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I Saw it on Facebook it Must Be True! Or is it?

SFR researches, fact checks and debunks popular scientific questions

April 2, 2014, 12:00 am

A few weeks back, after falling down the rabbit hole of the fluoride issue and discovering a giant pile of science showing that there’s really no debate over whether it’s safe to put in the water in small amounts, I decided to ask my friends what else they were worried or confused about. “I’m doing a story with the working title ‘I Saw This Thing on the Internet, Fact or Fiction?’” I told them, promising to research important issues they didn’t have the time to dig into. 

They responded with a list of questions, mostly about health and the environment, that are addressed here briefly but with direction for further research.

One of the great things about the internet is that it puts so much information at our fingertips—and on our Facebook timelines. But processing so much information can be exhausting. The tidbits are conflicting (Diet sodas help you lose weight! Or make you gain weight!) and they may be thinly veiled ads (This one weird trick…) or put out by those with vested interests (Global warming is a hoax!). It takes time to follow up, evaluate the source, look at the research and formulate an opinion. And we have less time than ever. 

Some basic guidelines for your own sleuthing: If a story doesn’t make it easy for you to find the original source of the information (i.e. a published study or report), then be skeptical. The more emphatic the author is that something will kill you/prevent cancer, the more evidence you should see. The more the story seems to be selling the idea, the more scrutiny you should give the evidence. 

So, for some of the most common Facebook link baits that have raised your eyebrows, here’s the 411 from the research department at SFR.

Chemtrails…Who’s doing it, why are they doing it and how can you tell it’s being done?

New Mexico’s deep blue skies are the perfect canvas for the beautiful criss crossing of…airplane exhaust. The Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a contrail (condensation trail) as “a white trail of condensed water vapor that sometimes forms in the wake of an aircraft.”

But there is an enormous amount of speculation scattered across the internet that questions why some trails seem to disappear immediately and others last for hours. (You’ll note that scientists don’t use the word “chemtrail.”)

Although it’s certainly possible that forces of evil (usually the government) are spraying us with chemicals, it’s incredibly difficult to find any actual evidence that the trails we see in the sky are actually chemicals from planes (the vast majority of which are commercial airliners). 

But it’s very easy to find an explanation for those white streaks in the sky. Just ask the weatherman. 

“It’s just like when you go out on a cold day and you can see your breath. You’re seeing, in effect, a cloud. Your warm breath is going out into the cold air, and the air coming out of your mouth condenses into something you can see. So that’s what planes do. They have hot exhaust hitting the colder air surrounding the plane, creating a contrail,” says Joe Diaz, chief meteorologist for KOAT-TV.

How long a contrail stays in the air depends on the temperature, the altitude and the humidity of the air the plane flies through.

The Environmental Protection Agency has an excellent “Aircraft Contrails Factsheet,” developed with scientists from the EPA, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Is growing pot really bad for the environment?

Sounds like you may have seen somebody sharing a story published by The Nation last fall, “Is Pot-Growing Bad for the Environment?” in which author Seth Zuckerman made the case that the federal prohibition on marijuana prevents growers from becoming more efficient, regulated and environmentally sound. 

He noted that some irresponsible outdoor pot growers in rural California harm the environment in several ways. Clearing hilltops for farmland clogs streams while diverting water for irrigation can lower water levels needed to sustain spawning fish. Pesticides and poisons used to fend off mites and rats (Rats love weed. Who knew?) can kill predators who eat rodents such as owls and fishers (cute furry critters in the weasel family). Fertilizer washes into creeks and causes algae blooms that can kill dogs that romp in algae-coated water. But getting pot growers to improve their methods is difficult; most government-funded agricultural agencies that help chile growers and cotton farmers improve irrigation aren’t allowed give any advice to cannabis growers.


Growing indoors has problems too. A 2011 study, “Energy up in Smoke:

The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis,” showed that growing pot under lights indoors uses as much energy as 2 million average US homes and contributes as much greenhouse gas pollution as 3 million cars. Put another way, the amount of energy required to make one joint could produce 18 pints of beer. The study’s author, a climate scientist, also suggested that the semi-underground nature of the industry prevents widespread innovation in energy efficiency. 

This is not much of an issue in New Mexico—so far as we know. Sean Waite, a Drug Enforcement Agency special agent in charge based in Albuquerque, says his agents only occasionally come across outdoor grows, but he acknowledges there could be pot farms they aren’t finding because they’re hidden in remote areas. (One widely publicized grow was discovered three years ago within the boundaries of Bandelier National Monument, but only because of aircraft surveillance related to firefighting.)  The DEA in New Mexico primarily targets cocaine, meth and heroin, Waite says, and since medical marijuana is legal on the state level, traipsing around in the woods looking for pot plants is “not necessarily a resource priority.” 

 Are BPA-free plastics really safe?

With a headline engineered for link bait, Mother Jones recently published a story about chemicals in sippy cups and plastic water bottles, “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics,” that quickly made the rounds on Facebook.

Bisphenol A is a chemical used to coat the interior of food cans and to make shatterproof plastic food and drink containers. Several animal studies have shown that BPA, a kind of synthetic estrogen, can contribute to a long list of health problems if it leaches from those containers into food and drink. That news came out back in 2008 and all of a sudden, plastic food containers were labeled “BPA-free!” But the Mother Jones story highlighted some research showing those plastics also leached synthetic estrogen.

The problem this presents is clear: What the hell are you supposed to give your kids, glass baby bottles? How are you supposed to take that leftover lasagna to work, in a cardboard box? We’ve become accustomed to the safety and convenience of plastic. But is it really safe?

The FDA says yes. After the Mother Jones story came out, government researchers published a paper they say shows BPA only causes negative effects in rats at very high levels, meaning your sippy cups are safe. 

In an update to the story, MJ countered that some experts say the study might have been flawed and that we need more research to demonstrate exactly how much exposure to BPA (if any) is safe for humans.

Bottom line: We really do need more research. Meanwhile, we just don’t know for super total sure that plastic bottles, containers and can linings are 100 percent safe. So be practical and minimize plastic when and where you can.  And don’t use it in the microwave. 

What is the true impact of electromagnetic fields?

Electromagnetic fields are types of energy that radiate from electronic gadgets, power lines, lightning strikes and electric eels. If you’re anxious about getting too many X-rays or living under high-voltage power lines, this is what you’re talking about. 

There are also people who are more than slightly concerned about extremely low frequency radio waves—and you can find them on the Internet by searching for “EMFs.” One of them was Aaron Alexis, the guy who killed a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard. Remember him? He told police officers that people were following him, talking to him through ceilings and using “some sort of microwave machine” to prevent him from sleeping. After searching through his electronic files, the FBI said they found this explanation for the killings: “Ultra-low frequency attack is what I’ve been subject to for the last three months and to be perfectly honest, that is what has driven me to this.” 

Most folks aren’t too worried about low-frequency radiation because it comes from things like lights, microwave ovens, Wi-Fi networks, cell phones and power lines, and it’s not generally thought to be harmful. (Don’t get me started on why in 2007 Santa Fe opted against a plan to provide free wireless internet in the downtown area. Suffice to say that it involved people wearing gas masks and silver hats.)

Ionizing radiation, at the higher frequencies, comes from X-rays, radon gas, ultraviolet light and gamma rays (think the kind of nuclear radiation that turned Bruce Banner into The Hulk). We don’t need much more research to know this is the bad kind. If you see the radiation symbol, make a hasty retreat.

You may have heard that carrying a cell phone in your pocket (or in your bra if you’re this author) can give you tumors, but according to the National Cancer Institute, “studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves or other tissues of the head or neck.” We need more research, but right now that’s what we know. Carrying a phone in your pocket: maybe not a huge problem. Driving a truck at WIPP: bigger problem.

If you’re seriously worried about high-power lines, check with your electric service provider for an on-site reading. PNM spokeswoman Ryan Baca says that in her 10 years with the company she’s never heard anyone ask for a measurement, but that the company will do it for customers. Call 241-2700 for a reading.

Does diet soda really make you fat?

Short answer: Quit drinking sweet stuff. 

There have been many studies on diet sodas and other food made with what are known as “non-nutritive sweeteners,” but we still don’t know for sure whether diet drinks help folks lose weight by cutting calories—or make you hungrier and more likely to reward yourself with food later.

There are five non-nutritive sweeteners the FDA calls safe: aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), neotame, saccharin (Sweet ’N Low) and sucralose (Splenda). (The FDA hasn’t weighed in on Stevia.)

One 2013 review in the journal Nutrition found, “Although the FDA and most published (especially industry-funded) studies endorse the safety of these additives, there is a lack of conclusive evidence-based research to discourage or to encourage their use on a regular basis.” 

Non-nutritive sweetners put the Diet in your Coke.

A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that people who are overweight or obese drink more diet soda than people at a healthy weight. But they also consume more calories. They concluded that overweight people need to cut calories from food, not just drinks, if they want to lose weight.

The American Heart and Diabetes associations recently put out a pretty common-sense statement on the issue, saying they “don’t know for sure if using NNSs [non-nutritive sweeteners] in food and drinks makes people actually eat or drink fewer calories every day. But reducing the amount of added sugar in your diet? That we know for sure is a good thing. …Choose foods and beverages that are high in nutrients and low in saturated and trans fats and added sugars. Keep in mind that just because a product is “sugar free,” it doesn’t always mean that it’s healthy.”

Do I need to be eating chia seeds?

Just when you thought you could forget about Chia Pets, they make one in the shape of the guy from Duck Dynasty. Oh, and people start actually eating the seeds. But are they really good for you? We have 30 years of hard experiential evidence on growing chia seeds on variously shaped terra cotta pots, but much less information about their other properties. 

The seeds are high in essential fatty acids, protein, fiber, minerals and antioxidants, but there have only been a handful of studies on the potential health benefits. 

There’s slightly more evidence for the benefits of flax seeds, which have fewer carbs, more minerals and more polyunsaturated fatty acids. Also, they’re cheaper. And you won’t be tempted to mix them with water and choke down the resulting ectoplasmic goo.

Chia seeds are high in essential fatty acids, proteins and goo.


Is there any reputable evidence that global warming is actually just a natural occurrence?

Let’s put it this way: You can rest assured that the great magnificent bulk of scientific research confirms that recent climate change is our fault. 

In February, the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society (the UK equivalent) released a report on the issue, “Climate Change: Evidence and Causes.” The authors very clearly and very simply spell it out: “Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.”

The US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society say people caused climate change.

“It’s basic physics!”

Like how they got that “It’s basic physics!” dig in there? 

Produced by a team of scientists from Cambridge, Oxford, MIT, UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and other institutions, the report is written in nice plain English and answers 20 common questions about climate change. 

Is it better to drive 15 miles round trip to buy something at a locally-owned store or drive a few blocks to buy the thing at a big box store?

Let’s assume this question is aimed at the environmental as well as economic impacts of the decision. 

For perspective, shopping online can reduce environmental impact by 35 percent over traditional retail shopping—because getting goods to retail stores involves a lot more energy spent on transport, according to a 2009 Carnegie Mellon study. A disproportionate amount of that energy comes from “the last mile,” or the distance you drive to the store in your car, which is not nearly as efficient as the fully-loaded UPS truck dropping off packages all over your neighborhood. 

Of course, if you take the bus or walk to shop, you can cut down or eliminate that fossil-fuel guilt.

Buying local has benefits for the environment, advocates say. Many local stores are located in walkable areas (like downtown) that allow you to park once and run several errands. 

“Yes, it’s the driving around that causes pollution that’s bad for the environment. But it’s also hugely bad for the environment to build any kind of big-box store with enough parking for Christmas Day,” says Clifton Chadwick of Keep It Querque, the Albuquerque independent business group.

The Sierra Club opposes big-box stores for several reasons, including the stores’ enormous parking lots, which collect water contaminated by oil and other chemicals leaked from cars, causing pollution of local drainage systems. 

“These guys are winning simply by getting us into the frame of mind where price is the only issue,” Chadwick says. 

Should I buy organic or local?

Energy involved in transportation is also part of the decision between locally or organically grown food.

Even though most people who buy organic say they do because it’s healthier, there’s really not much evidence that organic foods are much more nutritious than conventionally grown foods, according to a 2012 review of 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of foods, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The authors did acknowledge that buying organic might reduce your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

And as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has pointed out, the nutrition issue is a distraction. “The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable,” Pollan told NPR affiliate KQED in 2012.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan criticized what he called the “industrial-organic complex,” pointing out that one pound of organic lettuce may cost 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to ship across the country. This is a problem particularly relevant to New Mexico, where so much of our food is trucked in from afar.

So, channeling Michael Pollan: Try first for food that’s local and organic. If you can’t do that, buy local, especially if the food is more likely to have been picked recently and ripe (as with peaches and tomatoes). If it’s something known for particular issues with pesticides or antibiotics (strawberries, milk, chicken), try to choose organic over local.

What exactly do they mean when they say
‘cage-free’ chickens? Are they free-roaming or crammed in a building somewhere but not technically in a cage?

Cage-free does mean they’re, well, not in cages, but it could also mean there are 18,000 of them free-roaming inside one building, with no access to the outside. 

From a chicken’s perspective, we might expect that not being in a cage is a pretty high priority. But anyone who’s ever raised chickens will tell you: Chickens can be real jerks to each other. So being in a cage might be really lame, but being cage-free could be like being trapped in a middle school gym with 18,000 eighth-grade girls. Meaning: Studies have shown that chickens die twice as often when they’re cage-free. 

Also, cage-free systems result in chicken houses that are dustier, colder and poopier. 

One thing chickens probably appreciate about being cage-free is being able to roll around and take dust baths. The problem is fairly obvious: They roll around in their own poop and lay random eggs on the ground instead of in their nesting boxes, spreading salmonella and other diseases much more quickly.

Bottom line: Don’t waste time trying to figure out the differences between the labels because many of the terms aren’t backed up by rules or inspections. Look for certified organic eggs. Organic rules say the chickens can’t be raised in cages and must have some access to outdoors. Or find someone you can trust who sells at the Farmers Market. 


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