Placebo power stonger than ever

by Alix Spiegel

The other day I came across a fake news story on the Internet. It was a send-up of the pharmaceutical industry, which featured a bunch of drug industry executives wringing their hands in despair; placebo pills, the fake news story reported, were getting stronger. What was a drug executive to do?

This is a real news story about how placebos are getting stronger. Or anyway, it’s a story about how our assumptions about placebos – the proverbial sugar pills given to patients during medical trials – are changing.

But to understand this story, first you need to understand more about how important placebos and the placebo effect have become to the process of medical research. To do that, it’s good to get to know Annette and George Doeschner. You see a long time ago, when they were still young, Annette and George decided to go for a walk in the park near their home. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and everything was perfect. Everything except for George’s arm.

“His left arm wasn’t moving,” says Doeschner. “And I noticed and I said, ‘Why isn’t your arm moving?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, but my pinky is twitching and I don’t understand what that is.’” Annette encouraged George to see a doctor about his pinky and so he did. But the doctor had bad news. George, a 40-year-old father of four, had Parkinson’s.

Annette says the diagnosis felt like a death sentence, but there was one small ray of hope: science. The doctors assured George and Annette that the disease was slow moving and that scientists were coming up with treatments all the time.

And, in fact, 10 years later, George and Annette got wind of a promising possibility. As part of an experimental study, a doctor in Colorado was injecting fetal tissue into the brains of people with Parkinson’s. The researchers believed that the experiment was relatively safe, but there was one catch: 40 people would be accepted into the study, but only 20 would get the real operation. Twenty would get a placebo operation; they’d go through everything that the real patients went through without getting the fetal tissue.

So why go through this pain and trouble? Because the doctor knew that even fake surgery – placebo surgery – will often give people relief. And he felt he needed to compare the effect of the real operation with a fake one. That way, he would know what effect the fetal tissue really had. George agreed and flew to Colorado where the doctor screwed a metal crown into George’s head and drilled four holes through his skull. George was then sent home.

Several months later, after a series of tests, George finally got more news about the experiment. Turned out he hadn’t gotten the real operation; he’d gotten the placebo surgery. You might think that, once told, he’d be a little bit put out about the four holes in his head. But Annette says no. She explained that she and George understand just how important placebos are. “How they ever do it I don’t know, but that’s the way that science works,” she says plainly. “This is science.”

The placebo effect

Over the last four decades, placebos have come to play an enormous role in the scientific process. So enormous that even people like George and Annette understand their importance and are willing to tolerate literal holes in the head because they believe it’s only through testing against placebos that scientists are able to understand what is really going on.

But some recent studies are turning up something extremely unexpected about the placebo effect: our response to placebos seems to be changing over time. In fact, the placebo effect, some researchers say, appears to be getting stronger.

To understand why it is that the placebo response might be changing, you first have to understand the role that placebos play in our research process. Because doctors know that any kind of medical intervention – even a fake one – can cause people to improve, they use placebos like sugar pills or fake surgery to understand whether or not a treatment is really working.

And why do these placebos – the sugar pill, the fake operation – sometimes seem to make people better when there’s absolutely nothing to them? Arthur Barsky, the director of psychiatric research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says one big reason is conditioning.

“You’ve learned over the course of your life that going to the doctor, being examined, having him write out a prescription, waiting in line at the pharmacy, taking a pill, (these things) are generally followed by some benefit,” Barsky says. “So you’ve kinda learned a pattern of reacting that seems to be pretty powerful.” Therefore, the mere fact of participating in these activities, Barsky says, often makes you feel better.

Now, this is incredibly important when it comes to drug trials – studies that try to figure out whether or not a drug is working. Researchers testing a new medication feel that because of the placebo effect, they can’t just give their drug to patients then ask them how they feel because patients are liable to report the drug is helping when it’s just the act of taking medicine that’s making them feel better.

Barsky says this is the real question: “Is your new medication more effective than a sugar pill?”

And so most of the time when there’s a drug study in this country [the US], the drug is compared to a placebo. But, says Barsky, this whole system is premised on some big assumptions about how placebos work.

“We have always assumed that it was a pretty constant effect. That the same person would have the same response to a placebo at different points in time. That similar illness would respond in a similar way to placebo. It was a constant, predictable, stable and very important phenomenon that you saw in any medical interaction.”

Our response to placebos may be changing

But it turns out the placebo effect might not be as stable as we’ve assumed. Barsky recently published a study that looked at a bunch of antidepressant trials that had taken place between 1980 and 2005 and he found that, in 2005, patients in these trials responded to placebos way more than patients did back in the 1980s.

“The placebo response was about twice as powerful than it was in the 1980s,” Barsky says. “That’s a pretty significant difference.” In other words, placebos seemed to be twice as powerful as they were 30 years ago.

No one, including Barsky, really knows why the placebo effect appears to be changing. But Ted Kaptchuk, another Harvard professor who studies the placebo effect, says that placebo “drift” as it’s now known, appears to be real. He says it’s shown up in more than just antidepressant trials. And one possible explanation, according to Kaptchuk, is that there’s been a change in our expectations.

For example, Kaptchuk points out that, by 2005, our belief in the power of antidepressant drugs was very strong and that might account for the shift. “There’s a lot of confidence and that changes both the provider’s impression of what happened and presumably the patient’s experience of what could happen.”

But also, says Kaptchuk, it could be that because drug companies mostly pay for drug experiments, doctors who do the research have a subtle incentive to say the drugs are working. And since doctors don’t know who’s taking a real pill and who’s not, the fact that they see benefits in all patients would also inflate the placebo effect.

Then there’s another possible explanation. Researchers, especially in pharmaceutical trials, get paid for every patient they recruit. But often, Kaptchuk says, it’s hard to find people, so doctors will sometimes admit patients to trials who simply aren’t that depressed. And typically, he says, people who aren’t that depressed are much more susceptible to the placebo effect.

“I don’t think there’s out-and-out fraud,” says Kaptchuk. “I think that you’re under pressure to recruit. It’s really hard to recruit people. And you know, (when) it’s borderline, (you) put them in. And those people on the borderline at the end, they are better in the placebo group.” Whatever the cause, placebo drift is something that has the potential to cause real mischief in medical trials. “If the placebo response – that baseline – is shifting all the time, then it really confuses the issue of whether the drug is effective or not,” Barsky points out.

As for Annette and George Doeschner, their experience with both placebo and “the real thing” has been mixed. Years ago, after learning that George had had the placebo operation, they decided to go back and get the real thing. And at first, Annette says, it worked great: the tremors went away. But then George started getting wild movements. His arms and legs would jump out uncontrollably at odd times. So George and Annette decided to go in for a new kind of operation: deep brain stimulation.

DBS, as it’s known, quieted much of the wild shaking. George and Annette are pretty happy with it, but still Annette says, “We’d be happier with a cure.” And were another potential promising cure to come along, Doeschner says she and her husband might consider signing up for another experiment. Even if it involved a placebo.

From the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation, a Seattle-based non-profit organization. (www.nwpf.org)

Whose digital revolution is it?

INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson

It’s not a question of whether or not we can have a digital media revolution; the question is what kind of revolution do we want to have? The signs of a media system in transition are everywhere, both in our use of media and in media policy. Canadians now spend more time online than in front of the TV; the government has collapsed the Canadian Television Fund and the Canadian New Media Fund into one $350 million dollar “Canadian Media Fund” with a focus on content for “multiple platforms” and government is about to embark on a national consultation concerning Canada’s digital strategy.

The question becomes do we want a media revolution where the same big media and telecom giants re-establish and expand their control or do we want a media revolution that provides new opportunities for Canadian media makers and consumers – a media revolution that produces platforms for arts and culture, innovation, sharing, dialogue and debate and community building?

Real engagement is a must

The good news is there are ample opportunities for Canadians to get involved in the transformation of media. If together we engage at the right moments, we can work with policy makers and politicians to guarantee a new media ecology that is by us and for us.

The current challenge is the government is not openly inviting us into its forthcoming key and historic media policy decision-making process. For example, the Canadian Media Fund is currently undergoing a consultation process with industry to define its priorities. From what I’ve heard, much of the independent media world isn’t being invited to contribute to this process. Most importantly, the industry consultation neglects citizens who will contribute $134.7 million per year to the fund. Shouldn’t we have a role in deciding how the money is spent?

“Big Media” like CTV, Canwest and Rogers/Citytv, on the other hand, have guaranteed “envelopes” of millions of dollars each.

Digital strategy for whom?

As I’ve previously written, the process of digital strategy policy formation presents us with a key point of engagement for the advancement of Canadian culture, innovation and social justice. Last month, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced a national consultation on Canada’s impending “digital economy strategy.” The policies that come out of that consultation should address issues like broadband access, Internet Openness (Net Neutrality), support for Canadian culture, media and telecommunications ownership and mobile Internet/phone access, cost, competition and openness.

In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister Tony Clement had a series of closed-door meetings with representatives from the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC). ITAC is Canada’s most powerful lobby group for the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector. Between January and November 2009, ITAC reported 21 meetings with top federal officials and cabinet ministers involved in developing national digital strategy policies.

The government also plans to set up an advisory committee to interpret input from the public consultation. This makes sense, but the advisory panel must be comprised predominantly of representatives from industry watchdogs, consumer groups and the public interest community in general – those who represent Canadians with regard to media, culture and telecommunications issues. To date, it has been clear that the telecom and broadcasting industries have not prioritized the interests of Canadians; it is, therefore, imperative that this advisory committee does not turn into yet another way to insulate the industry from democratic will and change.

I have requested a meeting with Tony Clement and hope to speak with him on behalf of Internet users and Canadian citizens concerning media, culture and telecommunication issues. If the government can make time for 21 meetings with ITAC, as well as other industry groups, I think Clement can find time for one more meeting with someone who actually has the best interests of everyday Canadians and Internet users at heart.

It can be a private meeting if that’s what Clement would like, but I’d prefer to leave the door open.

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times andAdbusters.
steve@democraticmedia.ca
www.FacebookSteve.com
www.SteveOnTwitter.com

Should you go raw?

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

Going raw is a big trend! Across North America, raw restaurants are serving up delicious versions of pizza, lasagna, wholesome burgers and desserts, along with their green smoothies. So before you rush out and buy a fancy, new kitchen range, consider that many folks are tossing out the microwave and covering their entire stovetop with a cutting board. This trend makes some sense. After all, plant foods are the healthiest foods in existence. And what can be better than eating them just as nature serves them up – raw?

Yet when we look at the science, what do we learn about those who follow raw food diets? Do raw food enthusiasts fare as well or better than those on well-balanced vegetarian and semi-vegetarian diets? Is a raw diet appropriate for children? Must we be 100 percent raw to enjoy the benefits? When our diet is centred on fruits and veggies, can we get enough protein, iron and calcium? When we add seeds, nuts and avocados, won’t our fat intake be too high?

Raw rah!

  • In Vancouver, enjoy the menu at Gorilla Food (Richards Street near Hastings), 604-684-3663, www.gorillafood.com.
  • On Sunday June 6, come for brunch at Gorilla Foods (10:30 AM or after) with a presentation by Vesanto Melina on raw food at 12:30 PM.
  • The Raw Foundation Culinary Arts Institute offers courses and a host of events. www.rawfoundation.ca
  • On Vancouver Island, enjoy the Sidney Health Fair, May 29-30, www.siwc.org/healthfair
  • Abbotsford and Fraser Valley residents are invited to a monthly raw potluck dinner plus presentation or video. Details: Bobby: 604 755-8596 or Monika 
    www.meetup.com/Raw-in-Abbotsford
  • In Qualicum Beach, attend a June 13 event at 5 PM at Rawthentic Eatery, 250-594-7298, www.rawthenticeatery.com
    For raw-friendly restaurants in BC, visit Raw BC’s website: 
    www.rawbc.org/
    raw_businesses.html#restaurants

It is certain that going raw is an effective route to weight loss. When we give up animal products, refined carbs and potatoes, plus all the fats we slather on such foods, we are bound to shed a few – or many – pounds. In the process, we shift from a diet that promotes chronic disease to one that supports well-being and longevity. Scandinavian research has established that raw diets with plenty of sprouted foods change the population of bacteria in our intestines so that we end up with a healthier mix.

On the downside, large German studies of raw foodists have shown that one woman in four lost her menstrual cycle, thereby affecting reproductive function. This occurred when the raw diet was unbalanced, mainly fruit-centred and very low in calories. (Those on a balanced diet thrived!) Although it has been well established that balanced vegan diets support the health and growth of children, there is insufficient research to show how this can be successfully done on a raw diet; there have been a few tragic cases in which the raw diet used was not properly designed. A pattern that is superb for adult weight loss doesn’t fit the unique requirements of a fast-growing infant or child.

Raw diets can be planned to meet our recommended intake for every nutrient, providing that we include a supplementary source of vitamin B12. It is not necessary to go 100 percent raw; high-raw diets can meet our requirements. Though rounding out a raw diet with seeds, nuts and avocados can lead to a high fat intake, the quality of fat in these foods is entirely health supportive. Whether you wish to ‘go to raw’ for a while or simply want to add a few more raw foods to your current way of eating, see the sidebar for some possibilities to explore.

Pink Cadillac

This tasty smoothie is a great pick-me-up, with about double your vitamin C requirement for the day. It also provides a wealth of potent antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. (Source: Becoming Raw). Makes 3 cups (2 servings)
1-1/2 cups fresh-squeezed orange juice 
1 cup sliced mango, fresh or frozen
1 cup strawberries, fresh or frozen

Place the juice, mango and berries into a blender and blend until smooth.

Vesanto Melina is a local dietitian and co-author of the new Becoming Raw as well as the Raw Food Revolution Diet, Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Raising Vegetarian Children and the Food Allergy Survival Guide. For personal consultations, phone 604-882-6782 or visit www.nutrispeak.com

Container gardening

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

When you know how many vegetables thrive in containers, you’ll realize you don’t need a garden to grow food. Try lettuce, radishes, green onions, zucchini, tomatoes and bush or pole beans in planters. Food plants need a maximum of 12 inches (30cm) of soil to grow in; those that are shallow-rooted require only six inches (15cm). Herbs, being mostly Mediterranean plants, are perfectly suited for planters in full sun. Imagine being able to pick sprigs of fresh mint, parsley, chives, oregano or basil from pots just outside your kitchen door.

I get best results from basil and pepper plants when I grow them in 2-gallon (9-L) black plastic pots because our summers are no longer reliably hot. I can harvest amazing yields of tomatoes, cucumbers, ground cherries and tomatillos from 5-gallon (23-L) pots. The secret is in the growing medium. I use a 50:50 blend of screened compost and coir (coconut fibre). This provides a nutrient-rich, biologically alive medium, with good aeration and moisture retention.

If you don’t have compost, you can incorporate granular, organic fertilizer into a potting medium or apply liquid fertilizer or compost tea throughout the season. Liquid seaweed boosts fruit and flower production; liquid fish fertilizer aids in the production of leafy greens. Both give plants extra resistance to the stress of being grown in confined conditions. I feed plants regularly as they are becoming established, and every three weeks thereafter.

Container tips

  • Plants in pots dry out quickly, especially in full sun. To be certain plants get enough water, test soil 2 inches (5 cm) below the surface.
  • Water daily in hot weather; apply until water runs from drainage holes below.
  • When you are planning to go away, place vulnerable plants on top of pebbles in shallow saucers and position in shaded places. Fill the saucers with water before you go.
  • Clay pots allow faster water loss; plants in terra cotta pots need more watering than those in plastic pots.
  • Choose containers large enough to prevent plants from getting root bound or they will dry out too fast.
  • Top-dress established planters with screened compost every year to provide nutrients throughout the season.

Fill a planter box with high quality compost and plant salad ingredients of your choice. From the salad box in the photo, I harvested two varieties of kale, three varieties of lettuce, cilantro, parsley and radicchio. You can grow mesclun mixes of mustards, endive, lettuce, spinach, coriander, cress, kale and chard. Sprinkle a mix of seeds into a 4-quart (4-L) bucket of sieved compost or coarse, washed sand and spread evenly over the top layer of the salad box. Using scissors, harvest with the ‘cut-and-come again’ method for baby salad greens.

Garden path perennial mix for containers and planters

In a wheelbarrow mix well:
1/3 screened topsoil
1/3 screened compost
1/3 aged horse manure

Add 10 percent of the above volume of perlite for drainage and aeration. Add a 1-gallon (4L) ice cream pail of a balanced granular, organic fertilizer (5:2:4) (with such ingredients as alfalfa meal, gypsum, rock phosphate, sul-po-mag, greensand, zeolite, kelp meal). Tip: It’s best not to use garden soil unless blended with organic matter because on its own it dries out quickly, compacts and deprives young plant roots of oxygen.

When plants are grown in containers, their roots are subject to freezing because they are exposed to two extra zones of coldness. In other words, a zone-5 plant in the ground becomes a zone-7 plant in a pot. A combination of heavy rain followed by a deep freeze will kill plants in containers by freezing their roots. Moving borderline plants under the eaves up against the house or into a greenhouse or garage prevents this from happening. Another way to protect roots is to place a pot inside a larger one and stuff the space in between with insulating material such as burlap or landscape fabric.

Carolyn’s new book The Zero Mile Diet – A Year-round Guide to Growing Great Organic Food (Harbour Publishing) is now available.www.earthfuture.com/gardenpath


project abundance

Project Abundance

Transform the city into a modern day Garden of Eden by planting an abundance of naturally-growing, free food in public spaces and sharing it. 

We are the change we will see in the world. All we have to do is plant the seeds and give them a little attention. Just plant one plant and look after it. You are your plant’s caretaker so plant it somewhere you pass by everyday to be sure you watch over it. 

We can relearn how to respect our planet and plant life, strengthen communities and begin to replace greed with giving. We can radically reduce society’s dependence on synthetic medicine with a diet of mainly fresh, organic, real food that we can literally grow ourselves. 

Project Abundance is a simple and doable project that can co-exist with commercialism – wouldn’t you like to pick a few strawberries on your way to a downtown business meeting or a few lettuce leaves on your way home? 

Project Abundance is about giving a very small portion of your time and money each month to grow edible plants to share with others – not to sell or harvest for oneself. Our true nature is of selfless giving. We’re all in this together and we can end world hunger and save our planet one-person-one- plant at a time.

 

Follow your bliss

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

When you follow your bliss…doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else. – Joseph Campbell

Is there something you have always dreamed of doing, but either it has not happened or you do not really think it is possible? Have you wondered about the purpose of life or if there is more to the one you are living?

If so, you are not alone. As we grow, we may pick up many limiting beliefs along the way. We may have limited opportunities or be limited by what our parents believe. From early on in our lives, we get the sense there is a path we must follow: go to school, get good marks, get further schooling, choose a career, progress in a job, buy a house, have children and so on. While this may not be true for everyone, it does seem to be the default program expressed by parents, educators and the media.

two chairs on a beach

In our culture, no emphasis is placed on helping you figure out who you are, how you want to live in the world or how you want to spend the time you have been given. There seems to be a division between what is fun and exciting and what is practical and realistic.

In order for a growing human to discover who he or she is, there would seem to be a need to have opportunities to explore different things and for time alone to think and reflect. It would also be important to have others with whom to discuss ideas in an open-ended way. And, of course, it would be wonderful to be encouraged to be open-minded and to trust one’s inner thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Well, yes, it would be nice, but for most of us this is not the way it was. Many people, therefore, find themselves perhaps ‘successful’ in their lives, but not necessarily as happy as they would like to be.

There seems to be an epidemic of stressed out people going a million miles an hour at work and then finding themselves just as busy at home. Of course, technology has sped things up a lot, but there is also a culture of ‘busyness’ that is assumed to be ‘normal.’ Perhaps it has crept up on us so that it has become the new normal, but this normal is not good. Perhaps it is normal for lemmings, every once in a while, to madly throw themselves en masse into the ocean to die, but even the scientists who study them still find it strange.

Is it any wonder then that with all of this it can be possible to be somewhere in adulthood and wonder firstly, who you really are, and secondly, what you would like to be doing with your life? How would one begin to answer these questions? Well, you can read lots of books, take workshops, Google numerous things and try to use your brain to figure it out. I have seen people do all these things and end up even more confused than when they started.

Joseph Campbell has a much better idea. He says, “Follow your bliss.” Do what makes you happy. He says he does not believe people are looking for the meaning of life so much as they are looking for the experience of being alive. When do you feel most alive? What truly makes you happy?

Most of us cannot just chuck the life we have and start a new one. But you can begin doing more of the things you love. You might think there is no time or it’s too late in life or you will not be good at it. You might also wonder what people will think. Well, you can make the time, it is never too late, it does not matter if you are good at it, just that you love it, and who careswhat anyone thinks?

Take a moment right now to think of your bliss and plan to take action to bring more of that into your life. Let me know what happens.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and psychotherapist in private practice. For articles and information about her books and CDs, visit www.gwen.caSee display ad this issue.

photo © Ersler | Dreamstime.com

Dancing out of China

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Mao’s Last Dancer, is the story of top Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin who defected to the US in 1981.

One of the trickiest aspects of creating drama about a celebrated artist’s life is finding an actor who can convey both the emotional life and the talent of that artist. It takes both an accomplished actor to present a convincing face for the artist and an excellent artist to convey the talent.

In this respect, Aussie director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy) has got it right in Mao’s Last Dancer, a feel-good tear-jerker based on the autobiography of top Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin who defected to the US in 1981.

The non-linear story follows Li through three stages of his life: plucked as a boy from his peasant village home in the People’s Republic in the seventies, enduring the hardships and rigours of elite training at the Beijing Ballet School and his growing sense of the artistic constraints of communist rule when studying with the Houston Ballet.

The dancing is fantastic. Chi Cao, principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, displays an awe-inspiring physical grace in the lead part as the elder Li Cunxin and the set-piece ballet numbers – thankfully, there are many – are the strongest parts of the film.

Cao’s performance, however, falls a little flat in some of the emotionally demanding, non-dance scenes, such as when he talks about his motivations for defecting and the implications for his family. But he does it well enough and he’s good with the script’s initial fish-out-of-water humour on arriving in Houston.

Jan Sardi’s script allows supporting characters to add depth to the central character, particularly Bruce Greenwood as the amiable director of the Houston Ballet. There are also memorable turns by Kyle MacLachlan as an immigration lawyer and Joan Chen as his feisty mum.

Shot in China, the film has an authenticity to its location, although the gentle mocking of communist naïveté about the malevolent West is nothing that would upset contemporary Chinese censors. A tad rose-tinted, but still enjoyable.

Vancouver’s documentary festival DOXA marks its 10th anniversary this month. Organized by the non-profit group Documentary Media Society, the festival screens mainly at Vancity Theatre and Pacific Cinémathèque, May 7 to 16.

Not surprising, given the medium, this year’s line-up of 50 plus films has a strong activist flavour. The opener Terra Madre (Mother Earth), by septuagenarian Ermanno Olmi, draws on a series of conferences held by the slow food movement in Turin, Italy, in 2006 and 2008. It is described as “a poem to beauty, food and the slow passage of time.”

Meanwhile, the closing film Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie profiles Wavy Gravy, who famously promised 400,000 people “breakfast in bed” at the Woodstock Festival and who has been described as “the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Theresa, conceived one starry night on a spiritual whoopie cushion.”

The line-up of films reveals plenty of variety, from a look at the high-pressure job of regulating European soccer matches in The Referees (13th, 6pm, PC) to an update on activists affected by the 1985 sinking of Greenpeace’s flagship by the French Secret Service in The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island (9th, 9pm, VT).

There’s also the quirky-sounding The Mirror (14th, 6:30pm, VT), which follows a bizarre attempt to throw light on a town stuck in a dark alpine valley, using a huge mirror.

No Fun City, one of 14 feature-length Canadian documentaries at DOXA, depicts tensions in a gentrifying Vancouver between musicians who want to play their instruments loud and condo owners. (10th, 9pm, PC)

For those interested in the process of making documentaries, Rivers and Tides director Thomas Riedelsheimer, who holds a teaching residency at Emily Carr, gives a free talk (13th, 3pm, PC). More info at www.doxafestival.ca

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone.www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

A green tax revolt

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

We all hate the HST, right? It’s now a populist campaign, led by former Premier Bill Vander Zalm, who has, by the way, also predicted the HST will expand to take in the US and Mexico and eventually be controlled from Brussels, Belgium, as part of a conspiratorial New World Order.

The HST has its pros and cons, but maybe we’re being blinded by it and missing the real target. To explain why, let me step back for a moment. Under the PST, various ‘good’ things are exempt, including bicycles and renewable energy equipment. That makes sense. But so are transport fuels and residential heating fuels: – oil and gas.

Under the HST, the only exemptions are those on a federal Department of Finance list that does not include bicycles or renewable energy equipment. So these exemptions have to go, along with almost everything else. However, the exemptions on transport and residential fuels are permitted and will remain.

So, this summer when virtually everything we buy in BC carries the full HST of 13 percent, fossil fuels for transport will be exempt. They will receive a seven percent tax break – twice the level of the 3.5 percent carbon tax.

One might ask BC’s MLAs why it’s so important to subsidize fossil fuels above all else. Is it not a glaring contradiction to the aim of reducing air pollution, traffic congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions, and making BC a clean energy leader? Even if the petition to stop the HST succeeds, the seven percent fossil fuels subsidy will remain in the PST.

The BC Sustainable Energy Association has pondered the contradiction and prepared a solution. We propose eliminating the seven percent subsidy to fossil fuels, increasing the price of fuel for transport and residential heating by seven percent, and using the income to create two new funds: one for Healthy Transportation worth $300 million a year, and one for Healthy Housing worth $200 million a year.

To counter the loss of the seven percent subsidy, the funds would be used for programs that would enable people to reduce their travel and heating costs by up to 20 percent.

From the Healthy Transportation Fund, we could invest $65 million a year on new cycling infrastructure; that’s 20 times more than the $3 million promised for cycling in the 2010-2011 budget.We could invest $135 million a year in transit, allowing local communities to use the funds for increased services, reduced fares, improved shelters or electronic timetables, as they saw fit. This would be in addition to the $173 million that was promised for transit in the same budget. We could also invest in pedestrian improvements, ride sharing, car sharing, video-conferencing, electric cars and eco-driving education. With every initiative, we could reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion and enable people to save money on their travel costs.

From the Healthy Housing Fund, we could invest $100 million a year in an expanded LiveSmart program, helping people make their homes more energy efficient. This would be in addition to the $35 million the government recently committed to restore LiveSmart over three years, enabling an eightfold expansion of the program. This would create a lot of new skilled trades jobs, as well as reducing people’s home energy bills.

Yes, it’s a green tax revolt – a tax revolt in reverse. We’re saying, “Let’s eliminate the subsidy and use the income in positive ways that everyone can benefit from.” That includes pick-up drivers in the rural Cariboo where cycling and transit may not be an option. By making ride sharing really easy, they could pick up the phone and cut their travel costs in half.

For this to succeed, all three major political parties must embrace the idea so that it does not become a political football. Can that be achieved? It might take a miracle, but it’s also good common sense. Why subsidize the bad things? That certainly makes no sense.

Guy Dauncey is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. The Vancouver Chapter meets the first Wednesday of every month at Vancouver City Hall, 453 Wes

What’s going in your body?

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Every day, we slather ourselves with liquids, lotions and potions – from shampoo and soap to deodorant and makeup. After all, most of us want to look and feel clean and to smell nice. It’s not uncommon for a person to use 10 or more personal-care products daily.

We don’t usually think of our cosmetics as a source of pollution. But US researchers found that one eighth of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal-care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, plasticizers and degreasers.

Take a look at the ingredient list on your bottle of shampoo or hand lotion. Most of us would have a hard time identifying which chemicals in the typically long list of ingredients may be harmful to human health or the environment.

Chances are your personal-care products contain “fragrance” or “parfum” – often the last item on the ingredient list. Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so manufacturers don’t have to disclose the chemicals they include. More than 3,000 chemicals are used to create “fragrances,” usually in complex mixtures. Up to 80 percent of these have never been tested to see whether they are toxic to humans.

These fragrances are not just found in perfumes and deodorants; they are also in almost every type of personal-care product, as well as laundry detergents and cleaning products. Even products labelled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” can contain fragrance, usually with a masking agent to prevent the brain from perceiving odour.

The negative effects of some fragrance ingredients can be immediately apparent, especially for the growing number of people with chemical sensitivities. For example, fragrance chemicals can trigger allergic reactions, asthma attacks and migraines. Researchers have even found evidence suggesting that exposure to some of these chemicals can exacerbate or even contribute to the development of asthma in children.

Other chemicals may have harmful effects that don’t show up right away. For example, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is a cheap and versatile chemical widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent last longer. But it is associated with a range of problems. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed it as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy).

Some research has also suggested that phthalate metabolites may contribute to obesity and insulin resistance in men. Health Canada has moved to ban six phthalates in children’s toys, after evidence showed that prolonged exposure can cause liver or kidney failure, but it has no plans to regulate the chemicals in cosmetics.

Fragrance chemicals often harm the environment. Some compounds in synthetic “musk,” which wash off our bodies and find their way into nature, remain in the environment for a long time.

In response to the sensitivity many people have to airborne chemicals, a growing number of offices and public spaces are becoming “fragrance-free.” This is a great initiative, but what are these and other harmful chemicals doing in our cosmetics in the first place?

Canada’s regulations don’t measure up to standards in other parts of the world. The European Union restricts many fragrance ingredients and requires warning labels on products if they contain any of 26 allergens commonly used as cosmetic fragrances. Europe also prohibits or restricts the use of chemicals classified as carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins in personal-care products.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Personal care products 
– how safe are they?
The David Suzuki Foundation and other organizations are working for safer products. We’re conducting a survey (www.davidsuzuki.org/whatsinside) to raise awareness and to find out what’s in the products people use every day. We plan to present the results in September, along with recommendations for strengthening laws to protect Canadians and our environment from harmful chemicals in personal-care products. You can help out by becoming more aware of what’s in the products you use and switching to products that don’t contain harmful ingredients.

 

Bill C-474 could decide the future of GM crops

by Lucy Sharratt, coordinator,  Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Canadians and Canadian farmers won a major victory recently against the biotech industry. While this victory is just the first step in a major and prolonged fight, it is indicative of the unavoidable conclusion that genetically modified (GM) crops are causing harm to farmers and farming in Canada.

Despite major industry lobbying, Members of Parliament listened to Canadians ahead of the biotech industry in April when they passed Bill C-474 through a second reading and into the hands of the House of Commons Agriculture Committee for study. Bill C-474 would support Canadian farmers by requiring “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.” For the first time, Parliament could take steps to protect farmers from the negative impacts of GM crops.

Bill C-474 gives us a critical opportunity to stop dangerous GM crops because, if passed, it will stop products like GM wheat and GM alfalfa, which are not accepted in our export markets. Introduced by Alex Atamanenko, NDP Agriculture Critic and MP for BC Southern Interior, the Bill is the first Private Members Bill on genetic engineering to get this far in the Parliamentary process. Bill C-474 will likely be scheduled for a debate this month in the Agriculture Committee and we can expect the biotech industry to do everything they can to stop it.

This Bill was propelled forward by the current flax contamination crisis. In September 2009, European bakery companies began discovering GM flax from Canada and pulled products off the grocery store shelves. By the end of October, contamination had reached 35 countries, none of which had approved the GM flax for growing or safe eating. Flax contamination closed our export markets and drove flax prices down. Our markets are damaged and Canadian farmers still face market uncertainty while paying for testing and clean-up. These costs are an unnecessary and preventable burden that flax farmers actually took steps to prevent 10 years ago. The flax crisis is the type of crisis that Bill C-474 would prevent.

GM contamination of Canadian flax was completely unexpected because GM flax was actually removed from the market in 2001, at the behest of flax farmers, in order to prevent this exact scenario. GM flax was approved by the Canadian government in 1996 and 1998, but flax farmers convinced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to remove variety registration in 2001, making it illegal to sell the seeds. Flax growers took this measure to protect their European market which buys 60-70 percent of our flax exports, but which clearly rejects GM. Canada is the world’s leading flax producer and exporter and flax is one of Canada’s five major cash-crops, alongside wheat, barley, oats and canola so the economic damage is no small matter.

The GM flax was engineered to be tolerant to herbicide residues in soil and was developed by controversial scientist and industry proponent Alan McHughen while working at the University of Saskatchewan. McHughen called the GM flax “Triffid,” in reference to John Wyndham’s 1951 horror novel, The Day of the Triffids, which features terrifying, flesh-eating plants farmed for oil. The flax was developed with public money through provincial government funding to the university and is just one example of the many dangerous GM research projects still underway in universities across Canada.

The question that remains is what will our government do to help flax farmers through this crisis and, furthermore, how will it make sure this doesn’t happen again to other farmers? For example, Canadian alfalfa growers are at immediate risk from the possible introduction of GM alfalfa this year and our wheat farmers are under constant threat from Monsanto’s re-launched GM wheat research.

Farmers are at risk when GM crops are commercialized in Canada without also being approved in our major export markets. This is especially true because contamination is inevitable. GE seeds are living pollution that cannot be controlled or recalled. This contamination, however, serves the biotech industry, which benefits if international markets are forced open to GM via contamination.

This is one reason why biotechnology corporations like Monsanto are bent on introducing new GM crops that are not wanted or needed, but which will contaminate other crops and thereby force GM across the world. Last year, Monsanto launched new GM wheat research despite the fact that, in 2004, widespread protest forced the company to withdraw its applications for approval in Canada and the US. This year, GM alfalfa could be planted in the US and also be legalized in Canada. GM alfalfa is a significant threat to organic food and farming in North America and yet our government could allow this inevitable contamination to happen.

Through the debate over Bill C-474, our MPs are being forced to confront Monsanto. This month, the biotech industry will pressure members of the Agriculture Committee to tear apart this Bill, but the first step in protecting farmers from the economic chaos caused by GM seeds has just been won.

We have a unique opportunity to make concrete change this year and to turn the tide in favour of farmers instead of Monsanto.

For more info and to take action: www.cban.ca/474

Research and your health

The latest science in accessible, everyday language

The studies cited here have been excerpted from the inaugural issue of Research and Your Health, a new quarterly publication of the CHFA, which contains selected abstracts that focus on the value of natural products and health foods for both the prevention and treatment of cancer. The Canadian Health Food Association (www.chfa.ca) and InspireHealth (www.inspirehealth.ca) have partnered to create this educational resource. Translating the large and growing body of evidence in support of integrative care into a language and format that is readily understood by the average person – in simple, clear language with clear simple conclusions for action/self-care based on this evidence – is essential in engaging the public in their own health and healing and integrative approaches to care.

Herbal & specialty supplements

  • Some can reduce the risks of developing lung and colorectal cancer

Millions of North Americans use dietary supplements with little knowledge about their benefits or risks. Therefore, the authors of this study examined associations of various herbal and specialty supplements with lung and colorectal cancer risk.

Men and women, 50 to 76 years, in the “Vitamins and Lifestyle” cohort completed a 24-page baseline questionnaire that captured duration (years) and frequency (days per week) of use of commonly used herbal/specialty supplements. Supplement exposure was categorized as “no use” or “any use” over the previous 10 years. The number of lung (665 individuals) and colorectal cancers (428 individuals) were obtained from the American Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) cancer registry.

Any use of glucosamine and chondroitin, which have anti-inflammatory properties, over the previous 10 years, was associated with significantly lower lung cancer risk (26% and 28% risk reduction) and colorectal cancer risk (27% and 35% risk reduction). Other supplements that reduced the risk of colorectal cancer included fish oil (35% risk reduction), methylsulfonylmethane (54% risk reduction) and St. John’s wort (65% risk reduction). In contrast, garlic pills were associated with a statistically significant 35% elevated colorectal cancer risk.

These results suggest that some herbal/specialty supplements may be associated with reducing the risk of developing lung and colorectal cancer. Additional studies examining the effects of herbal/specialty supplements on risk for cancer and other diseases are needed.

Some herbal and specialty supplements can reduce the risks of developing lung and colorectal cancer

Satia JA, Littman A, Slatore CG, Galanko JA, White E. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009 May;18(5): 1419-28. Email: jsatia@unc.edu. supplements with lung and colorectal cancer risk.


  • One or more cups of green tea per day may help prevent ovarian cancer

The link between caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea and risk of ovarian cancer is still unknown. This study included 781 women who were diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancer between 2002 and 2005 and 1,263 similar women without cancer (control group) from Washington State, USA. Each participant completed questionnaires that measured how much caffeinated and non-caffeinated coffee, tea and cola they consumed. Each participant was also interviewed about reproductive and hormonal exposures. The researchers analyzed the data to look at ovarian cancer risk and consumption of coffee, tea, cola and total caffeine intake.

The results showed no association between ovarian cancer risk and caffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee, black tea, decaffeinated tea, herbal tea or total caffeine. However, women who reported drinking at least one cup of green tea per day had a 54 percent lower risk of ovarian cancer. This association between high levels of green tea consumption and a lower risk of developing cancer applied to early and advanced ovarian cancer. Green tea is a common beverage in countries with low ovarian cancer rates. Studies to assess its potential to prevent cancer should be expanded.

Song, YJ, A. R. Kristal, K. G. Wicklund, K. L. Cushing-Haugen and M. A. Rossing. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2008 Mar; 173: 712-716.


  • Vitamin D and calcium reduce cancer risk

In the past, numerous observational studies* have found that taking vitamin D and calcium supplements reduces the risk of many common cancers. This study was designed as a randomized clinical trial, which is considered the gold standard of clinical studies. The purpose of this study was to determine the efficacy of calcium alone and calcium plus vitamin D supplementation in reducing cancer risk of all types. This was a four-year, population-based, double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled trial (i.e. gold-standard clinical study).

The primary outcome was bone fracture incidence and the secondary outcome was cancer incidence; 1179 women were randomly selected from the population of healthy, postmenopausal women aged >55 years in rural Nebraska, USA. Subjects were randomly assigned to receive 1400-1500 mg supplemental calcium per day alone, supplemental calcium plus 1100 IU vitamin D per day, or placebo (sham medication; e.g. sugar pills).

The results showed that cancer incidence was lower in calcium + vitamin D supplemented women than in the placebo control subjects. Cancer risk was reduced by 47 percent in the calcium-only group and by 60 percent in the calcium + vitamin D group.

When the analysis was confined to cancers diagnosed after the first 12 months of supplementation, the cancer risk was reduced by 77 percent in the calcium + vitamin D group. Improving calcium and vitamin D nutritional status substantially reduces all-cancer risk in postmenopausal women.

*Observational study: Study where the assignment of subjects into a treated group versus a control group is outside the control of the investigator.

Lappe JM, Travers-Gustafson D, Davies KM, Recker RR, Heaney RP. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun; 85(6):1586-91.

 

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capsules: © Evgenyb tea: © Juliengrondin herbs: © Robynmac | Dreamstime.com