What’s the Deal With GMOs?

little baby gardener lost in the moment with the sun shinning in

“GMOs” are genetically modified organisms.

Humans have been genetically modifying organisms since we stood upright and developed our big brains. We originally did it by selective breeding. That’s why my Golden Retrievers have that long, beautiful–constantly shedding–golden fur, why broccoli exists, and why that ear of corn you munch on isn’t 2 inches long. We pick the animal or vegetable with traits we want, and we breed or plant those rather than the ones with traits we do not want.

What is different now is that we can modify at the level of the organism’s DNA. We can take the gene for the trait we want and insert it into the DNA of the animal or plant to create an entirely new organism with the preferred traits.

The first genetically modified mouse was bred in 1981; the first genetically modified plant in 1983. Since then, GMOs have taken off. Between 1996 and 2013 GMO crops increased by 100%. Recent stats estimate that 10% of the worlds croplands are planted with GMOs. 94% of the soybeans, 96% of the cotton, and 93% of the corn grown today are GMOs.

Concerns about GMOs include unease about GMO’s effect on the environment and the economy of farmers, and worries about the safety of food products.

Environmental worries arise because GMOs are created to be more herbicide and insect resistant, give a higher yield, have more nutrients, and be more drought resistant. The non-GMO varieties can’t compete economically. Farmers have to grow the improved variety in order to survive. Then, if all of the wheat in an area is one variety, and something evolves that kills that variety, we have a problem. We have placed all of our eggs in one basket.

Another worry is that the GMOs are created and owned. To get them you have to buy from the company that did the work to create them. How do you compete if you can’t afford their product? If there is drift from their fields into yours (pollen travels) have you stolen something?

Will we use more poisonous herbicides because our new plants aren’t hurt by them?

Health concerns generally arise because the science behind the creation of GMOs is pretty extreme. We imagine scientists creating zombie corn that will poison our children. Corn grown on a plant that is more resistant to drought is still corn, with no difference nutritionally. Extra nutrients developed into a GMO plant are thoroughly tested and approved before they can be sold.

The one real issue when food crops are developed with new proteins is that kids with allergies may be effected. The FDA requires proof of safety when foods that are commonly allergic (milk, eggs, wheat, fish, tree nuts, and legumes) are affected. All of our safety standards still apply.

The positives of GMOs are my happy place, as a certified geek.

  • GMOs can produce food in areas of the world that are less fertile or have problems with insects, so children who might otherwise starve will have food. Those foods can also be developed to resist spoilage.
  • Food can be grown that is more packed with nutrients. For example, a tomato might be developed that has protein to help develop strong muscles.
  • Scientists have developed bacteria that produce biofuels that are safer for the environment.
  • A breed of pig now exists that can digest phosphorus, thus decreasing water pollution and overgrowth of algae.
  • Bacteria can produce chemicals that do everything from clot milk to make cheese, to break down starch to make sugar.
  • Bacteria have been developed that produce human proteins. Previously, insulin came from pigs, and diabetics could become allergic to the medicine they needed to stay alive. We can now treat children with hemophilia with clotting factors that do not make it likely that they will, in the end, die of AIDs. We can produce human growth factor to treat some forms of dwarfism. Research is being done that may produce treatments for kids with cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, and many forms of cancer.
  • A goat exists now that produces ATryn, an anticoagulant that decreases the chance of having a blood clot during childbirth, in its milk.
  • Scientists are developing animals that have organs that are compatible with human biology. This sounds questionable right up to the point where your child needs a lung transplant.
  • One I find particularly elegant: Scientists produced a male mosquito with a lethal gene, and released it in the Cayman Islands in 2010. The particular breed of mosquito was one that carried Dengue fever, and they decreased the population of that mosquito by 80%. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they could do that with the mosquito that carries the Zika virus–the one that is causing babies brains to not grow in utero?

In the end, GMOs are here to stay. There is no possible way to remove them from the planet even if we chose to. We enjoy the products of GMOs every day without even knowing geeks were involved, and the future possibilities are truly amazing. Gene therapy can cure diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell, diabetes and cancer. Transplantable organs can come from pigs rather than dead children. Biofuels to help the environment–the possibilities are endless.

Opponents are pushing for products to be labeled so that consumers can choose, but even that is next to impossible to implement. A growing number of products contain one or more ingredient from a GMO. How many products have corn oil or syrup? Where do you draw the line–if a food product was grown on a farm near a field with a GMO product, and was possibly cross pollinated, might it not be considered a GMO?

Certainly we need to monitor the science to make sure what it does is ethical and safe, but we do that every day in medicine and science, under the watchful eyes of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA.

What matters is that the food is available, safe, and nutritious. Junk food, sodas, and pesticides on your fruit are a much larger problem. A GMO apple is, nutritionally, an apple.

Domesticated Momster

How to Survive and Have a Joyous Holiday

Cute Kid Girl In Glasses Thinking About Gift On Christmas Holida

My daughter the anthropologist tells me that celebrations solidify relationships between people within a community, give them hope for the future, and serve as rights of passage.

With the holidays approaching, give thought to what you want this special season to mean to your children throughout their lives.

Keep that firmly in mind when you enter into the fray.

Want them to be involved in your community with its rich heritage and history? Emphasize that. Tell stories, act out events and celebrate your history. Help out people who are less fortunate.

Want holidays to strengthen family bonds? Put family first. Limit the decorating and shopping and work events, and hang out at home. Make gifts for each other, bake cookies and play games.

If you want holidays to be about joy, be joyful. Foster realistic expectations, appreciation for what they have and genuine values. Develop traditions that are more about time together as a family and less about how much stuff they get. The memories they keep forever will be the little things: sharing a bowl of popcorn while watching an old movie; reading a book while Mom or Dad runs fingers through their hair. Few people remember what they received for Christmas last year. They do remember that walk on Christmas Eve admiring the sparkling lights, tasting cookies straight out of the oven, and the look on Grandpa’s face when he got that homemade penholder.

Gifts

It’s tempting to get your children all the things they want for the holiday just to see them smile, but where do you go from there? Maniacal happiness is not joy. It cannot be sustained over time. Add to that that you have created unrealistic expectations for all the other holidays in their future. And the storage needs!

Restrain yourself. If holidays are about family time, board games, and baking cookies it is possible for holidays later in life to be happy. If holidays are about how much money was spent and how many new toys they received, how can real life ever work out? Bigger and better toys every year? That was not the goal.

If you can afford it, get them one or two of the things on their lists. Make them the ones they can create with, the ones that make them use their brains and bodies and talent. Add on some little things that are fun to open. Let little ones play with the boxes and bubble wrap. Then focus the day on family and love.

The Insanity

Don’t let holidays overwhelm you. There are so many expectations that no one can possibly meet them all and have any joy left. There are special foods that need to be prepared, special clothes that need to be bought, decorations, gifts, traditions to be followed, parties, travel, family… eeek! Weed out the excess so there is room left for joy, relaxation and rejoicing in whatever you were celebrating.

Before you decide to spend money on gifts or travel, be realistic about what you can afford. What did you get for your last birthday? Don’t remember? No one does. What people do remember is the conversation, the hugs and the warmth. Those are free. Take dollars out of the experience as much as possible and you won’t end up with a credit card bill for a present that was discarded six months ago. Don’t try to keep up with the people who have that bill and you won’t be laying awake at night and fighting with your spouse instead of relaxing snuggled up with hot chocolate.

Tune down the stress. Not spending more than you can afford will eliminate a huge amount of stress. Next, stop worrying about what other people think; they’re too busy worrying about what you think to care anyway. Keep to routines as much as possible. Sit down for meals; take some time to focus on each other. Step back from the hysteria and think about whether your progeny will actually play with that new doll or just stuff it in a corner, and whether you really need to travel or attend all the parties. Take some quiet time and relax. The world will not collapse if you skip a party or miss the line for the “it” gift. It will collapse if your child is so exhausted and stressed that he or she has a melt down.

                                                                       Health

Keep healthy. The week after a holiday is always busy at my office. I make lots of money from airplanes crowded with sick people and stores packed with germy carts. Get enough rest, and hydrate. Use hand sanitizer. Eat as healthfully as possible–avoid fast foods, throw in some fruits and vegies. Hide the caffeine and limit alcohol. Get a flu shot. Nothing can destroy a holiday quicker than a trip to the ER.

Avoid injuries. Most holiday injuries have nothing to do with the particular holiday, but everything to do with people being so busy that they are not as watchful as usual. Sports are more dangerous when we want to impress cousins. Teenagers tend to get more reckless during a celebration, and young children sneak away quickly. Most holiday injuries are from everyday activities and household objects made dangerous by the holiday craziness.

Chokings and poisonings are popular. The one I see most is an overdose on Grandma’s meds. At Grandma’s home they are left on countertops; at your home they are in her purse. A left over drink is a common way to poison children. A little alcohol can drop a child’s blood sugar and throw him or her into a coma.

Toddlers will put anything in their mouths. Unfortunately this means that everybody needs to pick up their stuff. Items over 1¼ inch in diameter are generally safe. Smaller items than that can go straight into their gut or lung. The most dangerous items to swallow are batteries and magnets; the most dangerous to choke on are grape sized (older children’s toys, hard candy) or stretchy (balloons, plastic bags, marshmallows). Clean up!

Holidays also provide a banquet of things to irritate children’s allergies. Live trees indoors, foods, cigarette smoke, wood fires and other people’s homes and pets come to mind. Avoid them if your child has allergies.

Fires and electrical injuries are especially common during holidays. Decorations can be flammable, old Christmas trees will be dry, and space heaters, candles and fires are commonly nearby. Frayed and loose wires easily start fires. Keep your eyes open for dangers.

Use your common sense during celebrations. If it doesn’t seem safe, don’t let people pressure you into it. Feel free to let watching your kids take precedence over seeing Uncle Joe’s trophy or Aunt Mary’s vacation photos. “He’ll be fine” doesn’t make him fine. Keep an eye on him, or her.

Feel free to be rude and head for home when the kids get tired, if a situation feels out of control, or if your child is being exposed to something you aren’t happy with. Use the munchkin’s youth or fatigue as the excuse for you to head home, relax and read a bedtime story.

Remember that the point of celebrations is to solidify relationships and give hope for the future. Get there by focusing on your history, rejoicing in your present and not sabotaging your future. Don’t go crazy with gifts: they don’t teach your children anything you want them to learn and the financial stress will eat away at that joy and hope you were dreaming of. Pick fewer things to do, and do them together. Be safe and stay healthy.

Trendy Poisons for your Kids

tidepod-01Kids always seem to find new and interesting ways to hurt themselves, intentionally or accidentally. Poisoning is the #1 or #2 cause of injury death annually, fighting for that honor with car accidents. The annual numbers on poisonings are out (thank you, Annals of Emergency Medicine). The new winners are opioids, laundry detergent packets, bath salts, synthetic cannabinoids, and energy drinks.

Opioids are the traditional first place winner for deadly poisonings, and they are in that spot again this year. 90% of poisoning deaths involve drugs, and opioids are involved almost half the time. Opioids include all of the narcotic painkillers. They are intentionally abused because of the euphoria they induce; they are also accidentally ingested because people keep them laying around the house on countertops and in purses. When taken in high enough doses, the kids who took them forget to breathe; when taken chronically they are addictive.

The new second place finisher is laundry detergent packets. They are a problem because they are more concentrated than traditional laundry detergent, and can cause nausea, vomiting and sedation when taken by mouth, and irritation when put in contact with skin and eyes.

Bath salts” have been popular since 2010. They are substituted cathinones (stimulants) which cause disorientation, extreme paranoia, and violent behavior. In 2012 there were 994 reported exposures and 16 deaths. They are called bath salts because they resemble Epsom salts, but are also known as plant food, ivory wave, vanilla sky, and bliss.

Synthetic cannabinoids (man made marijuanas) are common now and have an added level of danger above Mother Nature’s version. Kids have anxiety attacks, psychosis (loss of contact with reality), rapid heart rates, and seizures. In 2012 there were 5225 reported exposures and 6 deaths. The kids call this stuff spice, genie, Yucatán fire, or aroma. Drug screens do not pick it up.

Energy drinks are on the upswing, causing about half of the 2.3 million calls to poison control centers in 2012. They cause seizures and heart rhythm abnormalities.

The new kids on the block are the liquid nicotine refills for  e-cigarettes, which come in vials without child resistant closures. One teaspoon is enough to kill a child. Liquid nicotine is unregulated, which means that in 10 states and DC a child can buy it; it can be advertised to children in all but 4 states. In 2014 poison control received 3353 calls for exposure to nicotine products, up from 1543 the prior year. Children can be exposed by inhaling the vapor, by swallowing the liquid, or by absorbing it through their skin. Children experience a racing heartbeat, vomiting, and grunting breaths, before they loose control of the muscles in their upper body and die.

So take a few minutes to clean out your medicine cabinet. Throw out meds you don’t take anymore. Lock up the ones you do take, vapor refills, and laundry detergent packets. Don’t buy energy drinks. Talk to your kids about the risks of  drug use, and learn the language they are using. While you’re at it, lock up the rest of your cleaning products and pesticides as well.

Poison control’s phone number is 1-800-222-1222 in the US; keep it posted on or in every phone. They are excellent in an emergency, and they have more in depth analysis of which age groups are taking what and why on their site, if you are interested.

Be safe. Safe is always better than sorry.

How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Okay, I tried, but there is just no way to make carbon monoxide interesting. Read it anyway, because it’s good for you: you need to know this stuff. Like eating your vegetables. Every one of us encounters carbon monoxide on an almost daily basis, because it is ubiquitous and sneaky. We need to know where it comes from, how to avoid it, the symptoms it causes, and what to do if we or our children are exposed.

Carbon monoxide (CO: one carbon, one oxygen) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and initially nonirritating gas produced largely by partial oxygenation of carbon based fuels. Complete oxygenation would produce carbon dioxide (CO2), which we exhale every time we breathe. Plants use that to make us more oxygen.

CO can accumulate in poorly ventilated, enclosed areas. When we breathe in large amounts, the CO binds with the hemoglobin in our blood and forms carboxyhemoglobin. Carboxyhemoglobin circulates through our bloodstreams like the regular stuff, but it does not like to release its oxygen to our brains, hearts, muscles, and organs. We suffocate while still breathing the air around us.

Aristotle, who lived around 300 BC, was the first person to note that coal fumes led to “a heavy head and death.” In ancient times, it was one way criminals were killed: they were locked in a small room with smoldering coals.

It is thought that CO is to blame for some haunted houses: its accumulation can cause hallucinations, disorientation, and delirium.

Oddly, a little CO can be a good thing: it is an anti-inflammatory, encourages growth of nerves and blood vessels, communicates between nerves, and may have some function in long term memory. Very little. Don’t go looking for it.

Statistics on CO poisoning vary significantly with who’s reporting them. It is considered to be the leading cause of poisoning injury and death worldwide. Poison help lines in the US report about 15,000 calls a year, with an estimated 70 deaths. Approximately 40,000 people seek medical care for exposures, and CO accounts for around 15,000 ER visits each year. The CDC estimates more than 500 deaths per year overall in the US, with the largest percentage being in the under 5 age group. More poisonings occur in the winter (gas heaters) and after disasters (generators).

CO is created by burning carbon-based fuels (wood, gasoline, diesel, propane, kerosene, lamp oil), by smoking (tobacco is a carbon based fuel), and by exposure to methylene chloride (degreasers, solvents, paint removers). Don’t smoke (so many reasons), and use degreasers, solvents and paint removers only in well-ventilated areas. Appliances that can produce CO need to be maintained, inspected annually, and well ventilated. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Forced air furnaces
  • Wood stoves/fireplaces (open that flume!)
  • Space heaters (non-electric)
  • Gas water heaters
  • Gas stoves
  • Gas dryers
  • Anything with a pilot light
  • Barbecues, Hibachis
  • Automobiles (never run them in an enclosed space!)
  • Generators
  • Fuel powered tools (if you put gas in it, don’t use it indoors)
  • Boats (don’t use those indoors either)

Symptoms of acute (not chronic) CO poisoning include effects on the brain (dizziness, headache, confusion, lethargy, drowsiness, irritability, irrational behavior), lungs (shortness of breath) and heart (palpitations, paleness). If exposure continues, loss of consciousness and death will follow.

Chronic exposure to lower levels of CO can result in headaches, depression, confusion, memory loss, nausea, and permanent neurologic damage.

Pregnant women, fetuses, and children are especially sensitive. As with most poisonings, children’s small bodies are more sensitive, their higher metabolic rate brings it into their bodies more quickly, and they don’t have the ability to escape.

People with lung, blood, or heart disease, like asthma or anemia, are also more susceptible.

Of note is that CO damage from methylene chloride can last twice as long as that from burning carbon based fuels, because it is stored in our tissues.

Overall, it is a good idea to prevent any exposure to CO. Maintain and inspect those appliances, and make sure they are vented. Open the flume when you have a fire in the winter. Never barbecue or use a hibachi indoors. Throw out the cigarettes, because people who smoke have levels of CO in their blood streams several times higher than non-smokers. Perhaps most important, since you can’t smell this stuff, install CO detectors near every area where people sleep. Many newer fire alarms contain CO detectors, making this even more convenient.

If you are exposed, go outside into clean air. If you are having any symptoms (light-headedness, shortness of breath, seeing ghosts…) seek medical attention. They will give you oxygen and monitor your heart and brain.

Yay! You made it through, even the dreaded chemistry. Not as bad as you thought, right? Knowledge rules!

How to Prevent Poisonings in Children

Prevention of poisonings is the grunt work of parenting. It is completely boring, repetitive, and endless. It is also absolutely necessary. I will try to make it as painless as possible.

First, some statistics to motivate you. In 2013, there were more than 1 million calls to poison help lines for children under 6 years of age. That’s almost 3000 kids a day exposed to potential poisons. 29 children died. Not that big a number unless, of course, yours is one of the 29.

Let’s keep that from happening.

The phone number for poison control is 1-800-222-1222. Stick it on every phone in your home, input it into your cell phone, and also into the grandparents and babysitter’s cell phones. Hopefully you will never need it.

The number one thing that will keep your children from being poisoned is your attention. They can’t get those pills off the counter or that detergent from under the sink if you are watching them.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to watch every child every minute of the day, so do safety proof your house and your habits so bad things won’t happen during a moment of inattention.

  • Store poisons up high (kids can’t reach them), out of sight (they don’t see them and become curious), and locked up (when all else fails, they can’t open them).
  • Make the locks automatic so you don’t have to remember to lock them as the phone is ringing.
  • Keep poisons in their original, labeled containers.
  • Don’t ever put poisons in anything that looks like a food container. I once had a child drink gasoline out of a big soda cup.
  • Don’t keep poisons in a purse, because kids love to explore purses. And because no-one keeps purses locked up and out of sight.
  • Keep the original child safety caps on everything, even though they are a pain.
  • Throw away poisons that you no longer need or use.
  • Don’t take medicines in front of a child, because children are excellent mimics; never call medicine candy, because they like candy.

So, what is a poison? Lets keep the definition loose: anything a child can ingest, absorb through their skin, or inhale that will do him or her harm. Another list!

  • Button cell batteries: They can eat right through the gut. They are in remote controls, key fobs, musical cards and books… Keep them out of reach.
  • Medicines, including vitamins, minerals, iron pills, and herbals: these are all more dangerous in a child’s tiny body.
  • Cleaning supplies: drain cleaner is a nightmare, bleach burns, abrasives abrade, furniture polish oozes into their lungs… Lock ’em up! Lock up those little laundry detergent packets too.
  • Pesticides: yuck. They cause fever, tiny  pupils, vomiting, breathing problems, twitches, seizures, and death. Respect pesticides.
  • Car stuff: gasoline, antifreeze, wiper fluid… Make yourself a high spot in the garage, too.
  • Heating stuff: coal, wood, and kerosine heaters need to be kept clean and in good working order; Kerosine and lamp oil are on the lock up list. Install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors since you can’t lock up smoke.
  • Alcohol: you wanted to lock that up anyway, didn’t you? Kids drop their blood sugar when they drink alcohol, and can go into a coma.
  • Tobacco: The big worry is the liquid nicotine for vapor refills. 1/2 tsp can be toxic, they are not regulated, and they do not have child resistant caps.
  • Small magnets: not fun when two of them get together on opposite pieces of gut.

Now, about those habits. We tend to get stuff out of those locked spaces to leave on the counter, in a purse, or sitting open where we are working. Regret is not a fun emotion. Neither is guilt. Don’t leave those pills on the counter and go get a drink to swallow them with; pour out the drink glasses immediately after the party, put away the cleaning stuff before answering that phone. Be aware of any poison you have out, until it is locked up again.

The one thing that messes up all this preparation and care is a holiday, with all its incumbent disruption. Be especially vigilant during a holiday, a special occasion, or when you have guests. Stuff is everywhere, everything is hectic, and no-one is watching the kids.

Suspect a poisoning when your child vomits, has a strange odor, has staining on their clothes or around their mouths, burns around their mouths, or when there are open containers around.

If they look OK, call the poison help line, and be prepared to tell them what you think the child took, how much, how big he or she is, and where you are. Have the bottle in your hand when you call.

If something splashed into their eye, rinse it with tepid water for 15 minutes. Hold the eye open and aim the water at the corner by the nose.

If the poison is on their skin, take off the clothes covered with the poison, and rinse the child in the shower for 15 minutes.

If the child inhaled the poison, take them outside into fresh air.

If your child is unconscious, having trouble breathing, or seizing, call 911.

Take a CPR course, because everyone should.

Prevention of poisonings may not be the most fun and inspirational thing you do as a parent, but if you set the house up right and then watch your habits, you will never have reason for regret.