June is Bike Month … and there’s safety in numbers

by Steven Beck

A recent spate of widely publicized cycling injuries and accidents – from six cyclists on a rural highway in Quebec being hit by a pickup truck, leaving three dead, to Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs being hit by a car while riding on a neighbourhood bikeway – makes the safety theme of this year’s Bike Month timely and appropriate. Watch for “June is Bike Month: Look out for Cyclists” ads in transit shelters, on buses and online throughout the month. This part of the campaign is aimed primarily at motorists, but cyclists don’t have to be dependent on motorists for their safety. Primary responsibility rests with us riders and additional safety tips for both cyclists and motorists will be issued daily from the Bike Month website, which also hosts safety information and links to other resources. One of the best ways cyclists can increase their own safety is simply to get out and ride.

Safety in numbers

These days, being in favour of cycling is close to achieving ‘mom and apple pie’ status. People know it’s good for the environment, reduces green house gases, reduces congestion, improves health and fitness and it’s also fun. So why don’t more people do it? According to researchers at UBC (see http://www.cher.ubc.ca/cyclingincities/injury.html), four of the top six reasons have to do with perceived risks to safety: the risk of injury from car-bike collisions; the risk from motorists who don’t know how to drive safely near bicycles; vehicles driving faster than 50 km/hr; and streets with a lot of car, bus and truck traffic. In short, many casual cyclists feel threatened on the roads and therefore cycle less.

The irony of cyclists staying off the roads out of fear is that safety in numbers is a real phenomenon when it comes to safety. The more frequently commuters, shoppers, families and children ride bicycles, the more visible they become. And the more space they claim, the more drivers get used to seeing them. As they start watching for cyclists and accommodating them, the safer it becomes. In addition, the more people choose cycling over driving, the fewer cars there are on the roads, which means less congestion, less road rage and less danger for cyclists.

Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, which have cycling populations five to seven times greater than we have in the Lower Mainland, also have death and injury rates approximately one quarter less than we have. Those countries also invested in the infrastructure to support high levels of cycling. Recognizing the wisdom in that course of action, the City of Vancouver has committed to an ambitious plan to further develop the city’s already extensive network of more than 400 kilometres of bike routes.

Vancouver’s network is primarily a combination of different facilities, including separated lanes on the Burrard and Dunsmuir bridges, marked cycle lanes, dedicated mixed-use, off-road paths and streets designated as neighbourhood bikeways, augmented by traffic calming measures and cyclist controlled lights at some intersections.

It’s an infrastructure that already makes cycling quite safe for the whole family, adults and children alike, whether the children are being towed in a trailer, attached with a tandem or trail-a-bike or riding under supervision. Starting the kids young and teaching them proper cycling skills early on ensures they are confident and safe.

“Critical ooze” – safety through ubiquity

While commuter cyclists seem to get the most attention in public discussion, non-commuting trips account for 60 percent of all household trips made in BC. Many of these are short distance trips of only a kilometre or two and close to half are less than five kilometres. Most of us live within a five-kilometre range of places where we shop, bank, recreate, eat and so on. With a little planning and the right tools, most of those trips could be accomplished by bicycle, as fast or faster than by car.

It takes only three to four minutes to ride one kilometre on a bicycle, even for the most inexperienced cyclists. For trips up to five kilometres, riding can be the fastest way to get there when you factor in finding parking and walking to your destination. Using the network of neighbourhood bikeways and side streets is both safe and pleasant and you get to experience the greenery, flowers and gardens of your neighbourhood.

The more people cycle, the safer it becomes. “Critical ooze.” The same is true for trips to school. Parents often cite danger from too much traffic as the reason they do not walk or cycle to school with their kids. Yet they get in the car and contribute to congestion –and danger – rather than becoming part of the solution. Walking or cycling your children to school is a gift that surpasses any ride in a car. It cultivates the daily routine of active transportation and exercise and it combats car-dependence; as the kids become more independent, they can bike around on their own as they are already familiar with the routes and parents are freed from their role of chauffeur.

There are many resources available to help get out of the drive-your-kids-to-school grind, including Hub for Action on School Transportation Emissions. The organization’s website (hastebc.org/route) provides planners, emission calculators and other tools to help kids make greener transportation choices. Many schools either have maps showing the safest or best routes to school or they are in the process of doing the mapping. At bikemonth.ca, BEST is consolidating the information for schools in Metro Vancouver into one easily clickable map. Some schools also offer “walking/cycling” school bus programs to encourage active transportation. The tools are there. It’s up to us to use them.

The City of Vancouver is committed to do its part in building the infrastructure to support cycling. Our part is to enjoy the ride and show that it’s worth it. Bike Month features celebrations, activities, group rides and festivals. Get out and enjoy.

Steven Beck is the operations manager at Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) in Vancouver. www.best.bc.ca

Get out and ride

Develop the skills: If you feel you lack the skills to be safe in traffic, take a course on how to ride comfortably and safely on the street. The four-hour Streetwise Safety Course, offered by the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, can boost your confidence and get you into regular riding. For more courses available during Bike Month, visit http://vacc.bc.ca/cycling/cycling.php?pageID=41 The coalition also offer courses in elementary and high schools.

Know how to get there: Check out UBC’s cycling route planner at www.cyclevancouver.bc.ca This is a great tool that lets you map out a cycling route based on several criteria from least elevation gain to most foliage cover. As mentioned, www.hastebc.org has helpful tools for planning routes to school, and BEST’s www.bikemonth.ca site offers a repository of existing maps for Metro Vancouver schools.

Choose the right equipment: If you need more than a backpack to carry stuff, your local bike shop can help outfit you with baskets, carriers, panniers and so on – even a trailer for kids or larger items.

Cycling safety: The basics

  • Act predictably; obey the rules of the road.
  • Use a light (front and back) at night.
  • Wear bright or reflective clothing, especially at night.
  • Pay close attention to traffic in both directions at intersections. If possible, make eye contact with drivers.
  • Never assume that motorists will yield, even if you have the right-of-way.
  • Wear a helmet.

June is Bike Month (www.bikemonth.ca) has become a grand tradition in Metro Vancouver. Fifteen years ago, Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) launched it as a week-long cycling promotion. It has since grown into a month-long celebration of cycling, with participation from many organizations and municipalities. This year, the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition is running its Bike to Work and School Week campaign (www.biketoworkmetrovan.ca) during the first week of Bike Month. The City of Vancouver opens a new separated bike lane trial on Dunsmuir Street and a new Velopalooza (www.velopalooza.ca) bike festival launches on June 4 and runs to June 13. It’s an ideal time to get on your bike!

Canning 101

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

For people of a self-reliant nature who raise a good portion of their own food, home canning is a great way to store the harvest,

 resulting in healthy, homegrown food, sometimes years down the road. In the freezer, food only stays good for one year before it loses flavour. Canning allows you to enjoy tasty, homegrown fruits, vegetables, pickles, preserves, jams and jellies for longer. It’s not hard to do and it is inexpensive to begin.

You can start with a water canner available from most hardware stores for around $20. These big, blue metal pots come with lids and wire racks; you are probably already familiar with them. It’s a good idea to pick up a pair of canning tongs at the same time. Canning jars don’t have to be purchased new, although they are not expensive and they’re available at most grocery stores. Canning jars also often go for a song at yard sales and can last generations.

This processing method is safe for all high acid foods, jams, jellies, preserves, nut meats, pickles, chili sauce, catsup, relish, tomatoes and tomato sauce (without mushrooms or meat) and fruit and fruit products, such as butters and conserves. Note: Don’t double or alter recipes. Pick up a canning booklet with instructions on recommended processing times for different fruits and vegetables.

Canning basics

Wash Mason (canning) jars in warm, soapy water, rinse and put into a saucepan of boiling water to sterilize. Leave jars in hot water until they are needed so they are hot when hot syrup is poured into them. Place canning lids in a small saucepan of boiling water and leave them there until they are needed. Lids should be new because rubber is only good for one use. An improperly sealed jar allows food to spoil, which is not worth risking.

Using jars with chips or small cracks results in broken jars or incomplete seals. Before filling, check jars carefully for cracks. A combination of hot food and cold glass or cold food and hot glass results in the jars cracking. Put hot food into hot jars and cold into cooled jars. Don’t put hot jars onto cold surfaces and keep them out of cool drafts.

It’s easier to fill the jars using a funnel. Fill to within one-half inch of the rim. If syrup does get on the rim of the jar, wipe it with a hot cloth to make a good seal with the lid. I preserve fruit in a light honey syrup, which accentuates the natural flavour without excess sweetness.

Light Honey Syrup:

1 part light honey: to 4 parts water

Fill a water canner 3⁄4-full and bring to a boil. Use the wire rack to load jars in and out of the canner. Wire racks prevent the bottoms of the jars from cracking and stop the jars bumping together. If boiling water does not cover the jars by at least one inch, add more water and bring back to a boil. Processing is done at a steady rolling boil; too furious a boil may crack jars during processing.

At the end of the recommended processing time, carefully lift jars out of the canner, using long-handled tongs. Place jars on a wooden board (out of cool drafts) where a seal will happen as the jar cools. Leave jars alone until they have sealed; usually, you’ll hear a satisfying ping when this happens. After the jars have cooled, remove the rings, wipe the jars and store in a cool, dark place. Always check seals before you store jars; the lids should be indented in the middle, with no give. If not sealed, either reprocess using a new lid or store in the fridge and eat soon. Mark lids with the contents and the date to make rotation in storage possible. Bon Appetit!

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

canning photo © Dragon_Fang | Dreamstime.com

Choosing our feelings

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

The last great freedom of man is the freedom to choose his attitude under any given set of circumstances.

– Viktor Frankl, noted psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

What is it that determines how happy or content we are with life? Does it have to do with money, success, career or love? Perhaps it depends on health or our spiritual path.

While all of these things may play a part, we have all known people who are blessed in some or all of those ways and they are still not content. Are human needs that complex? Probably not.

Likely, for most, the happiest moments are the simplest: watching a sleeping child, playing with the dog or digging in the garden. Why do such moments feel so complete and perfect? It is because at those times we are completely in the moment and being in the moment means we are one with life and our own souls. It means ego is not running in the background with a constant commentary on how we are doing or analyzing what is right or wrong in the situation or our world.

Ego has myriad ways to keep happiness at bay. Ego needs are complex. Think of the things you hear others complain about. Generally, the complaints are about other people, the traffic, the weather and so on. When people, or the world, do not behave the way ego would like, it is defined as a problem. This creates endless frustration, worry, irritation, anger, disappointment and crankiness! This can become a lifelong problem, as we have no control over much of what goes on outside of ourselves. Ego seems to forget that it is not in control and does not have the right to determine or pass judgment on everything.

Of course, ego does not stop with what is occurring on the outside; it can also mount a running commentary on our inner lives. Ego may tell its owner they are not smart enough, generous enough, spiritual enough, confident enough or wise enough. No wonder life can seem like a struggle.

As Viktor Frankl suggests, we cannot choose the circumstances of our life or even the native abilities we possess, but we can choose how we think about them. Attitude really is everything. It is not about what we or others are; it is about how we are.

How do we do life? Do we do it like a mountain stream wending its way down the mountainside, moving gently around the rocks and trees in its path or are we continually crashing into things?

Do we reflect on nature and our place in it and the journeys we all share or are we busy trying to structure it all to align with our needs or desires? Granted, it is not easy to try and live soulfully in the midst of all the busyness and the demanding nature of modern life. It reminds me of when I was learning to play piano (as an adult) and at first I could not imagine how you could be doing different things with the left and right hands at the same time. With practice, however, somehow I was able to do it and it even began to feel quite normal.

In life, to deal with the practicalities and, at the same time, stay in tune with our soulful nature is our challenge. With ‘one hand,’ we must do the things that need doing and be responsible and deal with what comes up each day. With the other ‘hand,’ we must keep the ‘melody’ that is our soul’s song. This requires that we access our inner observer, watching what the right ‘hand’ is doing, but not becoming too attached to that story.

After all, in the end we realize we were just passing through. Nothing was permanent, we were not in control and ultimately we have to let go of everything. To make our journey lighter, it might be a good idea to let go of much more as we go along.

Gwen Randall-Young is a psychotherapist in private practise and author ofGrowing Into Soul: The Next Step in Human Evolution. For more articles, permission to reprint and information about her books and “Deep Powerful Change” personal growth/hypnosis CDs, visit www.gwen.ca.

Ordinary yet compelling


he Dry Land dramatizes the impacts of post traumatic stress on a soldier returning from Iraq.

America Ferrera is a long way from the territory of hit comedy television series Ugly Betty in her latest cinematic venture The Dry Land, which Ferrara stars in and also produced. The film dramatizes the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as James, a working class soldier, returns to his family after serving in Iraq. The setting is ordinary, working class, small town Texas and the dialogue could almost have been cut and pasted from similar films, such is its ordinariness.

James lives in a trailer, finds work in his father-in-law’s slaughterhouse and has a sick mother. We learn his father was a Vietnam vet who drank himself to death. Life’s bleak and while Ferrera, the loyal, loving wife and his close buddy Michael (Jason Ritter) offer him a touch of relief, the silently suffering James only pushes them away, accelerating the psychological, downward spiral.

While director Ryan Piers Williams’ debut feature (out on limited release July 30) is in danger of plodding too heavily down an angst-ridden road, its illustration of how the reverberations of wartime violence can strain a man to breaking point does have an authentic and earnest air, which other directors might have subjugated to thrills. Iraq is in the background, but it is not re-visited, not even through flashbacks. James has forgotten everything and in the second part of the film, it becomes a quest to piece together his troubled past.

I recently heard the director talking about The Dry Land at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Asked if the film was an anti-war film, Williams was emphatic, repeating several times that it was “not a political film.” I’d have thought the stark realities of PTSD, as depicted here, would be crushing, both for military recruitment drives and for the general morale of troops preparing to go back into the field. But it seems the US military takes an enlightened attitude toward PTSD. In fact, after a violent episode, James seeks support from a military doctor. Ferrara and Williams, just back from visiting troops in Iraq, noted they had received very positive responses from members of the forces who had seen the film and that it had offered PTSD sufferers a way of opening up and talking about the trauma they’ve experienced.

On a related note, the documentary Countdown to Zero (due out July 23) looks at the dangers we currently face from nuclear weapons. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’m expecting good things from it. The film comes from Participant Media (http://www.participantmedia.com), a company that specializes in thought-provoking, powerful docs, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc. and The Cove.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver International Film Centre is holding its 3rd Brazilian Film Festival July 15-18. Among the line-up of films is Tamboro, which, according to the news release, explores Brazil’s major socio-environmental issues, including the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, conflicts over land property in the countryside, growing shantytowns and increasing criminality in the great urban centres.

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne crops up in the documentary Beyond Ipanema –Brazilian Waves In Global Music, along with M.I.A., Tom Zé, Seu Jorge, Thievery Corporation, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and others as the film explores the Brazilian music experience outside of the country.

Finally, the documentary Within the River, Amongst the Trees follows an expedition to the Alto Solimões region where video, circus and photography workshops were taught to the riverside communities of the local Indian reservations. From the heart of the Amazon to the world, we come to learn how these people live in the most remote areas of Brazil.

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

Species loss a silent epidemic

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Scientists warn that the twin threats of climate change and wildlife extinction threaten our planet’s life-support systems, including clean air, clean water and productive soil. Awareness about the causes and consequences of climate change is growing, leading some governments to look for solutions in areas such as clean energy. Species extinction, however, has gone largely unnoticed by government leaders.

In an article in the Guardian newspaper, France’s ecology secretary and the World Resources Institute’s vice-president of science and research argue that “unlike the impacts of climate change, biodiversity – and the ecosystem services it harbours – disappears in a mostly silent, local and anonymous fashion. This may explain in part why the devastation of nature has triggered fewer alarm bells than a hotting-up planet.”

Sadly, this is true. Unlike the devastating forest fires, deadly heat waves and violent storms that have ravaged the planet as a result of climate change, the disappearance of plants and animals seems only to get the attention of politicians when it results in serious economic and social upheaval – such as when overfishing led to the collapse of cod stocks in Atlantic Canada.

The unravelling of food webs that have taken millennia to evolve is happening all around us. With every patch of forest cut, wetland drained, or grassland paved over, our actions are destroying wildlife habitat at an unprecedented rate.

Scientists warn that we are in the midst of a human-caused, catastrophic wildlife crisis. Of the species we know about, some 17,000 plants and animals are facing extinction, including 12 percent of birds, nearly a quarter of mammals and a third of amphibians. Some of the species most vulnerable to human impacts are iconic, well-loved creatures; of the eight distinct bear species that grace our planet, six are now in serious trouble, including sun bears, pandas and polar bears.

The response of our leaders has, for the most part, been abysmal. The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. Countries are now reporting on their progress in reducing biodiversity loss as required under an international treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity that most nations, including Canada, have signed. However, the UN has admitted that governments have failed to meet the treaty’s objectives “ to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level…”

Despite our collective failure to meet the 2010 biodiversity target, countries are preparing to negotiate new global targets to slow the rate of biodiversity loss. A flurry of international activity is now underway that will include a special session of the UN General Assembly on the biodiversity crisis in September.

It’s easy to be skeptical about the effect these negotiations will have on protecting life on our planet, given the lack of meaningful progress so far. But one recent outcome of the global biodiversity talks gives us hope. Government negotiators from around the world just met in Busan, South Korea, where they approved the creation of a global science body that will inform government leaders on major biodiversity declines and to identify what must be done to reverse these damaging trends.

This global Biodiversity Scientific Body will be modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which, through science, has catalyzed worldwide understanding and action on global warming.

Despite the efforts of huge multinational oil companies to discredit its work, the IPCC has compiled the best available science on the causes and impacts of global warming, as well as charting the most effective ways for us to solve the problem. In doing so, it has ensured that climate change has remained a priority for governments and has proven to be an invaluable tool to help the media understand and report on the issue – independent of politics or PR spin. We hope the newly created “IPCC for Nature” will play a similar role in educating, inspiring and mobilizing policy-makers and the public to take decisive action to stem the biodiversity crisis.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Honouring democracy – fighting the HST

One volunteer’s experience collecting signatures for the FightHST petition

by Brenda Stephenson

Bill Vander Zalm with a group of FightHST petitioners in North Vancouver.

I was just going along with my friend to keep her company at a rally at Kitsilano High School. Admittedly when she mentioned that the HST would result in less money in my pocket, I paid attention. Historically I do not get involved with protests, being inclined to join a group of people who are “for” something, rather than “against” (see group photo opposite).

Former premier Bill Vander Zalm’s message had a clear ring of integrity and sincerity.  I did not hear or feel an intention to “fight” or to “resist” anything. Rather he invited volunteers to come together to stop the implementation of a bad tax that would cause financial struggle for people already stretched beyond their limits.

I felt like he was speaking to me – a retired senior citizen on a very low fixed income. After the rally I happily signed the petition and eagerly registered to become a canvasser to collect signatures for the petition.

The following are a few of my personal experiences in the HST Initiative Petition campaign. Without a doubt, one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences in my life. What I learned from this intense and demanding project is more than I can write about here.

I feel very privileged to be a part of the first successful Citizens’ Initiative in British Columbia since it came into force in 1994.  No other province in Canada has such referendum and recall legislation.

Thank you, Mr. Vander Zalm, for introducing this legislation when you were Premier allowing citizens of BC to exercise the democratic right to express their opinions about new legislation between elections, and to recall politicians who are not listening to their constituents.

The original Fight HST group headed up by Chris Delaney and Bill Vander Zalm created a highly motivated human organization to accommodate the desires of BC voters and send a clear message to the government – STOP THE HST NOW.

One highlight that impressed me in this province wide adventure was how eagerly individuals from all walks of life and all political parties joined together to generously and graciously volunteer their energy and valuable time for this worthy cause.

Strangely, Vancouver was the last area in BC to achieve their targets – I don’t know why – leave that to the strategists to figure out. What was so gratifying was that canvassers in nearby ridings spent time canvassing here until we met our targets.

They arrived in vans or cars in large groups; they came in pairs independently and canvassed on busy street corners. They joined our canvassers in the pouring rain at City Square collecting signatures until they were soaking wet, then, finally heading home for relaxing hot baths. Their generosity leaves me speechless.

Volunteers not eligible to sign the petition also helped.  One, a 16 year-old Vancouver high school student assisted official canvassers in Point Grey.  His job was to qualify people for eligibility to sign (they had to be on the Elections BC voters list), and then locate their ridings (each of the 85 ridings required a separate petition page to sign, maps were used to determine), which sped up the signing process. His motivation was to learn more about the BC electoral process and to gain experience as a volunteer for credits at school. He was thrilled to take part in such a significant history-making event.

Over 6,500 volunteers were approved by BC Elections as Canvassers to collect signatures for the petition. Some of those approved were invited to act as Regional Organizers and Team Captains to motivate and support the thousands of individual canvassers.

Together, with their impressive talents, expertise, perseverance, persistence, patience and sincere desire to exercise their democratic rights, they achieved incredible results.

They exceeded expectations and petition signature targets. First the BC Elections 10% required for every riding in the province, then the internal campaign’s 15%.  On June 30 the fightHST petition was submitted to BC Elections. The results show many ridings exceeded 20% of the registered voters. This is a higher percentage of registered voters than many MLAs got elected with. This truly makes the fightHST petition a peoples’ democratic non-confidence “vote” against the Harmonizing Sales Tax. The hated HST has already caused massive Disharmony.

More campaign highlights that warmed my heart: Personally, the joy of receiving a phone call from my son in Toronto after he and my five-year old granddaughter were surprised to hear my voice on the car radio (CBC Radio and TV had interviewed me at the Vancouver Public Library one rainy day during he campaign).

Many local businesses offered us shelter from the weather while canvassing. A local delicatessen owner provided food and beverages for one of our team meetings; another local coffee shop provided coffee and snacks for our Sunday petition counting group.

On another day, while using the parking lot to meet visiting canvassers from Surrey, Delta, White Rock and Langley, we waited under the canopy of the grocery store because once again it was a rainy day. While handing out supplies and signs to our visiting canvassers, a security van pulled up, a security guard jumped out and ran over asking to sign the petition. Then he got back into his van and drove away. I was very grateful, realizing that he was going out on a limb for us. Also as soon as customers noticed that we were canvassers for the HST petition, they inundated us with requests to sign.  

The majority of the public were so kind and grateful for petitions being available at central signing locations. We were asked why we were not door knocking because many had expected us to show up at their homes. We did try to get into apartment buildings and condominiums but found that some managers and strata councils decided not to allow us in to canvass door to door, nor set up tables in their lobbies. I feel badly for those people who could not leave their homes, but it was out of our control. Given more time and more canvassers we would have collected even more signatures.

The experience of working with volunteers has accelerated my personal growth in leaps and bounds. I have nothing but pure love and admiration for every volunteer, and every person who signed the petition.

I encourage every one of you reading my account to get involved and pressure the current provincial government to honour the wishes of the citizens of BC. Get directly involved now, because if Premier Campbell and his MLAs attack the honour and good name of the thousands of average people in BC who volunteered to fight the HST, then they are not responding to the wishes of the people and should be turfed out of office. We can use the recall aspect of the same Referendum and Recall legislation to achieve this. They get their power from us, the voters. It would be irresponsible and unaccountable if these MLAs choose to just ignore the largest petition campaign in the history of BC.

The people have spoken. The voters, do not want the HST. Recall your Hated Sale Tax.

Visit www.FightHST.com

Food scraps collection – don’t trash your food

Vancouver City Council has approved the implementation of the first phase of a food scraps collection program for single-family residences.

Why is the City of Vancouver starting this collection program?

About 35 percent of garbage from single-family residences is comprised of compostable food scraps and remains, a large source of landfill-generated greenhouse gases. Composting keeps thousands of tonnes of organic materials out of landfills every year and produces a valuable resource.

When will food scraps collection start?

Curbside collection of food scraps began on April 22.

Who will be able to take advantage of this program?

Residential homes that currently receive City recycling, yard trimmings and garbage collection services.

Will apartment dwellers and businesses be able to take advantage of this program in the future?

The City is working with Metro Vancouver to develop plans for expanding food waste collection and composting to multi-family residential and commercial properties. Please visit vancouver.ca for updates.

What food scraps will be collected?

In phase one, fruit and vegetable scraps, tea bags, and coffee grounds and filters will be allowed.

In phase two, scheduled for early 2011, all food scraps (fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, bread, cereal products and food-soiled paper) will be allowed.

What container should food scraps be deposited in for collection?

Food scraps should be deposited in your yard trimmings cart with your yard trimmings.

How often will the City collect food scraps?

In phase one, combined food scraps and yard trimmings will be collected bi-weekly as per your current yard trimmings collection schedule. In phase two, it is expected that food scraps and yard trimmings will be collected weekly and garbage will be collected bi-weekly in order to minimize odours and insects from decomposing meat, fish and dairy scraps.

Is there a cost for this service?

There will be no change to the cost of collection services in 2010.

Where can I get more information?

The City will be providing more detailed information over the next couple of months. Please visit vancouver.ca for updates.


illustration © Maninblack | Dreamstime.com

Biofuels Backfire – hasty approach will impact environment, food production

by Lucy Sharratt

If the new “Renewable Fuels Regulations” are implemented this year as planned, all of our fuel will soon contain a mandatory amount of biofuels. The period for the public to comment on the regulations ended in early June and despite serious questions about the real costs and impacts, which have gone unanswered, the regulations could be published this summer.

For a brief time, biofuels were widely celebrated as a green solution in the fight against climate change, with governments throughout the world leaping to subsidize the new industry. However, as a result, world food prices rose dramatically and local and global land conflicts came into sharp view. Now it seems that the environmental and economic consequences of the rush to capitalize on a ‘green’ fuel could ultimately be the exact reverse of what was promised.

Our government promotes the production of fuel from biomass as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. At the same time, biofuels are touted as a way to create new economic activity, including the creation of new or stronger domestic and international markets for farmers. Canada’s Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz summed up the promise of biofuels when the government introduced the initial “Renewable Fuels Bill” in late 2007, just before the UN Conference on Climate Change: “Our government understands the desire of Canadians to do their part to deal with climate change and we know increasing the renewable content in our fuel is going to put a real dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable fuels also have the potential to create new markets and economic incentives for Canadian farmers – that is why we have made biofuels development such a high priority.”

The Harper government positioned biofuels as a tool to help meet its commitment to reduce domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20 percent below the 2006 level, by 2020. The government described the “Renewable Fuels Bill” as “proof of the real action we are taking here at home to promote biofuels and Canada as a clean energy superpower.” At that time, biofuels were the new “technological fix” to global warming, yet only months later, their real environmental impacts were hotly disputed around the world and they were widely recognized as being responsible for the global food crisis.

Biofuels for Canada rushed forward

The Renewable Fuels Bill (Bill C-33) amended the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and gave the federal government the mandate to develop and implement new regulations to require five percent average renewable content in gasoline by 2010 and two percent average renewable content in diesel and heating oil by 2012. The Bill was passed in June 2008 at the height of the global food crisis, thanks largely to the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association and its close ties with government, ties that were detailed in an article published in the Globe and Mail entitled A Lobby Machine That Runs on Ethanol (May 30, 2008).

At the time of the Senate hearings that would ultimately pass the Bill, biofuel was such a new concept and there was so much new and contradictory information that environmental and social justice groups were barely able to address the issue. Every week, new studies emerged about the environmental, social and economic impacts. In Canada, a lot of data was missing and many numbers were contradictory. The big question of how Canada related to the conflict globally remained unanswered.

The price of staple crops had risen dramatically: wheat prices rose by more than 100 percent, corn by 66 percent and the cost of rice doubled. Global grain stocks were at their lowest since records began in 1960. According to the World Bank, three quarters of the food price increase worldwide between 2002 and 2008 was due to agrofuels. This was partly because agrofuels production led to low grain stocks, large shifts in land use, speculative activity and export bans.

In March of 2008, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network joined with a number of other groups, including the National Farmers Union and international development groups, to present a six-city tour of speakers from Asia, Africa and Latin America on the impacts of biofuels on food, farming and human rights. The “Crops, Cars & Climate Crisis” tour may have been the first time that biofuels were debated in Canada, but the government’s Renewable Fuels Bill was about to be passed nonetheless.

By the time the Senate approved Bill C-33, it was clear the implications of biofuels were little understood. In fact, the Senate attached “observations” to the Bill for this reason, suggesting “any new information that is available prior to regulations being proposed is taken into consideration before such regulations are promulgated.”

The “biofuels mandate” is key to the Harper government’s climate change strategy even as the role of biofuels in cutting greenhouse gas emissions is widely contested. In addition, there are many questions about other environmental impacts. In early January of this year, Environment Canada announced it had commissioned a new study to come up with environmental benchmarks for biofuel production. “Experiences in the US and Brazil now suggest that existing biofuels production facilities are responsible for the generation of a range of new air and water-related problems as well as recent concerns over human health,” the ministry reported. “Based on global production levels from the past three years alone, there is now evidence of implications to the environment from biofuels-based ethanol production facilities.” (Canadian Press, Ottawa Takes a Hard Look at Biofuels, January 9, 2010).

Although the report was due on March 31, it has yet to be seen. Despite the missing study, the biofuels regulations are now heading for publication, unless the Minister of Environment decides otherwise. Environment Canada is not providing any information about the study, but suggests instead that inquiries should be made through Access to Information requests.

Life-cycle analyses of biofuels produce varying results, some negative and others positive. An important study conducted by the Swiss Institute Empa analyzed more than four fuel types (bioethanol, biomethanol, biodiesel and biogas) utilizing over 30 feedstocks (Rainer Zah et al. Empa, Life Cycle Assessment of Energy Products: Environmental Assessment of Biofuels, 2007). Empa found that while some biofuels reduce GHGs, the trade-offs can be significant in terms of other ecological impacts. The study concluded that most of the negative impacts were due to the agricultural production of raw materials (feedstocks). Those fuels that had the worst ecological balance in comparison to fossil fuels were ethanol from corn, rye and potatoes and biodiesel from soy and canola. In Canada, corn (in the East) and wheat (in the West) are the primary feedstocks for ethanol production.

Agriculture is already responsible for approximately 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Growing corn on a large scale, for example, uses a lot of water, fertilizer – made from fossil fuels and releasing the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide – and pesticides. Two-thirds of the biofuels life-cycle studies reviewed by the United Nations Environmental Programme did not take into account the impacts of nutrients on the environment (increased eutrophication), acidification, toxicity of chemicals used to grow the crop, summer smog, ozone depletion and loss of biodiversity. (UNEP –Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources: Assessing Biofuels, 2009).

Despite various glamorous, high-tech promises for new “second generation” technologies and feedstocks, the reality is that for the next five to 10 years, biofuels will be produced from agricultural crops, including trees, produced in large scale, energy-intensive monocrops. This is why many communities refer to biofuels as “agrofuels.”

Global destruction

“This regulation makes no sense whatsoever,” says Michael Casey, executive director of Development and Peace. “In fact, when one takes into account the deforestation and massive use of pesticides and fertilizers for growing the biomass needed for agrofuel production, the environmental benefits are zero.” For example, expanding the production of palm oil (oil palm trees) and other agrofuel crops is also destroying forests around the world, forests that are needed to absorb carbon and to fight climate change as well as providing habitat for endangered species like the Orangutan.

This dynamic is relevant to consider in Canada where conversion of perennial groundcovers to more energy intensive annual cropping systems will increase GHG emissions and convert the Canadian prairie from its current status as a carbon sink to a net emitter of greenhouse gases (80 percent of Canada’s productive agricultural land is located in the prairies).

To overcome these obstacles, incredible financial and intellectual resources are being devoted to developing new or improved feedstock, such as trees genetically engineered to have low lignin and better enzymes (created through synthetic biology) for processing. These technologies bring their own environmental safety threats and by the time we see any of these second-generation biofuels, the first generation will have done lasting global damage.

The potential consequences of biofuels for our environment and economy are unclear, but unless the Minister of the Environment decides otherwise, unfortunately, we may all too soon be realizing the exact impacts through direct experience.

Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. www.cban.ca

corn field photo © Elenathewise | Dreamstime.com

Decadence – A meandering walk on the wild side

by Geoff Olson

Just after receiving her Academy Award for best actress this past March, Sandra Bullock discovered her husband, Jesse James, had been cheating on her with multiple partners. The scandal was like a weird mix of Harlequin romance and an Outer Limits episode, with a dash of monster truck show. A Hollywood starlet weds a guy named after a western gunslinger and steals the crown of America’s sweetheart from Julia Roberts, only to discover her man’s cheating heart splattered across the national media. Worse yet, the principal target of hubbie’s horndog hobbyism turns out to be a heavily tattooed stripper and model named Michelle “Bombshell” McGee, whose life story reads like a bad-trip inversion of Bullock’s.

McGee had gone from being an Ohio honour student to an over-inked, west coast skank, plying her trade in the magwheel-and-leather social circle attached to Jesse James’ motorcycle customization business. At first, the bike calendar shots of the stripper in Nazi garb seemed like show-and-tell distractions, playing to the domination-and-control issues of an arrested male audience. But it turned out Bombshell McGee was the real deal. Bloggers unearthed a photo of her young son next to a family refrigerator decorated with fridge magnets spelling out “White Power.” The online celebrity trackers pointed out that Michelle had a W tattooed on one calf and a P on the other, which cemented her status as a skinhead wank fetish.

The tabloids had discovered the checkout-stand Holy Grail. On one side, the Oscar-winning darling of Middle America – a fixture of unchallenging, uncomplicated Hollywood films. On the other, a centrefold girl for a Mad Maxsubculture fixated on chrome, racism, sadomasochism and gothic porn. It didn’t take much to inflate the scandal into a steel-cage death match between a Hollywood Madonna and a homewrecking ho, at least until Bullock took the high road and scraped Jesse James off her red-carpet pump. The whole sorry episode must have taught Bullock the risks of mating outside the Hollywood power complex and playing the odds with a more down-home brand of decadence.

Sophistication’s twisted sister

The French actress Catherine Deneuve once marvelled at the paradox of American Puritanism, and how a nation that was once prepared to impeach its president for a sex act in the Oval Office is also the world’s biggest producer of hard-core pornography. In the late nineties, the Starr Commission Report parsed Bill Clinton’s high crimes against family values with the unbreakable focus of a kid clutching a flashlight and a copy ofHustler. The document was dirty in a way that Saving Ryan’s Privates, Schindler’s Lust, and Das Booty never could be.

Decadence is a tricky word. I got thinking about it recently, after a friend emailed me about an article in a local paper featuring the porn star “Mz. Scream,” who stated that adult entertainment is “almost an essential service.” My friend referred to another item in the same paper, which noted how a “roaring 20s-era party rages with decadent fun” over at a Vancouver community centre. “My, my. Hasn’t the human race evolved,” he concluded.

I replied that I’ve got nothing against any kind of fun between consenting adults, as long as it doesn’t hurt small animals. I added that decadence has multiple definitions: according to the Oxford dictionary, the primary meaning is “moral or cultural decline, especially after a peak or culmination of achievement.” The secondary meaning is “luxuriant self-indulgence,” which, for most of us, means anything from a third scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream to a lost weekend in Las Vegas. In its stronger form, decadence is sophistication’s twisted sister – a tattooed train wreck eclipsing a silver screen starlet.

As for the mainstreaming of adult porn as something cute but countercultural – which seemed to be the point of the article on Mz. Scream – I could see it falling under either definition of decadence, or both. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder. For some, legalized adult entertainment is the best test case for free speech. For others, it’s part of the coarsening of cultural discourse, a decades-long, slippery slope from risqué auto calendars down into the sewers of celebrity sex tapes, bondage bars and chat roulette.

There’s a gradient from literary erotica to violent, abusive porn, fuelling arguments about how much adult entertainment damages women and where to draw the line. In any case, one person’s touchstone of moral decline and civic desensitization is someone else’s cultural landmark, whether it’s a new reality television show or a rubber fetish night.

Personally, I’m more concerned with the less obvious, spiritual forms of pornography. How are children transformed in a culture of celebrity, in which relationships are commodified and too many adults know the cost of everything but the value of nothing?

Disordering the senses, Ozzy style

According to the Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought, decadence was an offshoot of the 19th century symbolist and aesthetic movements, “arising from the bohemian protest against bourgeois society in France from the 1840s onward.” French writer Gustave Flaubert, defending what some considered bad habits, insisted “the poet makes himself a seer by a long, intensive and reasoned disordering of the senses.” He might have meant a night out at the Folies Bergère and a few shots of absinthe, for all I know.

Regardless, 19th century tips on thinking outside the box probably aren’t relevant for 20th century writers past the age of forty. With my sensitivity to sugar and caffeine, “disordering my senses” usually means having a cup of hot chocolate after eight PM. I’m not what you’d call an expert on living on the edge. Without inflating my nasal spray addiction into a life-shattering chemical dependency, or fictionalizing myself doing sambuca shots out of Bombshell McGee’s pierced navel, my catalogue of hardcore adventures would make for a pretty slim read.

That being said, my autobiography as a budget sensualist would likely impress a reader from Haiti, Darfur or North Korea. Three square meals a day? A computer with a high-speed Internet connection? Shelter that doesn’t leak, crumble or blow away? Cheap medicine? Unimaginable luxury!

In spite of all my First World blessings, I draw a blank when I try to imagine the sense-disordering lifestyle of certain celebrities – for example, rock star and future Smithsonian museum specimen Ozzy Osbourne. In one eighties anecdote that doesn’t involve biting off the head of a live bat, the rock singer was partying by an LA poolside with the accurately named Motley Crue, when he asked Nikki Sixx for line of coke. The Crue bassist had no blow, so in a bid to out-gross the infamously degenerate band, Ozzy produced a straw and leaned down to the ground to snort up a line of ants. “He put the straw to his nose and, with his bare white ass peeking out from under the dress like a sliced honeydew, sent the entire line of ants tickling up his nose with a single, monstrous snort,” observed Sixx in the Motley Cure tell-all, The Dirt. “From that moment on, we knew there was always someone who was sicker and more disgusting than we were.”

For a more entertaining rock n’ roll deathstyle, I prefer the fictional performer in Douglas Adams’ 1980 novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Hotblack Desiato is leader of the rock band Disaster Area, billed as the loudest band in the universe. Fans must listen from a distance of at least 37 miles away, safely sequestered in a concrete bunker. Desiato doesn’t say much in the book, since he’s only marginally alive. In fact, he once spent a year completely dead, “for tax reasons.”

Creativity, madness and wretched excess have more than a nodding acquaintance. Hence the notion that rock music is a degenerate form of shamanism. In primitive societies, the shaman is the tribal healer. He dresses in colourful garb and initiates visionary episodes through fasting, extended isolation or drugs. His trance-induced chanting and singing is part of a psychospiritual operation, intended to heal a sick tribal member. In contrast, an arena-filling rock musician performs a cathartic routine before a community of fans, amplifying and extending his or her voice through hi-tech wizardry. Shamanism has evolved (or devolved, if you prefer) into showmanship.

For rockers and the rest of us, the road of excess is more likely to lead to rehab, rather than to the palace of wisdom – but the wreckage along the way sometimes includes some great music and art. On a larger scale, corporate excess usually heads toward either Chapter 11 or a government bailout – while spinning off new material for inflamed bloggers and journalists. At the national level, the road to excess is often an eight-lane expressway to all kinds of bad craziness, including war – something that’s always good for Tom Hanks films and other forms of business.

Gambling dens and gushers

If the example of Ancient Rome still holds, the two principal definitions of decadence, “moral and cultural decline” and “luxurious self-indulgence” are close relations. The over-consumption and self-absorption promoted by monopoly capitalism foreshadow depression, and not just in the economic sense. The recent US housing market scam, with NINJA loans (No Income, No Job, No Assets) sliced and diced into Ponzi-scheme derivatives, was no historical anomaly, but just another talked-up bubble. Generational boom and bust cycles are always in the cards, through overproduction and surplus labour.

“If allowed to run free of the social system, capitalism will attempt to corrupt and undermine democracy, which is after all not a natural state,” wrote Canadian author John Ralston Saul. That is a slight variation of the Marxist definition of decadence, in which the inner contradictions of capital were expected to lead to its demise, summed up in the line “a capitalist is a man who will sell you the rope to hang him with.”

Your consciousness is conditioned by your times and the personal is the political, as activists like to say. Leonard Cohen’s scathing song about decadence, The Future, traces the arc of power games from the bedroom to the boardroom, by putting sexual domination and untruth side by side with cultural/ecological collapse: “Give me absolute control over every living soul /And lie beside me, baby, that’s an order! /Give me crack and anal sex /Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.”

But you don’t have to recall Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, or follow Marxist-Leninist boilerplate, to see something both sick and sickening with late-era capitalism, with its rabid privatization of profits and socialization of losses. I see it just outside my own door in Vancouver. With British Columbia boasting the highest rate of child poverty in Canada, and the public education system going begging for dollars, what else could anyone peg Vancouver’s upcoming half-billion dollar casino/stadium with a retractable roof, other than balls-to-the-wall, damn-the-social-contract ‘decadent’?

“Look at the history of civilization, the history of economics, even biblical history, and you will see what it means when a state begins to finance itself by encouraging people to gamble,” observes Ralston Saul. Some may claim it’s the right of democratic citizens to freely gamble, but it’s another matter entirely when the governments “set out to use the tools of the public good to corrupt citizens.” Some of the gaming revenue, generated from those most likely to be seduced, goes into government coffers – yet experts have found solid links between gambling and depression and suicide. Ergo, government-supported gambling makes for a public policy Mobius strip, in which the revenues for gaming are used to undo some of the damage done by rolling the bones.

A Vegas-style casino in Vancouver’s downtown core is the public policy equivalent of a children’s hospital with a McDonald’s or Chuck E. Cheese on its premises. You’d think the brains at the BC Legislature would recognize this essential truth, but our provincial capital has a long history of welcoming gamblers. Victoria was once one of the far-off outposts of the British Empire where upper-crust families sent their delinquent relatives. When a son’s gambling, drinking and whoring habits created image problems for the clan, the “remittance man” was given a stipend and booted halfway across the world to dry out at the Queen’s coastal namesake.

Yet compared to our neighbours to the south, we’re pikers when it comes to full-on, raid-the-public-purse decadence. After BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, reporters discovered that employees of the Minerals Management Service, the US body tasked with inspecting oil industry megaprojects, were being bought off by sexual favours and cocaine. And if that’s not Ozzy enough, the Gulf gusher is expected to flow freely into August, making the White House resemble a subsidiary of Big Oil, led by a figurehead president who might as well be an automobile hood ornament. We’re obviously not talking about a sustainable way of life here.

Readers hardly need me to multiply examples of cultural decadence and its negative return on investment. Rather, I’m interested in how the ending of a culture implies the beginning of a new one. And if we pay attention, we can already see the first green shoots emerging through the asphalt.

Impermanence and how the light gets in

Consider Detroit. Once America’s car-making capital, the Michigan burg has spent the last two decades on a downward trajectory, along with many other cities in America’s deindustrialized rustbelt. Entire city blocks are empty in Detroit and trees have erupted through the roofs of vacant homes in abandoned neighbourhoods. Pheasants and deer wander among the rusting towers and ruined factories as nature reclaims this former industrial dynamo.

The film Red State Road Trip 2 highlights the upside of this collapse: after years of urban flight, people are returning to Detroit and buying up fire-sale properties. Since there are no longer any regional or national chain supermarkets in the city, the residents are ensuring their own food supply through urban agriculture. Huge gardens have sprung up in abandoned lots; people are growing grapes, blackberries, asparagus, currants, and more. Every fall, honey is gathered from urban growers’ beehives.

“I think Detroit could be the first 21st century, green, sustainable city in the United States,” says Craig Wilkins, director of the Detroit Community Design Centre. “All the elements are here. We have over 40,000 vacant lots in Detroit alone.” Years ago, the Michigan city emerged in a shower of welding sparks as the automotive Oz of America’s fossil-fuel age. Now, after its long decline, Detroit could blossom into a showcase for the post-oil, small-footprint economies of the near future.

Decadence and decay may foreshadow final events, but they are also transitory states, by definition. A Canadian public figure with rather decadent personal habits once said to me, “History has always been about how men build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy. And women always get to clean up the mess.” It’s certainly true that things have been building up and breaking down since the time of Agamemnon – or even further back, since the first amoeba. Evolution is impossible without living things dying and/or being consumed by other living things. There is no eating without killing, no growth without decay. Creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, like back and front or light and darkness. No one gets out of this life alive – but that doesn’t mean we should glory in a kick-ass, what’s-in-it-for-me philosophy, or meekly follow smooth-talking psychopaths off the corporate cliff.

Living in a dualistic realm, where Murphy’s Law rides shotgun for the Second Law of Thermodynamics is maddening and saddening in equal parts – but as Leonard Cohen once wrote, everything has a crack in it, and that’s how the light gets in.

After a talk with a relative who recently suffered a heart attack, I emailed him a letter of appreciation for our connection over the years. Like me, his record of personal decadence is a bit spotty – a bit too much Boston cream pie and Snickers bars, mostly. His reply included a wise observation on how best to conduct oneself in an uncertain world, full of chaos and craziness:

“Life is a long series of close calls and, eventually, one of them is just a little too close to ignore. We all tend to operate under the assumption that we’re in a permanent state of existence here on Earth. The reality, though, is that nothing in this universe is permanent. We’re all just participants in an eternal, cosmic dance. All we can do is dance on, with love and compassion in our hearts for the fellow beings who share the dance with us.”

Common Ground Special Events presents Geoff Olson Live! September 15, Vancouver Public Library, 7:30pm Tickets 604-733-2215www.geoffolson.com

photo montage: Peter Baranovsky 
source photos: man in box © Mhryciw / rocker © Moori / Vegas © Modi1980 / legs © Avant-g | Dreamstime.com

Saying “know” – A 5-point primer on cholesterol-lowering drugs


DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

I’ve got an idea. I think we should make t-shirts that say: He who dies with the lowest LDL doesn’t win. 
– John Abramson, author of Overdo$ed America

In my field, I see a lot of things that don’t connect. There’s the often uncomfortable, big disconnect between the data from a clinical study and the advertising and marketing that flows from it. Then there’s the disconnect between the meta-analysis of clinical trials of a particular class of drugs (an overview of all relevant studies) and the prescribing guidelines made for our physicians. And there’s the disconnect between the testimonials of experts who advise doctors on the safety of drugs and the self-reported experiences of real patients whose own horror stories of adverse drug effects don’t jibe with the picture painted for their doctors. In prescribing, there are disconnects everywhere.

You won’t find any bigger disconnects than the ones orbiting the cholesterol hypothesis where plenty of ignorance and self-delusion drives a lot of pharmaceutical consumption. This hypothesis, simply put, claims if your blood contains “high levels” of LDL or the “bad” type of cholesterol and low levels of the “good” type, HDL, you need to do whatever you can – alter your diet and start taking statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) – to bring down the bad and bring up the good. LDL is believed to be more important so the lower the LDL, the better goes the hypothesis. Enter the drug industry.

Since cholesterol-lowering drugs (called statins because their names end in ‘statin’) are taken by almost everyone on the planet – young, old, healthy, sick and so on – they are the biggest blockbusters in the history of medicine. Statins include products like rosuvastatin (Crestor), atorvastatin (Lipitor) or simvastatin (Zocor) and if you think they are so massively prescribed because they are wildly effective in saving us from the dangers of cardiovascular disease, you’re in for a rude shock. I would be at a loss to find a more misunderstood, overused and misused class of drugs on the planet. In fact, if you are too tired to keep reading and you want a soundbite, this sums up my thoughts: “Someday we will look back on society’s zeal for checking and chemically altering our blood cholesterol in the same way we now regard blood letting and purging: a medical barbarity based on ignorance and hubris.”

For an illustration of all the cholesterol foolishness, let me describe Dave. Dave is a friend of mine, 47-years-old, physically fit, a keen cyclist who doesn’t smoke and a healthy specimen. He tells me he had a mini-heart attack when he was younger, but he brushes that episode off with a wave of the hand. Although he came through it just fine, he was told he had high cholesterol and his doctor wanted to bring it down.

Dave was then put on the newest, most widely marketed and likely the most potent statin out there, Crestor. If you are on Crestor, you’ll be glad to know that, last year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved its use in children as young as 10 and earlier this year approved it for people who have normal cholesterol. Go figure.

Like any pharmaceutical, there is a mix of benefit and harm in taking statins and this equation can change radically depending on how much at risk you are to begin with. For someone like Dave, there is actually some proof of the benefits of statins in secondary prevention – people who have had a previous heart attack or heart disease. But how much would the Daves of the world benefit from a daily statin? And how much would they be risking by taking one?

So for the Daves of the world, I have created a guide. Let’s call it “Dave’s Five-point Primer on Cholesterol-lowering.”

How do you compare to an overweight Scot?

Most of the evidence proving the effectiveness of cholesterol-lowering drugs comes from studies on the unhealthiest people you can find. If you want a big bang for your drug studies, you have to study people who are most likely to benefit. The West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study (WOSCOPS) trial tested the cholesterol drug pravastatin in a group of men who were probably at the highest risk of cardiovascular disease anywhere on Earth: 6,595 overweight Scotsmen aged 45-64 years with extremely high LDLs (levels of the bad stuff). Nearly half of them were smokers and about 20 percent had some kind of established heart disease and had taken either pravastatin or placebo for five years.

What did they find? The statin guys reduced their LDL cholesterol and that’s apparently a good thing. But how many lived longer or were saved from death by heart attack? The difference in death rates between those on the drug and those on the placebo was two percent. Another way to describe this is that your doctor would have to treat 50 men like those fat, unhealthy Scots for five years with pravastatin to prevent one cardiac death. Is that worth pulling out the bagpipes and playing a victory jig? Obviously, if you aren’t an overweight, smoking Scotsman, you will derive even less than a two percent benefit. How much less? Keep reading.

How do healthier people benefit from statins?

What do the other studies say about healthier people and statins? Never make any health decisions based on one study because you want to look at the big picture, right? One meta-analysis published last year in the British Medical Journal examined the 10 highest quality trials of statins (all different brands) in patients who did not have established heart disease. They concluded that the statin patients generally did better in terms of rates of death, heart attacks and strokes. How much better? They describe the benefits in terms of “numbers needed to treat” to prevent one “event.” The percentages are the benefits in the statin takers over the placebo takers. If you treated 174 people for 4.1 years, you would prevent one death (0.6 percent or six in 1,000). If you treated 81 people for 4.1 years, you would prevent one major heart attack (1.2 percent or 1.2 in 100). If you treated 252 people for 4.1 years, you would prevent one major stroke (0.4 percent or about four in 1,000).

What this meta-analysis tells us is that, statistically speaking, patients who don’t have heart disease would be helped by taking statins. But how about the odds – one in 80 or one in 174? Maybe they’re OK for you if you don’t mind swallowing the statin every day for four years and dealing with the side effects, which brings me to the question:

Are these drugs “safe?”

Remember my motto: “Any drug strong enough to have an effect is strong enough to have a side effect.” Like any powerful drug therapy, statins have side effects and adverse effects, some of which can be fatal.

Muscle weakening and muscle pain are among the most well known of all the adverse effects of the statins. A national health survey done in the US found that people who took statins were 50 percent more likely to have back or leg pain. Statin manufacturers state the risks of rhabdomyolysis (the medical term for severe muscle breakdown that can result in kidney failure) on their product labels. Elevated liver enzymes – a sign of liver injury – develop in about one in 100 statin users. Other unpleasant side effects you might see are sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction, depression, confusion, short-term or “working” memory loss and transient global amnesia.

Another concern is an increased risk of diabetes. The medical journal The Lancet reviewed several major statin studies and found that the drugs increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, on average, by nine percent. That’s not good.

What if I stop taking my statin?

If you are like Dave and stop taking your statin, you’ll be considered normal because many people cannot tolerate statins. For Dave, his sore leg muscles couldn’t be explained away by training hard. In fact, athletes have a very low tolerance for statins because of the muscle-weakening thing. In the real world, the number of people who stop taking the drug is huge; one study found that a third of patients quit their statin within a year and within two years, two-thirds of patients will quit. Basically, it’s “normal” to quit taking your cholesterol-lowering drug.

What else should I do?

Even the cholesterol guidelines say lifestyle changes can exert a much more profound effect on the length and quality of one’s life. The key to maintaining your cardiovascular health and avoiding the risk of a heart attack or stroke is consistent: don’t smoke, eat well and exercise regularly. If you are still concerned about your cholesterol (LDL specifically) and are worried about your future risk of heart attack or stroke, your physician should be able to explain the kind of benefit you might expect by taking a statin.

To the Daves of the world, I only have one bit of advice: “Say know to statins!”

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and the author of The ABCs of Disease Mongering: An Epidemic in 26 Letters. Read his other writings at www.alancassels.com