It’s the start of a fresh year, and we’re revved up to start thinking about wellness in a big-picture way. Taking care of our own bodies and minds (and helping you do it with yourselves, families, and communities)is one thing, but part of our mission statement is to “inform, inspire, and empower you to take control of your health and demand a system that supports you.”
Here are the issues and actions we’re focused on changing in 2018— and how we’re going to help make that happen.
1. Spending more time offline
This one is less policy-based and more cultural. Reframing the “always on” cultural norm that has evolved over the past decade means fitting in blocks of time offline for ourselves, family, friends, employees, bosses– every person everywhere. And we don’t mean doing chores during that time, we mean turning inward– you may have heard this concept called “self-care.”
From a health perspective, cortisol (the stress hormone) spikes with anxiety or with constant stimulation of the brain from blue light given off by devices (phones, computers, TVs). In modern life, our cortisol is spiking constantly from this blue light exposure and from device-induced stress, fatiguing our adrenals, messing with our thyroids, and causing lots of other unintended health issues. The constant state of anxiety and stress is, for one thing, related to looking at and comparing yourself to other people. One consequence of this is the rise in teen suicide and depression rates from cyberbullying.
This is a trend we see becoming worse and worse for our health, at any age. We will be offline-self care evangelists in 2018 because our health and, in effect, the health of the nation, depends on it.
2. Prioritizing community
As a piggyback to #1, our device addiction has also weakened our communities. People who would regularly meet in person now just text or email. We have learned from the “The Blue Zones of Happiness” and this study on social isolation just how incredibly important community is for our health outcomes. We will be doing a lot to gather the WellBe community together offline, and encourage the cultural shift toward not just connecting with people in a one-off way, but finding some positive community (school-, faith-, hobby-, extended family-based) to be a part of.
3. Using A LOT LESS plastic and creating less waste
We’re cutting back, for a lot of reasons. Here are a few:
Plastics can be endocrine disruptors.
This happens when chemicals mess with the endocrine system, and can lead to all kinds of problems, including developmental malformations, reproductive issues, increased cancer risk, and problems with the immune and nervous systems. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “Very few chemicals have been tested for their potential to interfere with the endocrine system. Current standard test methods do not provide adequate data to identify potential endocrine disruptors (EDs) or to assess their risks to humans and wildlife.”
The chemical BPA is one of these endocrine disruptors. It’s commonly found in plastic products (including food containers), and many consumer products have started going BPA-free. But even BPA-free plastics were found to leach chemicals— and perhaps even disrupt the endocrine system more than BPA.
Over time, low-level exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals builds up in the body, which can take a big toll on public health. A 2016 study from NYU Langone Medical Center estimated that annual healthcare costs and lost earnings exceeds $340 billion. The study authors found that routine exposure to these chemicals increased rates of neurological and behavioral disorders, rates of male infertility, birth defects, endometriosis, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers, as well as diminished IQ scores.
Plastic is messing with fish.
When plastic debris ends up in the oceans, fish may be mistakenly eating it, thinking it’s their natural prey. In an August study, researchers found what they said is the first behavioral evidence that the smell of plastic is enticing to fish. In a separate September study, researchers found that these tiny pieces of plastic accumulate in fish brain tissue and could be changing their behavior. All this is pretty bad for the fish, but, turns out, the plastic may also be getting into the fish flesh and, when eaten by humans, into our bodies. Another study this year found this was happening in certain dried fish. The researchers did note that these dried fish are usually eaten whole, which could explain how microplastics were getting into people. But still… There are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean and marine experts are worried there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2025. All that being said, using less plastic and keeping it out of ocean is important!
Plastic may be contaminating our drinking water.
The ocean isn’t the only water source being infiltrated by tiny plastic pieces— according to a September study, over 94 percent of U.S. tap water samples were contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers.
Most plastic ends up in landfills and can take up to 500 years to decompose, during which time they may be leaching chemicals into soil and water. One step that’s worth applauding is California and Hawaii’s bans on plastic bags. On the other end, Idaho, Missouri, and Arizona actually passed law that prevents cities and counties from passing plastic bag bans. Umm…
So, we’re cutting back on plastic— especially for products that involve what we eat and drink. Instead, we’re using glass and stainless steel, which won’t leach chemicals, and bringing our cloth reusable grocery bags every time we shop.
4. Fighting to reduce antibiotic overuse
Antibiotic use is out of hand. Here are ways to help fight antibiotic resistance:
Reduce use of antibiotics in livestock feed and water.
New federal rules went into effect in early 2017 that ban the use of antibiotics to help livestock gain weight, a practice that contributes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose health threats to humans. But the FDA rules are weak. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says the rules would still let farmers use antibiotics for disease prevention, an allowance that continues to sanction the prolonged use of the drugs. As much as 70 percent of antibiotics developed to treat humans are sold for use in feed and water for farm animals.
Want to take action to cut back on antibiotic use in livestock? These 16 organizations are working to raise antibiotic resistance awareness. We are trying to avoid animal products when we can and avoiding any meat or dairy or eggs that aren’t labeled as antibiotic-free.
Protect tap water (and soil and food) from antibiotics (and other prescription drugs).
Antibiotics can enter our waterways and drinking water supplies through manufacturing waste, animal excretion, runoff from animal feeding operations, or leaching from municipal landfills, according to a 2010 report from the NRDC. You may have heard that before, but did you know that the U.S. doesn’t require filtering pharmaceuticals out of drinking water? Sure, it’s only trace amounts, but repeated exposure could be toxic. And with antibiotics ending up in water, resistant bacteria could develop and add to the antibiotic resistance problem.
Cut back on antibiotic prescriptions to humans.
With the “pill for an ill” mentality in conventional medicine, it’s no surprise that antibiotics are being overprescribed. According to the CDC, up to one-third to one-half of prescriptions are unnecessary. Every year, at least 2 million Americans suffer from antibiotic-resistant illness; at least 23,000 people die as a result. Our current medical school training doesn’t provide education on the perils of antibiotic overprescription. It will take a top-down, bottom-up approach. Patients must question and do the research any time they are given an antibiotics prescription to find out whether it is 100 percent necessary. Organizations like physician practice groups, hospitals, and clinics must use social pressure, education, accountability, and additional justification around the prescription of antibiotics to people. And when the drugs are 100 percent necessary, doctors must be required to provide a medical-grade probiotic and patient education around the implications for the microbiome and antibiotic resistance, with additional requirements for children’s prescriptions.
An October University of Southern California study found that low-cost approaches to nudge docs to avoid unnecessary prescriptions can help. These included peer accountability emails and required reporting on why antibiotics were prescribed.
In March, representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced the Reinvigorating Antibiotic and Diagnostic Innovation Bill (H.R. 1840) to Congress. Their proposal provides tax incentives for pharma companies to invest in developing rapid diagnostic tests for infections and new classes of antibiotics.
Ban antibacterial soaps and consumer/home products.
Our next goal below has a lot to do with this one. The FDA recently banned a few different antibacterial chemicals from personal care products, but the number of banned chemicals is still so low and so many Americans still have antibacterial soap and wipes in their home and daily routine— we need much more action and education on this front. We’re not using them anywhere!
5. Using cleaner personal care products
Just venturing to guess here, but all of us use some sort of personal care product every day, right? Even if you’re not a makeup person, you’re washing your face with something. According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) survey, each day, American women use an average of 12 personal care products that contain 168 chemicals. For men, it’s six personal care products that contain 85 different chemicals. The laws regulating the safety of these products haven’t been updated since the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act in 1938. Um, the cosmetics/skincare/beauty industry has changed a lot since then. And so have the chronic disease rates.
In May 2017, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a bill, the Personal Care Products Safety Act (S. 113) to give the FDA authority to regulate the safety of these products. Wait, the FDA isn’t doing that now? So who is? Good question. The bill has the support of 17 companies (repping over 160 brands), including L’Oreal and Unilever. Feinstein has been working on this legislation for more than eight years and consulted with companies, doctors, consumer advocates, patient advocates, and the FDA itself.
If the bill passes, the FDA could do a safety review of five ingredients (yes this also seems shockingly low to us, too) in personal care products every year. The bill already has the first five ingredients picked out, including the chemical used for Brazilian blowouts (it’s a known human carcinogen) and three endocrine disruptors used in a wide range of products, including shampoo, conditioner, lotion, bubble bath, and deodorant.
We’re hoping it picks up some momentum this year because we’re embarrassingly behind in this game. As in, the European Union has banned 1,300 ingredients, but the U.S. has only banned 11.
6. Supporting disclosure of household product ingredients
In October, we shared the news that California became the first state to make ingredient labeling for cleaning products mandatory. New York is still finalizing their version of this; their law would require manufacturers to list chemicals on easily searchable websites. To put that in perspective, California and NY’s laws would mean about one-fifth of the U.S. population would be able to see what’s in their household cleaning products (yes, you’d have to go on a website, so not as helpful as having them on the bottle, but it’s a start). Over in Minnesota, legislators wrote an ingredient disclosure bill that didn’t make it to vote. On the national level, representative Raul Ruiz (D-CA) introduced The Federal Cleaning Products Right to Know Act (H.R. 2728) in May.
As a reminder, there’s currently no transparency in household cleaning products. Consumers have no idea if they’re using products with allergens, environmental toxicants, or chemicals linked to harmful health effects.
This legislative movement on a state level has put the pressure on manufacturers and a big one, Procter & Gamble Co., has come to the table in support and said they’ll start listing ingredients in fragrances used in products like Febreze and Herbal Essences, Bloomberg reported. When you see “fragrance” on a label, it could be a cover for hundreds of ingredients. Manufacturers don’t want to spill their trade secrets, like proprietary formulations, but P&G worked with California and agreed that they’ll list substances linked to harmful effects and can claim trade-secret protections for other ingredients.
In more disappointing news, in December, the EPA said it is indefinitely postponing bans on certain uses of three toxic chemicals found in consumer products. Seriously?! The EPA knows these chemicals are dangerous, but they’re basically backing out of a law (that had strong bipartisan support) from 2016.
If you’re as frustrated as we are, growing consumer pressure is a big reason why big brands have made the commitment, so we’re saying, let’s add to that! Reach out to your state representatives to tell them you support the Cleaning Products Right to Know Act, tell them you want what California and New York have, and vote with your dollars by buying products that list their ingredients on the labels. If you’re a New York resident, express that you support the bill since it hasn’t passed as of January 2018. Seventh Generation has tips and a tool to help you make your voice heard by your local legislators. Oh, and only buy products with organic and plant-based ingredients, duh!
7. Advocating for a 2018 farm bill that supports organic farming and, you know, real food
The farm bill is up for a redo in 2018. A refresher: This bill funds nutrition programs (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what used to be called food stamps), all major agricultural programs (think crop subsidies), conservation programs (helping farmers protect natural resources on their land), and research. These crop subsidies are what incentivize commercial farmers to grow only cash crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice instead of diversifying with vegetables and fruit. On top of the nutrient-poor nature of corn, wheat, soybeans and rice vs. fruit and vegetables, sticking to one crop means using fertilizer and pesticide to get a large volume of crops out of the land.
These five major crops are in a LOT of our foods, which means we’re eating those pesticides and low-nutrient food rather than high-nutrient foods. One study found that average Americans gets ~75 percent of their calories from processed foods, which are largely made from corn, wheat, and soy. Many believe this mighhttttt have something to do with the obesity and chronic disease epidemic of the last 70 years.
In November, House Rep Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced the Food and Farm Act (H.R. 4425), proposed legislation that would constitute a major departure from the farm bill’s core elements. Blumenauer wants to reimagine the farm bill in order to reform crop subsidies, cut back on antibiotic use in livestock, provide budget and policy support for small and organic farms, and focus on reducing pesticides. And those are just the highlights. For more details, Civil Eats has great coverage.
Author and advocate Michael Pollan gave the keynote for the Food and Farm Act launch and said that the farm bill “is the most important piece of health legislation likely to pass next year and probably the most important piece of environmental legislation likely to pass next year.” As a consequence, “anyone who’s concerned about climate change, anyone who’s concerned about public health, has a stake.”
Blumenauer is working on his legislation outside the farm bill committees, which means the bill will probably be introduced in parts as add-ons to the official farm bill. Supporters include Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who’s an organic farmer herself. This year she was awarded a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her support of national policies that promote healthy food, local and regional food systems, and organic agriculture.
In May, Pingree introduced the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017 (H.R. 2436). Less than 1 percent of the last farm bill went to agricultural research and less than one-tenth of that went to organic agricultural research. Pingree’s bill proposes doubling the funding. It has more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors and support from organizations including the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Beyond Pesticides, Civil Eats reported.
The House and Senate Agriculture Committees haven’t gone public with their conversations about the farm bill or its contents. Turns out, Congress hasn’t finished a farm bill on time since 1990. The risk here is that the 2014 law expires October 1, 2018, and, without reauthorization of funds, some programs will be stranded. These include programs that support organic production.
There’s a lot that goes into the farm bill and we just went into a couple issues we’re focused on. If you want to learn more, Pingree recommended Food Policy Action as a resource. You can see where your legislators stand and take action on their campaigns.