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Pocket EPA: iPhone Gadget to Measure Environmental Hazards

New gizmo will measure local radiation, electromagnetic pollution, and whether or not food is organic.

It's a hazardous world out there. Some things we have control over—like the food we put on our plates—but other risks are harder to detect. Lapka Electronics sees an opportunity in our anxiety over contaminated environments and is soon bringing a device to market that holds some promise to mitigate the toxicity to which we're all exposed.

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Understanding the Chemicals In Your Hot Dog

In the upside-down world of labeling, hot dogs can be “all-natural” even if they contain nitrates.


Here's what fireworks, chemical fertilizers, and frankfurters have in common­: They all contain nitrogen compounds. Sodium nitrates, which are used as a preservative in standard hot dogs, have inspired a decades-long scientific debate over their possible health risks to humans. Perhaps you'd like to keep tabs on how much nitrate is in the hot dogs you're scarfing this summer­­. Unfortunately, you can't.

Here's the thing: Even uncured, “nitrate-free” meats contain healthy doses of nitrates. So do many raw vegetables and most municipal water supplies. In fact, "natural" meats can contain even more nitrite than your standard heavily-processed bacon strips and hot dogs. A recent report in The New York Times pointed to a study that found “natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrates that conventional hot dogs contained"—usually courtesy of naturally occurring nitrates in celery. (Celery juice is often used in the meat.)

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Your “Nitrite-Free” Meats Are Full of Nitrites

In a world where organic “nitrite-free” meats are anything but, think twice before you slap some meat on the grill this weekend. Nitrogen...

In a world where organic “nitrite-free” meats are anything but, think twice before you slap some meat on the grill this weekend.

Nitrogen compounds are the basis of chemical fertilizers. They’re responsible for the giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Terry Nichols, the Michigan organic farmer, used ammonium nitrates to bomb Oklahoma City. Nitrate salts make the color that appears in firework displays. Sodium nitrate (NO3) are also added to dry-cured meats, hot dogs, and bacon. Added nitrate does nothing until beneficial bacteria slowly breaks it down into nitrite (NO2), which prevents further bacterial growth. Nitrites also form nitric oxide (NO), which helps stabilize the color of meats. And a lot of healthy people think that these nitrates and their chemical cousins, nitrites, cause cancer—and are willing to pay a premium to do without.

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