Toxic Talk of the Month – Omnivore’s Dilemma

This month, I present to you Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This book not only earns my applause, but was named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post following its publication in 2006. Written by U.C. Berkeley Professor of Journalism Michael Pollan, this captivating read chronicles the lengthy and process-intensive journey of food as it travels from the farm to the dinner table. Mr. Pollan has also been a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine for about 30 years, and was named one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders” by Newsweek in 2009, and one of the 100 most influential people by TIME Magazine in 2010.

Omnivore’s Dilemma brilliantly wrestles with issues of health, sustainability, the environment, and moral dilemma. It dives into the complexity of the food choices we must make, while providing an insightful history of the food industry. How some of our most beloved crops came to be number one is well explained.

In this book, Mr. Pollan actually demonstrates the difficulty of obtaining a single everyday meal by actually doing it himself…from scratch! That’s right; hunting, gathering, farming, and even evaporating bay water to get salt; always returning to the theme of today’s food industry and meal choices. After this book, you will no longer take your food for granted. You will also learn there are more ingredients in a fast food chicken nugget than an entire burger! This book is a very fascinating must read. Given Mr. Pollan’s background in journalism, he is able to deliver an interesting message while keeping the reader’s attention. For more on Michael Pollan and Omnivore’s Dilemma, visit Mr. Pollan’s website by clicking here.

To encourage future blogs of this kind, please join my blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                 Dr. Shahir Masri
                                                                 Environmental Health Scientist


Zika Virus – Severity & Extent of Outbreak

Origin of the Outbreak

The current Zika outbreak can be traced to Brazil. Brazil’s National Reference Laboratory confirmed the first cases of Zika in May of 2015. Unconfirmed cases in the country date back nearly two months prior, in late March.

Map showing geographic spread of current Zika epidemic (CDC, 2016). 

State of the Outbreak

Originating in Brazil, Zika virus has since made its way through nearly every country of South America and the Caribbean, reaching as far north as Mexico and the southern United States. As of yesterday, October 12th, Zika cases (people infected with Zika) in the U.S. totaled to 3,936 (up by 100 compared to last week). On the plus side, most of these were travel-related cases. Locally acquired cases remain much lower (128 cases) and have occurred only in Florida (Miami-Dade County). What does this mean? It means while Zika has touched all 50 states, people are still only “getting” Zika elsewhere. The exception is for sexual transmission, which is responsible for less than 1% of total cases thus far. Other countries with reported Zika outbreaks include several countries in Oceania and the Pacific Islands, and a single country in Africa (Cape Verde) and Asia (Singapore). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued travel notices for these areas, including special guidance for those traveling to south Florida.

Pregnant Women with Zika

Currently in the U.S. there have been 878 pregnant woman reported with “any laboratory evidence of possible” Zika infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yes, this number is astonishingly high given total U.S. cases. But keep in mind, these are “possible” infections. The number is likely inflated by a high number of mothers visiting hospitals and the inherent delay before tests can be confirmed. Perhaps more noteworthy are the 23 babies with confirmed birth defects. This number reflects birth defects among live newborns in the U.S. infected with Zika either before or during birth. Because we don’t know how many infected newborns do NOT have Zika, we can’t identify the true rate of birth defects. But we can get a crude idea of birth defects per “possible” infected pregnancy, which comes to just over 2.5%—a low proportion at least!

Keep in mind there remains no vaccine for Zika, so if you’re pregnant or otherwise want to reduce your risk of contracting Zika virus, heed the travel warnings mentioned above!  

To encourage future blogs of this kind please join my blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                         Dr. Shahir Masri
                                                         Environmental Health Scientist 


Zika Virus

As you all know, a virus called Zika has created a major epidemic, having even spread to the U.S. In this blog, I’ll highlight a bit of general info about Zika virus, including health effects and transmission. In my next blog I’ll return to Zika, touching on further points of interest.

A Brief History

Zika virus is nothing new, in fact identified as early as 1947 in a monkey in Uganda. Researches quickly identified mosquitos as a carrier, and not long after discovered the first human cases of the virus. What is new, however, is the occurrence of large-scale Zika outbreaks. The first large Zika outbreak in humans occurred as recently as 2007, in the Pacific Island of Yap. According to the World Health Organization, only 14 human cases of the virus existed prior.


The virus is mostly transmitted via infected mosquitoes (Aedes mosquitos). With that said, as of 2008 sexual transmission has also been documented. We also know that mothers can pass the virus to their children either through transplacental transmission or during delivery.  Blood transfusion represents another possible mode of transmission, although in the U.S. the virus currently poses a low risk to the blood supply according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health Effects

The most common symptoms of Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, as well as muscle pain and headache. Many people infected with Zika, however, do not develop symptoms or will only have mild symptoms, lasting just several days to a week. Severe health affects do also exist. These mostly include birth defects; most notably microcephaly, in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected. Often this is accompanied by a smaller brain that may not have developed properly. Other problems with in-utero development include eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth. According to the CDC, evidence suggests that “Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant would not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from her blood.” This is at least good news!

In addition to birth defects, research suggests that Zika can cause Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome (GBS), which is an uncommon sickness of the nervous system. GBS results in a person’s own immune system damaging his/her nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. According to CDC, GBS has occurred in only 13 individuals. Given the number of U.S. Zika cases, this translates to just 0.035% infected people actually developing GBS. If we expand this to U.S. territories, where the epidemic is actually worse, the fraction is even smaller. This makes GBS extremely rare.

Based on current scientific evidence, the CDC asserts that once a person has been infected with Zika virus, he or she is likely to be protected from future Zika infection.

In my next blog I’ll return to the Zika epidemic. Importantly, we’ll dive into the up-to-date outbreak statistics and discuss the efforts being made to halt the spread of Zika. See you then!

To encourage future blogs of this kind please join this blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                        Shahir Masri
                                                        Doctor of Science
                                                        Environmental Health Science


The Online Age of Misinformation

In an age where reading is becoming rare, the propagation of misinformation is becoming rampant. I notice this in my everyday life, particularly on topics relating to my field; health and science. People assert this or believe that. And it’s no thanks to the internet. While the internet has opened a wealth of great information to people around the world, it has also given a stage to untrained “experts” who are able to capture the attention of the public. There is a website on virtually any topic you can think of. Have a viewpoint? There’s a website dedicated entirely to that viewpoint. With the click of a button you can read on, uninterruptedly reinforcing your beliefs. But should this really be the way we carry on educating ourselves after high school or college? I think not. This clearly runs the risk of breeding ignorance and propagating bigotry. Yet this seems to be the way much self-education carries on today.

So whatever happened to validity and accuracy of information? With so much garbage floating around on the internet, and everyone serving as an “expert,” it’s become more important than ever to wear your garbage filter and think critically about what you read and hear. From so-called nutritionist to self-proclaimed journalists, there are online voices of all kinds building followers and spreading opinion and belief in place of fact. And all too often, the trusting public reads and hears these messages only to paraphrase them as facts the next day. There are no issues where identify misinformation is more difficult than those relating to science (including health!). This is an artifact of the inherent complexity of science compared to other issues. Deciphering fact from fiction when it comes to health and science usually requires years of scientific training. So where does that leave most people? All too often believing what they happen to encounter…aka, what they read online!

Assuming you’re not about to enroll in a science program, how do you distinguish the good from garbage on your favorites topics? First, try expanding beyond the internet since websites aren’t branded with accuracy ratings. Assuming you’re hell-bent on keeping your laptop open, good sources do exist. In general, government sources (websites ending in “.gov”) are quite reliable for scientific information and are usually easy to understand. If you’re worried about political bias, this is always possible. But it’s minimal compared to the biases of many business and citizen websites, which can also get quite wild and scientifically inaccurate in their assertions. Generally speaking, the science on U.S. government websites is sound and transparent. A brief list and description of reliable government and other websites relevant to my blog topics is below.
*Be cautious of the USDA Food Pyramid as it is known to be scientifically behind in terms of its dietary advice!

Other good sources of information include the websites of major universities such as Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, and others. An example is Harvard’s website The Nutrition Source, which is an excellent source of current evidence-based dietary advice. Major universities pride themselves in cutting edge research and present things in an objective, evidence-based manner, highlighting research from numerous outstanding scientists of varying perspectives. Finally, to get credible scientific information, try the Google Scholar search engine rather than plain old Google! Google Scholar restricts your search to scientific studies. While these are usually complex, you can at least read the "abstract" sections which summarize each study. In contrast, a regular Google search will yield articles written by any old Joe, expert or not.

An example of when internet-based “facts” run amok is the so called issue of “chemtrails,” an issue borne by pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists concerned more with online story telling than critical research. It is also an issue that I hope to have successfully debunked in a series of previous blogs (Blog 1, Blog 2, Blog 3).

In summary, be cautious with what you read and hear online. Don’t let a single short read become your new perspective or source of facts. Read from multiple sources and multiple authors. If you don’t have time to read heavily or become an expert, apply critical thinking and seek trustworthy sources when you do read rather than mere Google results. If you find something interesting on Google, quality check it by searching the topic elsewhere on select trustworthy sites. You can otherwise descend the slippery slope of reading self-selected misinformation, reinforcing inaccurate beliefs rather than sound information. Think critically and search skillfully. Don’t let your self-education become un-education!

To encourage future blogs of this kind please join this blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                    Shahir Masri
                                                                    Doctor of Science
                                                                    Environmental Health Science