promote MMS and related products.

What is chlorine dioxide/MMS?

Chlorine dioxide/Miracle Mineral Solution is an industrial strength bleaching agent that can be used in very low concentrations as a water purifier. CD/MMS is sold as a 28 percent solution of sodium chlorite and an activator (an acid like citric acid). When these are combined, chlorine dioxide is formed. However, as an analysis carried out by an independent lab at the request of investigative journalists in the UK, this reaction is highly inefficient and most (90 percent) of the sodium chlorite remains in this form. This produces a solution with a concentration of chlorine dioxide and unconverted sodium chlorite many hundreds of times higher than the acceptable limit set by the EPA.  So when people use this product, as an enema or orally or as eye drops or however they use it, the toxicity results mostly from sodium chlorite.

Is chlorine dioxide a bleach?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes. It is most definitely a bleach. See this article by Emily Willingham for a demonstration of what chlorine dioxide does to a navy blue cloth napkin.MMS is a bleach

Proponents of MMS will tell you that CD is not a bleach since it’s not household bleach (sodium hypochlorite). However, bleach is a general term that includes any compound that removes color. Chlorine dioxide is a bleach. It’s not household bleach, but it is most definitely a type of bleach.

Andy Brunning from Compound Interest created this graphic to demonstrate some of the many different chemicals that are classified as bleaches.

IMG_0637

Who invented Miracle Mineral Solution and the CD Autism protocol?

MMS was invented by Jim Humble. He is not a doctor, yet claims that the CD/MMS protocols cure Ebola, malaria, HIV and other diseases. He invented this “cure” while on a gold mining expedition in Guyana in 1996. In online videos, he claims to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy, specifically from the Planet of the Gods.  He founded his own “non-religious” church (their choice of words, not mine), the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, to protect himself and his “Ministers of Health” against legal action relating to his promotion of this protocol. They do not even try to hide that they formed this so-called church to protect themselves against prosecution and share information about how to avoid the authorities. This church looks very much like a cult.

Kerri Rivera is a “Minister of Health” within this church and has written a book describing her CD Autism protocol, which discusses CD/MMS given by enema or by drinking to “cure” children of autism.  She is also not a doctor. The justification for this protocol is that CD/MMS “cures” autism by removing the parasites (rope worms, not a real thing) that cause it. However, there is zero scientific plausibility that this treatment works. Autism is a not a disease to be cured. Research shows that autism is largely genetic. There is no link at all between parasites and autism.  What Kerri Rivera and other proponents of MMS say are parasites are really the lining of these children’s intestines that have been stripped away.

Intestinal parastiesFor comparison, here are some images on the left posted by parents of what falls out of their children after treating with MMS by enemas. Compare to the images on the right of actual intestinal parasites that infect the human gut. Worms have symmetry and structure, which the intestinal lining does not. What you see on the left are mixtures of intestinal mucus, undigested food, fecal matter and blood. They have no structure, no defined morphology, no symmetry. These are not parasites.

How do the kids react to being given MMS enemas?

Parents who are carrying out this protocol share their stories online. They share stories about their children crying in pain as they are held down and an industrial strength bleaching agent is forced into their rectums. They share pictures of the lining of their children’s intestines falling out, toenails falling off, and hair falling out. They share that their children stop showing emotion and have a loss of appetite. These are all signs of chronic poisoning and chronic abuse, but in these groups parents are congratulated for “curing” their children of autism. When parents post about disturbing symptoms their children are having in response to this “treatment”, the answer from the leaders is always – give more enemas.  These children are in pain but children trust their parents. This is an utter betrayal of that trust.

Is CD toxic at the dose recommended in the CD Autism protocol?

Yes. In fact, the FDA issued a warning about using this product in 2010:

‘FDA warned consumers not to consume or use Miracle Mineral Solution, an oral liquid solution also known as “Miracle Mineral Supplement” or “MMS.” The product, when used as directed, produces an industrial bleach that can cause serious harm to health. The product instructs consumers to mix the 28 percent sodium chlorite solution with an acid such as citrus juice. This mixture produces chlorine dioxide, a potent bleach used for stripping textiles and industrial water treatment. High oral doses of this bleach, such as those recommended in the labeling, can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.’

In 2000, the EPA did a comprehensive review of all the literature on the toxicity of chlorine-based disinfectants including chlorine dioxide and sodium chlorite. They used this review to determine safe levels for oral ingestion of these chemicals. They also determined the effects of toxic doses.

EPA Toxicology Review of ChlorineThe EPA concluded that oral ingestion of chlorine dioxide and sodium chlorite is safe below 0.03 mg/kg/day. This “reference dose” indicates the dose that is safe to drink every day of your life with no adverse effects. This means that a 20 kg child can safely ingest 0.6 mg (0.00002 ounces). While the EPA says these compounds are safe below these levels, this also means that above these levels, they are not safe. Doses of CD/MMS prepared as directed are 10,000 times higher than the EPA reference dose and 520 times higher than the WHO maximum allowable daily dose.

These are also oral doses. Doses given rectally (by enema) are likely to have a greater toxic effect as they are likely to be absorbed more readily. Rectal exposure was not tested by the EPA as it is not a common route of exposure for water disinfecting chemicals.

Perhaps the most shocking thing in this report is that the most consistent finding of long-term and developmental toxicity studies in animals was NEURODEVELOPMENTAL DELAY. So not only are people pushing a toxic substance, they are pushing a substance that is likely to cause the sorts of issues in children that they claim it prevents.

How do proponents of CD/MMS distort the toxicity data?

In CD/MMS groups, people will often cite this 1982 paper as evidence that the EPA says chlorine dioxide is safe. There are numerous problems with this claim that show the ways that proponents of MMS manipulate information and lie.

  • They are misrepresenting the source of the article. The article was not a publication of the EPA or carried out by EPA scientists. It was carried out by scientists at Ohio State University and was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
  • The paper showed that drinking up to 5 ppm of sodium chlorite or chlorine dioxide for 12 weeks was safe. There is nothing wrong with the research in this paper. It clearly states that drinking half a liter (about half a quart) of a 5 ppm solution of chlorine-based disinfectants is safe.  What dose is this?  Assuming an average weight of 90 kilograms (almost 200 pounds) for an adult male, this is a dose of 3.5 MICROgrams/kg.
  • Lab tests show that most (90 percent) of the sodium chlorite in MMS remains unconverted yielding a 391 ppm sodium chlorite solution with very little chlorine dioxide. This given as directed translates to a dose of 312 mg/kg daily (for a 20 kg child). That’s MILLIgrams.  312 compared to 0.0035. The safety of a 0.0035 mg/kg dose tells us nothing about the safety of a 312 mg/kg dose.

Medical experimentation on children

Another huge issue with using the protocol on children is that using unproven treatments on children is medical experimentation. Doing this without proper approvals and oversight is a huge ethical issue. The National Institutes of Health have strict guidelines governing when it is ethically appropriate to use humans and children as subjects in medical studies. All human studies performed by medical professionals must be approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a committee of scientists, doctors and community members, to ensure that human subject research is conducted in accordance with all federal, institutional and ethical guidelines. To use an unproven treatment without approvals on a child is experimentation and violates all of these guidelines.

Where can parents of autistic children find accurate information and helpful resources?

I imagine that parents find CD/MMS because they are looking for support and resources to help them navigate raising an autistic child. It’s unfortunate that they find information about CD/MMS and other fake cures being peddled to parents, instead of the excellent resources out there that provide accurate information and resources. Here are a few reputable sources for different kinds of information about autism.

What progress has been made to prevent the use of MMS?

Fortunately, over the past few months, we have made a lot of progress to stop these people from abusing more children.

  • Products relating to MMS were removed from Etsy and the US eBay site (new ones are popping up on eBay and people are continuing to report them).
  • Louis Daniel Smith in was convicted in US Federal court “for selling industrial bleach as a miracle cure for numerous diseases and illnesses, including cancer, AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, lyme disease, asthma and the common cold”. He set up a fake water purification business to purchase the chemicals and to attempt to hide his activities from authorities. He was convicted of conspiracy, introducing misbranded drugs with the intent to defraud and smuggling.
  • We held a small, peaceful protest at the AutismOne/Focus for Health Conference in Chicago, which I have written about before.
  • During the AutismOne (known for promoting dubious “cures” for autism) conference in May, the Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, served AutismOne regular Kerri Rivera with a subpoena and Kerri signed an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, acknowledging that she has violated the Consumer Fraud Act and prohibiting her from giving seminars promoting CD/MMS and selling or promoting MMS in Illinois. Read more on this at Debunking Denialism.
  • There has been increased media coverage of this issue, especially by Phil Rogers and his team at NBC Chicago.

These are huge developments and the result of many months of hard work by many people. With the action by the Illinois Attorney General and the federal conviction of Smith, it is reassuring to see the authorities taking this seriously.

And, it’s not just in the US. In the UK authorities are also cracking down on the promotion and sale of these products and conferences promoting MMS in the UK have been cancelled after public outcry.

How You Can Help: Reporting products on Etsy and eBay

We were able to get Etsy to remove all CD/MMS related products from their site. We have made progress with eBay, but it’s been a little harder (their site is bigger and each country has it’s own site).  A few months ago, I emailed with them and they changed their filters so most of these products were blocked before they could be listed. Due to that, all products were removed from eBay, but there is a slow trickle of new products being listed as suppliers learn how the filters work.

However, it’s still fairly obvious that a 28 percent sodium chlorite solution with Jim Humble mentioned in the product description is not intended for water purification. There are also vendors selling only the citric acid activator. This is highly suspicious. Why would you need only citric acid activator? My suspicion is that when someone buys the activator, the order confirmation is followed by an email with instructions to purchase the sodium chlorite independently from eBay. We are continuing to monitor and report these products to eBay.

If you’d like to help report products, search eBay for chlorine dioxide, MMS, miracle mineral solution, Jim Humble, or sodium chlorite. At the lower right of the product page, below the “People who viewed this item also viewed” section, is a link to “report item”. (You do need to have an eBay login to report an item.) Report the item as a “prohibited and restricted item” and a “hazardous material”. Under detailed reason, select “pesticides and poisons.”

It’s been a good spring and summer for the fight against MMS. The momentum is with us and we continue to identify and report sellers and distributors to the appropriate authorities. We will continue our outreach to educate parents and to help them find the resources they need so they don’t fall for false hope. Hopefully, we can make MMS a thing of medical history, like leeches and bloodletting.

 

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

(This is the second in a 2-part guest post by Jen Phillips. Jen holds a PhD in biology and is a Senior Research Associate at Westerfield Laboratory Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon.)

Making sense of sunscreen controversies

Hello again!  In Part I of this series of posts, we explored the science behind sunlight, sunscreen and skin cancer.  That post left us with some pretty compelling reasons to cover up and slather on, but in this continuation we’ll be examining a few common claims out there that suggest sunscreen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and may, in fact, be bad for you.  To put your mind at ease up front, there are no legitimate health concerns associated with sunscreen use, and there are demonstrable health benefits to regular application. So what’s all the fuss about?  Let’s take a look:

Does sunscreen use prevent cancer?

At first, this might seem like a silly question.  UV rays causes cancer, sunscreen blocks UV rays, therefore sunscreen must reduce skin cancer, right?  Sure, but scientific evaluation to back up this conclusion has had some mixed results.

sunscreen 2The biggest and most well-designed study to date was conducted in Australia, beginning in 1992.  The study included over a thousand participants, divided into an experimental group who applied SPF 16 sunscreen daily for four years, and a control group who used sunscreen at their own discretion. Initial results were reported after the four-year testing period, and additional data were obtained by tracking participants in both groups for another decade.  Overall, the study showed clear benefit of daily sunscreen use in prevention of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a benefit in prevention of Melanoma that was only noted at the end of the 10 year follow-up, and only a slight, statistically insignificant benefit in prevention of basal cell carcinoma (BCC.)

Why weren’t the results more spectacular, you might wonder, given the obvious correlation between UV radiation and skin cancer?  Based on its prevalence, one could hypothesize that BCC is easier to trigger than the other forms of skin cancer, and thus the SPF 16 sunscreen did not block enough UV rays to significantly reduce BCC rates. It’s also possible that UVA rays play a role in triggering BCC.  When this study was initiated in 1992, the sunscreen provided to participants—and indeed, all sunscreens on the market at that time—were UVB blocking only.

Still, even imperfect protection is better than none at all, right?  So using sunscreen would seem like a pretty straightforward choice.  Nevertheless, recent concerns over the safety of the products themselves have complicated the picture.

Does sunscreen disrupt hormones?

This claim is specific to oxybenzone–an organic UV filter that has been an active sunscreen ingredient for over 40 years.  The worry stems from in vitro studies showing that oxybenzone influences expression of estrogens and androgens in cultured breast cancer cells.  A study using mice also showed hormone related changes in uterine tissue when animals were fed oxybenzone daily.  Further potential for concern came from reports of oxybenzone being detected in urine and breast milk.

While it all sounds scary, the Paracelsus maxim (“the dosage makes the poison”) is important to keep in mind.  In vitro studies are notoriously lousy at predicting effects in functioning, multicellular systems like humans.  Further, the mice in the oxybenzone study were fed massive doses of the compound.  It would take several hundred years of daily sunscreen application to achieve similar exposure in humans, so it’s unlikely to be an issue for most of us.

What about the levels detected in urine and breast milk?  Well, oxybenzone is a popular ingredient in lots of products and materials beyond sunscreen. As such, it’s not surprising that it’s detectable in human excretions, and it’s not unique in that regard.  The key questions here are: are those levels attributable to sunscreen use and, more importantly, are those levels harmful?   To the first question, the urine study found no correlation between sunscreen use and oxybenzone levels.  To the second, a number of human studies specifically testing whether oxybenzone exposure from sunscreen use had any physiological effects showed no significant problems.  And finally, irrespective of the source of exposure, there have been no health problems of any kind linked to oxybenzone.  While it’s definitely valid to continue to monitor the chemicals in our environment, it’s also important to note that in nearly 5 decades of widespread use, no safety issues have come up.

Does sunscreen cause cancer?

This concern is primarily based on some in vitro studies showing that retinyl palmitate can generate biologically reactive molecules when exposed to UV radiation.  Retinyl palmitate isn’t a UV filter at all, but rather a Vitamin A precursor molecule that is a common additive to sunscreen formulas, as well as a great many other skincare and food products.  The factors generated when retinyl palmitate is exposed to light, called free radicals or reactive oxygen species, have a well-known potential to induce cancer.

Again, this a reasonable thing to test, but of the numerous studies conducted to assess the carcinogenic potential of retinyl palmitate, only a minority showed an effect, whereas most showed no adverse outcomes at all.  When weighed against the fact that widespread use of retinyl palmitate for years has resulted in no health problems, the few small in vitro studies suggesting harm are not convincing.

An additional cancer concern was raised by a couple of small studies that showed an increase in Melanoma in low-SPF sunscreen users compared to non-users.  The methods of these studies were relatively poor, compared to others that showed either no difference or a protective effect of sunscreen use.  Importantly the researchers didn’t evaluate other potential causes for the increase in Melanoma that they observed.  Stacked up against the better methodologies of larger studies, most particularly the comprehensive Australian study mentioned above, the data just don’t support a causative link between sunscreen use and Melanoma.

Is sunscreen toxic?

This concern arises from recent modifications to the inorganic sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which filter UVB and some UVA rays.  Zinc oxide has been around for a while—you’ll probably recognize it as that opaque white stuff that beachgoers slather all over their noses.  Titanium dioxide is a more recent addition to the sunscreen arsenal, but is similarly pasty in appearance.

While such products are well-suited for small, high profile areas like the nose and cheekbones, their thick, pasty formulas are so difficult to spread that they’re not generally used for whole body protection, which is unfortunate because in addition to being great UV filters they’re also far less likely to cause skin reactions or allergies than some of the organic compounds.

To get around this problem, recent formulations use microsized” or “nanosized” titanium dioxide or zinc oxide mineral particles.  These preparations have the dual advantage of making the product easier to spread and less opaque.   However, the small size of these particles has raised concerns about their ability to penetrate the skin and reach toxic levels in the living cells beneath.  Fortunately, all the evidence indicates that these particles aren’t able to enter the body through the skin. Most were even tested on broken skin and showed no tendency to penetrate to the living cell layers.  This seems to be due, at least in part, to the fact that although the individual particles are indeed very small, they tend to aggregate together in solution, forming chemical bonds that keep them from moving around independently.

swing-1Does sunscreen cause vitamin D deficiency?

This concern seems reasonable on its face. Skin cells in the epidermis produce a vitamin D precursor that is activated by sunlight (by UVB rays, specifically). Block the sunlight, and you could potentially block vitamin D synthesis.  Studies have shown that sunscreen can indeed reduce vitamin D production.  Vitamin D screening is common in primary health care, and is now a cornerstone of the supplement industry, as well as a popular scapegoat for a wide range of maladies in the ‘wellness’ community.

There is a great deal of variation in the definitions of what might constitute a clinically normal vitamin D level in adults, so much so that experts don’t actually recommend routine screening at all.  However, legitimate vitamin D deficiency can lead to some well-characterized developmental problems, like rickets, so it is important to do due diligence when considering the effect of sunblock for children.  Fortunately, research has shown that the use of sunscreen doesn’t contribute to vitamin D deficiency.

Why the discrepancy? In short, it seems that no one is perfectly compliant when applying sunscreen.  A little sun exposure, literally 15-30 minutes a week, is all an otherwise healthy fair skinned person needs to synthesize sufficient amounts of vitamin D.  A few minutes in the sun without sunscreen, or maybe just on that one spot you couldn’t quite reach, appears to be enough.  This is borne out by both the lack of correlation between sunscreen use and vitamin D deficiency, and also the low incidence of rickets and other known outcomes of vitamin D deficiency, in the sunscreen-using population.

Are spray-on sunscreens safe?

A couple of years ago, the FDA announced that it was collecting more data on spray-on sunscreen, which at the time was relatively new to the market.  This was interpreted as an ominous development by some, and a number of unofficial advisories were issued about avoiding use on children, risk of inhalation, etc.  The FDA didn’t issue any sort of follow up on their findings, but based on the number of consumer bulletins about spray-on sunscreen on the FDA website, it seems pretty clear that there are no specific health concerns regarding the sunscreen part of the ingredients.  Much more emphasis has been placed on regulating the ‘dosage’, if you will, since it is applied so much differently than sunscreen lotion.  There are also a number of common-sense precautions that also apply to many other spray-on products. For example, it’s a terrible idea to apply an alcohol-based spray around an open flame, no matter what the other ingredients are.  It’s probably not a good idea to spray sunscreen into your kid’s face, any more than it would be a good idea to spray insect repellent or hairspray.  Inhaling aerosol products in lieu of air is typically an unpleasant experience.  However, aside from these fairly broad safety guidelines, there isn’t any specific reason to shy away from spray on sunscreen.

In summary,

-sunscreen continues to be recommended by healthcare professionals to prevent burns as well as to protect skin from premature aging and from cancer.

-sunscreen safety has been well established.  No health issues have been linked to sunscreen ingredients, despite extensive testing.

-sunscreen provides maximum protection when used appropriately—applying a thick, even layer and reapplying regularly.

One last thing:  the FDA requires sunscreen to be tested for stability and durability, and the expiration dates are usually around 3 years from the date of manufacturing.  These dates are backed by sufficient testing so as to be trustworthy, but also require the liberal application of common sense.  If your sunscreen is stored in extreme temperatures for a long period, for example, or if it changes consistency from one year to the next, it’s a good idea to replace it even if it’s not technically expired.

So, be smart about sun exposure, wear hats and water shirts when possible, seek out a broad-spectrum product with high SPF, slather up, and have a beautiful summer.  I’ll see you at the pool.

 

For more tips and information, see this sunscreen FAQ from the Skin Cancer Foundation

Also, see the Skin Cancer Foundation’s response to some of the recently renewed claims.

 

References:

Burnett and Wang, 2011. Current sunscreen controversies:  a critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunity & Photomedicine. 27, 58-67

Jansen, et al., 2013. Photoprotection: Part II. Sunscreen: Development, efficacy and controversies. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 69(6). 867.e1-867.e14.

LeFevre, et al., 2015. Screening for Vitamin D Deficiency in Adults: U.S. Preventative Services Task Force Recommendation Statement.  Annals of Internal Medicine.162(2): 133-140.

Green, et al., 2011. Reduced melanoma after regular sunscreen use: randomized trial follow-up. Journal of Clinical Oncology  29(3):257-63.

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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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Conversations in Real Life: Donuts

June: Is a trillion eleven?

Me: What? No. A trillion is a trillion.

June: Ok, then is a million eleven?

Me: What are you even talking about?

June: You know, in donuts!

Me: WHAT? Donuts? I still don’t get it. Like are there eleven zeros in a million?

June: NO! Like a million donuts is eleven donuts.

Me: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

June: *super frustrated with me*

…. a few minutes later…

Me: OH! A dozen!!! You mean a dozen?

June: YES!

Me: A dozen is twelve. Twelve donuts is a dozen.

June: Oh. Yeah. A dozen!

*I thought she’d gone crazy there for a minute. Two whole years in elementary school down the drain, but she just couldn’t remember the right word. Whew.

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Are We Giving Our Kids A New Eating Disorder?

Remember when people used to just eat food? They didn’t obsess over it – it was just, you know, make sure you eat a well-balanced meal. Eat your veggies, that orthorexia story-5sort of thing. Now it’s all everyone talks about – at least that’s the way it feels to me. To be fair, I probably bring some of it on myself since I have a blog about food and I constantly read about agriculture and I’m hyper-aware when people start talking about food. But in a lot of conversations with my friends, at some point or another, it always turns to food. Everyone has an opinion about the quality of what our kids are eating.

Recently I heard the term orthorexia for the first time, and it made me wonder if we’re creating a new generation of kids with eating disorders. What the hell is orthorexia you ask? It’s an eating disorder that is characterized not by an obsession about how much you eat, but by an obsession with food quality and purity. From the National Eating Disorder Association’s webpage, “Every day is a chance to eat right, be ‘good,’ rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).  Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.” Because nutritionists and psychologists are seeing this more and more, experts are considering adding orthorexia to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM 5.)

Wait, that sounds familiar: “Rise above others in dietary prowess” and “they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.” Let that sink in. Recently I wrote about how frustrated I am with some moms’ superiority complex over where they buy their groceries and what’s on the label. I’ve read stories online about moms who spend their entire day obsessing over what to feed their kids, and I have personally heard moms say, “I just don’t know what to feed them anymore, everything is so loaded with crap.” And the thing is, our kids are listening.

Twice in the past few months my daughter has proven to me that she’s listening. I rarely let her buy hot lunch at school, simply because I’m cheap. But she’d been asking to buy hot lunch, and one morning the coffee pot broke and I was pretty sure my hands would notfunction without coffee to make her a lunch so I said, “Guess what? Today is the day you get to buy hot lunch!!” When she came home I said, “How was it? What did you have?” and I can’t even remember what she said she had, but I do remember she said, “They had those sugar yogurts, but I didn’t get one of those.” I said, “What are sugar yogurts?” and she said, “You know, those ones Grandma and Grandpa like but that you say are just full of sugar?” She means Yoplait or something similar that comes in a single serving container. Another time I asked her what kind of Girl Scout Cookie she wanted for dessert and she said, “The do-si-dos (peanut butter patties). They have peanut butter in them, so they’re probably the healthiest.”

She’s six.

Now, I feel like my husband and I do a pretty decent job of keeping it real, if you know what I mean. We try to teaorthorexia story-8ch both our kids good eating habits and model good behavior, and I think we strike a pretty good balance between healthy and indulgent. They know ice cream isn’t good for you, but we still eat it sometimes. But clearly she’s been listening when my husband and I talk about sugar content and what we think might make one food better than another. So, I’m making sure to explain that a little better. But when does it change from teaching healthy eating habits to creating an eating disorder? I’m not really worried that I’m giving my daughter an eating disorder – but I do think it’s something we should be aware of. It’s not just a body image thing, there is a real problem with people getting so caught up in the supposed superiority of one food over another that it becomes an actual eating disorder.

I understand this fed-up feeling that many moms have, though, about what to feed their kids. The amount of information (accurate or otherwise) that’s on social media about food and where it comes from and whether or not it’s good for us is overwhelming. I’ve felt the same feeling of, “what am I even supposed to feed them?” When my almost five-year-old went in for his three-year-old checkup, the pediatrician told me his BMI had been climbing for the past few checkups and he was technically overweight. They brought in the pediatric nutritionist to consult with me about how I could change his diet. “Maybe cut down on juice,” she said. “We don’t drink juice,” I said. “Is he active?” she asked. I gave her a pretty good are-you-shitting-me look, “He’s three. Of course he’s active; I can’t even get him to sit down.” All she could really come up with was that maybe I should give him smaller portions of dairy, and I kind of felt like she was stretching to make that recommendation. I left there with a pretty desperate feeling. I thought I was doing a pretty good job – I work really hard to make home-cooked, healthy meals. We don’t eat a lot of snack foods. My husband and I exercise a lot, we model good behavior. WTF am I supposed to feed him?!

orthorexia story-7I took a deep breath, called my mom, and after she reassured me I’m doing a good job, I changed nothing. I went back in with my son three months later and the pediatrician gave me a solid pat on the back for doing a great job, his BMI had gone down. He’d also grown considerably taller. So I confronted the pediatrician about it and let him know that I was feeling pretty pissed that I was kind of made to feel like a bad mom when I’m really not doing anything wrong. That’s when I saw a mix of desperation and exhaustion in his eyes. He explained to me that the push in the pediatric world to “fix” childhood obesity is intense. As a pediatrician, he’s not always sure what to do, either. I get that.

I understand that feeling of not knowing what to do, because none of us (parents) truly know what we’re doing either. The pressure to do the very best for them is powerful, and I certainly don’t know the answer to the question of how to fix childhood obesity, but let’s make certain that we don’t instill in them a sense of desperation about food that could cause them to spiral into an eating disorder. We, as parents, need to make sure we’re keeping a level head about food. Are the quality and purity of the ingredients really so important? Or is it really more important that they understand some foods are better for you than others, but it’s ok to eat those not-so-great foods sometimes? Ice cream is really good, I love it, let’s eat it together sometimes. Not every day, but sometimes. It’s no big deal if you like Kraft Mac and Cheese, let’s have it sometimes. Let’s also try homemade mac and cheese, too, though – maybe you’ll like that better! Just take a deep breath, call your mom (or a friend), and reassure yourself that you’re doing a good job. It’s all going to be ok, it’s just food after all – it doesn’t define who you are as a person; don’t let it take over your whole life.

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