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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Damaging societies," one child at a time

Another research study is showing us what happens when children encounter neurotoxins. Gladly, its findings are making news. This is in large part because it underscores what previous efforts have already demonstrated: a good many chemicals that we produce in our industries and use at home are preventing normal, healthy lives for many of our children.

The paper, “Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity” in the March 2014 edition of The Lancet Neurology is authored by Philippe Grandjean and Philip J Landrigan. Its summary tells us that 
[n]eurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, affect millions of children worldwide, and some diagnoses seem to be increasing in frequency. Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain are among the known causes for this rise in prevalence. In 2006, we did a systematic review and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. We postulate that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered.
In simple terms, our creativity in cobbling together this or that chemical can come at a price to our children, our societies, and our souls. Science is showing us what the cost can be to our kids when they come in contact with unnatural and toxic substances; our experiences with so many affected children are showing us the price to society; and our decisions to continue on or to slow the use of such chemicals will tell us what sort of people we are.

Indeed, Landrigan and Grandjean signal a problem with how in the past governments allowed and industries produced chemicals that, after a time, were found to be harmful. 
A recurring theme in many cases was that commercial introduction and wide dissemination of the chemicals preceded any systematic effort to assess potential toxicity. Particularly absent were advance efforts to study possible effects on children’s health or the potential of exposures in early life to disrupt early development. Similar challenges have been confronted in other public health disasters, such as those caused by tobacco smoking, alcohol use, and reļ¬ned foods. These problems have been recently termed industrial epidemic.
The authors recommend the development of an “international clearinghouse on neurotoxicity” to research and make health information available on industrial chemicals. Man-made chemicals can certainly be made and used safely. We just need the right information to do so. But after reading this report on toxicity, one wonders why there isn’t already a global means to easily study and share such information—especially if it means the protection of innocent life.

Moreover, Landrigan and Grandjean warn that the true number of dangerous chemicals is much higher than we might think. And so they are rightly concerned “that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognised toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviours, truncating future achievements, and damaging societies, perhaps most seriously in developing countries.”

I was struck when I read this. Certainly this paper echoes concerns raised by the Church, as we find here by the bishops of the United States. But the author’s language echoes almost verbatim the words of Benedict XVI that are used in the masthead of this blog, that "[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person. ... It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society."

This study will rightly generate a chorus of distress from secular environmental health advocates. Such attention is good and proper, not only for this issue but for the wider ones it points to. After all, the harm done to the born and unborn by man-made neurotoxins is a sort of reflection of other man-made harms to the born and unborn that we as a people countenance. Would that our concerns about neurotoxins illuminate all such threats.

In any event, for now we give many thanks and offer many blessings to Drs. Grandjean and Landrigan for their great work and for the Lancet for publishing it. May this study and the many like them teach us how to appreciate and build a true culture of life.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

For life, fair and sustainable coffee and palm oil

Growing coffee, keeping a few trees. Photo Flicker/colros

Yesterday at work I received a lesson in how our appetites for coffee and palm oil are harming old growth tropical forests. I also learned how things can be done better—and in some places, already are.

The speaker was one of my agency’s newer hires, a young and energetic biologist who had interned for his professors to study coffee plantations in Costa Rica and oil palm farming in Malaysia.

The upshot is that coffee can be grown in forest shaded areas—and thus have a smaller or negligible impact on tropical ecosystems. But coffee growers often prefer forest unfriendly open-field cultivation because they can fit more plants in the same area. And with coffee buyers squeezing growers on price, there is pressure to yield as much product as possible from any given property. In fact, as prices get more competitive some farmers are forced to cut down more forests simply to maintain their family’s income.

What is it that pushes prices so low? In large part, it's the desire of coffee consumers to pay as little as possible for their morning java.

Palm oil fruits at harvest. Flicker/Ahmad Fuad Morad
Another lesson learned: Palm oil growers in places like Malaysia are often much less forest friendly. To grow oil palms—a global commodity for use in a great many processed foods—farmers destroy very large areas of very old, thriving tropical forests. This devastates habitats for indigenous peoples and all sorts of life, including the orangutan. Even small buffers for streams become scare, which worsens aquatic impacts from the excessive fertilizers applied to grow oil palm trees. 

As always when conversing about such topics, the numbers get staggering and the wish list for making everything better gets long. And while food conglomerates in Southeast Asia are doing research in sustainable practices for growing oil palm trees, there needs to be more research and lots more action.

Real changes in how we supply palm oil and coffee will, it seems, come when consumers demand it—when they/we are willing to pay a few cents more for whatever it is they/we are buying. But not every consumer can afford a higher food bill, which makes such conversations more tricky.

In this regard, kudos to Kellogs for forcing growers to care for forests and other natural habitats by complying with sustainable standards by 2015. And a tip-of-the-hat to Catholic Online for sharing the news. (It’s always nice when you see a Catholic voice in a listing of secular news outlets. As I’ve noted elsewhere, adding our voice to such "secular" issues is a means toward New Evangelization.)

A once thriving forest now nurses oil palms. Flicker/angela7dreams
Of course, Kellogs is just one company among many. More needs to be done. And here is where you and I come into play. As Benedict XVI put it,
[t]he way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”… Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. [Caritas in Veritate, §51, quoting Bl. John Paul II’s Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 13, and his encyclical Centesimus Annus, 36.] Emphasis original. 
Benedict XVI has elsewhere said much more. So has Paul VI, John Paul II, Francis, and many bishops. You get the idea. 
Coffee. Flicker/wenzday01

The big question thus becomes, what will you and I do to adopt new lifestyles? And what lifestyles should we adopt to better support local farmers (and their families) while helping to protect the thriving ecosystems that have global impacts for life? 

To start, we can learn a little more about Fair Trade practices and buy Fair Trade certified products—especially our coffee and, when possible, anything that contains palm oil. And we must demand that the companies that process food do likewise. We must ask for better, sustainable choices from our supermarkets and the companies they buy from. And we can accept that, for those that can afford it, some of what we do demand will cost us, too. (Yes, we will pay a bit more for environmentally friendly food products.) 

I’ll be focusing more on all this the future. But for now, importantly, we can also pray for the people who grow our foods, those close by and those far away. Pray for conversion of business practices and purchases. Pray for the growth of the Gospel of Life in industries like food production and commodity farming. Pray for virtues to control our appetites, and the grace to build this virtue within us. 

Ultimately, we must pray for life—because when we do so, we’re praying for the dignity of every human person as well as for the planet that keeps us all healthy—assuming that we, for our part, live in ways that keep it healthy, too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent 2014: When the heavens meet earth

As we prepare for Lent we might reflect on the place of creation throughout salvation history. We do so because the dialogue between heaven and earth culminated in Jesus Christ—true God, true man, the Word of God made present now for the ages in the Eucharist.

I’ve posted below three related reflections. The first is part of a powerful Lenten homily, the second is an appropriate passage of Isaiah to guide our thoughts, and the third is a video from an artist who has captured (perhaps without knowing it) some of what we encounter in the homily and in Isaiah.

We begin with a particularly moving homily by Pope Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday, 2012. Here’s a portion:
Firstly, ashes are one of the material signs that bring the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we receive the grace of Christ which comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but are nevertheless linked to prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. In fact, before the distribution of ashes on the heads of each one of us — which we will soon do — they are blessed according to two possible formulas: in the first, they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the act of the imposition: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Gen 3:19).
Thus the sign of the Ashes recalls the great fresco of creation which tells us that the human being is a singular unity of matter and of the Divine breath, using the image of dust moulded by God and given life by the breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.
In Genesis, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Whereas before the fall the soil was a totally good element, irrigated by spring water (cf. Gen 2:6) and through God’s work was capable of producing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9).
After the fall and the divine curse it was to produce only “thorns and thistles”, and only in exchange for the “toil” and the “sweat of your face” would it bear fruit (cf. Gen 3:17-19). The dust of the earth no longer recalls the creative hand of God, one that is open to life, but becomes a sign of an inexorable destiny of death: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
I end the quotation at that iconic Ash Wednesday phrase, but the homily does not end with death. How could it? The genius of Benedict XVI is in how he brings the scriptures into focus by reminding us of its promise of eternal life. Like few others, he teaches by calling our attention to what we should see so clearly. 

The Prophet Isaiah accentuates the Hebrew Scripture's use of creation imagery. Here he does so to portray the reach of God into the worldly realm. This is one of my favorite passages in all scripture.

         For my thoughts are not your thoughts, 
         nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD. 
         For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 
         so are my ways higher than your ways, 
         my thoughts higher than your thoughts. 

         Yet just as from the heavens 
         the rain and snow come down 
         And do not return there 
         till they have watered the earth, 
         making it fertile and fruitful, 
         Giving seed to the one who sows 
         and bread to the one who eats, 

          So shall my word be 
          that goes forth from my mouth; 
          It shall not return to me empty, 
          but shall do what pleases me, 
          achieving the end for which I sent it. (Is. 55:8-11)

And lastly, I end with this video from Nicolaus Wegner, an artist in Wyoming. As St. Bonaventure and so many other saints and Christian mystics tell us, we can more easily ponder the creator by standing in awe of creation. This video excels at doing just that: allowing nature’s majesty—its laws, its beauty, its power—to remind us that there are realities greater than us. As the anceint writers of scripture knew, taking time to see what's going on overhead is a good way to consider how our ways are not God's ways. And that should remind us that it really is best to repent and live His Gospel, which guides us from death into life.

May God bless and protect you all this Lent.