Friday, September 14, 2012

Are your maple trees making you sick?

The tar spots on maple trees are quite bad this year.  In researching these spots I was struck by the general omission to the potential health impact that they pose.  Most of the articles focus on the impact to the tree itself, not to people.

The tar spots are due to the fungus ''Rhytisma acerinum" which survives the winter on fallen leaves. In the spring the spores of the fungus, blown by the wind, infect newly developed leaves.  The fungus affects trees, especially maple trees, and appears to be sensitive to and impacted by the level of air pollution.  The level of fungal infection is reflected in the number and size of tar spots on the leaves. Tar spots rarely threaten the overall health of the tree.

The concern from a human perspective is that fungal infections, especially those where the spores are carried in the air, can impact a person's health if they have a compromised immune system or if they are susceptible to respiratory conditions. Common systems associated with fungal infections include:

  • increased inflammation
  • cough
  • chest congestion
  • sinusitis
  • rhinitis
  • increased risk of chronic infections, especially chronic respiratory infections.
  • muscle pain and weakness
Guidelines for cleaning up leaves with tar spots:
  • The best time to clean up your leaves is after a rain. When the leaves are wet the spores are less likely to be air borne.
  • If the leaves are dry, it is best to water them down before cleaning them up.
  • If you are susceptible to respiratory infections, wear a mask when cleaning up the leaves and shower after you're done.
  • Vacuuming the leaves into an enclosed bag may decrease your exposure.
  • If you have a known respiratory infection it is best to have someone help clean up your leaves.
  • Wear garden gloves when cleaning up the leaves. After you are done either discard the gloves or wash them in hot water.
Avoid the following as they increase the mobilization of fungal spores:
  • Blowing the leaves
  • Mulching leaves
  • Raking dry leaves
  • Cleaning up your leaves on a dry, windy day
Prevention is a key strategy of naturopathic medicine. There is no direct research, that I have found, that looks at the link between tar spots and the health of individuals. There are some that show a link between horses that have grazed on leaves with tar spots and muscle weakness.  As I receive additional information on the health impact of these tar spots I will update this blog, but in the meantime, it is better to be safe than sorry.

To learn more about fungal infections:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Organic Foods are HEALTHIER

A recent study published by  Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed research comparing organic vs non-organic foods.  What has been largely reported in mainstream media is the finding that organic foods are not significantly different from non-organic foods when it comes to vitamin and mineral content.  What has been omitted from these reports is the other side of this research, which found that conventional foods contain 30% more pesticides and 30% more multi-antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This is a significant finding that sadly has received almost no press.  The problem is the confusion of the concept of 'nutrition' with that of 'health'. 

What the research says:
1- Some organic foods exhibit higher nutrient value than conventional foods: organic produce contains higher antioxidant levels and organic poulty and dairy contain higher omega-3 levels.  These examples are simply not significant enough for the researcher to make general conclusions regarding nutrients and organic foods.

2- Consumption of vitamins and mineral are just one of the factors affecting health.  For example, a 2010 paper in Pediatrics found higher levels of pesticide metabolites in the urine of children with ADHD.  Pesticides may not be the cause of ADHD, but they are certainly implicated by association.

3- Antibiotic-resistance in humans is a topic of great concern.  According to the Food Safety Director at the US Center for Science in the Public Interest, 24 infectious outbreaks between 2000 and 2010 were linked to multidrug-resistant germs in food. Conventionally raised animals are fed antibiotics both to treat infections that are rampant in factory-farm settings, and to help fatten them up for sale.  The result of over-medicating these animals is one of the contributing factors in the growing prevalence of hard to treat bugs like MRSA. 

4- In this recent systematic review of 226 studies, only three studies looked at clinical outcomes, all of which were short-term outcomes such as allergies and symptomatic infection.  There is no information provided from this research about the long-term health effects of pesticide consumption, for example.

The bottom line:
Some organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods, but in general the research shows little evidence of this benefit.  Where organic beats conventional hands down is with respect to overall health value.  Organic foods are significantly less contaminated with pesticides, have far less antibiotic-resistant bacteria living on and in them, and may in fact have more beneficial qualities that have yet to be uncovered by modern science. Eating organic whole foods may not always be the more nutritious choice, but it is certainly the healthier choice.

On a related note:
For this week only, watch a new documentary that reveals the serious health impacts of genetically engineered foods in our diets and shows how you can protect your family. Available online for free from September 15-22 at