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Live health chat

Plastic and developing children

1:00 PM EDT, May 10, 2011

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Join us at noon CT (1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT) on Tuesday, May 10, for an hour-long chat about the adverse effects of plastic on developing children, with Chicago Tribune health reporter Julie Deardorff, and panelists Susan Freinkel and Dr. Shanna Swan.

The average person is never more than three feet from something made of plastic. In the three years it took Freinkel to report and write her new book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story," she became "more appreciative and more worried about plastic than I'd been before," she said. Freinkel can answer questions ranging from whether parents should microwave food in plastic containers or covered with plastic wrap to the potential health effects of soft vinyl found in bath books and squeeze toys, which may contain chemicals called phthalates.

Susan Freinkel is a science writer whose work has appeared in a variety of national publications including: Discover, Reader's Digest, Smithsonian, The New York Times, OnEarth, Health, and Real Simple. In addition to her new book about plastic, she is also the author of American Chestnut, which won a 2008 National Outdoor Book Award. Her interests run wide. She has covered subjects ranging from adoption to weight control, coyote hunts to mad cow disease, new psychiatric treatments to the quest to develop a blue rose--not to mention trees and plastic. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and three children.

Dr. Shanna Swan, reproductive epidemiologist, is professor and Vice Chair of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. She is known for her work on the impact of environmental exposures on male and female reproductive health, most recently on the effect of plasticizers, including phthalates. She has served on the National Academy of Science's Committee on Hormone-Related Toxicants. Since 1998, Dr. Swan has been Principal Investigator of the Study for Future Families, a multi-center pregnancy cohort study examining environmental causes of geographic variation in reproductive health endpoints in men, women and children, and currently leads a second pregnancy cohort study, The Infant Development and the Environment Study.

 Health chat: Plastic effect on developing children(05/10/2011) 
11:46
Chicago Tribune: 
Thank you for tuning in. We will start the chat at noon. Please feel free to submit your questions.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 11:46 Chicago Tribune
11:59
Julie Deardorff: 
Hi everyone.Let's get started as we already have some questions. I’m Julie Deardorff, your moderator for today's chat on plastic. I've had a special interest in plastics ever since I had my blood and urine tested and the results showed sky-high levels of phthalates, or the chemicals used to make plastic flexible. This was while I was actively trying to avoid the chemicals. The health effects of this aren't certain, but there's mounting research showing they may be some reason for concern.

Today, we're lucky to have two of the top experts in the field; science writer and author Susan Freinkel and Dr. Shanna Swan.

Tuesday May 10, 2011 11:59 Julie Deardorff
12:00
Julie Deardorff: 
My first guest, Susan Freinkel is the author of the new book “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.” She spent three years learning about the costs and benefits of plastic. Today she says she's more appreciative and more worried about plastic than she's ever been before. She hopes her book will help broaden the much needed conversation about the proper place for plastics in 21st century life."

Hi Susan, welcome to the chat.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:00 Julie Deardorff
12:01
Susan Freinkel: 
HI, pleased to be here.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:01 Susan Freinkel
12:01
Julie Deardorff: 
My next guest, Dr. Shanna Swan, was one of the first scientists to document associations between phthalates and reproductive development in humans. Dr. Swan is a reproductive epidemiologist and professor and Vice Chair of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Welcome to the chat, Dr. Swan.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:01 Julie Deardorff
12:02
Shanna Swan: 
Hi Julie and Susan,
Glad to be chatting with you today.
Shanna
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:02 Shanna Swan
12:02
[Comment From Karen R.Karen R.: ] 
We rarely buy bottled water, but do occasionally for convenience & are careful to recycle. I've read that reusing plastic disposable water bottles is not advisable. Correct? Also, with our own reusable water bottles, we are careful that they don't have BPA, however, are studies showing that it may be advisable to avoid reusable plastic bottles (even w/o BPA) and instead move toward St. Steel altogether?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:02 Karen R.
12:05
Susan Freinkel: 
The main danger with reusing single-use plastic bottles isn't because of the plastic. but because of bacteria from your mouth that can linger linger on the plastic. There are studies suggesting that the plastic used in water bottles, PET, can leach some estrogenic compound or compounds that have not been identified. We don't don't know what the compounds are, how much is leached or if they pose a risk to health, but if you are concerned, by all means switch to stainless steel reusable bottles.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:05 Susan Freinkel
12:06
[Comment From Karen R.Karen R.: ] 
We have a 15 yr old girl & boy 13. We are careful not to use ANY plastics in microwave (hard or soft/wraps). However, could you comment on the possible risks of using plastic sandwich bags, plastic wraps, etc. in general...particularly for our growing teens? I've tried to buy wax paper sandwich bags but they are hard to find.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:06 Karen R.
12:07
Shanna Swan: 
Karen, I don't know of evidence that these products are harmful, but if you want to be very precautionary, you might try to find alternatives.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:07 Shanna Swan
12:08
Julie Deardorff: 
But we shouldn't microwave baggies, right?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:08 Julie Deardorff
12:09
Susan Freinkel: 
Right, but that's because they're not meant for the microwave and the plastic can melt.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:09 Susan Freinkel
12:11
[Comment From Gil RossGil Ross: ] 
Many believe that there is a rise in male genital malformations and declining "sperm quality" thanks to chemicals...but in fact neither of these beliefs is true.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:11 Gil Ross
12:13
Shanna Swan: 
There is a very large literature showing that male reproductive problems, in some parts of the world, are increasing (testicular cancer, male genital anomalies) and sperm counts and testosterone are declining. The difficult problem is identifying causes of these trends. However, there is a great deal of data showing that particular chemical exposures (such as dioxin, dibromochloropropane, lead etc. etc) can and do have a serious impact on male fertility.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:13 Shanna Swan
12:13
[Comment From Gil RossGil Ross: ] 
Many of the chemicals under attack such as BPA and phthalates, have been tested for the past 50 years and deemed safe for their current uses by multiple government bodies in the US and EU. The problem with many proposed regulations including the EPA's proposed regulation of phthalates is that these chemicals are lumped together and treated as though they're one and the same. As a science writer, how do you justify the need for ‘more regulation instead of "common-sense regulation" regulating specific chemicals that actually need more regulation?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:13 Gil Ross
12:15
Susan Freinkel: 
The problem with existing legislation is that the vast majority of chemicals in commerce have not been tested for safety to health or environment. The main federal law, Toxic Substances Control Act, grandfathered in the 60,000 or so chemicals in use at the time it was enacted in 1976. And it has been so toothless that the EPA has only conducted safety reviews of about 200 of the 20,000 or so chemicals introduced since oft he remaining 20,000 or so chemicals added since. The agency could not even successfully bar the known carcinogen asbestos under the act. And there is little coordination between that law and the laws other federal agencies use to regulate chemicals. The issue isn't quantity of regulation, but quality: I think we needs laws on the books that require manufacturers to demonstrate a chemical is not dangerous before it is put into commerce, rather than the current system that treats all chemicals as safe until shown to be dangerous.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:15 Susan Freinkel
12:15
Julie Deardorff: 
Gil Ross is the Executive Director and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:15 Julie Deardorff
12:16
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
Thanks for doing this chat on such an important topic. Can you confirm whether PVC (particularly when its soft) and polycarbonate (because of BPA) are the types of plastics with the biggest concerns?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:16 Guest
12:18
Shanna Swan: 
Yes. PVC that contains phthalates, and particularly the one of greatest concern --diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)-- is a big concern. BPA may also be in some PVC as are other chemicals of concern (and the manufacture and disposal of PVC poses huge health problems). BPA in polycarbonate is of course also concerning.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:18 Shanna Swan
12:18
[Comment From Gil RossGil Ross: ] 
And we often hear of studies showing this chemical and that chemical are present in so-many percent of us...yet the presence of a chemical in our bodies does not mean that it/they are harmful, don't you agree?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:18 Gil Ross
12:19
Susan Freinkel: 
I would agree. But it does indicate an issue worth examination.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:19 Susan Freinkel
12:20
[Comment From Gil RossGil Ross: ] 
Thank you Ms. Freinkel.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:20 Gil Ross
12:20
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
Is it safe to say there's no such thing as a 'safe' microwavable plastic?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:20 Guest
12:23
Susan Freinkel: 
I think we don't know. There are plastics that the FDA has deemed microwavable after extensive "leaching tests" that look at whether and what types of chemicals can leach out. of the degree to which chemicals leach out. . In principle, that label indicates it should be safe to put that package in the microwave. What's more not all plastics contain chemicals that could leach out.
Here's the thing. Without being unduly alarmist we don't really know the full health implications of exposure to the chemicals that are contained in plastics. Scientists have only just begun teasing out the ways in which various of these chemicals may affect human health. Some of these chemicals are thought to be endocrine disrupters which interfere with the network of glands that orchestrate growth and development. The effects can be complicated, subtle and may not show up for years or decades. Whether they pose a serious threat to health is still a source of much debate within the scientific community. That said, if any group were to be affected by hormone disrupters, it would be fetuses, infants and children whose systems are still works in progress.
So if you are really concerned, it's probably better to err on the side of caution and use glass or ceramic containers to heat food in the microwave. If you do use plastic, steer clear of containers or plastic wrap that aren't marked microwave-safe. And keep plastic wrap at least an inch away from the food since it can melt if it comes directly into contact with very hot food.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:23 Susan Freinkel
12:23
[Comment From Curious MomCurious Mom: ] 
I just read that parents may want to avoid liquid infant formula in cans due to the interior lining seeping into the product. Unfortunately, our child was fed this exact type of formula as a baby. She also used plastic baby bottles as the move to glass bottles did not become strong until after she no longer needed them. in our home, we generally avoid using plastic, but we are not 100% plastic free. Should I be overly concerned about her health and development?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:23 Curious Mom
12:23
Shanna Swan: 
I don't think moms should be too concerned about particular exposures they or their children had. The health effects that are seen from plastics are changes in the population, but it is not possible to link a particular exposure to a particular outcome in an individual.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:23 Shanna Swan
12:24
[Comment From Tracey WoodruffTracey Woodruff: ] 
Hi, Can you comment on the number of these chemicals that are found in people? and how many people have chemicals in their body?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:24 Tracey Woodruff
12:25
Shanna Swan: 
Over 300 chemicals have been found in breast milk, and a similar number in amniotic fluid, so we and our children are now exposed to a very complex mixture of chemicals that have not been tested for safety.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:25 Shanna Swan
12:25
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
I think that there are some plastics that are acceptable for microwave use, but not nearly as many as are marketed. Typically I do not microwave food in plastic containers, but I do have a plastic "cover" that I put over whatever I'm microwaving to prevent splatter. I wonder what be released from it that could be soaking into my food...
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:25 Guest
12:25
Susan Freinkel: 
It depends on what type of plastic that cover is made from. If it is made from polyethylene or polypropylene, those are both pretty safe plastics that don't contain much in the way of additives.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:25 Susan Freinkel
12:27
[Comment From EileenEileen: ] 
Is there a test to measure a person's toxicity levels?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:27 Eileen
12:29
Julie Deardorff: 
Hi Eileen,
I was tested through a pilot project that involved this group: http://www.commonweal.org/ and Environment Illinois. It's expensive and most labs are research labs. You can probably find commercial labs but it's $150 for each chemical panel, Shanna just told me. I can try to follow this up for you if you want to email me after the chat.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:29 Julie Deardorff
12:30
[Comment From EileenEileen: ] 
What should we be looking for when buying lunch reuseable bags?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:30 Eileen
12:30
Susan Freinkel: 
Stay away from vinyl bags -- that plastic can leach phthalates which may be harmful to health. But otherwise, I would say I would say look for a material that's durable and washable and can be used as long as possible.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:30 Susan Freinkel
12:30
[Comment From ValerieValerie: ] 
Is there any evidence that reducing exposure by taking certain steps (glass storage for food, no PVC products, etc) reduces the amount of the toxic chemicals in our bodies? And, are there any less well known (hidden exposures) that people who are already taking steps to reduce exposure probably don't know about but should?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:30 Valerie
12:31
Shanna Swan: 
Valerie, a recent study from the Silent Spring Institute (March 30, Env Health Perspectives) including 20 volunteers showed that when people eat unprocessed organic foods they CAN lower their exposure.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:31 Shanna Swan
12:32
[Comment From worried momworried mom: ] 
I worry because animal studies show effects even with small amounts of these chemicals - amounts that I think are similar to those in our own bodies. How much do those studies mean for people?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:32 worried mom
12:34
Shanna Swan: 
THis is a hard one!! We have to take these animal studies seriously. Remember, no Human Subjects Committee would allow us to randomly assign a pregnant mom to be exposed to these chemicals. So this is the only experimental evidence we have. But then of course we also need to conduct the human studies. For the chemicals we are discussing the correspondence seems good, and I think the animal studies raise important hypotheses about human health.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:34 Shanna Swan
12:35
[Comment From LisaLisa: ] 
What would you say is the No. 1 thing you could do to protect yourself from possible toxicity? Heating, or just avoiding overall?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:35 Lisa
12:35
Susan Freinkel: 
It's pretty hard to avoid food in plastic altogether. To the extent that you can buy food without packaging that's better, not just for toxicity, but to move us away from overpackaging in general. If you're really concerned, I would rely on glass and ceramic containers to heat or cook your food.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:35 Susan Freinkel
12:35
Julie Deardorff: 
Susan, why is there plastic in gum?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:35 Julie Deardorff
12:37
Susan Freinkel: 
Gum used to be made with natural rubber or chicle. Now gum makers use a synthetic polymer to make it elastic, chewy and well, gummy.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:37 Susan Freinkel
12:37
[Comment From JodyJody: ] 
I'm curious why parents would let their babies use glass bottles instead of plastic ones when glass can break and shattered glass can pose a much more serious risk than plastic bottles.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:37 Jody
12:38
Julie Deardorff: 
Jody, I used bottles with my youngest son. Never broke one.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:38 Julie Deardorff
12:38
[Comment From KarenKaren: ] 
Does the type of food stored in plastics affect the risk of exposure to chemicals from plastic...e.g., is it riskier to store acidic foods in plastic, like tomato sauce?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:38 Karen
12:39
Shanna Swan: 
Yes. It appears that exposure is higher in fatty foods, and of course what happened to the food before it is stored can affect the exposure level. For example, if the food went through PVC tubing in the processing before it is stored, this probably (the study has to be done!) increasing the contaminant level.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:39 Shanna Swan
12:40
[Comment From guestguest: ] 
Shouldn't the manufacturers of these chemicals be held accountable for unintended contamination of people? I don't want these man-made, questionable chemicals in my or my fetus's bodies, as we are likely to find out in 10 or 20 years that yes, they are dangerous, and oops, they should have been regulated. How much is industry influence holding back regulation?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:40 guest
12:42
Susan Freinkel: 
This could be a whole dissertation. Short answer: yes, I think manufacturers should be held accountable for the consequences of the products/chemicals they put in the marketplace. But that means definitively establishing what the health effects of these various chemicals are, which is easier said than done in the case of endocrine disrupters. There is currently effort underway to write reform legislation of the main federal law regulating chemicals.Everyone, from the Natural Resources Defense Council to the American Chemistry Council agree the system doesn't work. But their idea of solving the problem differ widely and yes, the ACC is working hard to prevent a more precautionary approach from being written into the new law.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:42 Susan Freinkel
12:42
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
What about the plastic trays that frozen meals are heated in? Have there been any studies on this plastic? Do you think there is a greater chance of chemicals leaching due to the temperature extremes that this plastic will undergo? (by first recieving the hot food into the room temperature tray, then being frozen, and then heated again to steaming hot?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:42 Guest
12:43
Shanna Swan: 
These are likely to be made of PET plastic, which is considered one of the "safe" plastics (remember "4,5, 1 and 2, all the rest are bad for you"?) but that said, a recent study from Germany found that water stored in PET was estrogenic. So it is probably relative. I would say PET, perhaps, safer but not absolutely safe.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:43 Shanna Swan
12:43
[Comment From Tracey WoodruffTracey Woodruff: ] 
That is very interesting about the gum - what type of chemicals are used in the plastic? do we even know?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:43 Tracey Woodruff
12:43
Susan Freinkel: 
It's polyvinyl acetate. I don't know a whole lot more than that.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:43 Susan Freinkel
12:43
[Comment From worried momworried mom: ] 
What about things like hot miso soup in plastic take out containers? Are they okay or do they contaminate the soup? Can I wash and reuse those containters safely?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:43 worried mom
12:46
Susan Freinkel: 
There are lots of different kinds of plastics, and they made from different chemicals, contain different types of additives so the risks of take-out containers would depend on the type of plastic it's made from. Often as not, they're made from PET or polystyrene -- both of which have been shown, in limited studies, to leach estrogenic compounds, though we don't know what those compounds are or what their effects on health might be. .
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:46 Susan Freinkel
12:46
[Comment From guestguest: ] 
What do you think of the EU's REACH program?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:46 guest
12:47
Shanna Swan: 
In the EU, under REACH, new chemicals are assumed to be harmful until shown otherwise. This precautionary approach is far more health protective.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:47 Shanna Swan
12:48
Julie Deardorff: 
Here's more info on REACH.

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/reach_intro.htm
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:48 Julie Deardorff
12:48
[Comment From VirginiaVirginia: ] 
Aside from food, almost everything that people send my kids as gifts contains some amount of plastics. My youngest is particularly prone to putting everything in his mouth, and I notice the coating coming off of even board book pages. How concerned should we be about the other types of plastic exposure our children experience?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:48 Virginia
12:50
Shanna Swan: 
The degree to which parents chose to limit exposure is really personal, and everyone deals with risks in different ways. You have to strike a balance that you feel comfortable with as this evidence is emerging. This is in contrast to, for example, the clearly demonstrated risks of cigarette smoking or lead.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:50 Shanna Swan
12:50
Susan Freinkel: 
I think you can make yourself crazy. We know that some plastics -- like vinyl, which leaches pthalates, or polycarbonate, which leaches BPA -- may be worrisome. We know others look to be pretty safe, such as polyethylene, the stuff of baggies, or polypropylene, used in margarine tubs and yogurt containers. Unfortunately, this is not a problem you can shop your way out of given how completely ubiquitous plastic is. That's why we need tougher chemical laws.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:50 Susan Freinkel
12:51
[Comment From JohnJohn: ] 
What stuff is made from PVC? Is there a list?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:51 John
12:53
Susan Freinkel: 
What isn't. PVC is one of the most common plastics in use, partly because it's an incredibly versatile plastic. In its hard form, PVC is used in water pipes and vinyl siding. In its soft flexible form, it can be found in garden hoses, floor files, wall paper, shower curtains, toys, IV bags and tubing, food processing equipment, flip flops, packaging and dozens of other applications.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:53 Susan Freinkel
12:53
[Comment From guestguest: ] 
How long does it take a product to "off gas"? If we let some of these products, toys, etc sit for a while in a well ventilated room, will they ever stop off gassing?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:53 guest
12:54
Shanna Swan: 
I don't know..but it is not just off-gassing that I am concerned about. And polycarbonate and PVC continues to breakdown throughout its use.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:54 Shanna Swan
12:54
Julie Deardorff: 
Regarding off-gassing, you may want to check with the Center for Environmental Health and Justice http://chej.org/ or the Environment Working Group www.ewg.org. Both are advocacy groups.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:54 Julie Deardorff
12:54
[Comment From P ZakP Zak: ] 
More informed consumers will force manufacturers to find other packaging alternatives.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:54 P Zak
12:55
Shanna Swan: 
This is exactly right. And not just packaging, nor just consumers. For example, Health Care Without Harm actively campaigned to get DEHP out of tubing in the NICU and were successful is many major hospitals around the country,
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:55 Shanna Swan
12:56
[Comment From TrishTrish: ] 
Are melamine dishes a health concern?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:56 Trish
12:56
Susan Freinkel: 
Not that I know of.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:56 Susan Freinkel
12:57
Julie Deardorff: 
Are the new plastics any safer?
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:57 Julie Deardorff
12:57
Susan Freinkel: 
One would hope so, but there really is no guarantee because the main law regulating chemicals does not require manufacturers to demonstrate a chemical is safe before putting it on the marketplace. NatureWorks, which makes the most common new plastic, a corn-based plastic called Ingeo, claims a commitment to using non-toxic chemicals. And it requires any manufacturer using its plastic to abide by a "prohibited substances list," which bars the use of various heavy metals, carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and other dangerous chemicals.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:57 Susan Freinkel
12:58
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
please define new plastics. I don't understand the question, Julie.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:58 Guest
12:59
Julie Deardorff: 
For example, the plastic that is replacing bisphenol A, which used to be in most baby bottles.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:59 Julie Deardorff
12:59
Susan Freinkel: 
By that I mean plastics made from plants or other renewable sources, ie., which aren't made from oil or natural gas.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 12:59 Susan Freinkel
1:00
Julie Deardorff: 
That's all we have time for. Thanks so much for taking the time to participate and for your answers, Susan and Dr. Swan.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 1:00 Julie Deardorff
1:00
Susan Freinkel: 
Thanks for having me.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 1:00 Susan Freinkel
1:01
Shanna Swan: 
Sure, you're very welcome! It was interesting and informative.
Tuesday May 10, 2011 1:01 Shanna Swan
1:01
Julie Deardorff: 
Please join us at 11 a.m. CT (12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT) on Thursday, May 12, for a live hour-long chat with Dr. Paul Schyve, senior vice president for healthcare Improvement at The Joint Commission, about medical errors and how patients and consumers can take an active role in helping prevent them. The chat is moderated by Chicago Tribune reporter Bruce Japsen.

You can also follow me @Juliedeardorff

Tuesday May 10, 2011 1:01 Julie Deardorff
1:01