Channa Masala (Simple Chickpea Tomato Curry)

Chickpeas or (less elegantly) garbanzo beans, rock. They are high in folate (which is key during pregnancy, as we all know), zinc and protein. For protein-lovers like my family, chickpeas are satisfying enough to make a complete meal, especially when accompanied by this rich mix of spices.

So if you love chickpeas and want to look beyond the ubiquitous hummus, you might give this wonderful, savory dish of India a try. (Bemusing side-note: an oldish, peevish David Brooks column actually called wielding hummus a telltale sign of “hipster” parenting. Um, how can a substance present at every single party I’ve attended since 1992 be the least bit hip? David, dear, haven’t you ever been to a gathering of the humans?)

A few notes:

One) If you don’t have all the spices listed below on hand, just do what ya’ can.

Two) The Weston A. Price folks don’t like pressure cookers, which I think is loopy. Pressure cooking tends to retain the nutrients and texture of food better than slow cooking does, and makes it possible to cook beans on a far more regular basis, which has got to be good for health.

Whether it’s my beloved Moroccan tagine or the Indian-style dishes we make in the pressure cooker, steam cooking has been a major part of these and other traditional cuisines for a long time (the tagine, at least, goes back hundreds of years). And the limited liquid you add becomes a flavorful part of the dish, so if the nutrients end up there, you get all that goodness included.

Just be sure your cooker is stainless steel, and not aluminum, to reduce exposure to aluminum where you can, particularly if cooking for children.

Ingredients

2 cups (when dried) soaked (organic) chickpeas (we favor soaking them for 24 hours in salty water and find them far more toothsome than canned ones area; if you are using canned, try Eden brand for their BPA-free-ness)

Spices galore: Cayenne pepper, Turmeric, Brown Mustard Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Cinnamon, Thyme, Coriander Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Cumin, Ground Cardamom, Garam Marsala (I just put a good shake of each, except I was more stinting on the Cayenne), plus salt and pepper to taste

Fresh (organic) tomatoes (found these heirloomy ones at the farmer’s market — what great flavor!)

4 cloves chopped (organic) garlic

1/2 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 chopped (organic) onion (I love how noble this one looks)

3 Tbl Olive oil, grassfed butter, or ghee (what I used)

Directions:

Warm up the pan and add the oil, butter or ghee. When heated, saute the garlic and onion over low to medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the spices and stir.

After a few minutes, add the tomatoes and stir.

Finally, drain and add the chickpeas and give it a good stir, then add fresh water up to 2/3 of the cooker.

Bring the cooker up to 15 psi, and then slightly lower the heat. (Follow directions for your pressure cooker on the time allotted for cooking chickpeas, likely around 20 minutes or so.)

Serve over brown (organic) rice or wholewheat (organic) couscous. Also lovely with a little plain yogurt. Serves 4.

Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles

My short backstage video for the Anderson appearance this week highlighted how small changes can make a big difference, and that got me thinking about the serious problem of information overload.

The truth is, once you start taking the issue of chemicals and environmental health seriously, it can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, the thing I hear most from people is that they “don’t want to know” about toxics, because they fear it will drive them batty to have to think this hard about choices that should be simple.

This is completely understandable as a sanity-saving response to terrible news. Obviously, I think that the hard work of making sure products are safe is first and foremost a job for the government, and should not rest on the shoulders of individual consumers who, let’s face it, do have lives to lead. (Or so I’ve heard. I obviously wouldn’t know much about that.)

Nonetheless, as the tagline for my blog says, until the government gets on the stick, it certainly seems like it’s up to us. So here’s three principles that I’ve found useful in framing what I care most – and least – about:

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

I’ll do a much more detailed post on a comprehensive and protective approach to pregnancy very soon, but for these purposes, be certain that if you are adopting a careful, even “paranoid” approach to reducing exposure to chemicals while pregnant – and other environmental hazards, including “natural” elements such as mercury and lead that have been put into the environment at much greater levels by humans – that is all to the good.

In utero exposure to pesticides, lead, mercury, solvents, endocrine disruptors and persistent organic pollutants have been linked to autism, cancer, low birth weight, lowered IQ, reproductive health problems, you name it. (I will walk through the evidence on these in that future post; in the meantime, no one makes this case more eloquently than Sandra Steingraber‘s frightening and beautiful book, Having Faith.)

Pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should be incredibly careful in whatever ways that they can be, and should not let anyone talk them out of whatever measures and steps that they can take. Be fierce, my friends. And careful. Or fiercely careful. Carefully fierce? You get my point.

The good news – if there is any in this incredibly annoying situation that puts all the burden on women and none on the chemical companies to stop exposing us – is that once you make these changes, you will be far better prepared for a baby to join your home.

The three months following birth has been called the “fourth trimester” by child specialist Harvey Karp because so much development remains to be done in very young infants. A similar principle should be applied to newborns and chemicals. The skin of new babies is much thinner, and they, like all young children, breathe at a much faster rate than adults, meaning that anything in the air is inhaled at twice the rate or more. They also crawl around in the floor, in the dust, put everything in their mouths, and spend a lot of time indoors, at home.

In addition, we are just learning in recent years about epigenetics, i.e., how chemicals and environmental factors can turn genetic cues on and off, affecting an individual’s health, and it stands to reason that children, who have so much developing left to do, are uniquely vulnerable to these changes.

Then there’s their small size: exposures in an 8-pound, or even, 30-pound person are just larger in relative impact than in an adult, and the dose of many of these chemicals matters (though some, like BPA and similar chemicals, have effects even at tiny doses). Troublingly, most risk assessments on chemicals are modeled on their impacts on an adult over a lifetime of exposure, and are not appropriately adjusted to assess risks for children, meaning that the metrics we use even for the very few chemicals we do regulate are not protective enough for children.

Last, there’s the practical factor that children will have more time to be exposed, meaning that any delay in building up their inevitable future body burden of chemicals has got to be a good thing.

2)    Place:  Look Most Closely at What Goes In or On Your Body or In Your Home

I think of these in three circles. First, and most obvious, think about your food: organic is best, and grass-fed organic is even better. If you can’t afford this for everything, which is understandable, then just change up foods on the list of the Dirty Dozen with the highest levels of pesticides (plus peanut butter).

Second, focus on your personal care products. Going way back to basics makes this much easier: pick up a decent deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, sunscreen, a few cosmetics that you’ll use daily, shampoo, conditioner and soap, check them against the Skin Deep database, and call it enough. (Some truly helpful tips on how to do this are here.) For babies and children, a list of items we use is here.

Toss the fancy face creams full of unpronounceable ingredients that won’t make you look younger anyway and make give you cancer. (This was a hard one for me, as I used to like to believe a miracle in a jar… for fifty bucks and whatever was left of my limited dignity.)

Last, think about your household cleaners. Laundry detergent and dishwasher soap are most important, because you wear and eat them, respectively. Then pick up an all-purpose green cleaner, checkin it on Good Guide, or make one of vinegar, baking soda and lemon. Buy a HEPA filter vacuum for the chemical flame retardants in the dust.

As a final check, think through what you bring into your home. Leave shoes at the door, or better yet, in the garage. Do not use dryer sheets, smelly plug-ins or scented candles: open your windows instead. If you can swing it, to avoid perchloroethylene (a known carcinogen) use a green dry cleaner (but make sure they are really greener, and hang up your clothes as soon as you get home to reduce the bill, which is typically quite a bit higher).

Most difficult of all: if someone in your home works in an industrial setting, or a mechanics’ shop or similar place, or does, say, woodburning or tinkers with electronics as a hobby, ask them, as nicely as you can, to shower, wash and change clothes elsewhere if at all possible. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s sound advice in terms of reducing exposure to potent chemicals within a home.

3)   Opportunity:  Trade Risks Only for Experiences, and Not for Things

One of the consistent, if somewhat unfair, points-of-view expressed in readers’ comments to that New York Times piece went something like, “geez, it would stink to be her daughter. I bet she never lets her out to play.”

Of course, Maya has a full life despite my concerns about toxics. And I understand that I will have less and less control over what’s in her life as she starts school, and obtains far more of a social life than I will ever have again, etc.

That is one additional reason why I do what I can now: because I’m still (mostly) the boss ‘round here, and I like it that way. While she remains an impertinent minion of my realm, and has no other real option despite her protestations, I see no reason not to limit her toxic exposures as I can. But that doesn’t generally mean limiting her play or activities.

At least most of the time. On occasion, there are compromises and trade-offs. On vacation, there were no pans in the house we were renting without a non-stick coating. Too bad, so sad, we ate anyway, of course. (We did keep the heat lowered; here’s why.) The trade-off was that we had a vacation, and just letting go was more important.

In general, if I have a principle here, it’s that at times there will be trade-offs, and those trade-offs should be worth it. Parents do this all the time, as I suggested in this post.

In fact, we’re better at it generally than the government. We look at up-sides and down-sides, and make a call. And one benefit of being uptight, or careful – pick your word – about chemicals more generally is that it creates a bit of margin for these types of judgment calls.

For another example, most sports are at least a little dangerous, but the sociability, physicality and achievement are worth it. Swimming in chlorinated pools may be a small cancer risk, but I can’t imagine a summer without life at the pool. I want that for Maya as well. And it’s good exercise and fun. (I am intrigued, however, by the notion of non-chlorine solutions for pools. Where we can avoid risks, obviously, we should.)

In sum: where the up-side brings substantial value to your life, the trade-offs may be worth it. I don’t feel that way about almost any consumer product, despite the best efforts of companies to brand themselves as essential to our happiness. It basically only applies to experiences, and even then only the ones in which I’m in a decent position – meaning, where I have enough information – to weigh the trade-offs for myself.

As environmentalist Mark Sagoff put it in The Economy of the Earth: “There is an ethical difference between falling and being pushed — even if the risks and benefits are the same.”

I understand that sometimes we fall down, and so be it. Sometimes the risk of falling is worth it, and sometimes accepting and taking that risk is even a part of living. I’ll be happy to choose those for myself, and for Maya whenever she’ll let me.

I just don’t appreciate it very much when the chemicals companies try to push me, just as they try to push all of us around. It therefore seems to me that the best way to send them a message on this point is to sidestep their attempts whenever I possibly can.

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I hope that these three general principles are useful to you. If you’ve had your own environmental health conversations with people who don’t “want to hear about it,” tell me what you did in that situation… Did you give up? Persist? Politely tell them they are going to get cancer?

And if you have other ways that you think about risks, choices and environmental health trade-offs, I’d love to hear them.

5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth

Myth #1: There is a big laboratory in Washington which tests products for safety and bans unsafe stuff. After all, they wouldn’t be able to sell it if it wasn’t safe.

The sad, sad truth: There isn’t much oversight, really. A few government agencies (the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency) have responsibility over toys, food, and chemicals, respectively. But there are not many standards that apply before a product is sold.

Unlike for prescription drugs, where at least pharmaceutical companies have to make a showing that a drug works and is safe, for most things sold in the U.S. there is no pre-market obligation to show it’s safe and healthy to use.

On chemicals, the laws have not been updated since the 1970s, and were too weak to begin with. Laws like the Clean Water Act are showing their age – since, just for example, thanks to an enterprising high school student, we now know there are birth control pills, antibiotics and other trace pharmaceuticals in all of our water, and no real effort to get them out. Food oversight, as Obama remarked to hearty guffaws last year, is spread across a dizzying array of different agencies.

And the standards for what can be sold – much less what is considered safe – also vary widely. What with their lobbying and political power, and the revolving door, companies play the agencies like so many broken fiddles. And when Congress tries to step up, the industry swarms all over Capitol Hill like dollar bills over an investment banker.

In fact, the only place in across all of the law that imposes a general duty for manufacturers to care about what happens to consumers (called the “duty of care”) is when some injured family sues them for negligence. That’s why companies malign “trial lawyers” so much, and conservative courts and legislatures work to drastically curtail so-called “punitive” damages (that is, the amount of money the company should pay so that they won’t repeat the bad behavior, in addition to paying back the mere peanuts typically owed an injured person).

Other than taking them to court when you or someone you love has been hurt, which is, let’s face it, an important, though depressing and inadequate, after-the-fact way of paying medical bills following a human-caused tragedy, all we have are the government’s weak and inadequate rules. And there’s no laboratory in the sky there, believe me.

If you’re overwhelmed by this fact, be aware that both Europe and Canada have more protective rules on chemicals, and the European Union’s system does require a showing of safety for some chemicals, which is a major step in the right direction. (In fact, we now see companies selling stuff here in the U.S. that they can’t in Europe due to its stronger laws.) So there is a clear path forward, if we could only get our dunderheaded political system to unlock itself.

And small steps can make a huge difference. For some chemicals, Bisphenol-A, for example, we know that reducing exposure leads to a clear drop in the chemical’s presence in humans. So whenever we do take action, the effects will be immediate.

Myth #2: Pollution is out there, in the burning river. Or in the Superfund site, over in that other town.

Not true, and we should have asked Fido and Fluffy. The scope and intensity of indoor environmental pollution also has been a bit of a shock to researchers, who in 2008, for example, tested cats and dogs and found disturbing levels of flame retardants (23 times higher than people), teflon, and mercury.

So-called “body burden” studies of people measuring chemicals in their blood tell us that we have dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of chemicals in our bodies today that our great-grandparents did not.

In fact, we now know that man-made environments are frequently toxic. Just stop and think for a moment about the number of highly engineered products in your home: the upholstered furniture, paint, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, processed foods, mattresses, your dry-cleaning hang in the closet, all of the plastic containers and bottles, the electronics doused in flame retardants and filled with heavy metals. Now think about how much of that was in a home a scant one hundred years ago.

When NASA designed vehicles in which to take people into space back in the 1970s, it had to commission an engineer to work on innovative strategies to de-toxify that closed space, to ensure it was habitable due to the off-gassing of the materials used to build the spacecraft. Now, it’s clear that we’re all on that spacecraft.

The truth is that we’re in the midst of a massive experiment in genetics and chemistry. We are largely guessing about the effects of many of these chemicals on humans, as the science to tell us what we are doing to ourselves is still under development, and we have very little idea of how the chemicals do and could interact with each other in the environment.

In the face of such uncertainty, perhaps we’d all do better to open our windows a little more, consume a little less of what we don’t really need, and look for simpler ingredients in every category of thing we buy. And be very careful while pregnant.

And, in the face of such uncertainty, it’s really not too much to ask that chemicals that are not proven to be safe be kept out of the food supply, out of other consumer goods, and away from our families.

Myth #3: Only big doses of toxic chemicals can hurt us.

One stalling tactic of chemical companies is to argue about something called the “dose-response relationship.” What they mean is that studies of rats taking really high doses of some chemical or other do not accurately predict what will happen to humans who may have far smaller amounts of that chemical in their bodies.

Unfortunately for their theories, the science is often more complicated than that defensive poo-poohing of our legitimate concerns. What researchers have discovered very recently is that tiny amounts of certain types of chemicals – in particular, the ones that act like hormones in the human body (called “endocrine disruptors”) – are strongly linked to particular effectsBisphenol-A is one of these kinds of chemicals, as are pthalates, which are in a lot of plastics and fragrances.

In addition, low doses may cause the body to act differently than high doses.  And to complicate matters even further, small exposures to a chemical during a crucial stage of development, such as pregnancy, or even infancy (think: an 8-pound baby), may have impacts that forever impact health.

When we just put chemicals, willy-nilly, into the environment, we can’t control how and when a pregnant woman may be exposed. So instead we ask whether a chemical will impact a developing person in the same way as a mouse. Sorry, um, I have an issue with that. And with the dubious ethics of continued exposure in face of evidence of harm.

Of course, we should also care about how higher doses of chemicals will impact workers, like those in factories and nail salons, or even the visibly pregnant cashier I spoke to last week at my neighborhood café about handling hundreds of receipts and dollar bills per day covered in unbound BPA. They took her off the register after my conversation with her (and now she smiles at me when I come in), but what about the woman with that same job in the next town?

Myth #4: The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

You might think that flame retardants in the foam and fabric of your sofa would stay put – that is, unless your 18-month old rips a big hole in your cheapo leather chair, as mine did last week. Still, like you, we have no plans to eat the upholstery.

But body burden testing and tests of indoor air pollution and household dust reveal that flame retardants and other chemicals disintegrate and migrate from the inside of things to the floor. Once on the floor, it gets into the dust, the air and on our clothes. And into the bodies of pregnant women, where it impacts their thyroid.

In California, which has absurd rules that require nearly everything under the West Coast sun to have chemically toxic flame retardants in it (a rule brought back every year from the brink of extinction by a shadowy frontgroup for the chemical manufacturers), Mexican-American children have 7 times the amount of flame retardants in their bodies than do children in Mexico. Really.

Is it because Californian children eat the upholstery alongside their tofu? Um, doubtful. Its more likely from skin, butter, air, breastmilk, hand-to-mouth contact, and er, being a child.

And how did BPA get in the urine of 93 percent of all of us, anyhow? Were we all chewing on can liners and clear plastic water bottles? Well… maybe sometimes. The FDA may be a little confused on this point, but the National Institutes for Health seem to know the answer, and really, the notion that we can just tell something to stay put and hope that it listens to us is a fiction all of us parents have to get over pretty quickly. It’s long past time the regulators did as well.

Myth #5: Our cupboards are full of organic flax seed and fair trade, shade-grown coffee. We’ll be fine.

I’m actually a big believer in voting with your dollars, as you can afford to, for better toys, cleaners, furniture, and food. Our farmer’s market is a regular destination, and I ask questions about everything from environmental health to safety (see the Letters tab for a selection of my persnickety questions). And choosing organic food makes a big difference in whether you’re eating pesticides, as I’ll cover in a future post.

But, as I told the New York Times, we can’t shop our way to a solution here. I’ll be posting about all my difficulties in trying to eliminate as many toxins as we can, and how some can’t be avoided altogether. Even then, these kinds of steps only protect the families of the folks who have the time and money to work this hard, and most people’s children would remain exposed. So there’s a major social class and environmental justice problem.

When the issues are this complex, and this ubiquitous, and the public health costs this serious, that’s when government should step in and do its job. So far, the results of our current standards are not promising in the U.S. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get the Congress to demand action on chemicals and unsafe products.

As of today, Congress may be about to punt on chemical reform. Again.  And you’ve read this far. So call or write them and tell them that’s not ok with you.

Just to be helpful, here is a Handy-Dandy Summary of the Myths and my (twisted) Version of the Facts on Chemicals:

 

Myth

 

Fact

 

1)    They can’t sell it unless it’s safe.

 

 

Puh-lease, girl.

 

 

 2)    Pollution is “out there.”

 

 

Chemicals are here, and in us.

 

3)    Only big doses count.

 

 

Little exposures matter more than we knew.

 

4)    The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

 

 

Stuff moves around: in the air, in dust, and in our food.

 

5) You’re really scaring me, so grab the credit card, and let’s shop our way out of this. Where do I start?

 

Put that credit card down. Pick up the phone instead and call Congress to ask them to reform the chemical safety laws that should protect everyone.