Friday, July 25, 2008

Zen and the art of JUNK maintenance

*Photo of Joel atop mast taken during JUNK construction, pre-launch. Here for kicks.*

July 25th

The sails hang still, like the edge of an oversized tablecloth reaching lazily to the floor. There is no wind again today. We were becalmed 10 days ago, then a gentle breeze brought 500 miles of west. Becalmed again, I step outside to find Mahi Mahi under our raft. Hopefully they will grace our menu. I walk around the deck conducting my ritualistic inspection of bottles, netting, integrity of lashings and welded parts, wear on lines, exposed wires on stays, and a general look and keen listen for things that are different than before.

We noticed a problem - the top of the mast was cracking. I spotted two three-inch cracks coming down from the masthead. And the eyebolt holding the mainsail secure to the masthead was bent open. We’re lucky it didn’t fail under way. What to do? Fortunately, we had two pieces of chain we used to create a bridge between the stays to support the failing eyebolt. A couple of large hose clamps tightened around the top of the mast stopped the crack from lengthening.

As we’ve said before, boats require maintenance, especially when underway, as the stress of sailing makes everything move, rub, grind, and abrade. I also discovered that where the aluminum airplane fuselage touches the aluminum masts, grooves begin to form. Where netting rubs netting, there are eventual holes. The movements are slow and seemingly innocuous, yet in time change is inevitable. Only with careful inspection can we anticipate these, and stay ahead of the game.

Read on for responses to blog questions about plastics, chemicals, childrens autism, and BPA in canned foods.

To Dawn P's question about chemicals in plastic and rises in childhood autism:
Thank you for a great question. We know that many synthetic compounds found in plastic, which give it properties such as elasticity, color, UV and flame resistance, are also linked to ailments found in humans. We know that synthetic compounds like styrene, bisphenol A, phthalates and nonylphenol are pre-production chemicals found in plastic, and linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, insulin inhibition, and other effects. Then there are the post-production pollutants that adhere to plastic marine debris that hundreds of species have been documented to ingest. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation has discovered significant amounts of DDT, PCBs and PAHs absorbed into plastic. We are finding that these pollutants on plastic, when ingested, migrate into the tissues and organs of some organisms. Those compounds are well known to have adverse effects of wildlife and humans.

I urge you to review the work of Frederick vom Saal, Earl Gray and Ana Soto. I know vom Saal has his published papers available on line. Earl Gray and Ana Soto have done extensive work on endocrine disrupting toxins and their effect on human development and wildlife.

I would be elated to see what research you find. Especially anything published in the last few months, since I've been away for a while.


And to the question about BPA in canned foods:

Yes, bisphenol A, the building block of polycarbonate plastic, is all over. It’s that plastic film in cans, dental fillings, polycarbonate water bottles and babyfood bottles. When you touch a new CD or DVD it's on your hands. The argument that it only leaches into food and beverages when heated is false. Scientists have found, that at room temperature, polycarbonate buckets and bowls leach bisphenol A into water (Howdeshell et al., 2003 Environmental Health Perspectives).

Other studies show an alarming relationship between very low doses of bisphenol A and cancer, endocrine disruption and insulin resistance. Bisphenol A is an estrogen mimic, resulting in the growth of cancer cells in the mammary glands and prostate gland in studies of mice. One lab study found that with a dosage of 10µg/kg/day, 100% of the rats developed prostate cancer (Ho et al., 2006, Cancer Research). Another study found bisphenol A, at the same low dose of 10 µg / kg/ day, stimulates abnormal development of basal cells in mouse fetuses. (Timms et al. 2005, PNAS 102:7014). In other studies, the same low dose given to lab rats found at first it stimulates insulin secretion and subsequently causes insulin resistance (Alonso-Magdalena et al. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2006). In humans, researchers found blood levels of BPA were linked to obesity in women (Takeuchi et al. Endo J. 2004). Also, elevated levels of BPA in blood was associated with recurrent miscarriage in women (Takeuchi et al. Endo J. 2004).

What is alarming is that these effects happen in extremely low doses, below human exposure. Bisphenol A is all around us. Even a polycarbonate baby food bottle give your infant a dose of 5 µg/kg/day. The Environmental Protection Agency oral reference dose is 50ug/kg/day, 5 times the dosage found to cause harm in lab studies.

Why does the Environmental Protection Agency permit humans to be in contact with bisphenol A in high doses? To influence regulation, scientists and policymakers work together to draft new policy. Weight of evidence influences that policy. Vom Saal and Hughes reviewed the 161 animal studies with bisphenol A conducted between 1997-2006. They correlated results with funding source.

Chemical corporations fund studies that give desired results. They publish those in trade journals, and reference those when lobbying lawmakers. This creates doubt. Creating doubt is a game industry plays to influence policy. It has been effective to postpone regulation that would hurt their industry, despite the consequences for human health.

It is imperative that the public be involved in the political process. Get to know your political representatives. By contacting them, you can insist that junk science be abandoned. I’m glad one visitor to our blog brought up SB1713, a senate bill to curb the use of bisphenol A in products we come in contact with. Also, contact your local representative to lend your support to California AB 2058. If signed into law, this bill would require large grocery chains and pharmacies statewide to charge a 25 cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags if a 70% reduction in plastic bag usage is not achieved by the end of 2010.

Best regards,


shakespeare in the alley said...

I just found this blog and I find the idea of what you are doing quite interesting and brilliant :)

Ed T. said...

Wow, you guys are like the A-team of environmental sailing! What a great adventure, thanks again for sharing it with us.

Alex Touch said...

Ditto with the the other commenter! I'm no sailor, but I love the practical reality of your protest. People like you set an example to others not just to sulk and whine about the state of the world but to actually act and put their energies into raising awareness. For many, protest just means signing a petition or debating in the local pub. For you, the protest is defining your way of life. I'm not saying your extreme is for everyone, but I hope it inspires others and we take another baby step towards the ideal democracy because of it.

P.S. I'll keep an eye on you guys and spread the word. Hope your mast doesn't fall down between now and your next post! Touch wood! Can't help being superstitious when it comes to sailing.

The Chemist said...

With the recent hysteria surrounding surrounding supposed vaccine-autism links, I'm exceedingly wary of people claiming a rise in the incidence of autism instead of a rise in the diagnosis. This is what the original question seemed to posit. However you didn't really touch on autism in your answer.

That said, the question of Bisphenol A and the harmfulness of plastics as vessels for food is disconcerting. I happen to know that my water pipes are primarily PVC.

Oh, and if you're concerned about aluminum on aluminum action, I'm note sure what structures are doing it, but Al has a melting point of about 930 degrees which means that you can use an environmentally friendly hydrogen torch to weld the pieces together if necessary. Just be careful about burn-through. The hydrogen can reach temperatures twice as hot as the melting point. Just a suggestion.

The Chemist said...

Ack! The moment I finished typing up my comment I new I screwed something up. It's 933 degrees Kelvin, not Celsius (~660). Sorry, I tend to think in Kelvin these days.

Tamara said...

On the thread about autism: One way that epidemiologists discern whether environmental factors (such as mercury emissions to the air from coal-fired power plants, vaccines, diet, or any of the myriad other exposures that are being examined) might be causing autism is to look for unusually high numbers of cases within defined geographical boundaries. They compare the cases (those with autism) to controls (those without autism). This article discusses high rates of autism among Somali refugees in Minnesota. It is interesting that the author reports that this disease is extremely rare in Somalia, and is only occurring in the US-born children. Learn more at:

More on bisphenol-A: Substitutes are available to replace bisphenol-A in the epoxy resin lining cans. After scientists found alarming levels of BPA leaching from beverage cans in Japan, the government ordered industry to find alternatives. Follow-up studies documented the achievement of a 95% reduction in the BPA levels in cans.

Since Health Canada declared BPA toxic this spring, retailers such as REI and Wal-Mart have pledged to pull many products made with BPA from their shelves (in Canada...Wal-Mart is delaying such action in the US at least one year). Federal legislation has been introduced in the US (the BPA-Free Kids Act 2008) to address these concerns. Follow the bill's progress at

A major source of bisphenol-A exposure to consumers is handling thermal, carbonless paper products, such as gas station receipts, which are coated in BPA. These paper products enter the recycling stream and can contaminate it. See Ozaki et al, "Chemical analysis and genotoxicological safety assessment
of paper and paperboard used for food packaging" (Food and Chemical Toxicology 42 (2004) 1323–1337). The pending legislation would not address this route of exposure.

Anonymous said...

To explain a little more about my concern in the rise in children with autistic characteristics, I am a special education teacher and have been for quite some time, I have experienced the rise in children with autism first hand, many without a diagnosis but the symptoms are present. It seems logical to consider the days where there were glass bottles for babies and simple homemade products. I have also touched upon some of the articles Marcus mentioned in his response to my question, very interesting - maybe the solution to the problem with single use plastics is to get an advocacy group involved that focuses on the direct health of children, namely behavioral and developmental links to autism. Joel and Marcus you guys are amazing!
Dawn Paschal

Fat X said...

Keep up the good work!

bopster said...

Great article and best of luck! The BPA controversy is even more interesting when you research (even a little) the relationship between the industry, the firm responsible for the safety testing of BPA, and the US Government. Though we don't have definitive evidence either way, why not just use BPA-free alternatives? How long did it take us to recognize the toxicity of mercury and asbestos?

More reading on BPA:

Tamara said...


You might be interested in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment's working group on learning and developmental disabilities. They are connected to the most cutting edge autism research and you might find resources to help your students through CHE's partners. Good luck!