Just Keep Swimming (Safely)

In the heat of summer, there is nothing more refreshing than heading to a pool, beach, or some other cool place for a swim. As a kid, I loved going to my grandmother’s house to play in the pool with my cousins. We would hold diving contests, play games of “Sharks and Minnows,” and enjoy the occasional popsicle as well. My husband and I recently moved into our new house, which has a pool, and it has brought back many of these fun memories. But, it also got me thinking about making sure that people enjoy my pool safely. So, today I thought I would offer some tips around making sure we can all be safe and have fun at the pool!

Having fun in the sun means being prepared for everything the sun brings with it! The warmth from the sun can turn dangerous without the right protection. There are a variety of options you can consider, although the most popular and common one is probably sunscreen. The most important thing when using sunscreen is to make sure you are following instructions for the sunscreen you are using. It will tell you how to apply it and how often you’ll need to reapply to make sure it is protecting you and your family.

But you should also consider sun protection options like protective clothing, umbrellas, or going inside. If you have children who make the putting on sunscreen a difficult process, protective clothing might be a great option. My husband recently bought two shirts that protect against the sun and he found it much easier than trying to remember to reapply after swimming. Although it isn’t always an option, if you are able, going inside during the hottest part of the day can also be very helpful. Anything to avoid a sunburn, right?

Children sitting by the pool. Images by rawpixel.com.

Another important aspect of staying safe at the pool is following any posted rules or clearly explaining your family’s own pool rules. For example, many pools have a no running rule, which can be difficult for kids to understand. Talking about this rule ahead of time might help. You could even do a science experiment to show kids different surfaces and how they change when they are wet. Having kids participate and understand what it means for something to be slippery and dangerous might help them understand why that rule applies at the pool. Discussing rules like this ahead of time can be a good way to make sure everyone is on the same page. For example, you might have a rule that your kids can only be in certain parts of the pool. You can talk to young kids ahead of time and explain how the depth can change in some pools and that it isn’t safe for them to be in deeper areas. Explaining why the rule exists might make the kids more likely to follow it.

As a parent, there are many other things you can do to ensure pool safety. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has a website dedicated to sharing this information. You can go to https://www.poolsafely.gov/parents/ to check it out. It shares information about making sure kids have appropriate supervision, teaching kids to swim, and installing protective barriers and other equipment. Be sure to check out the information and resources on the website to see if there is anything that will be helpful for you and your family.

Enjoy some safe and fun pool time this summer!

Spring Drinking Water Tune-Up

Home appliances require periodic maintenance to ensure they last and operate effectively. This is especially true if they have filters such as a vacuum or heating/air conditioner. Your water supply and filtration system also needs regular attention. Water quality is very important to your health, so understanding your water supply, its quality, and treatment is essential.

Depending on your supply (public or private well), tune up procedures will vary. For public water supplies, which go through extensive testing and treatment, there may be little to do unless you have older plumbing pipe and fixtures. In this case, testing for lead and copper is recommended. 

If you are on a drinking water well, have your water tested annually for coliform bacteria, E.coli and nitrate (animal waste and sewage contaminants), and every three years test for chloride, copper, lead, iron, pH, manganese, sulfates, and total dissolved solids. In some areas, there may be other contaminants such as arsenic or radium (local health departments can provide information), which you can test for. Be sure to use a certified lab – your local county health department should have a list. If your water results indicate treatment is needed, go to this resource to find out more about filters: http://dwit.psiee.psu.edu/dwit.asp.

Whatever type of water filter you use — faucet, pitcher, refrigerator or under the sink filter – they all require maintenance. Simply be sure to change the filters as recommended by the manufacturer. Not changing them can lead to reduction in water flow and filtration performance, and can also result in contaminants no longer being trapped, which can then be released into the water. Water filters can also build up bacteria if not changed as recommended. If you have a whole house or faucet filtration system, be sure to follow the manufacturers’ recommended maintenance schedule. 

Investing a little time to check on your water and filtration system can help ensure safe drinking water for you and your family.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Fluoride in Drinking Water? 

Fluoride was originally added to public drinking water in the 1950s as a way to reduce dental cavities or tooth decay. There are some natural water supplies that contain fluoride, and public utilities will test to determine if removal or addition is warranted. 

The American Dental Association, Centers for Disease Control and others supported this effort then and still do today. The Environmental Protection Agency established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 4 mg/l or ppm and most utilities will add fluoride at 0.5 – 1.5 mg/l. 

In the years since initiation of fluoridation, there have been numerous studies which have investigated the potential health impacts associated with fluoride. Several studies have shown a link of ingested fluoride with an increase of dental and skeletal fluorosis (staining or pitting of teeth in children, or bone weakness), cognitive impairment, hypothyroidism, enzyme and electrolyte derangement, and uterine cancer. However, the American Cancer Society recently has stated that research has not shown a link of fluoride and cancer. 

Concentrations of fluoride in these studies varied, but some show a link to health effects at levels of 1-2 mg/l, well below the EPA MCL. The Department of Health and Human Service has recommended an optimal level of 0.7 milligrams per liter is set to promote public health benefits of fluoride for preventing tooth decay while minimizing the chance for dental fluorosis and other health issues. 

Currently the EPA is reviewing the new risk assessment of fluoride to determine whether to revise the drinking water standard. 

Given the increasing concern over potential health impacts with fluoridated water, there are efforts by various groups to lobby for utilities to stop adding fluoride to drinking water. One argument used is that since the use of fluoridated toothpaste and other topical products, which have been shown to be more effective than a water source, fluoridation is no longer warranted, especially given the potential harm to certain individuals or populations. In recent years, over 75 cities have stopped adding fluoride to their drinking water supply. Further the U.S. Public Health Service has lowered its recommended level of fluoride in drinking water. 

If you are concerned about fluoride in your drinking water, check with your public water utility. An annual Consumer Confidence Report is available and will inform you of the amount of fluoride in the water supply. If you are using a private well, you can have your water tested. There are several filters that will remove fluoride including anion exchange, activated alumina, and the most common is reverse osmosis which can be installed under the sink to treat your drinking water. 

For more information on water quality and testing, check out our website.

Health Benefits of Gardening

Often for this blog, I get to write posts about physical activity (the benefits, how to get started, or fun ways to be active). It’s definitely no secret that I am a lover of physical activity and I occasionally try to convince my coworkers to participate in physical activity challenges offered by our human resources office. Recently, I was talking with a coworker about one of these challenges and she let me know that she didn’t think she would be much help to the team. Knowing she is an avid gardener, I reminded her that time spent in the garden would be considered physical activity and she was surprised. Which got me thinking, do many people not think of gardening as being physically active? 

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

So, for today, I thought we could talk a bit about gardening and all the wonderful benefits it can bring to your life! To start, gardening typically involves movement and is great for the body. Being in the garden might include bending, stretching, walking, lifting, and a variety of other movements that are beneficial for your body and your health. Also, gardening is often done outside, so it gives us the opportunity to soak up some sunlight and increase our Vitamin D levels. Finally, for many people, gardening is much more enjoyable than going to the gym. And since it is fun, people are more likely to do it. So, gardening can be an easy and fun way to increase the amount of time you spend being physically active. 

The benefits of gardening don’t stop with your body, they extend to your mind as well! Studies have shown that people who see and spend time around plants and gardens (often called green space) experience less anxiety, depression, and stress. In fact, one study found that daily gardening lowered dementia risk by 36%. Finally, AARP mentions that gardening can be a great way to reduce loneliness. Participating in community gardens or other group gardening programs can help people feel connected to others. This can be a great way to help your community and get to know others. 

Photo by Uriel Mont on Pexels.com

So, what can you do with this information? Well, if you think you might like gardening, try it out in small ways. Get a houseplant, start an indoor herb garden, and see if you enjoy tending those things. If you have a little bit more space, you could consider moving on to a window box, hanging basket, or small container garden (there are lots of tutorials online for this sort of thing). It may not be an option for everyone, but you could even plant a large outdoor garden with whatever vegetables you and your family enjoy, if you have the time and space. You may or may not be aware, but you can even get involved with your local extension office! Extension offices across the country operate Master Gardener programs. You could go to one of the classes they offer and learn more about gardening. Or, you could complete the training to become a Master Gardener yourself, and join a community of folks who love to garden and teach others about gardening!

The level to which you participate in gardening is totally up to you, but if gardening is something you like or think you might like, find ways to incorporate it into your life. It could have a host of benefits beyond the beautiful flowers or tasty things you grow. 

We’ve Missed You!

While Breathing Room has been on something of a short hiatus for the past few weeks, we were diligently working behind the scenes developing a brand new University of Maryland Extension website, complete with an improved user navigation and more ways to help Marylanders find the answers they need.

The UME Family and Consumer Sciences team offers numerous programs and educational opportunities, even above and beyond the scope of this blog. Our experts specialize in health, financial wellness, food safety, health insurance literacy, nutrition, mental wellness, and community outreach.

Visit the new Extension website to learn about them and the wide variety of educational opportunities the Family and Consumer Sciences program offers!

Ideas for Cooking as a Family

Thinking about kids in the kitchen might bring to mind images of piles of dirty dishes, flour strewn across counters, and a general mess. But kids are capable of doing more in the kitchen than just making a mess! Getting kids involved in cooking family meals can be an important way to build healthy habits. Involving kids in cooking at home may help motivate them to try new foods. Additionally, research shows that cooking meals at home and eating them as a family might be a positive impact on children’s diets*. So, if we know cooking at home with our kids can be so beneficial, how do we make it happen? 

Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com
  • Start when kids are young and start with small tasks. 
    • A preschooler might be able to hang out in the kitchen while dinner is being prepared, rather than playing in another area. And, they could help with simple tasks like putting toppings on a pizza, stirring things, or turn pages in a recipe book. 
    • They could also help count things being used in recipes, like eggs as they are being cracked. 
    • If kids get used to the idea of being around and helping prepare meals, it may be easier to keep them involved as they get older. 

Even if kids are older and have not been in the kitchen much, there are still ways to get them involved! 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  • Rely on things your kids already find interesting. 
    • For example, if kids enjoy reading you could try making food mentioned in their book. There are even books like How to Feed Your Parents and Rainbow Stew that include recipes for the meals mentioned in the books. 
    • Or maybe your kids are interested in television shows like Master Chef Junior, Chopped, or the Great British Baking Show. If so, they might be interested in attempting recipes from the show or trying to develop their own creative recipes. 
    • You might have to do a bit of research to see if there are any fun recipes in the shows, books, or other media your kids enjoy, but connecting cooking to something they already love can help get them interested! 
  • Include them when planning meals for the week. This might not work for younger kids without some restrictions (unless you want ice cream for every meal). But, especially for older kids, giving them some say in what goes on the menu might help them feel more excited about getting dinner on the table. 
    • For even older kids, you might be able to make cooking dinner a chore you assign (if that is something your family does). At first, they may need parental assistance, but as they build their cooking skills they could get to the point where they can cook a meal for the entire family on their own!

Hopefully, these helpful tips and strategies give you some ideas about how to include your family in cooking meals. Just remember that kids should only be asked to do things appropriate for their age and that most kids (especially younger kids) will need parental supervision to ensure there are no accidents! 

Happy cooking!

* Rockett HR. Family dinner: more than just a meal. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007;107: 1498-1501.

Drinking-Water Quality and Environmental Justice

Samuel T. Coleridge coined the phrase ‘‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’’ This may surprisingly reflect some of our drinking water quality in the U.S. In such a technologically advanced society, it is easy to assume that all of our drinking water is safe and of good quality. Unfortunately, that is not the case. 

We have all heard that our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating and is in need of huge investment for replacement. This certainly applies to our water delivery systems. Lower-income and minority communities in particular, have a greater risk of exposure to pollutants, whether from air or drinking water. There are numerous factors that contribute to this disproportionate risk including proximity to pollution sources (landfills, industry, agriculture, etc.) and related lower land values, greater risk of flooding, failing water supply infrastructure, and lower allocations of funding for public water technologies. In addition, those on private wells often are not testing their water as recommended, nor have the funding for treatment systems. 

The lead crisis in Flint, Mich., is just one example of drinking water contamination situations that have brought attention to the wide-ranging socioeconomic disparities in the risk of drinking water contamination. 

Violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act have been observed to be more prevalent in lower-income communities with higher proportions of Hispanic or African-American residents. For example, a 2010-2014 study showed that 5.6 million people served by a small community water system had average nitrate concentrations above 5 mg/L. Though below the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL of 10 mg/L), the observed levels have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and birth defects. 

Small community water supplies, especially those that supply low-income and minority communities, may have poorer water quality to begin with, due to closer proximity to pollution sources. Further, these water supplies may have reduced technical, managerial, and financial capabilities in managing drinking water, and may lack the needed resources to comply with testing and treatment requirements. Another study showed the percent Hispanic residents and those living in urban areas were associated with an increased likelihood of detection, or exceedance of health guidelines, of several unregulated industrial, inorganic, and disinfection by-product contaminants. 

The situation with private wells and drinking water quality can be even more concerning. Surveys indicate that private wells in the United States often exceed health standards for at least one contaminant. Two studies in the south and Mid-Atlantic have shown that 15-24% of private wells exceeded the 15 parts per billion EPA action level for lead, thereby exposing children to increase risk of behavior, growth, and neurological disorders. One factor in the incidence of contamination of well water quality is that private well supplies are not regulated, as are public supplies, therefore the responsibility for testing and treatment is on the well owner. Unfortunately, most well owners do not test their water as recommended, often not knowing when and what to test. 

Further exasperating this issue is the financial constraints of lower-income and minority populations in affording water testing and installing and maintaining necessary treatment systems.   

Greater attention to enacting policies to address disparities in water supply quality, and educating all consumers is needed to ensure justice for a fundamental health requirement of safe and quality drinking water. 

What’s in Your Pantry?

Lately, it’s been a challenge getting groceries from supermarkets, but many of us already have a mini grocery store in our home…our pantry!  

Having a well-stocked pantry makes it easier to cook meals at home, especially when we’re out of fresh ingredients. There is no magic number of items you should have in your pantry, however, it’s important to stock foods and beverages you will actually consume. Here are my suggestions for ‘must-have’ pantry foods:

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com
  • Protein Sources: canned fish or poultry, beans, seeds and nuts, peanut or other nut butters, powdered or evaporated milk, grated cheese.
  • Canned Goods: fruit (in 100% juice), vegetables, beans (black, kidney beans, etc.). When available, buy low sodium canned vegetables, soups, and sauces. Drain beans well (removes starch) and vegetables (removes salt).
  • Grain Products: pasta (preferably whole wheat), rice (choose brown), oatmeal, flour, bread crumbs, mac and cheese, biscuit mix.                                      
  • Dried fruits: raisins, apricots, apples.
  • Flavorings-Spices & Condiments: salt & pepper, Italian seasoning, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, ketchup, mustard & mayo. 

If you’re missing some of these items, use this list to stock your pantry. Remember to replenish pantry items. Practice the FIFO rule or ‘First In, First Out’ meaning use the older items first.    

You may be wondering how to combine ‘pantry’ foods to make a tasty meal. With a little practice and a ‘trial and error’ approach, you can create delicious and easy meals. Here’s my five-step approach for creating pantry meals without recipes.

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com
  • First, start with a base such as rice, pasta or baked potatoes. 
  • Second, add a protein such as canned chicken or fish or choose one from the list I provided above. If you prefer a more plant-based diet, beans, nuts and seeds, soy-based foods or quinoa are great protein options. 
  • Third, choose one or two vegetables with different colors, textures and nutritional value. Carrots and spinach, peas and mushrooms, or tomatoes and green beans are great combinations.
  • Fourth, to pull it all together, add a sauce or gravy, broth, canned milk or salad dressing. These foods add moisture too. 
  • Fifth, add a punch of flavor with some herbs or spices.

As a Registered Dietitian, I’m always thinking about nutrition, so I finish off my meal by combining fruit and dairy for a delicious Greek yogurt parfait. By following this five-step approach, you can create a delicious and nutritious meal that meets the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations. 

If you prefer creating ‘pantry meals’ using recipes, try Meal Hero, a website tool that allows you to enter food items you want to use and then provides easy meal recipes. You can also filter recipes by the number of ingredients and cook time.

Use these tips and resources and get creative in the kitchen by finding ways to use foods you already have. You’ll cut back on food waste and save money too!

Bon Appetit! 

Resources: 

Master Pantry list: https://www.myfrugalhome.com/free-printable-pantry-master-list/

Meal Hero: https://fridgetotable.com/