A call for information on the use of glyphosate is a good time to reconsider how it can be used safely, the bee industry says.
Lewis presents 19th-century Senegal at a time of turmoil. She explores how French colonialism and demand for peanut oil in Europe created a peanut boom with lasting repercussions for Senegalese agriculture and reinforced a system of slavery that persisted long after France had banned it in territories it held.
EHN spoke with Lewis about her book and writing about agriculture and the environment in Senegal today.
The peanut comes originally from South America, where it evolved and spread throughout the continent. It was probably taken quite early by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors back to Europe, and from Europe to Africa. Peanuts were grown on a small scale and in kitchen gardens along with other complements to a diet … so, not at the same scale as cereals like millet or folio in Senegal, but grown probably like okra or cowpeas.
It expanded once there was a demand for peanut oil in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. They needed oil for maintaining their machines and steam engines. Before petroleum, they also needed oil for lighting. And, of course, they were killing whales for oil. A society that’s killing large sea mammals for oil obviously needs a lot of oil. But then, the main driver became the soap industry. Peanut oil has very similar chemical properties as olive oil and could be substituted up to a percentage in the Savon de Marseille.
Kajoor’s sandy soil environment was perfect for the peanut. I knew that a long time ago there had been a more robust peanut economy there; peanuts from Kajoor were so well-prized in Europe. Was it the peanut that created the expansion of slavery? In West Africa, there were people who were born enslaved. But there came to be a demand for labor in Kajoor, and that brought people enslaved through war. Why was there war? In part, because of economic developments related to European presence and capitalism.
I’d been reading a book about slavery in the 19th century, and there was a brief reference to a Sierra Leonean Protestant missionary named Walter Taylor, who established a shelter for runaway slaves in Saint Louis. I found that this Black missionary from a British-held territory had 20 years of letters with the mission directorate in Paris.
Even though Taylor was working, in a way, for the colonial enterprise, he had such an interesting backstory as a Black man in a white-dominated colonial system, as an Anglophone in the Francophone world, and as the son of liberated slaves who'd grown up in a community of people who had been liberated. I became a little obsessed with his story.
There was a movement of enslaved people from the interior trying to get to Saint Louis as a kind of promised land. But the process of claiming freedom was administratively difficult. Arriving runaway slaves would have to register with the city and say, “I declare I have a right to my freedom.” But then they had to wait three months. And within those three months, a slave owner could come and reclaim that person.
The court preferred people not bring these matters before the court, so a slave master might find the person and say, “I can leave you alone if you pay for your freedom.” But who has that much money? So Walter Taylor had the idea to take up a collection in the church. He realized there was an opportunity to evangelize among this group, who were open to the mission because it had helped them.
Taylor was trying to build a career for himself in the mission. He needed converts. But as a person who'd grown up in a community of liberated people, I think he really did care for them, and their stories resonated with his own on some deeper level.
Lat Joor became damel, was forced out by the French, and then came back through dubious methods and betrayals. He was jockeying for influence to keep his throne. He thought for a while that the French could be a tool to help him do that — before he started to understand, as maybe all colonized people eventually understand, these people are not here to help you, they are here to take your land.
Lat Joor had a lot of enslaved people. I found letter after letter in which he wrote to the [colonial] governor or commandant to say, “Please return to me my slave.” But Lat Joor is an epic, heroic figure in Senegalese history because of his resistance to colonization. I think my book shows that that resistance was not always straight. There was some collaboration before there was resistance.
I wanted to include women’s voices and others who weren’t part of the elite. I also wanted to include the voices of the enslaved. I found some stories in the mission’s archives and court records, narratives of how they came to be enslaved and how they came to be free. Trying to tell this story from that perspective was really important to me, especially because sometimes an approach to popular African history tends to create hero narratives as a corrective — a very sensible corrective — to hundreds of years of denigration of African culture and history. But I also wanted to show the whole history, to say we have complicated stories about people who are not just good or bad, because we're all complex characters with different motives, who at different points in time err on the side of goodness or evil.
I see Senegalese agriculture scaling up, trying to be like American or European agriculture. The same ideas of industrialized agriculture predominate. There are some small movements here, but what Senegal probably needs is extreme regenerative agriculture, and I don't particularly see that happening. I see the agriculture industry is largely business as usual — fertilizers, pesticides. Let's modernize. That's something you hear a lot, which means becoming like the industrialized agriculture of America,Europe, China, or even India. All of them have their imprimatur on the way Senegal sees its agricultural system.
The baobab tree is so omnipresent in Senegal’s history and understanding of itself. But at the same time, it's so endangered. When I travel in Senegal, I think about all those lost trees, and the amount of history they represent, because baobabs are so long-lived, almost like redwoods. It’s hard even to fix our imagination on what it means to be in the presence of a thousand or two-thousand-year-old tree, right?
Our human living memory is only like 110 years old. But the baobab tree — how long is the living memory of that tree? It's incredible to imagine how many shifts humanity has been through in those 2,000 years.
In a couple of chapters, I mention a period called the “hunger years,” brought on by cyclical drought. People were at the whims of the natural environment that pushed them to make political or economic decisions. You’d see more conflict sometimes, people migrating to the city. It’s really interesting to get the broad sweep of history and see how climate is its own character in the book.
Today we’re so insulated, especially in America. But even in Senegal, a certain class of people is really insulated from the reality of the climate. What’s the impact of that over the long term? We just keep cutting things down, not paying attention to what the signals are telling us.
The climate’s part of it, but our political decisions are more often than not what determines access to food, safety, water, all of it, which brings us back to Slaves for Peanuts. Unwittingly, the consumer of French soap was driving continued enslavement in Africa. It’s important to understand how our choices impact the larger system, the larger world.
Lewis’ book is published by The New Press and available from independent booksellers and online vendors large and small.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Many years ago, endocrinologist and medical doctor Robert Lustig had a patient, a 5-year-old girl, who was suffering from obesity. Unable to determine the cause of her obesity, Lustig scanned her for tumors.
The culprit was not a tumor, nor the girl’s diet, exercise, or family history. Rather, it was her body wash, said Lustig,a professor emeritus of Pediatrics, Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. A Victoria’s Secret bath gel, labeled “For Adults Only,” had been the source of a chemical — phytoestrogen — in the girl’s blood known to spur obesity.
Phytoestrogen is found in plants and acts on the body’s estrogen receptors, which induces the production of fat cells. It’s one of a class of chemicals referred to as obesogens, according to a set of new reviews published last month in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology.
As obesity rates rise in the U.S., scientists are working to understand what’s driving the epidemic. While diet and exercise are major factors, these reviews point toward obesogens as another important but under-studied contributor. The three reviews, which cover what obesogens are, how they cause obesity, and methods for studying them, point out how paying attention to obesogens can help shift focus in obesity research from treatment to prevention. Scientists also call for a reduction in exposure to obesogens, which are ubiquitous in everyday life, as a method to slow the obesity epidemic.
“They’re pretty much everywhere,” Jerry Heindel, a biochemist, founder and director of HEEDS, and lead author on one of the reviews told EHN. “Pretty much everybody is going to [be exposed to] some of these obesogens.”
Obesogens are a subset of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which disrupt a body’s hormone activity. Obesogens are generally defined as any chemical that can cause the human body to produce more fat than it normally would. These can include substances we usually think of as fattening, like sugars or artificial sweeteners.
However, many obesogens are not found in food, rather entering the body through other consumer products, like makeup, shampoos, soaps, plastics, and cleaners. Obesogens can also get into food from pesticides and food packaging. The chemicals are shed from such products and can accumulate in household dust, which people breathe in. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (toxic chemicals used in many consumer and industrial products) are another example of obesogens, as is bisphenol- A (BPA).
Obesogens can act on the body in many different ways. For example, said Heindel, different obesogens can disrupt metabolism, cause the body to produce new fat cells, alter our eating behavior, and even disrupt the gastrointestinal tract and the way food is digested.
Prevalence of self-reported obesity among U.S. adults by state, 2020. (Credit: CDC)
In the U.S., obesity has risen steadily over the past decades, from 30% of adults in 2000 to 42% of adults in 2018. Obesity in children has risen as well, from 14% in 2000 to 19% in 2019. People think about obesity mostly in the context of calories—if you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. To deal with obesity, many clinicians will advise reducing the number of calories eaten and increasing exercise.
Diet and exercise undoubtedly play a major role in obesity levels. However, the persistent rise in obesity in the U.S. indicates to Heindel that something besides diet and exercise is at play.
But with the lack of available tests to determine whether a person might be suffering from obesogen exposure or not, scientists are still unsure of the role that obesogens play in proportion to other factors like diet and exercise. “There are so many multiple different factors going on, that we can't pinpoint which one is doing what,” said Heindel.
Doctors and healthcare workers, he added, are “focused on the fact that obesity is due to over-eating. So if you are obese, you can take drugs, you can be on a diet, or you can have surgery. And that's supposed to take care of the obesity.”
Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental biology at the University of California, Irvine and an author on the reviews, agrees. “That’s still the view of the medical community, that obesity really has everything to do with calories and activity and not much to do with anything else,” he told EHN.
The Centers for Disease Control, for example, does not list obesogens as a driver of obesity; instead, it lists diet, activity, sleep, and genetics.
Ryan Baldwin, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, an organization representing more than 190 chemical companies, pushed back against the new reviews.
“The prevailing view among the mainstream medical community is that obesity results from an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure caused by poor nutritional choices and insufficient exercise,” he wrote in a statement to EHN. “The evidence to support this view is much larger and of much higher quality compared to the evidence cited by Heindel [and co-authors] to support their obesogen hypothesis.”
While exposure to obesogens as an adult can cause weight gain, there are specific periods in development when people are most susceptible to obesogen exposure. Exposure is a particularly important consideration for pregnant people, the review warns, as the chemicals can pass through the placenta and affect the development of a fetus’s metabolic system in utero. That exposed fetus will have a higher risk of obesity later in life.
Young children are also more vulnerable to obesogens. During early childhood, the metabolic system is still under development, and susceptible to chemical influences. The changes that these metabolic systems undergo in early childhood — such as obesogen exposure — are carried through to adulthood, putting the child at a higher risk of obesity.
Individuals can reduce their exposure by avoiding pre-packaged or processed foods, which often come in containers made with obesogens like PFAS or other plastic additives. Avoiding fruits and vegetables treated with pesticides, or washing produce that has been sprayed, is another way to reduce exposure.
The authors of the reviews urge that obesogen exposure is such a widespread public health problem that it should be dealt with through regulation. For example, said Lustig, the Environmental Protection Agency should take responsibility for testing for and regulating such chemicals. That’s not happening, said Blumberg, because of a lack of will and funding within the EPA. “The EPA is heavily influenced by the industries that are regulated ... that’s not the way they’re supposed to work,” he said.
Regardless, said Heindel, “it’s hurting peoples’ health, and hopefully [governments] will pay attention to that and act accordingly.”
Banner photo credit: i yunmai/Unsplash
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for protecting the public’s health and ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply.
Sadly, as Politico reported this month, the agency “has repeatedly failed to take timely action on a wide range of safety and health issues the agency has been aware of for several years, including dangerous pathogens found in water used to grow produce and heavy metal contamination in baby foods.”
Here, I focus on another critical agency mandate: To protect the public from harmful chemicals in food and cosmetics. Here too the agency is failing to protect consumers.
Chemicals in food and cosmetics—whether present as additives or contaminants—usually do not cause immediate or obvious health effects, but they pose a significant longer-term risk to public health. Consumers want to know that their food and products they use every day are safe and that neither individual chemicals nor their cumulative impacts will harm their health. Congress directed the FDA to do this more than 60 years ago.
In the midst of growing external scrutiny and skepticism over scientific decisions about the safety of additives and contaminants like bisphenol A (BPA) and synthetic dyes, the FDA initiated a review of its chemical safety assessment program in its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The review’s purpose was “to ensure that the agency is making the most effective and efficient use of its chemical safety resources” and was focused on the program’s scientific capacity and management.
The review included interviews with FDA scientists, as well as senior managers from other federal agencies who were experienced in chemical safety. Outside experts in the field commented on a final draft of the report and provided recommendations.
The interviewees’ responses to the science-related questions had a common theme: FDA’s guidance and methods to evaluate chemicals’ toxicities were outdated.
The agency staff and the external experts brought forward a number of issues, including that the FDA:
The review led to “the development of a process for updating FDA’s Toxicological Principles for the Safety Assessment of Food Ingredients” widely-known as the Redbook.
One of the problems highlighted by experts within and outside of the agency is that when it comes to chemical assessments at the FDA, regulatory science is too static and has evolved little since the 1980s, despite a tremendous growth in our understanding of chemicals and their effects on the body. The FDA has maintained its predilection to adhere to precedent regardless of whether scientific advances render that precedent misguided or irrelevant.
And with the agency’s “glacial pace of decisions,” there are few high quality precedents; FDA is in no rush to create new ones.
In many cases, the FDA fails to make its studies or scientific decisions on additives and contaminants readily available to the public. (Credit: FDA)
New in vitro, [e.g., cells in culture] and other short-term testing methods and epidemiological data have become available as scientific understanding of chemical hazards has evolved. The FDA is beginning to incorporate some of these newer approaches in its assessments and other processes. For example, the FDA used human data to support its decision to remove artificial trans fats from processed foods, and the agency’s evaluation of the persistence of per- or polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) demonstrated that residues of this class of chemicals in food were unsafe. While these examples are encouraging, the FDA has yet to make the systemic changes needed to modernize the scientific process for chemicals across the board.
Also, when the FDA has conducted a post-market review of a chemical that properly employs modern regulatory science to identify a significant public health risk, the management of such risks has too often been delayed, attenuated, or indefinitely postponed. For example, after scientists concluded that short-chain PFAS needed to be removed from the food supply as soon as possible because of bioaccumulation in humans, the agency gave companies five years to phase them out. Even worse, for cosmetics, actions on chemicals have often completely contradicted FDA’s science assessments. For example, the agency decided not to ban carcinogenic formaldehyde in hair treatments and it took several years to resolve industry’s objections to FDA’s decision to ban lead acetate in hair dye.
The FDA’s lack of transparency doesn’t build trust.
The FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has been described as “an incredibly insular and hard to understand place” and critics have said that the agency “sets a high bar for alerting the public of food chemical safety issues.”
Transparency in the Center’s scientific process and decision-making is an essential component that allows for improvements. During the 2012-2013 review, FDA scientists identified lack of transparency and communication about the agency’s activities and decision-making process as a barrier to building trust and credibility with the public, even while its scientists made valuable contributions to the advancement of science.
In many cases, the FDA fails to make its studies or scientific decisions on additives and contaminants readily available to the public, meaning Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are often the only way the public can obtain important information. Additionally, slow responses to FOIA requests erodes trust further, does not promote transparency and review by independent scientists, and wastes agency resources responding to multiple requests for the same information.
Dr. Robert Califf, the newly appointed FDA Commissioner, has the opportunity to reset the agency’s approach to chemicals safety, both in food and cosmetics. Here are recommendations on how to tackle six important challenges:
In short, the FDA needs to take advantage of the opportunity to modernize its scientific approach to evaluating the safety of food and cosmetics chemicals, both prospectively and retrospectively, and to take stronger actions to protect the public’s health. Dr. Califf should seize the opportunity of his return to the agency to take on this public health challenge. The scientific, medical, and public health communities are ready to help him succeed.
Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., is a scientist emeritus and former director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, and a scholar in residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University.
Microplastics can pick up pollution in their travels and pose an even greater threat to human health, according to a new study.
In the ocean, for example, toxic compounds can hitch a ride on plastic and make the material 10 times more toxic than it would normally be, according to the research published earlier this year in Chemosphere.
Although the dangers of both microplastics and harmful compounds have been studied individually, few researchers have look at their combined effect. This study is also unique in that the researchers tested these polluted plastic particles on human cells—most previous research has focused on the impacts on marine life.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles formed when larger pieces of plastic degrade over time—and they are ubiquitous, found everywhere from Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench. They can act as magnets for environmental pollution, transforming them into potentially toxic particles, Andrey Rubin, a Ph.D. Student at Tel Aviv University and first author of the study, told EHN.
The microplastics can then funnel these compounds into the bodies of marine organisms, which studies have shown can lead to neurotoxicity, an altered immune response, a reduced growth rate, and death. From there, the tainted microplastics can continue to make their way up the food chain, inadvertently exposing humans.
Rubin and co-author Ines Zuker, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tel Aviv University, tested what would happen when human cells found along the intestinal tract were exposed to a pollution-plastic mixture containing one type of microplastic known as microbeads and triclosan, an antimicrobial ingredient that was banned in the U.S. in 2016, primarily due to health concerns.
Triclosan, formerly found in mouthwash and hand sanitizer, is an endocrine disruptor that has also been linked to an increase in allergies in children. Even so, “it still exists in some products,” explained Rubin. “A year ago, we saw triclosan in a toothpaste, which is sold here in Israel.”
Rubin and Zucker found that, alone, the microbeads weren’t toxic to human cells. Neither was triclosan.
When combined, however, the two were “very toxic toward the cells,” said Rubin—the effect was an order of magnitude greater than the sum of its parts.
Outside the lab, the cells the researchers used in their investigation are the same ones that act as a barrier between the inside and outside of the body. The plastic mixture “can get into our bloodstream,” explained Rubin, where the accumulated compounds will likely be released.
Next, they hope to investigate how the mixture’s toxicity changes when different plastics or pollutants are used.
Controlled environments in a laboratory make it difficult to say how applicable these findings are in the real world, Tan Amelia, a Ph.D. student at University of Malaysia, Terengganu who was not involved with the study, told EHN. Conditions in the lab don’t perfectly represent environment, and findings from microplastics research is often hard to replicate due to a lack of standardized methods.
But Amelia said the study should spur more awareness of a global problem.
“Papers like those of Rubin and co-workers’ could help spread awareness regarding the severity of microplastics, which indirectly encourages the reduction of microplastics manufacturing and consumption,” she said.
Four popular organic pasta sauces have detectable levels of fluorine, an indicator of toxic PFAS, according to a new report from Mamavation.
Partnering with EHN.org, the environmental wellness blog and community Mamavation tested 55 sauces and found levels of fluorine ranging from 10 parts per million (ppm) up to 21 ppm in four of the sauces: 365 Whole Foods Organic Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce, Muir Glen Organic Italian Herb Pasta Sauce, Organicville Italian Herb Pasta Sauce, and Trader Joe's Organic Tomato Basil Marinara.
EHN.org partially funded the testing and Pete Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, which publishes Environmental Health News, reviewed the findings.
While the testing doesn’t prove per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are in the sauces, fluorine is a strong indicator of the “forever chemicals”— which have been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects to lower vaccine effectiveness.
PFAS has been found in food before: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 reported PFAS in several types of food, including meats, seafood, and grocery store chocolate cake.
However, Mamavation found evidence of the chemicals in brands that are marketed as organic. It's unclear how PFAS make it into certain foods, but due to widespread use of PFAS across industries, the chemicals can contaminate consumer goods though manufacturing lubricants and coatings, misidentified raw materials, pesticides, personal protective equipment, and plastic packaging.
While the testing is concerning, 92% of sauces tested had no detectable fluorine.
“The good news is that only 8% of the tomato and pasta sauces contained PFAS. But why should there be any in our food?” Linda Birnbaum, who served as the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program for more than a decade and who also reviewed the investigation, told Mamavation.
The testing is part of an ongoing effort by Mamavation and EHN.org to identify PFAS in common consumer products. See the full results at Mamavation.