Fingerroot (boesenbergia rotunda) is a type of rhizome from the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family. Many people across Asia consider this a valuable addition to meals and potential remedy for certain sicknesses.1 If you’re curious about what this vibrant spice has to offer and how you can grow it at home, read this guide.
What is fingerroot?
Fingerroot is well-known as a spice and therapeutic crop2 that’s grown in India, Sri Lanka, southern China and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s also known as Chinese keys, krachai-dang, temu kunci3 or Chinese ginger.4
Yellow and slender fingerroots come from a small plant that’s 50 centimeters (20 inches) tall. It features three to four undivided, elongated and oblong-shaped leaves measuring 7 to 11 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) wide and 25 to 50 centimeters (10 to 20 inches) long.5 The plant bears fragrant pink flowers. Most people grow fingerroot from cuttings as an ornamental plant, although the rhizomes and roots can be used for other purposes.6
Health benefits of fingerroot
Fingerroot exhibits the following health-boosting properties:7
Antiparasitic (assists with eliminating helminth and round worms in your intestines)
Some studies have also highlighted that fingerroot was used in traditional medicine to help address health problems like:8,9
Dental caries, and other tooth and gum diseases
Dry cough and cold
Results of a 2012 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine study showed that the plant may help alleviate rheumatism, muscle pain, febrifuge, gout, flatulence, stomach aches, dyspepsia, peptic ulcers and skin itchiness caused by mite bites. Fingerroot is also a known ingredient in the traditional Indonesian tonic “jamu,” often given to women who just gave birth or used by teenage girls for cosmetic purposes.10
Culinary uses of fingerroot
As a spice, fingerroot is mainly used in Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines, especially in soups and curries. It can be prepared like typical vegetables, and has an aromatic flavor that can deliver appetite-boosting capabilities.11 The fingerroot plant’s leaves, combined with teak tree leaves, may be used to wrap a traditional Indonesian fermented soy bean cake called tempeh. If you have young fingerroots, you can enjoy them raw, too.12
Components of fingerroot
Multiple substances have been discovered in fingerroot. A 2017 Pharmacognosy Reviews article lists the potentially health-boosting components found in the rhizome:13
Flavonoids such as alpinetin, boesenbergin, cardamonin, geraniol, krachaizin, panduratin, pinostrobin, pinocembrin, rotundaflavone, silybin, rubranine, sakuranetin and more
Polyphenols like caffeic acid, coumaric acid, chlorogenic acid, hesperidin, kaempferol, naringin and quercetin
What can fingerroot essential oil do?
Essential oil made from fingerroot contains beneficial compounds like:14
Additional research noted that essential oil15 and extracts16,17,18 derived from fingerroot exhibited antibacterial properties against bacteria strains.
What do studies say about fingerroot?
Fingerroot possesses antimicrobial properties. One 2006 study found that turmeric and fingerroot extracts worked as a treatment for Mongolian gerbils with gastric lesions caused by a Helicobacter pylori bacterial infection.19
Another study published in the same year found that compounds extracted from the fingerroot plant’s roots, namely pinostrobin and red oil, together with dihydroguaiaretic acid from Myristica fragrans (responsible for producing the spices nutmeg and mace20) were effective against the same bacteria.21 Researchers discovered that fingerroot may also exhibit the following health-boosting abilities:
Aphrodisiac22 ?— In this 2011 animal study, mature rats that ingested fingerroot juice exhibited better sperm quality, which may be linked to improved fertility.23
Anticancer ?— Fingerroot extract assisted in inhibiting development of breast, colon, cervical and ovarian cancer cells.24
Antimicrobial ?— Extracts from ginger, turmeric, fingerroot and galangal (Thai or Siamese ginger25) may combat pathogens that cause spoilage, and potentially work as natural preservative agents.26
How is fingerroot grown?
According to Useful Tropical Plants, fingerroot can be grown in areas where daytime temperatures fall either between 64.4 and 86 degrees F (18 to 30 degrees C) or between 53.6 and 95 degrees F (12 to 35 degrees C). However, if you live somewhere with temperatures that reach 10.4 degrees F (-12 degrees C) to 30.2 degrees F (-1 degrees C), it’s probably best not to try to grow this plant, as it may be prone to severe damage or death.
Fingerroot is best grown in moist, well-drained soil with high amounts of organic matter, ideally with pH levels between 6 and 7, or 5.5 and 7.5 if conditions permit.27 A study published in 2015 also highlighted that fingerroot plants may thrive well in a growing medium composed of high amounts of red soil and black soil, with little quantities of sand.28
Cultimate fingerroot in places where annual rainfall falls between 1,200 and 3,000 millimeters (47 to 118 inches), or in some cases, 1,000 and 5,000 millimeters (39 to 197 inches). Grow your plants under full sun or a light shade. Propagating the plants in shady areas may decrease the amount of cineole in fingerroots.
Always make sure to prune your plants, as they can grow through their roots and form into a massive community that you may find difficulty maintaining.
As the plant grows, it will bear long, straight and carrot-like rhizomes. Fingerroot plants may live for five months, producing young shoots and rhizomes you can use in the coming years. You may start harvesting mature roots at least four to five months after planting. If you want to use young fingerroots, wait for around one to two months after planting to harvest them.
What are the possible side effects of fingerroot?
A study conducted on male rats found that fingerroot extracts were safe and didn’t trigger side effects.29 However, it’s best to stay safe and talk to your doctor before consuming, handling or growing fingerroot. You may have allergies to it or some of its components, or have conditions that may prevent you from reaping its health benefits.
Why it’s time to try the vibrant fingerroot
Just like people from Asian countries who have been using it for many years, you may count on fingerroot for potential health benefits. Although it may not be as popular as other members of the ginger family, some studies have proven it may be as beneficial. It’s never too late to try adding fingerroot to your dishes to see how you like it.
In this short video, Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D., a biomedical scientist and researcher with the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, discusses the science behind the mood-lifting effects of exercise.1 Indeed, many experts agree that exercise is one of the most powerful tools available for the prevention and management of depression.
For example, a meta-analysis2 published in 2016, which looked at 23 randomized controlled trials in which exercise was used as treatment for unipolar depression, found that, compared to no intervention, exercise “yielded a large and significant effect size,” which led them to conclude, “Physical exercise is an effective intervention for depression.”
How exercise ameliorates depression
One of the ways exercise promotes mental health is by normalizing insulin resistance. Mechanistic studies, several of which are highlighted in Patrick’s video, have also linked the antidepressant effects of exercise to molecular mechanisms involving:
Kynurenine, a neurotoxic stress chemical produced from the amino acid tryptophan
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that regulates neuroplasticity and new growth of neurons
The endocannabinoid system
Beta endorphin, an endogenous opioid neuropeptide and peptide hormone
Exercise boosts metabolism of kynurenine
As explained by Patrick, tryptophan is an essential amino acid required for the synthesis of serotonin, melatonin, vitamin B3 and kynurenine. While kynurenine is associated with stress and depression at higher levels, higher levels of serotonin are associated with improved mood.
To a degree, exercise will allow you to control what the tryptophan will be synthesized into. By allowing for more tryptophan to be transported into your brain, exercise raises your serotonin and inhibits conversion into kynurenine, thereby boosting mood and preventing depression.
Conversely, chronic stress and low-grade inflammation makes more tryptophan available for conversion into kynurenine and less into serotonin, which has a depressive effect.
Kynurenine, in turn, is a precursor to a neurotoxic compound called quinolinic acid, as well as a neuroprotective compound called kynurenic acid. Here too, exercise — and especially endurance exercise — activates a gene that prevents kynurenine from forming quinolinic acid, and makes it form kynurenic acid instead.
Animal research3 has also shown that well-trained muscles have higher levels of an enzyme that helps metabolize kynurenine, thereby ridding the body of it. As noted by the authors:4
“Our initial research hypothesis was that trained muscle would produce a substance with beneficial effects on the brain. We actually found the opposite: well-trained muscle produces an enzyme that purges the body of harmful substances. So in this context the muscle’s function is reminiscent of that of the kidney or the liver.”
Endurance training promotes anti-inflammatory myokines
Myokines are a type of a chemical messenger in a class called cytokines. Many of the cytokines we already know about are the kind liberated from adipose tissue, your body fat, particularly the truncal fat mass that gives you that apple-shape.
Many of these are inflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin-1 family (IL-1), which are involved in a variety of disease states, including cancer. Interestingly, the cytokines produced by muscle tissue, which are known as myokines (“myo” being the Latin root for muscles), have anti-inflammatory effects.
Myokines also increase your insulin sensitivity by improving glucose utilization inside your muscles and, acting as chemical messengers, myokines help inhibit the release of inflammatory cytokines produced by body fat.
Transient inflammation has beneficial effects
As explained by Patrick, microglia in your brain secrete neurotropic substances such as BDNF in response to exercise. Interestingly, it is inflammatory cytokines that are responsible for this beneficial effect.
So, while chronic release of inflammatory cytokines can cause grave harm — and is associated with depression — the transient inflammation caused by vigorous exercise actually has beneficial impact.
According to research cited by Patrick, low BDNF levels have been implicated as a central component of depression, as depressed patients typically have lower levels than healthy controls. As noted in a 2013 study5 on the interactions between exercise, depression and BDNF levels:
“[T]here is strong evidence that decreased BDNF is associated with … increased risk for depression, whereas increasing BDNF by aerobic exercise appears to … reduce depression.”
Exercise is known to enhance BDNF secretion, while chronic stress reduces it. In one study,6 moderate and vigorous intensity cycling raised BDNF levels by an average of 32% compared to baseline.
As you might expect, duration plays an important role in how much BDNF is produced. Moderate to vigorous intensity for 40 minutes produced a more significant increase than those exercising at the same intensity for just 20 minutes.
The endocannabinoid connection
Cannabinoid receptors in the human body were discovered in the 1990s, which in turn led to the realization that we make compounds in our body — endogenous cannabinoids — that influence these receptors.
It was also discovered that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) orchestrates communication between other bodily systems, such as your respiratory, digestive, immune and cardiovascular systems.
One of the cannabinoids your body produces is called anandamide — a nod to the word “ananda,” the Sanskrit word for “bliss,” as it attaches to the same CB1 receptors that the psychoactive THC in cannabis attaches to.
While runner’s high is typically attributed to the release of endorphins, running also dramatically increases anandamide in the body, and anandamide not only targets the CB1 receptor, but it also influences opioid and endorphin receptors. Not surprisingly, then, the higher an individual’s anandamide level, the better they report feeling.
Research cited by Patrick shows people engaging in moderate intensity running or cycling increase their anandamide levels, and that the greatest increase occurs when you’re exercising at 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate.7
Exercise boosts feel-good hormones
Exercise also triggers the release of beta endorphin, an endogenous (meaning it’s made by your body) opioid neuropeptide and peptide hormone produced in specific neurons located in your central and peripheral nervous systems. As noted in the 2008 paper,8 “The Runner’s High: Opiodergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain”:
“Reductions in opioid receptor availability were identified preferentially in prefrontal and limbic/paralimbic brain structures. The level of euphoria was significantly increased after running and was inversely correlated with opioid binding in prefrontal/orbitofrontal cortices, the anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral insula, parainsular cortex, and temporoparietal regions.
These findings support the ‘opioid theory’ of the runner’s high and suggest region-specific effects in frontolimbic brain areas that are involved in the processing of affective states and mood.”
Other studies showing exercise can treat depression
As noted by Patrick, there’s a solid and ever-growing body of scientific evidence showing physical exercise is a major key in the successful treatment of depression. Aside from the mechanistic studies highlighted in her video, here’s a short-list of studies and scientific review articles that have investigated this oft-ignored prescription:
JAMA Psychiatry 20189,10 (a study funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health) concluded exercise “may have greater efficacy than current approaches that target depressed mood.”
Contrary to popular belief, they found that while physical activity affected the participants’ mood afterward, their mood did not affect the amount of physical activity they engaged in. This defies the common assumption that depression causes physical inactivity. In fact, the results suggest it’s largely the other way around.
Frontiers in Pharmacology 201711 addressed the question of whether a comparison between exercise and drug treatment is evidence based, noting that:
“The literature on the benefits of exercise for depression is extensive. Nevertheless, two recent reviews focusing on antidepressants vs. other therapies as a basis for clinical practice guidelines recommended mainly antidepressants, excluding exercise as a viable choice for treatment of depression. The aim of this perspective is to analyze the literature exploring the reasons for this discrepancy …
[I]t is possible that academics and health care practitioners are skeptical of viewing exercise as medicine. Maybe, there is a reluctance to accept that changes in lifestyle as opposed to pharmacological treatment can alter biological mechanisms.”
In conclusion, they found three randomized controlled trials comparing four months of exercise to the use of antidepressants (two of which involved patients with major depression and one recruited those with minor depression). All of them found that exercise and antidepressant treatment were equally effective.
Of 11 randomized controlled trials comparing exercise as an adjunctive treatment to antidepressants (combination comparisons) against a wide variety of controls, 10 of them found “a significant depressive improvement after the exercise period, and/or that the proportion of patients with a clinical response was larger for the exercise group than the control.”
The paper reviews a variety of biological mechanisms by which exercise can benefit those with depression, including boosting BDNF and serotonin and lowering inflammation biomarkers. The authors also point out that:
“Two meta-analyses examining the efficacy of exercise as a treatment for major depression concluded that exercise as a treatment for depression can be recommended as a stand-alone treatment or as an adjunct to antidepressant medication, and that exercise can be considered an evidence-based treatment for the management of depression …
Almost all reviews examining exercise vs. other treatments of depression, including antidepressants, support the use of exercise in the treatment of depression, at least as an add-on therapy …
Based on the present review, which examined most or all RCTs published in 1999–2016, and most or all meta-analyses/systematic reviews published in 2009–2016, it can be stated that exercise is an evidenced-based medicine for depression — at least as an add-on to antidepressants.”
Current Opinion in Psychology 201512 highlighted the role of inflammation in depression, and how biological markers can help explain how exercise reduces depressive symptoms. As explained in this review:
“There is growing support for the efficacy of exercise interventions for the treatment of individuals who present with mild-to-moderate depression … The present article reviews contemporary theoretical accounts and recent empirical data pointing to neuroinflammatory states and neurotrophin production as possible biomarkers of the antidepressant response to exercise …
Recent research suggests that depressed patients have elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, with the most reliably observed elevations in Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) …
Along with the elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines among depressed individuals, several studies show lower than average levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines such as Interleukin-10 (IL-10) and a lack of correlation between IL-10 and IL-6 that typically is present, suggesting there is a dysregulation of the inflammatory system among depressed patients …
Exercise has emerged as an effective strategy to target inflammatory deregulation … For example, acting as a stressor, acute bouts of exercise result in the release of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6 from muscles.
This release of IL-6, in turn, activates the synthesis of anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10 and inhibits release of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha, suggesting that exercise promotes, in this way, an anti-inflammatory environment.
Similarly, when occurring chronically, exercise (training) reduces the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6 and TNF-alpha and increases the production of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10.”
Many other studies support the view that depression is mediated, and perhaps directly caused,13 by inflammation, especially gastrointestinal inflammation.14 Cytokines15 in your blood, and/or inflammatory messengers such as CRP, interleukin-1, interleukin-6 and TNF-alpha are all predictive of16 and correlate17 to depression.
In melancholic depression, bipolar disorder and postpartum depression, white blood cells called monocytes express proinflammatory genes that provoke secretion of cytokines.18
At the same time, cortisol sensitivity goes down, and cortisol is a stress hormone that buffers against inflammation. Together, these inflammatory agents transfer information to your nervous system, typically by stimulating your vagus nerve, which connects your gut and brain.
In one study,19 the researchers suggested “depression may be a neuropsychiatric manifestation of a chronic inflammatory syndrome,” and that “these findings justify an assumption that treating gastrointestinal inflammations may improve the efficacy of the currently used treatment modalities of depression …”
In this model, depression is the result of your body’s attempts to protect itself from an inflammatory response, and involves hormones and neurotransmitters. Depressive symptoms most strongly associated with chronic inflammation include:20
Alterations in perception
Asian Journal of Sports Medicine 201521 looked at “systematic reviews, meta-analyses and large-scale randomized control trials on effects of exercise on depression” to devise recommendations for doctors “who plan to use exercise protocols in depression.”
Here, they highlighted 10 different biological effects of exercise known to have a beneficial effect on people with depression. These effects include22 upregulation or increase in the levels of norepinephrine, serotonin, BDNF, endorphins and endocannabinoids, and a downregulation or decrease in the levels of cortisol, TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, IL-6 and ACTH.
They also note psychosocial effects that have a beneficial impact, such as self-mastery, social interaction and distraction from rumination. According to this evaluation, depressed patients most likely to benefit from exercise are: Between 20 and 40 years old, have higher education status, are untrained and have mild to moderate depression.
Characteristics of an exercise program most likely to benefit people with depression include: Supervised and/or structured exercise; individually tailored exercise consisting of aerobic exercise and resistance training (or a mix); low to moderate intensity; 45 to 60 minutes per session at least three to four times per week for a minimum of 10 weeks. The authors also encourage physicians to employ a multidisciplinary team, noting that:
“It is very beneficial to encourage physicians and exercise specialists to work in collaboration on depression and exercise treatments. It seems that most medical professionals have little or no training in exercise programs and exercise specialists are not familiar with the clinical population particularly depressed patients.
Physicians’ recommendation is often limited to ‘get more exercise’ while the exercise specialist may advise physical activities that are not actually useful for patients with depression.
However, with a multidisciplinary team, it is possible to prescribe an exercise program more safely, efficiently, operatively, objectively and realistic. Such a multidisciplinary team may include a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, sports medicine specialist and exercise trainer.”
Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 201123 concluded 12 weeks of high-intensity exercise led to a 28.3% remission rate in patients who had previously failed to get any relief from SSRIs.
Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 2006.24 This meta-analysis of 11 studies concluded doctors would be well advised to recommend exercise to patients suffering from depression, anxiety and eating disorders, as the evidence showed “substantial benefit.”
Archives of Internal Medicine 199925 reported 16 weeks of aerobic exercise was just as effective as Zoloft for the treatment of major depression in older patients.
Consider lifestyle changes before resorting to drugs
While there’s strong evidence to support moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise and strength training for the treatment of depression, I would also urge you to reassess your diet.
Foods have an immense impact on your brain, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental and physical health. Avoiding processed foods, sugar and grains is particularly important as it will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is an important contributing factor to depression.
Certain nutrients are also known to cause symptoms of depression when lacking, and specific herbs and nutritional supplements may also help counteract symptoms.
For a list of nutrients, herbs and supplements that have been shown to be particularly helpful for depression, as well as a long list of studies showing just how ineffective antidepressants are, and guidelines for safe drug withdrawal, please see “What Does the ‘Best Evidence’ Say About Antidepressants?”
You can also learn more about depression and its contributing causes on Patrick’s website26 and in her full-length interview with Dr. Charles Raison27 (who is only briefly featured in the video above), in which he expounds on the links between depression and inflammation, and the use of heat stress as a therapeutic intervention for depression.
Optimism is associated with greater physical and mental health, and one reason why could be linked to its role in promoting better sleep. In a study of 3,548 people, those who were the most optimistic enjoyed higher quality sleep, hinting at the importance of a positive outlook in getting a good night’s rest.1
While the reason why optimism leads to better sleep wasn’t revealed by this study, the researchers, from the University of Illinois, suggested it could be due to buffering the effects of stress, leading to better coping mechanisms. In other words, optimists may spend less time lying in bed with their mind racing, allowing them to drift off easier.
“Optimists are more likely to engage in active problem-focused coping and to interpret stressful events in more positive ways, reducing worry and ruminative thoughts when they’re falling asleep and throughout their sleep cycle,” study author Rosalba Hernandez said in a news release.2
Optimists sleep better
The study began by measuring participants’ level of optimism using a 10-item survey, which included statements such as “I’m always optimistic about my future” and “I hardly expect things to go my way.” Participants then rated how much they agreed with the statements, using a five-point scale.
The participants’ sleep quality and duration was also tracked, using self-reported data, including the number of hours slept at night, difficulty falling asleep and symptoms of insomnia (a subset of participants wore activity monitors to track sleep data).
Optimism was significantly associated with better sleep, with each standard deviation increase in optimism score linked to a 78% increased likelihood of reporting very good sleep quality.3
Those with greater optimism scores were also 74% more likely to have no symptoms of insomnia, had less daytime sleepiness and were more likely to get adequate sleep — sleeping for six to nine hours a night. Hernandez explained in a news release:4
“The lack of healthy sleep is a public health concern, as poor sleep quality is associated with multiple health problems, including higher risks of obesity, hypertension and all-cause mortality. Dispositional optimism — the belief that positive things will occur in the future — has emerged as a psychological asset of particular salience for disease-free survival and superior health.”
Positive personality characteristics linked to better sleep
A number of previous studies have also linked positive personality characteristics, including optimism and self-esteem, with better sleep. In one study of 1,805 adults, ranging in age from 30 to 84 years, those with insomnia symptoms scored lower on measures of optimism and self-esteem.5
Further, those with lower optimism and self-esteem were more likely to sleep for six hours or less each night (defined as short sleep duration) or for more than nine hours each night (long sleep duration).
The relationship between positive personality characteristics and sufficient sleep occurred even after the association between poor sleep and depression was accounted for. Results were similar in a study involving children, which found healthy sleep duration was linked to optimism. The researchers explained:6
“The relation resembled a reverse J-shaped curve, such that children whose sleep duration was in the middle of the distribution scored higher on optimism compared to children who slept relatively little. Further, children with shorter sleep latency scored higher on optimism and tended to have higher scores on self-esteem.”
Another study on college students looked at the relationship of sleep, optimism and mood, revealing “complex relationships” among them. People who tended to be pessimistic also tended to be more anxious and have more symptoms of stress, which had adverse effects on sleep. Poor sleep was, in turn, damaging to optimism, yet, being a morning person seemed to counter some of this damage.
“In conclusion, optimism and sleep quality were both cause and effect of each other. Depressive mood partially explained the effect of sleep quality on optimism, whereas anxiety and stress symptoms were mechanisms bridging optimism to sleep quality,” according to the study.7
Benefits of optimism beyond sleep
The ability to be optimistic, which is defined as the “generalized expectation that good things will happen”8 is protective against cardiovascular disease (CVD),9 such that it reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.10 Lead author Julia Boehm noted in a news release that being positive is about more than the absence of negative:11
“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight.
For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers.”
Being optimistic is also linked to a longer life span, with increasing levels of optimism associated with lower risk of mortality. In fact, optimism was associated with a lower risk of death from chronic disease, including cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease, as well as infection.12 Further, optimism is also linked to following health benefits:13
Healthier lipid profile
Lower levels of inflammatory markers
Higher levels of serum antioxidants
Better immune responsiveness
Healthier autonomic function
Higher levels of heart rate variability
Experiencing emotional well-being, positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor, energy and other measures of “positive affect,” along with positive dispositions like life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism and a sense of humor, is also associated with increased survival in healthy people, including reduced cardiovascular mortality.14
Further, people with diseases, including renal failure and HIV, and positive psychological well-being also had reduced death rates, suggesting once again that happiness may indeed be protective over your physical health.15
You can learn to be more optimistic
It’s thought that a person’s tendency to be optimistic may be partially due to genes (one study suggested optimism is about 25% heritable16), but it’s also possible to become more optimistic. In one example, researchers asked study participants to write about their best possible self for 15 minutes, then use mental imagery of the positive future expectancies for five minutes.
Compared to a control scenario, the positive future thinking manipulation led to a larger increase in positive affect and future expectancies, showing that “imagining a positive future can indeed increase expectancies for a positive future.”17
Another simple optimism intervention is to think of three things you’re looking forward to tomorrow. When you do this regularly, say before bed, it may lead to reduced pessimism and emotional exhaustion.18
Mindfulness is another tool to increase optimism. Practicing “mindfulness” means you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful, you’re living in the moment and letting distracting or negative thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.
One study showed that practicing mindfulness helped workers in high-stress jobs alter their brain activity to be more left-sided (which is associated with positive moods).19 “[M]indfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function,” the researchers noted. “These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways.”20 Tips for being mindful include:21
When you’re walking, tune into how your weight shifts and the sensations in the bottom of your feet. Focus less on where you are headed.
Don’t feel that you need to fill up all your time with doing. Take some time to simply be.
When your mind wanders to thinking, gently bring it back to your breath.
Notice how the mind likes to constantly judge. Don’t take it seriously. It’s not who you are.
Practice listening without making judgments.
Notice where you tend to zone out (i.e., driving, emailing or texting, web surfing, feeding the dog, doing dishes, brushing teeth). Practice bringing more awareness to that activity.
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a psychological acupressure technique, is another tool you can use to increase optimism. It’s excellent for working through negative emotions and limiting beliefs that may be stifling your positive outlook on life.
Why sleep issues should be addressed right away
If you’re having trouble sleeping, whether you consider yourself an optimist or not, it’s important to get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later. Lack of sleep is linked to numerous health problems, including depression,22diabetes, obesity23 and heart problems.
Sleep is even connected with subclinical atherosclerosis, the early stages of hardening and narrowing of the arteries. In one study, those who slept for less than six hours a night were 27% more likely to have subclinical atherosclerosis than those who slept for seven or eight hours a night.24,25
If you have trouble achieving this duration, or you wake frequently during the night, it’s time to take steps to improve your sleep. If you’d describe yourself as a pessimist, making a concerted effort to be more optimistic may help, however you should also pay attention to proper sleep hygiene.
Be sure you’re sleeping in complete darkness, as light (even that from a night light or alarm clock) can disrupt your internal clock and your production of melatonin and serotonin, thereby interfering with your sleep.
In the morning, bright, blue light-rich sunlight signals to your body that it’s time to wake up. At night, as the sun sets, darkness should signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. Keep the temperature cool, between 60 and 68 degrees F, and eliminate electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Ideally, shut down the electricity to your bedroom by pulling your circuit breaker before bed and turning off your Wi-Fi at night.
Other practical solutions include going to bed earlier and considering a separate bedroom if your partner is interfering with your sleep. For more tips, my 33 healthy sleep secrets provides a comprehensive list of strategies for a better night’s rest.
Per- and polyfluoroalykyl substances1,2 (PFAS) are widely used chemicals that make products water-, oil-, grease- and stain-resistant. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are associated with a wide array of health problems — even at very low exposure levels — including:
Low birth weight4
In May 2015, 200 scientists from 38 countries signed the so-called Madrid Statement on PFASs,11,12 which warns about the harms of all PFAS chemicals, both old and new. According to the Madrid Statement, health effects associated with the older, long-chain PFAS’s such as PFOA, include:13
Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune- and endocrine systems
PFAS chemicals take thousands of years to degrade, which is why many refer to them as “forever chemicals.” Disturbingly, these toxic chemicals have become ubiquitous in our environment, including groundwater.14,15
PFAS are also found in the U.S. food supply — and at levels far exceeding the advisory limit for PFOA and PFAS in drinking water (there’s currently no limits in food).
Of the 91 foods tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017 as part of its Total Diet Study16 (presented17 at the 2019 meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry), 10 were found to contain PFAS.18,19,20,21 How do they get there?
Food wrappers — A significant source of PFAS
Industrial production is just one route by which PFAS enter our environment and food supply. Another is through everyday waste, such as fast food wrappers and containers that end up in landfills, from where they continue to contaminate soil and water.
Disturbingly, recent findings reveal that even so-called “biodegradable” food containers contain these “forever chemicals,” which may create an even greater problem.
Thinking the containers are biodegradable and safe, people will place them in their compost, creating a vicious circle where the chemicals contaminate and ruin the compost, which is then mixed into the soil, where they contaminate the food grown in it. Ultimately, the chemicals end up on your plate again, now inside the food.
Research22 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2007 found PFAS chemicals in the blood of more than 98% of Americans tested. Considering their current prevalence in our food supply, it seems reasonable to assume everyone is exposed to some degree, and that blood levels have likely increased in the years since the CDC’s testing.
Biodegradable bowls contain PFAS
Concerns over mounting plastic waste pushed fast food companies to invest in safer wrappers and containers, but recent findings reveal a truly remarkable lack of understanding on behalf of some manufacturers. Writing for New Food Economy, Joe Fassler reports the disappointing news:23
“The biggest culinary star of the past five years isn’t a chef, or a restaurant group, or the author of a cookbook. It’s a bowl, a humble piece of take-out packaging that’s taken the world of commercial foodservice by storm, rising so quickly that few have noted its troubling secret …
If molded fiber bowls have become a kind of status symbol in the restaurant world … it’s probably because they’ve been positioned as an antidote to the industry’s alarming take-out waste problem.
Many varieties are explicitly pitched to food-service buyers as compostable, certified by third-party assessors like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). Unlike styrofoam clamshells or wax-lined soup cups, fiber products feel like they’d turn into mush on a leaf pile …
But these products … are instead contributing to a growing environmental crisis. According to experts consulted for this story, all molded fiber bowls contain PFAS …
This means that the bowls used at restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen aren’t truly compostable, as has been claimed. Instead, they are likely making compost more toxic, adding to the chemical load of the very soil and water they were supposed to help improve.”
All compostable bowls found to contain PFAS
For its report, New Food Economy tested 18 biodegradable fiber bowls from eight restaurants at 14 locations in New York City, including Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Dig — three restaurants that claim to compost its waste.
All were found to contain high levels of fluorine,24 which is indicative of PFAS being used. The inside (food contact side) of the bowls averaged 1,599 parts per million (ppm) of fluorine, a level far higher than what you’d find in an accidentally contaminated sample.
Now, the test used only measures total fluorine, not individual PFAS chemicals, and the total level of any given PFAS is likely to be higher than the total fluorine level. Fassler explains:25
“… [A] bowl containing 1,670 ppm fluorine will contain more total PFAS, since every molecule of the chemical compound contains multiple atoms — not just of fluorine, but of carbon, and other elements.
Though it’s impossible to say for sure due to the wide variety of PFAS chemicals … according to a rough calculation, a bowl with 1,670 ppm fluorine would likely contain about 2,000 ppm total PFAS.
Put another way: A bowl with 2,000 ppm total PFAS might be mostly made from sugarcane fiber, but 0.2 percent of its total material would be made from fluorinated chemicals …
That might not sound like very much. But due to the unique properties of fluorinated chemicals, it turns out to be a significant number, and an alarming one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain that drinking water can only contain infinitesimal amounts of fluorinated chemicals before health concerns arise.”
Do not compost ‘biodegradable’ bowls
Research26,27 published in 2017 found fluorine in 46% of the fast food wrappers and takeout containers tested, and studies28,29,30 have confirmed fluorinated chemicals can migrate from the packaging into the food.
If it’s true that 100% of so-called “biodegradable” fiber bowls contain PFAS, then they would actually be a far more hazardous choice than other “standard” wrappers and containers — at least as far as PFAS exposure is concerned. As noted by Fassler, it is the surface treatment with PFAS that prevents the fiber bowls from falling apart when filled with hot, wet or greasy food.
Using toxic nondegradable chemicals in a biodegradable product is a tremendous oversight. Clearly, restaurants should not advertise these containers as compostable, yet many do just that. It’s not surprising then that the revelation has become a PR nightmare. As noted by Fassler:31
“… [A]ny product that contains PFAS can’t really be compostable, let alone biodegradable, despite restaurants’ claims to the contrary. Though fiber products have benefits from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, the bowls we tested are likely making soil and water quality worse.”
Indeed, recent research confirms this warning. Tipped off about the presence of PFAS in compostable containers, the authors of a 2019 paper32,33 decided to assess the presence of these chemicals in municipal compost. In all, samples from nine commercial compost stations and one backyard compost pile were tested for 17 different PFAS.
Confirming suspicions, compost in which food packaging was included had a toxic load ranging from 28.7 micrograms per kilo to 75.9 mcg/kg. Compost samples that did not include food packaging, on the other hand, had a contamination level ranging between just 2.38 and 7.6 mcg/kg.
While it’s disturbing that all compost samples contained PFOA and PFOS — the older, long-chained PFAS that are no longer in use — compost with food packaging was clearly more heavily contaminated with a variety of PFAS. If there’s any good news here, it’s that some states are starting to take action against PFAS.
As noted by Fassler,34 San Francisco is banning bowls manufactured with PFAS as of January 1, 2020, and Washington’s Healthy Food Packaging Act35 — enacted in 2018 — bans all PFAS in paper food packaging, effective 2022.36 A drawback of the Act is that the ban will not take effect until or unless a safer alternative is commercially available.
Sewage sludge — A major source of PFAS on farms
As reported by The Intercept37 in June 2019, sewage sludge appears to be a major source of PFAS. Documents38 obtained by The Intercept reveal 44 samples of sewage sludge tested by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection all contained at least one PFAS chemical, and “In all but two of the samples, the chemicals exceeded safety thresholds for sludge that Maine set early last year.”
Maine’s tolerance levels for PFAS are set at 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) for PFOA, 5.2 ppb for PFOS, and 1,900 ppb for PFBS. Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, told The Intercept these levels are “probably about 10 times weaker than they should be,” adding that “Even low parts-per-billion levels of PFAS in sludge can threaten the health of the food supply.”
You can learn more about the hazards of sewage sludge in the featured documentary, “Biosludged,”39 and the scientific fraud perpetrated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that legalizes the pollution of agricultural soils through the usage of contaminated industrial and human waste as fertilizer.
DuPont shirks cleanup duty
In related news, DuPont, a longtime maker of PFAS chemicals stands accused of creating a fraudulent spinoff, Chemours, in an effort to shirk environmental liabilities caused by its chemical manufacturing. (Chemours is the name of the spinoff company created through DuPont’s merger with Dow Chemical Inc. in 2015.40) Chemours lawyers told Bloomberg:41
“The separation agreement was the product of a one-sided process that lacked any of the hallmarks of arm’s-length bargaining. DuPont unilaterally dictated the terms of the separation agreement and imposed them on Chemours.”
One of DuPont’s environmental liabilities is the cleanup of Pompton Lakes in New Jersey. As reported by NorthJersey.com July 15, 2019:42
“The new claims by the state attorney general’s office were quietly added as amendments to a lawsuitfiled against DuPont and Chemours seeking financial damages for widespread pollution in Pompton Lakes.
This includes a neighborhood where residents have had to endure cancer-causing solvents that migrated for decadesbeneath their homes from a now-shuttered DuPont explosives factory.
Like dozens of sites across the U.S., the cleanup in Pompton Lakes had long been DuPont’s responsibility. That changed in July 2015, when DuPont created Chemours as a spinoff company that took over the bulk of the DuPont’s environmental liabilities.
But two separate lawsuits against DuPont — one by New Jersey officials and another by Chemours itself — allege what many in Pompton Lakes feared at the time of the spinoff:
DuPont created Chemours to insulate itself from future cleanup and natural resource damage claims, and left Chemours vulnerable to financial problems that could put cleanup efforts at risk in New Jersey and across the country.”
Indeed, Chemours’ lawsuit against DuPont claims DuPont set up the company to fail from the start, allowing DuPont to simply walk away from all of its cleanup responsibilities.
Chemours is now asking the court to deny DuPont’s request for unlimited indemnity for its environmental liabilities.43 (Chemours, meanwhile, claims it has now stopped making three PFAS products used in the making of grease-resistant packaging.44)
North Jersey reports that, according to Chemours, the company received only 19% of DuPont’s business lines at the company’s inception, while taking on two-thirds of the environmental liabilities and 90% of all pending litigation against DuPont.
In all, Chemours liabilities exceeded earnings by 5.5-to-1 right from the get-go, yet its management team was not fully informed about the company’s financial situation. Chemours also claims DuPont systematically underestimated the legal and environmental cleanup costs.
“For instance, DuPont estimated that three lawsuits against it over contamination from the toxic chemical PFOA would cost no more than $128 million. They were settled by Chemours for $671 million less than two years later,” North Jersey reports.45
Lawmakers promise to pursue corporate accountability
As attention on PFAS pollution increases, PFAS manufacturers such as DuPont and 3M are ramping up lobbying efforts to prevent tighter regulations. Several recent hearings46,47,48 have been held on PFAS, however, and Democratic lawmakers have promised to “continue pursuing corporate accountability,” Think Progress reports.49 As noted by the Union of Concerned Scientists in a May 15, 2019, press release:50
“Today, the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a widely-used family of chemicals that contaminate the drinking water of millions of Americans.
Representatives also introduced a number of bills to manage the threat of PFAS pollution, including legislation that would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate PFAS as hazardous chemicals, as well as bills to expand water testing, improve water infrastructure, assist communities facing PFAS contamination issues and limit the use of these chemicals in the future. This effort to tackle a common and dangerous class of pollutant is long overdue …”
Certain states are also taking matters into their own hands. Michigan, for example, where PFAS is a common water contaminant, says it’s planning to start regulating certain PFAS to protect residents rather than waiting for the EPA to take action.51
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection also has its sights on corporate accountability. Commissioner Catherine McCabe told Think Progress,52 “New Jersey believes that the manufacturers … should be held responsible to the public for the costs and damages of the drinking water contamination and other harmful consequences of their actions and negligence.”
How to avoid PFAS chemicals
The Madrid Statement recommends avoiding any and all products manufactured using PFASs, noting they include products that are stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. Helpful tips can also be found in the EWG’s “Guide to Avoiding PFCS.”53 Other suggestions that will help you avoid these dangerous chemicals include avoiding:
Items that have been pretreated with stain repellants, and opt out of such treatments when buying new furniture and carpets
Water- and/or stain-repellant clothing — One tipoff is when an item made with artificial fibers is described as “breathable.” These are typically treated with polytetrafluoroethylene, a synthetic fluoropolymer
Items treated with flame retardant chemicals54— This includes a wide variety of baby items, padded furniture, mattresses and pillows. Instead, opt for naturally less flammable materials such as leather, wool and cotton
Fast food and carry out foods — The wrappers are typically treated with PFCs
Microwave popcorn — PFCs may not only present in the inner coating of the bag, it also may migrate to the oil from the packaging during heating. Instead, use “old-fashioned” stovetop popcorn
Nonstick cookwareand other treated kitchen utensils — Healthier options include ceramic and enameled cast iron cookware, both of which are durable, easy to clean and completely inert, which means they won’t release any harmful chemicals into your home.
A newer type of nonstick cookware called Duralon uses a nonfluoridated nylon polymer for its nonstick coating. While this appears to be safe, your safest bet is still ceramic and enameled cast iron.
While some recommend using aluminum, stainless steel and copper cookware, I don’t for the following reasons: Aluminum is a strongly suspected causal factor in Alzheimer’s disease, and stainless steel has alloys containing nickel, chromium, molybdenum and carbon.
For those with nickel allergies, this may be a particularly important consideration. Copper cookware is also not recommended because most copper pans come lined with other metals, creating the same concerns noted above. (Copper cookware must be lined due to the possibility of copper poisoning.)
Oral-B Glide floss and any other personal care products containing PTFEor “fluoro” or “perfluoro” ingredients — The EWG has an excellent database called Skin Deep55 you can peruse to find healthier options
Unfiltered tap water — Unfortunately, your choices are limited when it comes to avoiding PFASs in drinking water. Either you must filter your water or obtain water from a clean source. Both solutions can be problematic and/or costly.
While many opt for bottled water, it’s important to realize that PFASs are not regulated in bottled water, so there’s absolutely no guarantee that it’ll be free of these or other chemicals. Bottled water also increases your risk of exposure to hazardous plastic chemicals such as bisphenol-A, which has its own set of health risks.
Most common water filters available in supermarkets will not remove PFASs. You really need a high-quality carbon filtration system. The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon “or an equally efficient technology” to remove PFC chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS from your drinking water.56 Activated carbon has been shown to remove about 90% of these chemicals.
The exposure of medical fraud is not new. In the past, drugs have been brought to market before clinical trials revealed a deadly list of side effects, including heart attacks and deaths, as in the case of Vioxx.1 ProCon.org published a list in 2014 of 35 drugs pulled from the market after research revealed they caused more damage than benefit to users.2
You need only take a cursory glance at the epidemic that opioid manufacturers have caused in their search for profit, sometimes boasting they could become an “end-to-end” provider by supplying both the addictive drug and the cure for the addiction.3
In 2015 Dr. Anil Potti from Duke University was found guilty of research misconduct,4 and Duke faced lawsuits filed by patients in his clinical trials.5 Potti’s research was first heralded as a groundbreaking game changer, but is now an example of how fraud can occur anywhere.
Had Duke University paid attention to reports from a medical student in 2008, they could have avoided the ensuing public and political challenges. Instead, Potti’s protectors pressured the student to be silent, in a move to protect their own interests.6
Recently, it was revealed that scientists at Novartis hid manipulated data from animal studies while seeking approval from the FDA for a gene therapy drug meant to treat babies with an inherited disease, spinal muscular atrophy.7
Big Pharma corrupts data but keeps profits
AveXis, a subsidiary of Novartis, is aimed at developing and commercializing gene therapy.8 May 24, 2019, the company received approval to release Zolgensma, which was considered a major milestone. However, it is also the most expensive treatment ever offered on the market, at a whopping price of $2.1 million for a single dose.9,10
AveXis knew of the data manipulation in March,11 a full two months before the drug was officially approved by the FDA. Dr. Wilson Bryon, director of the FDA division reviewing the drug, commented to STAT12 that had the agency been told of the data manipulation, approval of the drug would have been delayed.
In what appears to be an opposing statement, Dr. Peters Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research,13 was quoted in a press release saying,14 “The FDA is carefully assessing this situation and remains confident that Zolgensma should remain on the market.” In the same statement Marks also said,15 “The agency will use its full authorities to take action, if appropriate, which may include civil or criminal penalties.”
In a letter to Ned Sharpless, acting head of the FDA, five senators wrote,16 “This scandal smacks of the pharmaceutical industry’s privilege and greed, and Americans are sick of it.” The senators urged the FDA to take action:17
” … to use your full authorities to hold AveXis accountable for its malfeasance. Anything short of a forceful response would signal a green light to future pharmaceutical misbehavior.”
Business Insider18 reports Novartis declined to comment on the content of the letter from the senators. In a Twitter conversation19 between Dr. Peter Bach20 of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and past FDA Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb,21,22 the problem was clearly acknowledged:
Bach: “I don’t know the rules in detail, but presumably Nvs could have told the FDA to pause its review to ensure the approval was not based on data suspected to be (or known to be) fabricated. This whole thing has the ‘wrongs were committed but there were no wrongdoers’ feel.”
Gottlieb: “Based on the tone and substance of the FDA statement today, Peter, I suspect there will be wrongdoers here. And consequences.”
Drugmakers not required to report suspected data corruption
In their letter to Sharpless, the five senators described how taxpayers had funded benefits to Novartis in order to speed the regulatory and approval processes for their new drug. They wrote:23
“What makes this unscrupulous action even more appalling is the fact that AveXis was the beneficiary of numerous federal taxpayer-funded benefits and incentives, including obtaining Fast Track, Breakthrough Therapy, and Priority Review designations — ensuring that Zolgensma would be sped through the regulatory approval process. All the while, AveXis breaks records, and budgets, with its staggering $2.1 million price.”
In the same letter, the senators requested that the FDA answer questions about how it plans to deal with cases of data manipulation from drug companies. Additionally, they wanted an explanation about why the FDA had decided to drop a regulation requiring pharmaceutical companies to report any suspected data manipulation.24
Dr. Vasant Narasimhan became the chief executive officer of Novartis on February 1, 2018.25 Narasimhan defended the company’s decision to delay release of the information about manipulated data and said the company “thoroughly, aggressively”26 investigated the issue.
The New York Times27 reports that when Narasimhan assumed this role, his mission was to restore the reputation of Novartis following several allegations of price-fixing, past data manipulation and the decision to hire Michael Cohen, President Trump’s ex-lawyer who pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress.28
Narasimhan said they waited before releasing information about data manipulation in order to perform their own internal investigation and not in an effort to hasten the approval process.29 Novartis continues to assert the falsified data were limited to the early phases of research involving animals; this was discontinued in the summer of 2018.
Insurance companies picking up $2.1 million bill
While Zolgensma is the second gene therapy drug to be approved by the FDA, the government agency expects to be approving between 10 and 20 cell and gene therapy products each year by 2025.30 Zolgensma is a $2.1 million one-time drug for the treatment of spinal muscular atrophy in children under 2.
Spinal muscular atrophy is a muscle wasting disease, affecting about 400 children each year. In the most severe form, children die before age 2. At one point, UnitedHealthcare refused payment for several cases. Later, they reversed their decision after pressure from families and intense media coverage.31
The FDA released an inspection report from the mice used in the early phases of the research and found how long the mice lived was different from the actual value in some cases. While the FDA reported the data were manipulated, they would not say if they believed the information was deliberately falsified.32
Novartis concerned regulations may impact business
The high cost of prescriptions has become a political issue, with most calling for change. Bausch Health, possibly best known for their eye care products, is led by CEO Joseph Papa. In an interview with CNBC, Papa said pharmaceuticals are the most cost-effective way to treat and improve health care.33
Also under the Bausch Health umbrella is a dermatology business, Ortho Dermatologics, which received approval in early 2019 for a lotion to treat psoriasis. In two clinical trials, the drugmaker posted a success rate of 36% in the first study and 45% in the second.
Despite pledges from Congress to help regulate prescription prices, Papa remains unconcerned.34 However, Novartis is not quite as unruffled by movements in Congress toward greater regulation.
The company is standing behind their newest gene therapy drug, and defends the massive price tag that nearly all families would find impossible to pay without full coverage insurance. At the same time, Novartis’ annual report cites concern for transparency in the way their company may be forced to do business:35
“For example, we are faced with increasing pressures, including new laws and regulations from around the world, to be more transparent with respect to how we do business, including with respect to our interactions with healthcare professionals and organizations.
These laws and regulations include requirements that we disclose payments or other transfers of value made to healthcare professionals and organizations, as well as information relating to the prices for our products. Such measures, including any additional such measures that may be put in place, could have a material adverse impact on our business, financial condition, or results of operations.”
Novartis dumped vaccine program and more
Novartis’s headquarters are in Switzerland and the company has offices in multiple countries.36 If their name sounds familiar it might be from years of manufacturing and supplying vaccines, including flu vaccines and those for meningitis B. Their vaccine division was formed in 2006 but began posting losses in 2013.37
In 2015, Novartis sold the flu vaccine business for $275 million to Australia’s CSL. This placed CSL as the world’s second largest flu vaccine supplier.38 The acquisition also included the cell-based manufacturing facility in North Carolina.
This was a win for CSL as it was the first of its kind in the U.S. The cost of $487 million was in part paid by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This was a part of the organization’s pandemic preparedness efforts.39 In other words, U.S. taxpayers funded the facility, which was later sold to Australia.
GlaxoSmithKline acquired the remaining vaccine business from Novartis in 2015 for $7.1 billion, which included nearly 20 vaccines the company had in development.40 In addition, GSK divested its oncology portfolio to Novartis for cash consideration of $16 billion.41
Novartis began their companywide restructure with the divestment of their vaccine portfolio, over-the-counter drugs and animal health sections.42 In another deal closed December 2015, Novartis sold Kayersberg Pharmaceuticals from their Alcon unit in a bid to improve financial margins and focus their attention in a different direction.43
By June 2018, Novartis had announced the sale of the entire Alcon eye-care unit44 as Narasimhan continued to focus the attention of the company on prescription drugs. In 2018, Novartis bought AveXis for $8.7 billion to acquire the then experimental Zolgensma.45
As the pharmaceutical industry jockeys for position in an ever-changing political environment, it is the consumer who ultimately loses the battle. Although Papa believes pharmaceutical treatments are the answer to health and wellness, it has been my assertion for decades your life choices have a significant effect on your health, including nutrition, sleep, hydration and exercise.
The renowned biologist, writer and ecologist Rachel Carson called for humanity’s responsible action as stewards of the earth, warning that the federal government was part of a problem that may lead to environmental failure. Her book, “Silent Spring,” became a best seller in 1962 and inspired a grassroots movement to protect the environment.1
Carson warned of the deadly impact that a certain insecticide, DDT, would have on insects and wildlife. She contended that its use may result in the death of a vast number of birds and wildlife and ultimately lead to a silent spring devoid of the typical calls of nature. Today, neonicotinoids have become the second silent spring.
Neonicotinoids are a relatively new type of insecticide. Unlike contact pesticides, these chemicals are systemic and water soluble.2 Plants absorb the pesticide into the foliage, flower and sap.3 Commonly called neonics, the toxin works on the central nervous system of the insect,4 causing death and impairing the ability to forage in pollinators.5
Sublethal exposure negatively affects the reproductive capacity of the male insect and may be a possible explanation for the failing honey bee population.6 In addition, only 5% of the active ingredient is absorbed by the plant.7
The remainder of the toxin is dispersed into the environment. Further research8 found this exposure in white-tailed deer resulted in an increased death rate in fawns and a lower reproductive capacity in females.
Neonics responsible for majority of toxicity load
A recent study9 demonstrated America’s agricultural lands are now 48 times more toxic than they were a quarter-century ago. In an assessment of the toxicity load, comparing 1992 through 2014, the researchers found that synthetic insecticide use has shifted from mostly organophosphorus pesticides to a mix of neonicotinoids and pyrethroids.
The rise in toxicity of the agricultural lands was attributed primarily to neonics, representing up to 99% of the total load in 2014.10 While the plants only absorb 5% of the toxin,11 researchers found oral exposure of concern since the toxicity level is relatively high.12
Exposure may occur from the pollen, nectar and guttation water secreted by the plant. Not all the drops of water found on the leaves of plants in the morning is dew. Dew is the formation of droplets of water when cold air meets the warmer plant.
Guttation is the result of physics as the plant moves nutrients and moisture throughout the system. Since the leaves of a plant absorb only a specific amount of water, the extra water evaporates during the daytime. At night, pressure in the root cells forces the excess water out of the leaves.13
One study author points out this rise in environmental toxins matches the decline in pollinator populations, such as bees and butterflies.14 For years scientists have been warning of the dangers of these pesticides; this new study provides a more complete picture of the threat to insect life and wildlife as a whole.
Compounding toxic burden is persistent
The same writer warns neonics stay in the environment for up to 1,000 days,15 which is significantly different than other pesticides that dissipate more quickly.16 National Geographic reports that neonics are used in more than 140 crops in more than 120 countries.17
The combination of widespread use and slow breakdown of neonics contributes to the compounding toxic burden experienced by multiple levels of the environment. As the number of insects have declined, so have the number of birds relying on the insect population for food.
But, as the American Bird Conservancy reports, exposure to contaminated insects is not the only factor reducing the bird population. The organization commissioned a report to review 200 studies on neonics in the industry, evaluating the risk to birds and aquatic systems. Cynthia Palmer, ABC Pesticides program manager, said the results were frightening:18
“A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid — called imidacloprid — can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”
High risk, but little reward
Despite years of documenting the effects on the environment and the long-term effects this will have on humanity, the use of damaging insecticides has continued. Not only that, farmers are not experiencing great benefits from the practice. Researchers who conducted a study published in 201819 compared the results of those using traditional regenerative farming to those of current monoculture practices.
They reviewed pest management, soil conservation and farmer profitability and found that pests were 10 times more abundant in corn fields treated with insecticides than on regenerative farms that did not use insecticides or pesticides. Although regenerative fields had 29% lower production, they yielded 78% higher profits, which appeared to be correlated with organic matter in the soil.
A 2016 review of seed coating by the Center for Food Safety explains that20 “coating crop seeds with these insecticides does not provide economic benefits to the farmers in many crop planting contexts.” When the European Union prohibited use of the insecticides in 2013, there was no production decline. In 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found:21
“The Biological and Economic Analysis Division (BEAD) analyzed the use of the nitroguanidine neonicotinoid seed treatments for insect control in United States soybean production. Imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin are applied to seeds at mostly downstream seed treating facilities prior to distribution to growers prior to planting.
BEAD concludes that these seed treatments provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations. Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.”
The U.S. government has failed to take action against the use of these toxins and has stalled a review of neonics. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a ban placed on the use of neonics in wildlife refuges that was enacted during Obama’s presidency.22
The Guardian reports that although there is some support in Congress for change, one of the top contributors to the chairman of the House agriculture committee is Bayer, maker of one of the most popular neonics.23
As the insects go, so goes humanity
One recent study reported that more than 40% of all insect species are threatened with extinction within the next few decades.24 Another reports25 that 322 species of vertebrates have become extinct since 1500, and 67% of invertebrates show a 45% decline in population.
The loss of insect populations comes at a high cost. While the loss of mosquitoes and fleas may not bother many people, it’s important to remember that 80% of plant life requires the physical transfer of pollen in order to reproduce.26 Without insects, most plants on the planet would die off, directly affecting your diet and nutrition.
This has a domino effect since many mammals and birds also require plant pollination for food, or for the insects to be available for food. Insects also are part of the decomposition of organic material, which means that without insects the world would slowly fill up with dead plants and animals.
Two entomologists from Cornell University tallied how much insects mean to the U.S. economy, and found that insects help deliver $57 billion a year. Native insects are food for wildlife, supporting a $50 billion recreational industry, in addition to crop pollination and saving ranchers $380 million a year. They believe these are extremely conservative estimates and comment:27
“A lot of value is added to the economy by insects, but most people just don’t realize it. When considering the allocation of conservation resources or the management of natural habitat, we must think about this value to make sure that insects can continue to do their beneficial work.
We know how to repair roads and other components of our physical infrastructure, but our biological infrastructure is vulnerable to degradation, too. If we do not take care of it, it will break down and could seriously impact the economy. In fact, in many places — crop pollination, for example — the cracks in the infrastructure are already showing.”
In one study28 researchers report their belief that the reason monocultures attract a higher number of insect pests is because plant diversity naturally provides sustainable pest control. When an insect has a large food supply from which to draw in one place, it doesn’t leave. Monoculture crops are like a buffet, whereas plant diversity does not offer a large amount of food in one place for one type of insect.
Treated seeds increase insecticides and boost business
Despite mounting data over the past decade that agricultural practices are decimating the insect population and neonics are not beneficial to farmers, many of the soybean, corn, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are pre-coated with neonics.29
Laboratory analysis has found neonics in 91% of foods tested, with the highest residues on cherry tomatoes, yellow squash and honeydew melons.30 Since the insecticide is water soluble, it’s not surprising researchers31 have found neonics are affecting the insect population not only in agriculture but also in the wildflowers growing on the margin of agricultural fields.
The original argument for genetically-engineered, insect-resistant crops was to dramatically reduce the use of insecticides. However, the use of insecticides has in fact risen since the introduction of GE crops. Concentrations of the insecticide in the pollen and nectar of wildflowers are sometimes higher than those found in the crops.32
In a study published in 2012,33 researchers found the use of GE crops increased the overall use of pesticides by 404 million pounds since the first GE corn seed was introduced in 1996.
The report produced by Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., then a research professor at Washington State University, showed insecticide use dropped 28% in the initial years but once again is on the rise. Benbrook said in an interview:34
“Things are getting worse, fast. In order to deal with rapidly spreading resistant weeds, farmers are being forced to expand use of older, higher-risk herbicides. To stop corn and cotton insects from developing resistance to Bt, farmers planting Bt crops are being asked to spray the insecticides that Bt corn and cotton were designed to displace.”
In spite of continued evidence that pesticides and insecticides are harming human health and the environment, large agribusinesses continue to profit from the sale of toxic chemicals and toxic coated seeds.
Regenerative farmers profit the land and their pocketbooks
As research has demonstrated, regenerative farming improves biodiversity of the soil, does not harm the environment and increases farmers’ net profits. Farmers who use regenerative practices are rebuilding the topsoil, protecting water sources and offering you optimal nutrition.
Food produced and raised on regenerative farms minimizes your risk of foodborne illnesses and helps restore local ecology. Consider converting part of your yard into an edible landscape using organic and regenerative methods.
If you’re not into growing your own food, choose fresh organic produce from local growers and seek out farmers who can provide organic, grass fed beef, poultry and dairy products.
Certifications to look for that indicate you’re purchasing the highest quality foods grown according to regenerative principles include Demeter (biodynamic certification) and the American Grassfed Association (AGA) certification.
In what Democracy Now!1 refers to as an “explosive report” by The Guardian,2 documents obtained during the discovery process of lawsuits against Monsanto reveal the company has been engaged in a coordinated campaign to discredit critics of the company.
Among them are journalist Carey Gillam, the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) and singer-songwriter Neil Young, whose 2015 album, “The Monsanto Years,” was an artistic critique of the company.
“The records … show Monsanto adopted a multi-pronged strategy to target Carey Gillam, a Reuters journalist who investigated the company’s weedkiller and its links to cancer,” The Guardian writes.3
“Monsanto, now owned by the German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer, also monitored a not-for-profit food research organization through its ‘intelligence fusion center,’ a term that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies use for operations focused on surveillance and terrorism.
The documents, mostly from 2015 to 2017, were disclosed as part of an ongoing court battle on the health hazards of the company’s Roundup weedkiller.”
Monsanto records show organized plan to silence journalist
According to The Guardian,4 the records obtained reveal how Monsanto planned to discredit Gillam’s book, “White Wash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,”5 ahead of its release in 2017 by instructing “industry and farmer customers” to post negative reviews and paying Google to promote search results critical of Gillam and her work.
In all, the attack on Gillam’s book, dubbed “Project Spruce,”6 (an internal code name for Monsanto’s defense directive to protect the company against all perceived threats to its business7) had more than 20 activity points, including the engagement of regulatory authorities and providing “pro-science third parties” with talking points.
Gillam told The Guardian the documents are “just one more example of how the company works behind the scenes to try to manipulate what the public knows about its products and practices.”
According to The Guardian, staff at Monsanto’s PR firm also appear to have pressured Reuters to prevent Gillam from reporting on Monsanto and its products, saying they “continue to push back on [Gillam’s] editors very strongly every chance we get.”
In an August 9, 2019, article in The Guardian, Gillam is more forthcoming with her sentiments, stating that:8
“As a journalist who has covered corporate America for more than 30 years, very little shocks me about the propaganda tactics companies often deploy. I know the pressure companies can and do bring to bear when trying to effect positive coverage and limit reporting they deem negative about their business practices and products.
But when I recently received close to 50 pages of internal Monsanto communications about the company’s plans to target me and my reputation, I was shocked … I never dreamed I would warrant my own Monsanto action plan …
One Monsanto plan involved paying for web placement of a blogpost about me so that Monsanto-written information would pop up at the top of certain internet searches involving my name … In addition, Monsanto produced a video to help it amplify company-engineered propaganda about me and my work …
The documents show that Monsanto enlisted Washington DC-based FTI Consulting to help it with its plans. FTI was in the news earlier this year after one of its employees posed as a reporter at the Roundup cancer trial held this March in San Francisco.
The woman pretended to be reporting on the Hardeman v Monsanto trial, while suggesting to real reporters covering the trial certain storylines that were favorable to Monsanto.”
USRTK targeted by Monsanto’s surveillance center
Monsanto’s surveillance center also produced written reports on Young’s anti-Monsanto advocacy efforts and USRTK’s activities, along with a detailed plan9 for how to deal with USRTK’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
“Monsanto officials were repeatedly worried about the release of documents on their financial relationships with scientists that could support the allegations they were ‘covering up unflattering research,'” The Guardian writes. 10
Indeed, among the many action steps listed in Monsanto’s USRTK response plan11 are “Edit existing copy” to “Bolster language on transparency and collaboration,” and “Write post that tells the story about the impact of a project (one that resonates well with a societal audience) that was made possible through the collaboration of Monsanto and Academia … ” The Guardian adds:12
“Government fusion centers have increasingly raised privacy concerns surrounding the way law enforcement agencies collect data, surveil citizens and share information.
Private companies might have intelligence centers that monitor legitimate criminal threats, such as cyberattacks, but ‘it becomes troubling when you see corporations leveraging their money to investigate people who are engaging in their first amendment rights,’ said Dave Maass, the senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation …
Michael Baum, one of the attorneys involved in the Roundup trials that uncovered the records, said the records were further ‘evidence of the reprehensible and conscious disregard of the rights and safety of others’ … ‘It shows an abuse of their power that they have gained by having achieved such large sales,’ he added.”
In an August 9, 2019, press release, USRTK comments on the documented campaign against the organization:13
“USRTK has made public records requests to taxpayer-funded universities since 2015, leading to multiple revelations about secretive industry collaborations with academics …
The documents, which were made available through discovery in the Roundup cancer litigation, show that Monsanto was worried that the public records requests had the “potential to be extremely damaging” and so crafted a plan to counter the USRTK investigation …
‘The story of the Monsanto Papers is that the company acts like it has an awful lot to hide,’ said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, who led the investigation. ‘Whenever scientists, journalists and others raise questions about their business, they attack. We are just the latest example. This has been going on for years.'”
The press release goes on to list several key findings from the documents, detailing how Monsanto intended to safeguard its “freedom to operate.” One way of doing that was to “position” USRTK’s investigation into its dealings as “an attack on scientific integrity and academic freedom.”
The documents also show Monsanto would have the right to review any documents released by FOIA before their release to USRTK, “even though USRTK requested the documents by state FOI,” the press release notes. Monsanto’s campaign plan also specified the use of third parties to counteract USRTK.
Again, this tactic is purposely used to make it appear as though Monsanto has nothing to do with the critique against USRTK, when in fact it’s the driving and coordinating force behind it.
Third parties to be employed include Forbes and other third party content creators, GMO Answers contributors, Sense About Science, the Science Media Center, Center for Food Integrity, International Food Information Council, various farmers groups, Jon Entine with the Genetic Literacy Project, Henry Miller (previously caught publishing articles ghostwritten by Monsanto, which led to Forbes firing him and deleting his articles).
AgBioChatter member advises deleting emails
That USRTK is seen as a threat to industry’s business as usual is also made clear in a September 2015 email exchange14,15 between several Monsanto employees, including Monsanto scientist Eric Sachs.
The discussion centered around “unfortunate” language used by an unnamed individual associated with GMO Answers in his or her correspondence with academics on AgBioChatter — described by USRTK as “a private email listserver used by the agrichemical industry and its allies to coordinate messaging and lobbying activities.”16
There was some question about whether AgBioChatter was confidential or private. In an email to AgBioChatter members (forwarded in the email exchange), Karl Haro von Mogel,17 media director of Biofortified, a GMO promotion group, advised:18
“It seems that there has been a leak of mentioning AgBioChatter, and it is inevitable that it will become a target for future FOIAs. It sounds like Ruskin did not include it in his last round of FOIAs but likely will in the future. If anyone here has not taken the Ruskin Cleanse of these private emails it will mean more content for them to twist and string into a false narrative.”
In other words, it appears as though Haro von Mogel was advising people to delete their emails — to get rid of the evidence — to prevent the behind-the-scenes truths from being known, were USRTK to file a FOIA request for AgBioChatter correspondence.
Monsanto accused of mishandling personal data in Europe
The information about Monsanto’s targeted attacks on Gillam and USRTK comes on the heels of Bayer’s admission that Monsanto kept lists of hundreds of lawmakers, scientists and journalists and their views on GMOs in France and other European countries.19,20
According to Reuters,21 the files were kept “in hopes of influencing positions on pesticides.” And, while Bayer denied that Monsanto’s procurement of the lists violated any laws, Reuters reported that:22
“French public-sector research institutes Inra and CNRS … said they would file criminal complaints over mishandling of personal data, after finding that some of their researchers and executives featured on the Monsanto stakeholder lists.”
Reuters’ report23 also included a quote from Matthias Berninger, head of public affairs at Bayer, saying “When you collect nonpublicly available data about individuals a Rubicon is clearly crossed, regardless of whether data privacy laws were actually violated.”
Documents shed light on GMO Answers
Yet another cache of documents released to HuffPost shed light on GMO Answers, a front group created by Monsanto’s PR company, Ketcum PR, in an effort to polish Monsanto’s tarnished image. As reported by Paul Thacker:24
“To reboot the national dialogue, Ketchum created a campaign called GMO Answers, and used social media and third-party scientists to offer a counternarrative to allay concern about Monsanto’s products.
HuffPost has acquired 130 pages of internal documents from an anonymous source that detail the campaign and its tactics for enhancing Monsanto’s public image …”
By answering any and all basic questions about GMOs and perfecting their SEO strategy, GMO Answers is now among the top results of most GMO-related web searches. The problem, again, is that the “experts” answering the questions are not independent experts. They work for Monsanto and are defenders of the biotech industry. You cannot tell that this is the case, however, as those relationships are purposely hidden.
Captured journalists help shape public opinion
Thacker also details the influence of Tamar Haspel, “an oyster farmer living on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod,” who writes blogs and articles favoring the GMO industry and chemical agriculture, who became a strong voice for GMO Answers.
“Behind the scenes, Ketchum’s documents show a reporter eager to collaborate with the firm and promote its new [GMO Answers] campaign ? and Ketchum happy to foster that relationship,” Thacker writes.25
“Another page discusses … a plan for ‘ongoing development of relationships’ with Haspel — the only media person mentioned by name — as well as outlets The Motley Fool and Politico …
Haspel began her [Washington] Post columns in October 2013, promising to ‘negotiate the schism and nail down the hard, cold facts’ about GMOs. These columns have been sympathetic to the agrichemical industry, promoting GMO products and commodity crops, downplaying the dangers of toxic substances and pesticides, and finding fault with organic agriculture.”
Thacker goes on to list examples of Haspel’s biased reporting, which includes downplaying the hazards of glyphosate and failing to disclose that one of her sources was a Monsanto consultant, and minimizing the risks of synthetic food additives to children, quoting a professor of religion as an expert source.
“For many who have been suspicious of Haspel’s relationship with agrichemical giants, the documents are further evidence that she’s too close to the industry she writes about and that her prominent column at The Washington Post provides a perch to spread misleading information about agriculture and the food we eat.
At the very least, they offer a behind-the-scenes look at how public relations specialists work to shape public perception through their interactions with journalists …” Thacker writes.26
“Pages of Ketchum PR documents that discuss Haspel are labeled, ‘Success! A Strategy That Embraces Skepticism.’ For Monsanto, any story that muddies the water on the science critical of its products is a win, and Haspel’s have been arguably the most prominent in national media.
The company’s touting of those articles is part of a mutually beneficial loop — she promotes its science; it promotes her on industry sites and social media.”
Who are Monsanto’s emissaries?
As Thacker points out, Monsanto has perfected several of the strategies initiated by the tobacco industry decades ago to hide the dangers of smoking. One key strategy is to undermine the public’s confidence in science showing there are problems.
This is done in two parts: First, create your own science that contradicts findings showing a problem. Next, influence and shape public discussion by maligning the critics and emphasizing the lack of scientific consensus. This engineered doubt is what keeps the public from turning their back on the products and prevents regulatory interventions.
Another tobacco tactic employed by Monsanto is the development of relationships with scientists and nonprofit organizations who, while maintaining an aura of independence, act as “corporate emissaries to the press,” to use Thacker’s term. Who are some of Monsanto’s most well-known emissaries? Aside from Haskel, Thacker’s article names:
Nina Federoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of biology at Penn state27
Jon Entine, founding director of the Genetic Literacy Project28 — another front group that, despite having been repeatedly exposed as such, continues to be promoted to the top of internet search results for GMO topics
Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois29,30
What’s particularly disturbing is the idea that academics working for publicly funded universities have been captured by industry and are promoting an industry agenda on the taxpayers’ dime, while simultaneously benefiting financially from their corporate masters.
Help USRTK unearth the truth — Donate today!
One of the key take-home messages from all this that the organized silencing of critics using immoral tactics is standard practice, and has been standard practice for a long time.
In fact, these underhanded strategies are precisely what have allowed Monsanto (now Bayer, as well as many other dangerous companies operating with a similar playbook) to continue selling toxic products for so long.
Using third-parties pretending to be independent to publicize the corporate agenda is grossly misleading to the public. What Monsanto has been doing is social engineering — making you think a certain viewpoint predominates among the general population and among journalists, scientists and academia when in fact this “consensus” is a wholly engineered artifice, bought and paid for by corporate interests.
USRTK has done a tremendous job bringing these kinds of industry conspiracies into broad daylight. They’re a tiny operation with just four employees, and depend on donations to keep this work going. So, please, consider making a tax-deductible donation to USRTK today. Your help is urgently needed and your donation will ensure USRTK can continue unearthing the truth, one document at a time.
It could soon be declared unsafe to swim in lakes, due to the presence of microcystins and other toxins that can be found in algae blooms. Microsystins are nerve toxins produced by freshwater cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that can cause fever, headaches, vomiting and seizures.
Cyanobacteria and their toxins (which include microsystins and others) can also damage the liver and cause kidney, cardiac, reproductive and gastrointestinal effects.1
The toxic algae are showing up in lakes across the U.S., threatening not only swimmers but also wildlife and those who use the lakes for drinking water. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created an interactive map showing the location of algae blooms reported from 2010 to the present, and they’ve increased alarmingly.
While there were about 60 news reports of algae blooms in 2010, this jumped to about 440 in 2018.2 “We have been startled to find that these outbreaks are erupting everywhere: from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico,” EWG reported.3
Toxic algae detected in 48 US states
The EPA’s National Lakes Assessment has detected microcystin in freshwater in all 48 contiguous U.S. states.4 The EPA also found that cyanobacteria are on the rise. In 2012, microcystin was detected in 39% of lakes. In comparison to 2007, conditions worsened in 2012, with cyanobacteria detected in 8.3% more lakes. There was also a worsening in microcystin, with a 9.5% increase in the toxin from 2007 to 2012.5
While the report noted that microcystin levels rarely reached moderate or high levels of concern, it’s possible that additional testing later in the season may have yielded higher concentrations. According to EWG:6
“Notably, more than 90 percent of the samples were taken only once during the assessment, and nearly a quarter of the samples were collected during May and June, when conditions are not as conducive to algae growth.
The EPA data show higher monthly averages for microcystin samples collected in the late summer and early fall. In 2007, monthly averages of microcystin in August and September were five times higher than in May, June and July. In 2012, monthly averages were three times higher for August and September compared to the earlier months.”
Many states aren’t monitoring blue-green algae
EWG cited a “lack of standardized data among states [that] makes systematic data collection and analysis extremely cumbersome.”7 In a survey of microcystin data from U.S. states, EWG reported that only 20 had results available online or upon request.
Further, while 30 states post advisories for public beaches to warn of toxic algae, or maintain maps of areas where toxic algae blooms have occurred, 20 states post only basic information, without advisories.8 What EWG did analyze, using microcystin data from lakes in 14 states and Lake Erie, revealed cause for concern. EWG explained:9
“Eight of the 14 states — Iowa, Washington, Nebraska, Kansas, New York, Illinois, Florida and Ohio — tested regularly and accounted for 97 percent of the results. The remaining states tested only a few times a year or during an active advisory.
Of the more than 10,400 samples collected by states, EWG found almost 9 percent, or over 900, exceeded the EPA’s 2016 4 µg/L draft advisory level. In eight states — Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Oregon, Florida, New York, Wyoming and California — samples exceeded the World Health Organization’s 1 µg/L drinking water advisory more than 20 percent of the time.”
Further, while the EPA’s 2016 draft assessment recommended recreational or swimming advisories be issued if microcystin levels reached 4 µg/L, the advisory was revised in May 2019 to 8 µg/L10 — a level that’s higher than public action levels set by several states to protect public health. According to EWG:11
“In 2016 the EPA drafted a study on “Human Health Recreational Ambient Water Quality Criteria or Swimming Advisories for Microcystins and Cylindrospermopsin” to establish advisory guidelines for recreating in water with the presence of microcystin.
The study notes that some state health and environmental agencies, including those of Indiana, Ohio, Washington, Vermont and Virginia, recognize 6 µg/L6 as a public action level for recreational waters and that a handful of states have beach and lake test programs.”
What happens when toxic algae invade drinking water?
Surface water, which includes water in rivers, lakes, streams and reservoirs, is a major source of drinking water in the U.S.12 — one that can become contaminated by toxic algae. In 2014, citizens in Toledo, Ohio, were warned not to drink their tap water as it was found to contain significantly elevated levels of microcystins, caused by algae blooms in Lake Erie.13
It was the first time microcystin was implicated in contaminated drinking water, but it wasn’t the last. In Salem, Oregon, algae blooms in Detroit Lake triggered a drinking water advisory in 2018.14 In Rushville, New York, residents were also warned not to drink or cook with tap water due to blue-green algae blooms found in Canandaigua Lake.15
Pet owners also need to be on the lookout for toxic algae, as dog deaths have been reported in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina in 2019, after dogs came in contact with the algae.16
In Austin, Texas, an alert was issued warning people to “keep pets away from Lady Bird Lake” after toxins were detected in algae near Red Bud Isle. People were also warned to “minimize their exposure to the water and avoid all contact with algae.”17
Outside the U.S., meanwhile, algal blooms spanning thousands of miles have been recorded in China and Australia, while microcystin has been detected in more than 240 bodies of water in Canada. In Greece, Italy and Spain, algal blooms are also a problem and reported to cost the economy $355 million annually.18
Toxic algae cause both short and long term health risks
In the short term, exposure to toxic algae can cause acute symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, neurological symptoms, irritation to your skin, eyes, nose and throat, vomiting and headache.19 In the long term, toxic algae may cause liver and kidney damage, as well as promote the growth of tumors20 and induce neuroinflammatory effects.21
You can be exposed to blue-green algae by swimming or wading in contaminated water (even if you don’t see a bloom), eating contaminated seafood, drinking contaminated water or even by breathing in contaminated mist from the water, such as may occur during recreational activities.
It’s also been suggested that toxic biological material from algae blooms may aerosolize into the air when waves break against the shore,22 representing another potential route of exposure. Study author Andrew Ault from the University of Michigan said in a news release:23
“Harmful algal blooms have been expanding as an important issue we’re dealing with, particularly for the Great Lakes.
We’ve realized that not only are these important for water quality issues, but that you also generate atmospheric pollutants from these harmful algal blooms. We’re the first to show that wave-breaking of these blooms can release material into the atmosphere, which can have impacts on people breathing it in.”
What’s causing the rise in toxic algae
Algae are common to fresh and saltwater environments and provide food and oxygen to marine life, such as fish, as long as they’re in proper balance with the ecosystem around them. However, when provided with an excess of nutrients, such as occurs when fertilizer runoff from farms contaminates waterways, algae can quickly grow out of control.
According to the EPA, harmful algal blooms require sunlight, slow-moving water and nutrients (i.e., fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorus) to occur. “Nutrient pollution from human activities makes the problem worse, leading to more severe blooms that occur more often,” they state.24
These human activities include industrial agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). For instance, fertilizer runoff was blamed for toxic algae taking over Florida coastlines in 2016. It got so bad in some areas that the blue-green algae could be seen from space.25
The algae bloom started in May 2016 in Florida’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Okeechobee, which serves as a catchall for runoff from surrounding farms and neighborhoods.
In a report released by environmental group Mighty Earth, massive manure and fertilizer pollution churned out by meat giant Tyson Foods is also blamed for the largest dead zone, caused by toxic algae blooms, on record in the Gulf of Mexico.26
How to spot toxic blue-green algae
The name blue-green algae is somewhat misleading, as toxic algae can be green, blue red or brown. Further, some green algae are harmless. The fact is, you can’t determine if algae floating on a water surface is toxic just by looking at it, but if you see dead fish in the water, it’s a red flag that the algae could be dangerous.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Public Health also recommend avoiding contact with water that:27
Looks like spilled, green or blue-green paint
Has surface scums, mats or films
Is discolored or has green-colored streaks
Has greenish globs suspended in the water below the surface
In addition to avoiding contact with lakes, rivers and other surface waters that could be contaminated (and keeping your pets out of the water as well), you can help protect yourself by installing a water filter on your tap to help reduce or remove cyanobacteria.
On a larger scale, stopping the source of pollution by cutting excess runoff of fertilizer will be necessary. Better land-use management that addresses fertilizer runoff, along with dramatic reductions in synthetic fertilizer use, would be a good start. You can help on an individual level by choosing organic or biodynamically grown foods instead of those produced on CAFOs.
As for whether or not to swim in a lake or river that has green algae, it’s best to avoid it. Even if the local health department hasn’t issued any advisories, it’s not a guarantee of safety, as not all waterways are tested. If you think you’ve come into contact with toxic algae, rinse off your skin and seek medical attention.