Monday, August 13, 2012 in , , , , , , , ,

"Clean" and "Green" beauty, science, and comic book characters - Part 2, Irradiation and you.

Irradiated foods have long been a subject of controversy and outrage in the organic industry, and the process is not allowed for organic foods.  Foods aren't the only things being treated with Gamma Rays, however.  I was surprised to find out how many things we may be using unsuspectingly that have actually been irradiated.  Meats, fruits, vegetables, single use medical equipment, cotton balls, swabs, bandages, ointments, tongue depressers... the list goes on.

(You can catch Part 1 of this dual post on cosmetic packaging and irradiation here by the way.)

As I would find out while reading up on irradiation, Gamma Rays are produced by a radioactive isotope called Cobalt 60.  It produces high energy photons that are disruptive to the DNA and structure of living things.  This is why they are capable of sterilizing.  The DNA of the microbe is broken down during treatment and it is unable to recover.  The FDA limits the energy levels the radioactive material can emit.  The permitted radioactivity level makes the gamma rays pass straight through the treated material and leave it with no residual radioactivity.  Essentially it isn't strong enough to knock apart the atoms in the treated material and destabilize them.  It's sort of like an X-ray that way.

Items are brought into the facility, exposed to radiation, and dosimeters indicate when the required amount has been achieved.  They are then removed and sent off to their consumer or industrial destinations.

So if this process doesn't create radioactivity in the final product why all the fuss?  Some sites will tell you it is perfectly safe, and in fact makes our food safer.  Food poisoning that has erupted from contaminated meats might be avoided with a little irradiation.  The E. Coli contaminated spinach outbreak comes to mind, and produce is something that is irradiated.

Organic enthusiasts know though that one of the main reasons we have massive problems with killer bacteria on our foods now is the way our food system is structured.  Livestock farms are generating massive amounts of manure too great to be composted, which is leading a lot of it into unexpected places in our water supplies and from that contaminated water into our food distribution.  According to Food and Water Watch it is " estimated 500 million tons of manure each year, more than three times the sewage produced by the entire U.S. human population."  This is a major source of E. Coli contamination, and one of the reasons for concern about food cleanliness.  Maybe that problem would be best addressed at the source rather than trying to fix it after the fact.
Organic regulations do not allow for irradiation.  Period.  Why?  The objections are heavily based on nutrient depletion, chemical by-products of the radioactive exposure that may then exist in the foods, lack of clarity about long-term safety, and the fact that the food industry is basically covering up cleanliness issues it should be addressing in more appropriate ways.  For a full breakdown of the Organic Consumers opinion on this topic see their page.

Regardless of what the contrasting opinions are and the arguments for its benefits I knew this was something we would never consider doing, even to a piece of plastic.  The process was cumbersome, the hazards to environment and workers huge, and it isn't allowed for organics.  While our product line isn't certified we hold to organic standards in the handling of all our botanical materials, studio cleaning procedures, and even pest control.  All told, no Gamma Rays happening here at Blissoma, folks.

The other really disturbing thing that I found out during this entire inquiry process is that TWO separate packaging suppliers told me that it was highly irregular that we were doing anything to clean our closure components at all.  What?

I could write it off if one source told me that, but two unrelated companies were surprised when we asked about appropriate cleaning procedures for closures.  According to both of those sources the industry standard is just to use the pumps and bottles straight out of the cases.  I was shocked.  They may come out of the cases without gunk stuck to them, but the moment someone sneezes or touches them they've got microbes on them, some that may be disease causing pathogens. 

It's possible that many mainstream product manufacturers just use preservation in high enough doses that they know that a little contaminant on the pump or bottle isn't going to cause a problem.  After all, many high end face creams are still sold in jars - it's actually the way a "classic", miraculous face cream is usually presented to customers.  If you are sticking your fingers in it every day and it keeps for 3 to 5 years there's some serious preservatives going on.  A dirty closure is not unlike a dirty finger.  (By the way, if you use a cream out of a jar this is a point worth considering.  You might want to use a little disposable spatula instead of that bacteria-ridden finger!)

Blissoma's recipes aren't like that, and while they are preserved the system can be overwhelmed if the amount of initial microbe contamination is too high.  Not to mention the goal is to produce the cleanest possible product.  Duh.  This is partly why we have created a full line of moisturizers that are fluid enough to be pumped.  They are protected from environmental contamination once packaged.  With natural preservation the packaging choice is just part of the full "hurdle" plan to keep a product fresh for the customer.  The more barriers to contamination the better.  Again, the lack of cleaning procedure alleged by these packaging suppliers seems like laziness on the part of industry not unlike irradiation to ensure foods are clean.  Overpreserving and not cleaning components doesn't address the root cause of the contamination.

Because we are committed to using organic approved, nontoxic, environmentally sound handling methods we had to devise our own new way to clean our pumps.  For pumps that can't handle steam we are now using organic alcohol to clean them.  The pumps are immersed and then the alcohol is allowed to evaporate before the pump is applied to the product.  It's time consuming but I feel satisfied that we've done what is right for both our processes and our end product.

The takeaway from this is that I wanted to share our process with you, our community.  Also, like me, there may be many people surprised at the use of radiation to treat so many common objects.

So what do you think?  Are you as surprised as I was that Gamma Rays are such a common treatment?  What did you previously know about food irradiation?  How do you feel about irradiation being used to treat cotton balls, bandaids, and the like?  Is it acceptable to you when applied to something that is not a food? 

And how do you feel knowing that major cosmetic manufacturers are not necessarily doing anything to clean their packaging prior to bottling product?  Do you feel fine?  Or does that make you go "hunh?"  Or are you not surprised at all considering the use of so many unstudied chemicals and questionable consumer safety related practices anyway? 

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.  Sound off and share, s'il vous plait.  As always, love to you.

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