Tuesday, August 12, 2008

All-natural = safe. Not.

Ah, the voice of reason. How sweet it sounds -- or in this case, reads.

Canada.com ran an article today which introduced the Environmental Working Group (EWG)'s new list of which fruits and veggies contain the highest number of pesticides. This seems like a good public information endeavor, no? Their project presents a bunch of fruit and veg, listing their "pesticide loads". Onions, for example, have a "pesticide load" of 1, whereas peaches have a "pesticide load" of 100. Wait a second, EWG, what exactly is a "pesticide load"? My first warning flag went up when there were no defined units. Does "100" mean my peach got a slightly-bigger-than-normal spray of a mild compound, or was it dunked in cancer-causing toxic sludge?

The article later clarifies that it simply means that there are 100 times the pesticides on your typical peach than on your typical onion. In other words, a "pesticide load" is an arbitrary unit of measurement which is next to meaningless. The fine author of the article in question goes on to interview a scientist who asserts the importance of real units of measurements to determine whether there actually is a risk associated with eating commercially-grown peaches.

"Just because something is there doesn't mean that it's doing anything. Amounts matter. Where is the information that the level of pesticide contamination that they're talking about has any relevance to humans? Where is any study that has shown that those amounts have any negative effect?"

- Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society

Now, I must confess to being a little more informed and a little more biased than average on the topic of "chemicals", or at least as they relate to the chemical-versus-all-natural debate. I am the daughter of one pharmacist and the niece of another. I was given medication for most of the ailments I encountered as a child, and have been subjected to many pharmacological debates over family dinners. Thanks to the information I have absorbed from my mother, I know which kinds of OTC medications can be mixed with alcohol and with one another; I know which medications are okay to take before bed and which ones will keep you awake; I know the generic names of more drugs than I can count on my fingers. I can even identify the indications of several drugs based on their suffixes! As if this weren't enough, I have suffered from migraines since the age of six. I am pretty convinced: chemicals are my friend.

My mother, while being an advocate of dugs, is also a strong advocate of common sense. Whenever anyone (usually my hippie grandmother) trots out a new, barely-supported claim that too much such-and-such is bad for you, my mother will reply, "Yeah, well, too much water is bad for you!" She isn't making this up; water poisoning occurs when you drink way too much water way too fast, and your body's chemistry is altered due to the overwhelming amount of water compared to sodium and electrolytes in your system. Apparently, your brain is not a big fan of this kind of thing. In any case, you have little to worry about; you need to chug around 10 litres of water in the span of a few minutes, without eating or drinking anything else. And something tells me that the average person will probably feel pretty darned uncomfortable before they hit seven.
In another example of quantity over chemical, my mother has advised me more than once that I should never, under any circumstances, eat a polar bear's liver. Vitamin A, while crucial to good health in moderate doses, is present in such great quantities in polar bears' livers that to eat one would be fatal. Now you know.

This, however, does not mean that my mother the druggist nor I shun "natural" or herbal remedies. My mother always supplements the drugs she recommends with non-medication advice: cold clothes and dark rooms for headaches, heating pads for cramps, better diet for constipation. And she takes herbal remedies herself. Until ColdFX appeared on the market, there was always a steady supply of echinachea on hand for any colds or flus that might crop up in our family. (The reason we switched to ColdFX is that it can be safely taken all winter long; echinachea merely stimulates your immune system to go double-time, and if taken for more than a couple weeks, can result in "burn out".) I myself have conducted extensive research which suggests that a certain herbal remedy, when smoked, is an excellent painkiller. But please don't tell my mother that.

Still not convinced? Then please stop reading my blog, I only want smart people here. Nah, just kidding, you can stay. Provided you look at the following chart. This information doesn't really require a chart, but charts are kind of exciting.

All-NaturalSynthetic, or "chemical"
Safe and/or beneficialAloe vera, evening primrose oil, chamomileibuprofen, lidocaine, clotrimazole
Unsafe and/or highly poisonousPoison ivy, hemlock, holly ... asbestos, mercury, perchlorates ...
Bisphenol-A, gasoline, phthalates
Not necessarily safe, but a lot of funMarijuana, magic mushroomsMDMA, LSD

I would like to add some weighty words in support of chemicals to beef up my argument, and thus I turn to Mr. Dave Barry:
"Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer."

On one final note, I would like to point out that I have somewhat above-average knowledge regarding peaches and pesticides as well. The summer after I graduated high school, I worked picking fruit for a sweet old Dutch couple. They grew, among other things, currents, raspberries, and peaches.
Now, picking fruit is not an intellectually demanding activity, and thus you tend to converse with those around you as you pick. The wife half of the sweet old Dutch couple once told us a story about a friend, another fruit farmer (peaches are rather a popular crop in the Niagara region) whose peach-growing neighbour elected to go "all-natural" and forego the use of pesticides on his peaches. The peaches became so gross and pesticide-infested that the friend-farmer was forced to secretly spray a row of the neighbour-farmer's peaches when he did his own, to prevent his own crop from getting nastied up. So really, we need to assess chemicals on a risk basis: would you rather have slightly pesticide-y peaches, or gross, wormy peaches?

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