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Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to safeguard grizzly bears now? I heard that their numbers are dwindling and they could vanish from the Lower 48 if we don’t protect them. – Jim Meth, Akron, OH

The grizzly population of Yellowstone National Park was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007 as federal officials decided the bears' numbers had rebounded sufficiently. But two years later a judge in federal district court in Montana overturned the delisting, citing concerns about how global warming-related declines in Whitebark Pine (a key food source for grizzlies) were affecting the bears. Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service, Flickr CC.

The grizzly population of Yellowstone National Park was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007 as federal officials decided the bears’ numbers had rebounded sufficiently. But two years later a judge in federal district court in Montana overturned the delisting, citing concerns about how global warming-related declines in Whitebark Pine (a key food source for grizzlies) were affecting the bears. Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service, Flickr CC.

Before European colonization of North America, upwards of 50,000 grizzly bears—also known as brown bears—roamed free across what is now the continental United States. But more than a century of commercial trapping, persecution, habitat loss and poorly regulated hunting have taken a heavy toll on grizzly populations.

Today fewer than 1,500 of the majestic omnivores are left in just five small pockets of wilderness—across less than two percent of their former range—on the northern fringes of Washington state, and scattered throughout the Northern Rockies around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The grizzlies’ “threatened” status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act has allowed these remnant populations to start to rebound in recent years, but conservationists report the fierce bears (their scientific name is Ursus arctos horribilis) aren’t out of the woods yet, so to speak.

Wildlife biologists consider grizzlies to be an “umbrella” species, meaning that the health of their populations indicates how healthy hundreds of other native plant and animal species may be across the same habitat range. Grizzlies thrive in large uninterrupted wilderness areas, so environmental groups are working hard to connect up existing protected areas to allow for the bears to move into new territory and continue to rebound.

“Protecting the habitats that allow the bear the freedom to roam and thrive also benefits mule deer, wolverines, elk and mountain goats, and many more wildlife,” reports Conservation Northwest, a regional environmental group championing efforts to expand wilderness designations and so-called “wildlife corridors”—protected habitat pathways between larger swaths of wilderness—in Northwest Washington State for the sake of grizzlies and other wildlife down the forest food chain. “Protecting the roadless watersheds that nurture the grizzly bear helps ensure clean water, solitude and recreational opportunities for everyone.”

Another leading conservation organization working to secure a better future for grizzlies in the lower 48 is Defenders of Wildlife. The group supports and promotes projects to help reduce human-grizzly conflicts and increase community tolerance for having the bears as neighbors. One such program involves assisting homeowners with funding for the installation of bear-resistant electric fencing, which has proven to be a safe and accepted way to deter bears from accessing human food resources. Defenders reasons that training the bears not to access human food gives them a better chance for survival as they cannot become dependent on a resource bound to get them in trouble.

Yet another big advocate for grizzlies is the National Wildfire Federation (NWF). The group’s Adopt-a-Wildfire-Acre program uses funds raised from members and other concerned donors to acquire land outside of Yellowstone National Park to give the region’s iconic grizzly population room to roam beyond the confines of the park borders. NWF also works the halls of Congress, lobbying on behalf of grizzlies and other iconic American wildlife species suffering at the hands of progress.

Environmentalists are optimistic that better planning and more focus on conservation will allow the grizzly population of the Lower 48 to continue rebounding to the point where the bears can be removed from threatened species protection. As Conservation Northwest puts it, “What’s good for bears is good for people.”

CONTACTS: Conservation Northwest; Defenders of Wildlife; NWF.

Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to get toxic flame retardants out of children’s furniture and other products?                                                                                – Mary Sweetland, Seminole, FL

Couch

That couch might look inviting, but it could be off-gassing toxic chemicals from flame retardants within the cushions’ foam. New rules just now going into effect in California should eliminate many of these chemicals from new furniture and household items in that state, but environmentalists would like to see the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission issue similar rules nationwide. Credit: Roddy Scheer, roddyscheer.com.

Putting flame retardants in furniture seemed like a good idea back in the 1970s to help protect against the risk of fire, but our insistence on safety has come back to haunt us. The chemicals “off-gassing” from these flame retardants can be toxic, especially to the kids they are meant to protect in the first place. “Scientists have found that exposure to toxic fire retardant chemicals at critical points in development can damage the reproductive system and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and behavior,” reports the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG). Some of these chemicals have even been linked to cancer.

Manufacturers started putting flame retardants into their products in the mid-1970s after legislators in California passed a law requiring polyurethane foam in furniture to resist catching fire after exposure to an open flame for 12 seconds. Given the importance of the California market and the fact that other states soon enacted similar requirements, adding flame retardants to furniture foam became standard practice across the country.

But a flurry of research in the early 2000s called into question both the effectiveness and safety of common flame retardants, and ever since environmentalists have been working hard to eliminate such questionable chemicals from our living rooms. In 2013, California finally updated its rule on flame retardants, replacing the old open flame test with a new smolder test that assesses the ability of the furniture covering—not the foam padding—to withstand catching fire. State regulators estimate that some 85 percent of furniture fabrics currently on the market can pass the new smolder test without the benefit of flame retardant chemicals. In addition, a wide variety of kids’ products, including car seats, play mats, highchair pads and infant mattress pads, are no longer required to contain flame retardants. Additionally, California now requires labels on upholstered furniture sold there detailing whether or not flame retardants are present.

Unfortunately, consumers outside of California will have to do their own research to steer clear of flame retardants. EWG suggests checking in directly with manufacturers to see if their products contain flame retardants, or limiting your shopping to retailers that specialize in so-called “organic” (read: chemical-free) furniture such as Elka Home, Furnature, Green Sofas, Eco Select Furniture and Viesso, among others.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another leading non-profit active in the effort to ban toxic flame retardants, recommends replacing not just the fabric but also the foam during reupholster projects, as most foam manufactured before 2004 is likely off-gassing toxic chemicals. Likewise, NRDC says to be careful removing old carpeting, as the degraded scrap foam in the underlying padding can also release copious amount of noxious flame retardants. Other ways to minimize flame retardant exposure include regular wet-mopping of the floors around the house and using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. Consumers can also take a stand against toxic flame retardants by signing onto NRDC’s MoveOn.org petition calling on the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission to adopt a new nationwide standard to prevent the use of toxic chemicals in furniture foam and other everyday items.

CONTACTS: EWGNRDC; MoveOn.org.

 

Dear EarthTalk: What are “ghost factories?”                     -- Philip Walker, Hartford, CT

Photo Credit: Simon Bowen

Unsafe levels of lead contaminate soil in hundreds of neighborhoods around the U.S. where lead smelting facilities operated between the 1930s and 1960s. Children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. Pictured: Rusty remains at an old lead smelting mill.

 In April 2012, USA TODAY published a series entitled “Ghost Factories,” a report on an investigation into lead contaminated soil in hundreds of neighborhoods around the U.S. where lead factories once operated. The investigation addressed the lack of action taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test and clean up these sites despite having been warned in 2001 about the dangerous levels of lead contamination around the areas of these old facilities.  

 The factories, which used a process called smelting to melt down lead, were in operation from the 1930s until the 1960s when they began to shut down. While the factories themselves may now be gone, their toxic legacy remains, as they have left behind significant amounts of poisonous lead particles in surrounding soils. The lead particles are particularly dangerous for children who live and play in these areas. “Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years,” reports the Mayo Clinic, adding that even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. “Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development [and] at very high levels...can be fatal.”

 Environmental scientist William Eckel warned government officials of the dangers of old lead factories in his research article “Discovering Unrecognized Lead-Smelting Sites by Historical Methods,” which was published in the American Journal of Public Health in April of 2001.  Eckel used EPA databases along with lead industry directories to compile a list of more than 400 possible factory sites around the country that may have been unknown or forgotten over time. In an effort to create some urgency for federal regulators, he paid to have the soil around eight of the sites tested and all but one exceeded the EPA’s hazard level for residential areas. More recent soil tests done by USA TODAY revealed that all 21 areas that were examined in 13 states had potentially dangerous enough lead levels that children should not be playing in that dirt. This meant, of course, that cleanups of these sites had not been done.

 In response to Eckel’s findings and the USA TODAY series, EPA has initiated work with states to survey the majority of the sites on the 2001 list, although records for many of the affected areas are incomplete. “I am convinced we have addressed the highest-risk sites,” reports Elizabeth Southerland, director of assessment and remediation for the EPA’s Superfund program. She says her agency is open to reassessing sites that may need another look thanks to more recent information uncovered by USA TODAY.

 Unfortunately, ongoing federal budget woes mean that resources are severely limited. In fact, the EPA lacks funds to complete even previously scheduled Superfund remediation projects. In the meantime, individual homeowners can determine whether or not they live near a former lead smelter and can apply pressure to local authorities accordingly. USA TODAY has posted a free online map to help people figure out exactly where the danger zones might be.

 CONTACTS: USA TODAY “Ghost Factories,” http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/lead-poisoning; “Discovering Unrecognized Lead-Smelting Sites by Historical Methods,” www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1446633/pdf/11291377.pdf.

 Dear EarthTalk: What is “perchlorate” in our drinking water supply and why is it controversial?                                                                                                                          -- David Sparrow, Chico, CA

Perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and man-made chemical used in the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares and explosives. It is also sometimes present in bleach and in some fertilizers. Its widespread release into the environment is primarily associated with defense contracting, military operations and aerospace programs.

 Perchlorate can be widespread in ground water, soils and plants, and makes its way up the food chain accordingly—even into organically grown foods. To wit, A 2005 Journal of Environmental Science and Technology study using ion chromatography to find contaminants in agricultural products found quantifiable levels of perchlorate in 16 percent of conventionally produced lettuces and other leafy greens and in 32 percent of otherwise similar but organically produced samples. Today, traces of perchlorate are found in the bloodstreams of just about every human on the planet.

Perchlorate in the environment is a health concern because it can disrupt the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development. Besides its potential to cause endocrine system and reproductive problems, perchlorate is considered a “likely human carcinogen” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some 11 million Americans live in areas where concentrations of perchlorate in public drinking water supplies are significantly higher than what is considered safe.

Per the mandate of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is currently working on setting national standards for how much perchlorate can be allowed in drinking water without putting people at risk. As part of the process, the agency is studying the available science on the health effects of perchlorate exposure and evaluating laboratory methods for measuring, treating and removing perchlorate in drinking water. The EPA will publish a proposed rule on the matter for public review at some point in 2013.

“We are happy that the EPA is moving ahead with a drinking water standard...but we are concerned that it won’t be strict enough,” reports Renee Sharp of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group would like to see the U.S. adopt “a truly health-protective drinking water standard lower than 1 ppb [parts per billion]” for perchlorate. Insiders don’t believe federal policymakers will go that low, however, since the EPA says it cannot detect perchlorate below 2 ppb. But EWG point out that Massachusetts is already testing for it with a 1 ppb cut-off, per the mandate of its statewide standard set back in 2006.

The only other state to have a drinking water standard for perchlorate is California, which set 6 ppb or less as an allowable concentration back in 2004. But that state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recently proposed lowering the standard to 1 ppb based on new data regarding environmental exposure, possible effects of perchlorate and consideration of infants as a susceptible population.

If the EPA develops a tough new standard, almost every state will need to readjust its water monitoring systems to take into account how much perchlorate is making its way to our taps and into the foods we eat—a no doubt costly process but one that will greatly benefit both current and  future generations.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org; EPA Perchlorate Info, http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/unregulated/perchlorate.cfm.

See our sponsor link  KANGEN = MiracleWater 

Dear EarthTalk: What is the scientific consensus on all the extreme weather we’ve been having—from monster tornadoes to massive floods and wildfires? Is there a clear connection to climate change? And if so what are we doing to be prepared?                                     -- Jason Devine, Summit, PA

 Extreme weather does not prove the existence of global warming, but climate change is likely to exaggerate it—by messing with ocean currents, providing extra heat to forming tornadoes, bolstering heat waves, lengthening droughts and causing more precipitation and flooding.

 “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events,” reports the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an independent group of leading climate scientists convened by the United Nations to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.

While most scientists don’t dispute the link between global warming and extreme weather, the once skeptical public is now starting to come around—especially following 2011, when floods, droughts, heat waves and tornadoes took a heavy toll on the U.S. According to a poll conducted by researchers at Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, four out of five Americans reported personally experiencing one or more types of extreme weather or a natural disaster in 2011, while more than a third were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these events. And a large majority of Americans believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse, including record high summer temperatures nationwide, droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, catastrophic Mississippi River flooding, Hurricane Irene and an unusually warm winter.

The IPCC wants world leaders to err on the side of caution in preparing their citizens for extreme weather events that will likely become more frequent; earlier this year they released a report entitled “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” to help  policymakers do just that. The report is considered a must read in coastal, arid and other especially vulnerable areas.

As for the U.S. government, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracks weather and storms, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deals with the impacts of extreme weather and other disasters. But critics would like to see Congress and the White House do more to increase Americans’ preparedness. “The U.S. [in 2011] experienced a record fourteen weather-related disasters each in excess of a billion dollars—and many more disasters of lesser magnitudes,” reports the non-profit Climate Science Watch (CSW). “Yet the U.S. has no national climate change preparedness strategy; and Federal efforts to address the rising risks have been undermined through budget cuts and other means.” CSW and others are calling for the creation of a new cabinet-level agency called the National Climate Service to oversee both climate change mitigation as well as preparedness for increasingly extreme weather events.

CONTACTS: IPCC report, www.ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/images/uploads/SREX-SPMbrochure_FINAL.pdf; Yale Project, http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/Extreme-Weather-Climate-Preparedness.pdf; FEMA, www.fema.gov; NOAA, www.noaa.gov; Climate Science Watch, www.climatesciencewatch.org.

 EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve always suspected that perfumes and colognes must not be too healthy simply because of the way the smell of most of them bothers me. Am I correct? Is there information available on this issue?                                                                           -- Lucinda Barry, Minneapolis, MN

Ahhh...the sweet smell of petrochemicals! The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that, while many popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays contain trace amounts of natural essences, they also typically contain a dozen or more potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals, some of which are derived from petroleum. To protect trade secrets, makers are allowed to withhold fragrance ingredients, so consumers can’t rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside that new bottle of perfume.

“A rose may be a rose,” reports EWG. “But that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely, concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer.”

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of over 100 groups seeking transparency about chemicals in cosmetics, commissioned independent laboratory tests that revealed 38 secret chemicals in 17 leading fragrances. The top offenders?: American Eagle Seventy Seven topped the list with 24, followed by Chanel Coco with 18 and Britney Spears Curious and Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio each with 17.

“The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label,” reports EWG, which analyzed the Campaign’s data. “Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.” EWG adds that some of the undisclosed ingredients are chemicals “with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues.” Examples include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, which concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk.

EWG explains that ingredients not in a product’s “hidden fragrance mixture” must be listed on the label, so makers disclose some chemicals but “lump others together in the generic category of ‘fragrance’.”

 
EWG blames the U.S. government in part, pointing out that the Food and Drug Administration “has not assessed the safety of the vast majority” of secret chemicals used in spray-on products such as fragrances. “Fragrance secrecy is legal due to a giant loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, which requires companies to list cosmetics ingredients on the product labels but explicitly exempts fragrance,” reports EWG. As such, the cosmetics industry has kept the public in the dark about fragrance ingredients, “even those that present potential health risks or build up in people’s bodies.”

For more information, check out EWG’s May 2010 “Not So Sexy” report, available on the group’s website. Also, EWG’s SkinDeep database serves as an evolving source of information on the ingredients (and their health risks) in thousands of cosmetics and related products widely available on store shelves.

CONTACTS: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.safecosmetics.org; EWG’s “Not So Sexy,” www.ewg.org/notsosexy; Skin Deep, www.ewg.org/skindeep.

  

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that the use of antibiotics in raising farm animals is threatening to make bacteria overall more resistant to antibiotics, which has serious life and death implications for people. Can you enlighten and advise what is being done about this?         -- Robert Gelb, Raleigh, NC

Most medical doctors would agree that antibiotic drugs—which stave off bacterial infections from staph to salmonella to bacterial pneumonia—are among the most important tools in modern medicine. But public health advocates, environmentalists and even many doctors worry that our society’s overuse and misuse of antibiotics is making bacteria more resistant and thus limiting the effectiveness of these lifesaving drugs.

Bacterial resistance to our antibiotics simply means longer, more serious and more costly illnesses. The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a nonprofit that conducts research around the world on antibiotic resistance, estimates that antibiotic resistance has been responsible for upwards of $16 billion annually in extra costs to the U.S. health care system in recent years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers antibiotic resistance one of its top concerns.

While misuse of antibiotics for human health problems is definitely a concern—those with a valid need for antibiotics who don’t finish off their prescriptions, for example, could effectively help bacteria develop resistance and make it stronger for when it infects its next host—a larger issue is the misuse of antibiotics to treat the common cold and flu and other viral infections which do not involve bacteria. The more antibiotics we use willy-nilly, the faster bacteria will develop resistance, rendering many of the drugs modern medicine has come to rely on obsolete.

Of even greater concern is the preponderance of antibiotics used down on the farm. “Antibiotics often are used on industrial farms not only to treat sick animals but also to offset [the health effects of] crowding and poor sanitation, as well as to spur animal growth,” reports the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. Indeed, researchers estimate that up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to healthy food animals to artificially expedite their growth and compensate for the effects of unsanitary farm conditions. “The routine use of antibiotics in food animals presents a serious and growing threat to human health because it creates new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” says Pew.

So what can we do to curtail the overuse and misuse of antibiotics? For one, we should not prescribe or use antibiotics to (mis)treat viral infections. Beyond being conscientious with our own bodies, we should also urge farmers to reduce their use of these drugs. Pew and other groups are trying to muster public support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA, H.R. 1549/S. 619), which if enacted would withdraw from food animal production the routine use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health unless animals are diseased or drug companies can prove that their use does not harm human health. Hundreds of groups, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatricians, Infectious Diseases Society of America and World Health Organization support the legislation. Pew is urging concerned citizens to call their Representatives and Senators and advocate for pushing the legislation into committee hearings.

CONTACTS: Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, www.tufts.edu/med/apua; CDC, www.cdc.gov; Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, www.saveantibiotics.org.

 

Dear EarthTalk: Why don’t more states mandate deposits on beverage bottles as incentives for people to return them? Most bottles I’ve seen only list a few states on them.            -- Alan Wu, Cary, NC


So-called bottle bills, otherwise known as container recycling laws, mandate that certain types of beverage containers require a small deposit (usually five or ten cents) at checkout beyond the price of the beverage itself. Customers can return the empty containers later and reclaim their nickels and dimes. The idea is to provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle and to force industry to re-use the raw materials.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a California-based non-profit which encourages the collection and recycling of packaging materials (and runs the website BottleBill.org), the benefits of bottle bills include: supplying recyclable materials for a high-demand market; conserving energy, natural resources and landfill space; creating new businesses and green jobs; and reducing waste disposal costs and litter. The 10 U.S. states that currently have container recycling laws recycle at least 70 percent of their bottles and cans; this amounts to a recycling rate 2.5 times higher than in states without bottle bills.

Beverage containers make up a whopping 5.6 percent of the overall U.S. waste stream, so every bottle and can that gets recycled counts toward freeing up landfill space. And CRI reports that beverage containers account for some 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from landfilling municipal solid waste and replacing the wasted products with new ones made from virgin feedstock. So by promoting more recycling, bottle bills indirectly reduce our carbon footprints.

The 10 U.S. states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Delaware’s legislature repealed its bottle bill after almost three decades on the books last year as the state’s bottle recycling rate had dropped to just 12 percent due to more and more retailers refusing to deal with the hassle of accepting returned containers. In place of its bottle bill, Delaware enacted a $0.04/bottle recycling fee that will help defray the costs of starting up a curbside recycling pickup system to service the entire state.

“We are extremely disappointed they chose to repeal their law, rather than enforce it,” reported CRI’s Susan Collins, adding that the new fee places a burden on consumers only. “Consumers will be subsidizing the producers and that is unfair.” CRI supports “extended producer responsibility” where producers and consumers together pay for the life cycle costs of product packaging.

Beyond Delaware, the main reason bottle bills haven’t caught on is because of opposition to them by the beverage industry, which doesn’t want to bear the costs of recycling and claims that the extra nickel or dime on the initial cost of the beverage is enough to turn potential customers away. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) found that the beverage industry and its representatives spent about $14 million in campaign contributions aimed at defeating a national bottle bill between 1989 and 1994. Meanwhile, members of a Senate committee who voted against national bottle bill legislation in 1992 received some 75 times more in beverage-industry PAC money than those who voted in favor of the bill.


CONTACTS: Container Recycling Institute,
www.container-recycling.org; USPIRG, www.uspirg.org.

 

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


Dear EarthTalk: Has the use of E-ZPass and similar programs to facilitate faster highway toll-paying cut down on traffic jams and therefore tailpipe pollution? Why do we need tolls at all?

                                                                                                            ­-- Dianne Comstock, New York, NY

Yes, E-ZPass and similar programs have been a boon to both participating drivers and the environment by reducing or eliminating idling and traffic back-ups at toll booths. Maybe that’s why 25 U.S. states either participate in E-ZPass or have their own similar systems (FasTrak in California, EXpressToll in Colorado, SunPass in Florida, etc.) to speed up highway travel and reduce pollution.

A study conducted in 2000 to evaluate the New Jersey Turnpike Authority ‘s E-ZPass electronic toll collection system found that toll plaza delay had been reduced by about 85 percent overall for a total savings of more than two million vehicle-hours per year. Passenger car drivers saved a total of 1.8 million hours per year, while truckers saved almost 300,000 hours. The system’s “reduced queuing” decreased overall fuel consumption on the state’s turnpike system by some 1.2 million gallons per year and cut emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—a key component of smog—by 0.35 tons per day.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation is about to take the concept a step further by installing express toll lanes along the a congested eight mile stretch of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. Once the project is complete, drivers will be able to either zip through the express lanes to pay an electronically collected toll, or save their money and instead suffer through the congestion in the free, general-purpose lanes.

 

The toll amount will vary depending on the time of day and traffic conditions and will be assessed automatically via existing E-ZPass transponders or by photo capture of drivers’ license plates. Unlike existing E-ZPass-type systems in the U.S., there will be no penalty or fine for entering the express toll lane without a transponder—a bill for the toll will just be mailed to the address on file with the car’s registration. The new cutting edge express toll lanes in Maryland should be operational by 2014.

Why do we need tolls at all? Their original purpose was to raise funds for highway upkeep in a way that places the burden on the users of the roads and not simply on local taxpayers who may not even take to the highway or may do so only minimally. After all, a large percentage of highway traffic is trucks and other vehicles “just passing through,” often for commercial purposes. And environmentalists saw tolls as a way to discourage individual automobile usage, even make it unpleasant enough to hasten the day that people would begin to embrace a serious commitment to public transit. In that sense, it could be argued that E-ZPass and similar systems, in making tolls more bearable, could undermine the realization of that dream.

 
Given that the private automobile as our main mode of transportation is likely to be around for some time to come yet, it certainly behooves us to green up the experience as much as possible. With electric cars, plug-in hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles poised to come on strong in coming years, we certainly seem to be moving in that direction. But let’s not lose sight of the incredible benefits that public transportation could provide if we could just get our elected officials to pay it more than lip service.

CONTACTS: E-ZPass, www.ezpass.com; New Jersey Turnpike Authority, www.state.nj.us/turnpike; Maryland Department of Transportation, www.mdot.maryland.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest research on the question of whether cell phone use causes cancer?                                                                   -- William Thigpen, via e-mail

Cell phones have only been in widespread use for a couple of decades, which is far too short a time for us to know conclusively whether or not using them could cause cancer. Research thus far appears to indicate that most of us have little if anything to worry about.

 

According to the federally funded National Cancer Institute, the low-frequency electromagnetic radiation that cell phones give off when we hold them up to our heads is “non-ionizing,” meaning it cannot cause significant human tissue heating or body temperature increases that could lead to direct damage to cellular DNA. By contrast, X-rays consist of high-frequency ionizing electromagnetic radiation and can lead to the kind of cellular damage resulting in cancer. Nonetheless, some cell phone users and researchers still worry about our cell phone usage, given how much we now use them and how little we know about their potential long-term effects.

The reason the issue keeps coming up is that some initial studies in Europe, where cell phone usage caught on a decade before the U.S., showed links between some forms of tumors and heavy cell phone usage. As a result, researchers teamed up to do a more definitive study, called the “Interphone” study, across 13 countries between 2000 and 2004. The results, published in May 2010 in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Epidemiology, indicated no increased risk of developing two of the most common types of brain tumors, glioma and meningioma, from typical everyday cell phone usage. Study participants who reported spending the most time on their phones showed a slightly increased risk of developing gliomas, but researchers considered this finding inconclusive due to factors such as recall bias, whereby participants with brain tumors may have simply remembered past cell phone use differently from healthy respondents.

Researchers looking to get past the relatively short timing window and the recall bias issues of the Interphone study recently launched a longer term study, dubbed COSMOS (short for Cohort Study on Mobile Communications), in Europe. Some 250,000 cell phone users between the ages of 18 and 69 and located in Britain, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark will participate by allowing researchers to track their cell phone usage and health over three decades. According to an April 22, 2010 article in Reuters, the study will factor in the use of hands-free devices and how people carry their phones and will also be on the lookout for links to neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.


There are some precautions you can take to minimize whatever risk may exist. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests reserving the use of cell phones for shorter conversations, or for times when a conventional phone isn’t available. Also, using a hands-free device places more distance between the phone and your head, significantly reducing the amount of radiation exposure. If the fact that many states require hands-free devices for using a cell phone while driving isn’t enough to make you go out and spend the extra money on such an accessory, maybe the cancer risk, perceived or real, will.

CONTACTS: National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov; INTERPHONE Study,
www.rfcom.ca/programs/interphone.shtml; COSMOS Study, www.ukcosmos.org, FCC, www.fcc.gov.

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E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Most gold mining operations use cyanide to extract gold from surrounding rock. What are the environmental implications of this, and are there alternatives? -- J. Pelton, via e-mail

Although “cyanidation”—the use of a sodium cyanide compound to separate a precious metal from finely ground rock—has become less common in other forms of mining, it is still the dominant practice in gold mining. Some 90 percent of gold mines around the world employ cyanidation to harvest their loot.

“In gold mining, a diluted cyanide solution is sprayed on crushed ore that is placed in piles or mixed with ore in enclosed vats,” reports the State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), a project of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. “The cyanide attaches to minute particles of gold to form a water-soluble, gold-cyanide compound from which the gold can be recovered.”

But of course not all the cyanide gets recovered. Some of it gets spilled, and some is left within mine waste that is often buried underground woefully close to groundwater, leaving neighbors and public health officials worried about its effects on drinking water and on surrounding ecosystems and local wildlife.

“Mining and regulatory documents often state that cyanide in water rapidly breaks down in the presence of sunlight into largely harmless substances, such as carbon dioxide and nitrate or ammonia,” reports Earthworks, a Washington, DC-based non-profit. “However, cyanide also tends to react readily with many other chemical elements and is known to form, at a minimum, hundreds of different compounds.” While many of these compounds are less toxic than the original cyanide, says Earthworks, they can still persist in the environment and accumulate in fish and plant tissues, wreaking havoc on up the food chain.

In 2000, a breach in a tailings (mining waste) dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulted in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed. Nearly all aquatic life in nearby waters died, while drinking water supplies were cut off for some 2.5 million people.

In the wake of this accident, gold miners around the world have been taking steps to deal with tailings in a safer manner, through the use of special systems designed to prevent cyanide or its breakdown compounds from escaping into the environment. But such precautions at present are only voluntary. Regulators in the U.S.—the third largest gold producer after South Africa and Australia—don’t require mine operators to monitor cyanide and its breakdown compounds in nearby groundwater and water bodies, so no one knows just how big a problem might be.

One promising alternative to using cyanide in gold mines is the Haber Gold Process, a non-toxic extraction system that tests have shown can result in more gold recovery over a shorter period than cyanidation. Another alternative is YES Technologies’ biocatalyzed leaching process which proponents say is 200 times less toxic than cyanide. But with cyanidation well-entrenched in the industry and regulators looking the other way, these alternatives face an uphill battle in gaining widespread adoption.

CONTACTS: State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), www.serconline.org; Earthworks, www.earthworksaction.org; Haber Gold Process,
www.habercorp.com/index.php?id=23; YES Technologies’ Cyanide-free Biocatalyzed Leaching, yestech.com/tech/gold1.htm.

 

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that mountaintop removal as a way of coal mining is incredibly destructive. Didn’t a report come out recently that named major banks that were funding this activity?                                                                                                                   -- Seth Jergens, New York, NY

 

Yes it’s true that many major banks invest in companies that engage in the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining, whereby the tops of mountains are removed by explosives to expose thin seams of recoverable coal. The wasted earth and other materials are either put back onto the mountain top in an approximation of their original contours, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems and biodiversity, or dumped into neighboring valleys, polluting lakes and streams and jeopardizing water quality for humans and wildlife.

 

According to the non-profit Rainforest Action Network (RAN), this dumping—especially throughout Appalachia where MTR is most prevalent—“undermines the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act.” The group adds that some 2,000 miles of streams have already been buried or contaminated in the region. “The mining destroys Appalachian communities, the health of coalfield residents and any hope for positive economic growth.”

 

This past April, RAN teamed up for the second year in a row with another leading non-profit green group concerned about MTR, the Sierra Club, in publishing a “report card” reviewing 10 of the world’s largest banks in regard to their financing of MTR coal mining projects. The new 2011 version of “Policy and Practice” takes a look at the MTR-related financing practices of Bank of America, CitiBank, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, GE Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, PNC, UBS and Wells Fargo.

 

What did they find? Since January 2010, the 10 banks reviewed have provided upwards of $2.5 billion in loans and bonds to companies practicing MTR. While some of the banks—Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC, UBS, and Credit Suisse—adopted policies limiting their financing of MTR, few actually pulled funding in place from any such activities upon adopting such policies. Citibank, despite announcing publicly in 2009 that it would limit its involvement in MTR, doubled its investments in the business in 2010.

 

RAN and the Sierra Club are also keeping a close eye on UBS which, soon after stating that it “needs to be satisfied that the client is committed to reduce over time its exposure to [MTR],” went ahead and acted as a paid advisor on the merger of Massey Energy, which operated the West Virginia mine where 29 men died last year, and Alpha Natural Resources. This merger created the largest single MTR company in the country, now responsible for some 25 percent of coal production from MTR mines.

 

The report card grades each bank based on its current position and practice regarding MTR investments, and calls on the banks to strengthen their policies and cease their financial support for coal companies engaging in MTR. “The ‘best practice’...is a clear exclusion policy on commercial lending and investment banking services for all coal companies who practice mountaintop removal coal extraction,” says RAN.

 RAN and the Sierra Club hope that by exposing the impact these banks are having on the environment through their financing programs, they can help alert the public and policymakers to the need to outlaw MTR coal mining altogether.

 

CONTACTS: Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

 EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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Dear EarthTalk: I’m interested in getting a new tattoo, but recently found out that red tattoo ink contains mercury. Is this true of other tattoo inks as well? Are there any eco-friendly alternatives?
   -- John P., Racine, WA

 It is true that some red inks used for permanent tattoos contain mercury, while other reds may contain different heavy metals like cadmium or iron oxide. These metals—which give the tattoo its “permanence” in skin—have been known to cause allergic reactions, eczema and scarring and can also cause sensitivity to mercury from other sources like dental fillings or consuming some fish. While red causes the most problems, most other colors of standard tattoo ink are also derived from heavy metals (including lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic) and can cause skin reactions in some people.

Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and a columnist for the website, Treehugger, reports that as a result of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI), two of the leading tattoo ink manufacturers must now place warning labels on their product containers, catalogs and websites explaining that “inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others” and that the ingredients have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Of course, exposure to mercury and other heavy metals is hardly the only risk involved with getting a tattoo. The term tattoo itself means to puncture the skin. Tattoo ink is placed via needles into the dermis layer of the skin, where it remains permanently (although some colors will fade over time). Some people have reported sensitivity springing up even years after they first got their tattoo; also, medical MRIs can cause tattoos to burn or sting as the heavy metals in the ink are affected by the test’s magnetism.

Beyond the long term risks of walking around with heavy metals injected into your body’s largest organ (the skin), getting a tattoo in and of itself can be risky business. If the tattoo parlor’s needles and equipment aren’t properly sterilized in an autoclave between customers, you could be exposing yourself to hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium, syphilis, malaria, HIV or even leprosy.

“The potential risk of infectious spread from tattooing (particularly due to Hepatitis B) is high enough that it is a practice that should be avoided by pregnant women to safeguard the health of the baby [and that of the pregnant woman herself] whose immune system is down regulated and is much more vulnerable to these types of infection,” reports dermatologist Audrey Kunin, who runs the popular Dermadoctor website. Dr. Kunin advises to be careful about choosing a tattoo parlor: “Make sure the place is reputable, perhaps check with the health department to see if there have been past claims against the parlor in question if you still have doubts.” She adds that since tattoos are essentially open wounds, they must be cared for properly, especially in the first few weeks, to stave off infection.

Those who want go ahead with getting a tattoo anyway despite the risks should consider steering clear of colors derived from heavy metals. Dr. Kunin reports that black might be the safest permanent tattoo ink; it is often derived from a substance called carbon black and rarely causes any kind of sensitivity issues. If your heart is set on red in your tattoo, ask around to see if any tattoo parlors in your area are willing to work with non-metallic organic pigments that lend a red color such as carmine, scarlet lake, sandalwood or brazilwood. There are non-metallic alternatives available for many other popular tattoo ink shades, too.

CONTACTS: Treehugger, www.treehugger.com; Dermadoctor,
www.dermadoctor.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its authority over state water quality. Why did they do this, what are the ramifications and what do leading green groups have to say about it?   -- Joseph Emory, York, PA

 The legislation in question, the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (H.R. 2018), passed the House of Representatives this past July with strong support from Republicans and will likely be voted on by the Senate in the Fall. It aims to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (also known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) in order to give authority over water quality standards back to the states.

 The bill’s backers—including most House Republicans and lobbyists for the mountaintop coal mining industry and factory animal farms—claim it will bring jobs to Appalachia and other distressed regions of the country where they say economic growth has been crippled by stringent environmental regulations. The bill would prevent the EPA from overruling decisions made by state regulatory agencies.

“By second-guessing and inserting itself into the states’…standards and permitting decisions, EPA has upset the long-standing balance between federal and state partners in regulating the nation’s waters, and undermined the system of cooperative federalism established under the CWA in which the primary responsibilities for water pollution control are allocated to the states,” says GOP.gov, the website of the Republican majority in Congress. “EPA’s actions have created an atmosphere of regulatory uncertainty for the regulated community, and have had a chilling effect on the nation’s economy and job creation.”

But those opposed to the bill, including the White House and many Congressional Democrats, say that its provisions would undermine stringent federal water quality protections some four decades in the making.

“H.R. 2018 could limit efforts to safeguard communities by removing the Federal Government’s
authority to take action when State water quality standards are not protective of public health,” said the White House after the bill passed in the House by a count of 239-184. Such changes, they added, could adversely impact public health and the environment through increased pollution and degradation of water bodies that provide drinking water, recreation and tourism opportunities, and habitat for fish and wildlife.

For their part, environmental groups couldn’t agree more. “Make no mistake: This bill would take the environmental cop off the beat and put at risk drinking water for millions of people, the habitat for scores of wildlife, and the jobs and economic growth that depends on a safer, cleaner environment,” said Larry Schweiger of the non-profit National Wildlife Federation, adding that, if enacted, the bill would take us “back to a time when rivers caught fire because of rampant pollution.”

Environmentalists are optimistic that backers won’t have enough Senate votes to pass the bill. Meanwhile, President Obama has pledged to veto any such legislation that does make its way across his desk. But political winds shift quickly inside the Beltway, and only time will tell if the bill will gain enough support to withstand a veto. The quality of the nation’s water supply hangs in the balance.

CONTACTS: H.R. 2018,
www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-2018; U.S. EPA, www.epa.gov; GOP.gov, www.gop.gov; National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org.

 EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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Dear EarthTalk: I love to cook and when I have the time I make soups, stews and pasta meals in large batches and freeze them.  I use leftover plastic containers, but I know this is not good. What kinds of containers are safe for freezer food storage?                                      -- Kathy Roberto, via e-mail

 Reusing leftover plastic food containers to store items in the freezer may be noble environmentally, but it might not be wise from the perspective of keeping food safely frozen and tasting its best when later heated up and served. Many such containers are designed for one-time use and then recycling, so it’s not worth risking using them over and over. Likewise, wax paper, bread wrappers and cardboard cartons should not be used to store frozen foods; these types of containers don’t provide enough of a barrier to moisture and odors and also may not keep food fresh when frozen.

Luckily though, many other materials are suitable for use as freezer-safe storage containers, at least according to the National Center for Home Food Preparation. To qualify as “freezer-safe,” the Georgia-based non-profit maintains, food storage containers must resist moisture-vapor, oil, grease and water as well as brittleness and cracking at low temperatures, while being durable, leak-proof and easy-to seal. They must also protect foods from absorption of off-flavors or odors. “Good freezing materials include rigid containers made of aluminum, glass, plastic, tin or heavily waxed cardboard; bags and sheets of moisture-vapor resistant wraps; and laminated papers made specially for freezing,” reports the group.

As to the leaking of unsafe constituent chemicals (BPA, phthalates, etc.) from certain plastics into foods, freezing is generally less of a threat than heating, but it is better to avoid plastics known to be problematic anyway just to be safe.  Polycarbonate plastic, marked with #7, contains BPA while polyvinyl chloride, marked with #3, contains potentially harmful phthalates. If a plastic item does not bear a recycling number on its bottom, steer clear as it may well be a mix, which classifies it as a #7 polycarbonate.

Of course, the majority of plastic containers designed for freezer use are safe and, since they can be washed and reused, are a better choice than disposable freezer bags and wraps. For those still leery of using plastic at all, glass containers designed to withstand large temperature extremes, such as Ball Freezing Jars (Mason jars) or anything made by Pyrex—regular glass containers could break when frozen or if thawed too quickly—can be a sensible alternative. Also, beware of loading up glass containers to the brim before freezing; some foods expand when frozen so leaving a little extra room between the top of the food and the bottom of the (airtight) lid is always a good idea.

However you store your frozen delicacies, keep in mind that freezing food may inactivate microbes like bacteria and mold but may not destroy them. According to dietician and author Elaine Magee on the MedicineNet website, just thawing out frozen foods doesn’t necessarily mean they are automatically safe to eat. Foods that require cooking still require cooking for health’s sake after thawing. Also, Magee recommends quickly labeling and dating any foods you are freezing to facilitate purging of potentially spoiled or tasteless food down the line.

CONTACTS: National Center for Home Food Preparation,
www.uga.edu/nchfp/; Pyrex, www.pyrex.com; Ball, www.freshpreserving.com; MedicineNet, www.medicinenet.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: Instances of people with thyroid problems seems to be on the rise. Is there an environmental connection?                                                                                          -- Dora Light, Waukesha, WI

 

The American Cancer Society reports that thyroid cancer is one of the few cancers that have been on the rise in recent decades, with cases increasing six percent annually since 1997. Many researchers, however, attribute these increases to our having simply gotten better at detection. Regardless, exposures to stress, radiation and pollutants have been known to increase a person’s risk of developing thyroid problems.

 

Thyroid disease takes two primary forms. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much of the T3 and T4 hormones that regulate metabolism. This can cause a racing heart, weight loss, insomnia and other problems. In cases of hypothyroidism, the body produces too few hormones, so we feel fatigued and may gain weight, among other symptoms. According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), many people with thyroid problems don’t realize it, as symptoms can be mistaken for other problems or attributed to lack of sleep. Thyroid problems in children can delay or impair neurological development.


Doctors are not sure why some people are prone to thyroid disease while others aren’t, but genetics has much to do with it. One recent UCLA study found that genetic background accounts for about 70 percent of the risk. However, researchers have begun to find links between increased risk of thyroid disease and exposure to certain chemicals, especially among women. “
Pesticide Use and Thyroid Disease among Women in the Agricultural Health Study,” published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2002, found that Iowa and North Carolina women married to men using such pesticides as aldrin, DDT and lindane were at much higher risk of developing thyroid disease than women in non-agricultural areas. According to Dr. Whitney S. Goldner, lead researcher on the study, 12.5 percent of the 16,500 wives evaluated developed thyroid disease compared to between one and eight percent in the general population.

 

It’s not just farm women who should worry. Trace amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers most certainly end up in some of the food we eat. The nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides warns that some 60 percent of pesticides used today have been shown to affect the thyroid gland’s production of T3 and T4 hormones. Commercially available insecticides and fungicides have also been implicated.

 

Likewise, some chemicals used in plastics and flame retardants contain toxins shown to trigger thyroid problems in those genetically predisposed. And a 2007 study at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio found that triclosan, an anti-bacterial agent found in everything from hand soaps to facial tissues to toys—it’s present in the bloodstreams of three out of every four Americans—could be causing some mothers’ thyroid glands to send signals to fetuses that may in turn contribute to autism.

 

An increasing number of doctors now believe that hypothyroidism could be precipitated by a dietary deficiency in iodine, a trace element found in the thyroid’s T3 and T4 hormones and essential in small amounts for good health. Besides eating more seafood, switching to iodized salt and/or taking iodine supplements can boost iodine intake without the need for medications. But too much iodine is not healthy, so always consult with your doctor before embarking on any new health or diet regimen.


CONTACTS: ATA, www.thyroid.org; Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org.

 EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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Dear EarthTalk: I understand that, among mining’s other problems, like providing climate-warming coal and endangering miners’ lives, it is also a serious water polluter. Can you enlighten?                                                                                                                                          -- Richard Moeller, Salt Lake City, UT

 

Mining disasters have grabbed a lot of headlines of late, but mines pose another insidious threat that tends to get little press attention: pollution of the nearby environment which, in turn, threatens the health of the people who live nearby. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about water pollution from mines.

 

Mining operations use large amounts of fresh water to process recovered ore; the resulting mine effluent is typically a stew of hazardous acid-generating sulphides, toxic heavy metals, waste rock impoundments and water—and it is often deposited nearby in large free-draining piles where it can pollute land and water supplies for decades to come. When this waste water drains into local streams and aquifers, it can kill living organisms and render formerly pristine local waters unsafe to swim in or drink.

 

Increased soil erosion around mines also leads to excessive sedimentation of nearby waterways. This reduces the productivity of fisheries while limiting the availability of irrigation sources.

“Mining by its nature consumes, diverts and can seriously pollute water resources,” reports the nonprofit Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SWDF). “…mining has become more mechanized and therefore able to handle more rock and ore material than ever before,” reports SWDF. “Therefore, mine waste has multiplied enormously.” The group warns that “as mine technologies are developed to make it more profitable to mine low grade ore, even more waste will be generated in the future.”

Here in the U.S., increasing recognition of the water (and other types of) pollution problems caused by various forms of mining led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue much more stringent guidelines in April 2010 regarding how and where mines on American soil must dispose of waste.

In January 2011 the EPA got the opportunity to walk its talk when it vetoed a permit that would have allowed the largest “mountaintop removal” mining operation in the history of West Virginia coal mining to go forward. Mountaintop removal is an aggressive form of coal mining that strips a mountain bare of vegetation and then blasts off the top of the mountain with explosives. It is the most destructive and polluting form of mining. Environmentalists praised the EPA for not only standing up to industry but also for saving some 2,000 forested mountaintop acres and nearly seven miles of riparian habitat while sparing surrounding communities from the effects of polluted land and water.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have been pushing Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill first introduced in 2009 that aims to protect fresh water supplies from mining contamination by sharply curtailing mountaintop removal. Green groups including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club are lobbying Congress heavily to consider the bill sooner rather than later.

 

CONTACTS: SDWF, www.safewater.org; Appalachian Voices, www.appvoices.org; Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, www.kftc.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

 

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

 

Dear EarthTalk: A number of federal energy efficiency related tax incentives expired at the end of 2010. Will any such programs remain in force and if not, are there other ways to save money on green upgrades?                                                                                                                          -- Jen Franklin, Chicago, IL

 

It is true that some federal tax credits for energy efficiency upgrades expired at the end of 2010, but there is legislative effort afoot to extend some of those credits—and there are plenty of other ways to defray the costs of turning over a new green leaf or two this year and beyond.

One of the best known green federal tax incentives, the Residential Energy Efficiency Tax Credit—which kicked in 30 percent of the cost of household efficiency upgrades up to $1,500 on items including water heaters, furnaces, heat pumps, central air conditioning systems, insulation, windows, doors and roofs—is no longer available as of January 1, 2011. However, some lawmakers are looking to extend the credit. U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) have drafted legislation calling for keeping the program going, in a slightly revised form, for another two years.

 

“Residential energy efficiency has been identified as the most effective strategy to enhance our energy security and save money on energy bills,” says Snowe. “The residential energy efficiency tax credits…have been key catalysts in improving the energy efficiency of homes throughout the country [and] have driven companies to produce the most advanced products current technology allows…”

And if you were thinking you would save thousands of dollars on the price of a Toyota Prius thanks to federal incentives, think again. Federal tax credits also expired at the end of 2010 on the purchase of hybrid gas-electric cars and trucks. However, if you want to roll away in one of the sporty new all-electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, you can now qualify for up to a $7,500 (depending on battery capacity) federal tax credit. The federal government now also offers a tax credit for 10 percent (up to $4,000) of the cost of a kit to convert an existing hybrid vehicle into a plug-in hybrid.

 

All of these programs expire themselves at the end of 2011. Whether or not new federal alternative fuel vehicle incentives crop up for 2012—when many new ultra-efficient plug-in hybrids from the likes of Toyota, Honda, Volvo and others are slated for release—remains to be seen.

Regardless, many states have their own programs to encourage energy efficiency. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) regularly updates its free online State Energy Efficiency Policy Database, which makes accessing information on your state’s energy efficiency programs, standards and “reward structures” as easy as clicking on a map. Likewise, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) is another free online resource that lists state and federal incentives for buying an alternative fuel car, greening up your home or otherwise embracing energy efficiency. And the Energy Star website details special offers and rebates from cities, towns, counties and utilities on the purchase of appliances and equipment that meet federal standards for energy efficiency.

CONTACTS: Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), www.dsireusa.org; ACEEE’s State Energy Efficiency Policy Database, www.aceee.org/sector/state-policy; Energy Star Special Offers and Rebates, www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=rebate.rebate_locator.

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Dear EarthTalk: Aren’t environmental issues primarily about health? Detractors like to trivialize environmentalists as “tree huggers,” but the bottom line is that pollution makes us sick, right? Wouldn’t people care more if they had a better understanding of that?   -- Tim Douglas, Stowe, VT

No doubt many of the ways we harm our environment come back to haunt us in the form of sickness and death. The realization that the pesticide-laced foods we eat, the smokestack-befouled air we breathe and the petrochemical-based products we use negatively affect our quality of life is a big part of the reason so many people have “gone green” in recent years.

Just following the news is enough to green anyone.
Scientific American reported in 2009 that a joint U.S./Swedish study looking into the effects of household contaminants discovered that children who live in homes with vinyl floors—which can emit hazardous chemicals called phthalates—are twice as likely to develop signs of autism as kids in other homes. Other studies have shown that women exposed to high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants common in cushions, carpet padding and mattresses—97 percent of us have detectable levels of these chemicals in our bloodstreams—are more likely to have trouble getting pregnant and suffer from other fertility issues as a result. Cheaply produced drywall made in China can emit so much sulfur gas that it not only corrodes electrical wiring but also causes breathing problems, bloody noses and headaches for building occupants. The list goes on and on....

But perhaps trumping all of these examples is the potential disastrous health effects of global warming. Carbon dioxide emissions may not be directly responsible for health problems at or near their point of release, but in aggregate they can cause lots of distress. According to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, climate change over the coming decades is likely to increase rates of allergies, asthma, heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses. Also, it is quite likely that, as global temperature rises, diseases that were previously found only in warmer areas of the world may show up increasingly in other, previously cooler areas, where people have not yet developed natural defenses against them. And the loss of rain forest that accompanies increases in temperature means less access to undiscovered medicines and degradation of the environment’s ability to sustain our species.


Given the link between environmental problems and human health, more of us are realizing that what may seem like exorbitant up-front costs for environmental clean-up may well pay us dividends in the end when we see our overall health care costs go down and our loved ones living longer, healthier lives.

To help bridge the understanding gap between environmental problems and human health, the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences offers the free website,
Environmental Health News, which features daily reports on research showing how man-made environmental problems correspond to a wide range of individual and public health problems. Even your local TV station or newspaper likely carries an occasional story about the health effects of environmental pollution. We don’t have to look very hard to find examples of environmental neglect leading to human suffering. But with newfound public awareness and the commitment of younger generations to a cleaner future, we are moving in a good direction.

CONTACTS: Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, http://chge.med.harvard.edu; Environmental Health News, www.environmentalhealthnews.org.

 

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the differences between farmed versus wild salmon when it comes to human and environmental health?                                                                               -- Greg Diamond, Nashville, TN

 Salmon farming, which involves raising salmon in containers placed under water near shore, began in Norway about 50 years ago and has since caught on in the U.S., Ireland, Canada, Chile and the United Kingdom. Due to the large decline in wild fish from over fishing, many experts see the farming of salmon and other fish as the future of the industry. On the flip side, many marine biologists and ocean advocates fear such a future, citing serious health and ecological implications with so-called “aquaculture.”

 George Mateljan, founder of Health Valley Foods, says that farmed fish are “far inferior” to their wild counterparts. “Despite being much fattier, farmed fish provide less usable beneficial omega 3 fats than wild fish,” he says. Indeed, U.S. Department of Agriculture research bears out that the fat content of farmed salmon is 30-35 percent by weight while wild salmons’ fat content is some 20 percent lower, though with a protein content about 20 percent higher. And farm-raised fish contain higher amounts of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats instead of the preponderance of healthier omega 3s found in wild fish.

 “Due to the feedlot conditions of aquafarming, farm-raised fish are doused with antibiotics and exposed to more concentrated pesticides than their wild kin,” reports Mateljan. He adds that farmed salmon are given a salmon-colored dye in their feed “without which their flesh would be an unappetizing grey color.”

 Some aquaculture proponents claim that fish farming eases pressure on wild fish populations, but most ocean advocates disagree. To wit, one National Academy of Sciences study found that sea lice from fish farming operations killed up to 95 percent of juvenile wild salmon migrating past them. And two other studies—one in western Canada and the other in England—found that farmed salmon accumulate more cancer-causing PCBs and dioxins than wild salmon due to pesticides circulating in the ocean that get absorbed by the sardines, anchovies and other fish that are ground up as feed for the fish farms. A recent survey of U.S. grocery stores found that farmed salmon typically contains 16 times the PCBs found in wild salmon; other studies in Canada, Ireland and Great Britain reached similar conclusions.

 Another problem with fish farms is the liberal use of drugs and antibiotics to control bacterial outbreaks and parasites. These primarily synthetic chemicals spread out into marine ecosystems just from drifting in the water column as well as from fish feces. In addition, millions of farmed fish escape fish farms every year around the world and mix into wild populations, spreading contaminants and disease accordingly.

 Ocean advocates would like to end fish farming and instead put resources into reviving wild fish populations. But given the size of the industry, improving conditions would be a start. Noted Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki says that aquaculture operations could use fully enclosed systems that trap waste and do not allow farmed fish to escape into the wild ocean. As for what consumers can do, Suzuki recommends buying only wild-caught salmon and other fish. Whole Foods and other natural foods and high end grocers, as well as concerned restaurants, will stock wild salmon from Alaska and elsewhere.

CONTACTS: Health Valley Foods, www.healthvalley.com; USDA, www.usda.gov; David Suzuki Foundation, www.davidsuzuki.org.

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

 Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been hearing about the great gas mileage for Volkswagens that use diesel fuel. But is it better for the environment to use diesel or unleaded gasoline? -- K. Cronk, Bay City, MI 

In the past, diesel fuel was always considered dirtier than gasoline. But newer standards regulating sulfur content and improved technology in diesel engines have made diesel somewhat kinder to the environment. Many eco-advocates now tout diesel as a viable and preferable alternative to regular unleaded gasoline.

 Where diesel fuel really shines over gasoline is improved fuel economy thanks to its higher “energy density”: Diesel contains more power per liter than gasoline. Today’s diesel engines have 20-40 percent better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts, which some say more than makes up for the fact that they also produce about 15 percent more greenhouse gases. This greater efficiency means that diesel engines emit less carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and fewer hydrocarbons than gasoline engines.

 Diesel’s downside is that it emits larger amounts of nitrogen compounds and particulate matter (soot) that can cause respiratory problems and even cancer. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) attributes 70 percent of that state’s cancer risk from airborne toxins to soot from diesel cars and trucks. Nationwide, studies have shown a 26 percent mortality increase for those living in soot-polluted areas.

 But diesel’s dark side is getting a little brighter, thanks to new technologies such as Mercedes-Benz’ BlueTEC system (now used in many VW, Audi and Chrysler diesel models) that filters particulates while improving overall engine performance. The Diesel Technology Forum (DTF), a trade association of carmakers, engine builders and petroleum distributors, reports that technologies now commonplace in new diesel engines reduce the tailpipe output of particulate matter by as much as 90 percent and nitrogen oxides by some 50 percent compared to diesel engines on the road just a decade ago.

 “The industry has made significant strides in recent years to develop diesel systems that are cleaner and more efficient than ever before,” reports DTF. “Thanks to state-of-the-art engines, cleaner-burning fuels, effective emissions-control systems, and advancements in the fuel injection system, it would take 60 trucks sold today to equal the soot emissions of one 1988 truck.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows that airborne diesel particulate levels fell by more than 37 percent during the 1990s. 

Meanwhile, continually improving fuel efficiency standards in the European Union (where the majority of new cars purchased in many member countries use diesel fuel) are forcing carmakers to design more fuel efficient, less polluting vehicles around the world. After all, there’s no sense in designing better engines for one region with high standards and another for areas with less stringent rules. Another green benefit of diesel-powered engines is their ability to run on plant-derived biodiesel instead of petroleum-based diesel. And in the near future consumers may be able to shop for new diesel-electric hybrid cars now on the drawing boards of major automakers around the world. For now, consumers looking to buy a new or used car—diesel or otherwise—can see how different models stack up in regard to efficiency and emissions via the FuelEconomy.gov website, a joint effort of the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

 CONTACTS: CARB, www.arb.ca.gov; Mercedes-Benz’ BlueTEC, www.mbusa.com/bluetec; Diesel Technology Forum, www.dieselforum.org; FuelEconomy.gov, www.fueleconomy.gov.

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: Should I fear radiation exposure associated with medical scans such as CT scans, mammograms and the like?                                                                                    -- Shelly Johansen, Fairbanks, AK

 The short answer is…maybe. Critics of the health care industry postulate that our society’s quickness to test for disease may in fact be causing more of it, especially in the case of medical scans. To wit, the radiation dose from a typical CT scan (short for computed tomography and commonly known as a “cat scan”) is 600 times more powerful than the average chest x-ray.

 A 2007 study by Dr. Amy Berrington de González of the National Cancer Institute projected that the 72 million CT scans conducted yearly in the U.S. (not including scans conducted after a cancer diagnosis or performed at the end of life) will likely cause some 29,000 cancers resulting in 15,000 deaths two to three decades later. Scans of the abdomen, pelvis, chest and head were deemed most likely to cause cancer, and patients aged 35 to 54 were more likely to develop cancer as a result of CT scans than other age group.

 Another study found that, among Americans who received CT scans, upwards of 20 percent had a false positive after one scan and 33 percent after two, meaning that such patients were getting huge doses of radiation without cause. And about seven percent of those patients underwent unnecessary invasive medical procedures following their misleading scans. CT scans are much more common today than in earlier decades, exacerbating the potential damage from false positives and excessive radiation exposure.

 “Physicians and their patients cannot be complacent about the hazards of radiation or we risk creating a public-health time bomb,” says Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at University of California-San Francisco. “To avoid unnecessarily increasing cancer incidence in future years, every clinician must carefully assess the expected benefits of each CT scan and fully inform his or her patients of the known risks of radiation.”

 CT scans are not the only concern. Mammograms are now routine for women over 40 years old. But some studies suggest that these types of screenings may cause more cancers than they prevent. Because of this, the federally funded U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends that women not otherwise considered high risk for breast cancer wait until age 50 to begin getting mammograms—and then to get them every two years instead of annually. However, the American Cancer Society argues that such restraint would result in women dying unnecessarily from delaying screenings.

 Women with a family history of breast cancer may be at greatest risk. Researchers from the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands found that five or more x-rays—or any exposure to radiation—before the age of 20 for “high risk” women increased the likelihood of developing breast cancer later by a factor of two and a half.

 Individuals should ask tough questions of their physicians to determine if and how much screening is absolutely necessary to look for suspected abnormalities. Our knowledge of the risks of radiation-based screenings will only help us to make more informed decisions about our health.

 EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

 Dear EarthTalk: What is happening with various programs initiated over the years in the U.S. to return to the wild certain animal species that had been endangered or threatened? And do environmentalists tend to be for or against such efforts?            -- Susan Adams, Owl’s Head, ME

 From the standpoint of species and ecosystem health, limited attempts at predator reintroduction in the United States have for the most part proven very successful. The gray wolf, extirpated by hunters in the Yellowstone region some 90 years ago, is now thriving there in the wake of a controversial reintroduction program initiated in 1995, when the National Park Service released 31 gray wolves into the park’s expansive backcountry. Today as many as 170 gray wolves roam the park and environs, while the elk population—which was denuding many iconic park landscapes in the absence of its chief predator—has fallen by half, in what many environmentalists see as a win-win scenario.

 Other reintroduction efforts across the U.S. have also been successful. From the lynx in Colorado to the condor in California to the Black-footed ferret on the Plains, scientists are pleased with how well reintroduced species have taken to their new surroundings. As a result, many conservationists now view the reintroduction of iconic wildlife species as key to restoring otherwise degraded natural landscapes.

 “When we kill off big cats, wolves and other wild hunters, we lose not only prominent species, but also the key ecological and evolutionary process of top-down regulation,” says the non-profit Rewilding Institute, adding that the recovery of large native carnivores should be the heart of any conservation strategy in areas where such predators have disappeared. “Wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverines, grizzly and black bears, jaguars, sea otters and other top carnivores need to be restored throughout North America in ecologically effective densities in their natural ranges where suitable habitat remains or can be restored.”

 Not everyone is so bullish on wildlife reintroduction programs, despite their success. As for the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, ranchers operating on private land outside park boundaries still complain about the threat of free-roaming wolves poaching their livestock. In response, the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife has implemented its Wolf Conservation Trust whereby donated funds are channeled toward paying ranchers fair market value for any stock lost to wolf predation. The group hopes the fund will “eliminate a major factor in political opposition to wolf recovery” by shifting the economic burden of wolf recovery from livestock producers to those who support wolf reintroduction.

 Some environmental advocates also oppose wildlife reintroductions. One argument is that people have “played God” enough and should stop tinkering even more with wildlife and ecosystems, especially given that the overall long-term impact is always uncertain. And some animal advocates dislike such strategies from a humanitarian perspective: “Reintroduction programs subject wild animals to capturing and handling, which is always stressful for them, and may eventually put them in the line of fire of farmers who are already angry about predator-reintroduction programs,” claims People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), adding that, when predators are reintroduced to an area where they have long been absent, prey species tend to scatter and “their lives and behavior patterns are turned upside-down.”

 CONTACTS: The Rewilding Institute, www.rewilding.org; Defenders of Wildlife, www.defenders.org; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), www.peta.org.

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

When you look deep enough what do you see? Hubble Telescope saw...

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

 Dear EarthTalk: If the ice caps are melting, what is happening to the salt content of the oceans? And might this contribute to weather patterns or cause other environmental problems? -- George Boyer, via e-mail

 It’s true that the melting of the polar ice caps as a result of global warming is sending large amounts of freshwater into the world’s oceans. Environmentalists and many climate scientists fear that if the climate heats up fast enough and melts off the remaining polar ice rapidly, the influx of freshwater could disturb ocean currents enough to drastically change the weather on the land as well.

 The Gulf Stream, a ribbon of ocean water that delivers heat from the tropics up to the North Atlantic, keeps northeastern U.S. and northwestern Europe weather much milder than other areas at the same latitude around the globe. In theory, less salt in the ocean could stall out the Gulf Stream and rob some of the world’s greatest civilization centers of their natural heating source, plunging the two continents into a cold snap that could last decades or longer—even as the rest of the globe warms around them.

 The Gulf Stream keeps running because the warmer water travelling north is lighter than cold water, so it floats on top and keeps moving. As the current approaches the northern Atlantic and disgorges its heat, it grows denser and sinks, at which point it flows back to the south, crossing under the northbound Gulf Stream, until it reaches the tropics to start the cycle all over again. This cycle has allowed humans and other life forms to thrive across wide swaths of formerly frozen continents over thousands of years. But if too much dilution occurs, the water will get lighter, idling on top and stalling out the system.

"The melting of the polar ice caps is sending large amounts of fresh water into the world�s oceans. Many climate scientists fear that if the climate heats up fast enough and melts off the remaining polar ice rapidly, the influx of fresh water could stall out the Gulf Stream and rob the northeastern U.S. and northwestern Europe of their natural heating source, plunging the two continents into a cold snap that could last decades or longer."
 
credit  image to "Getty Images."

 Some scientists worry that this grim future is fast approaching. Researchers from Britain's National Oceanography Center have noticed a marked slowing in the Gulf Stream since the late 1950s. They suspect that the increased release of Arctic and Greenland meltwater is to blame for overwhelming the cycle, and fear that more warming could plunge temperatures significantly lower across land masses known as some of the most hospitable places for humans to live.

 Of course—not surprisingly—others have noted a contradictory trend: Some parts of the world’s oceans are getting saltier. Researchers from the UK’s Met Office and Reading University reported in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters that warmer temperatures over southerly sections of the Atlantic Ocean have significantly increased evaporation and reduced rainfall from Africa to the Caribbean in recent years, concentrating salt in the water that’s left behind. In fact, the Atlantic in this region is about 0.5 percent saltier than it was four decades ago.

 But given how little we really know about the future effects of our carbon loading of the atmosphere, calling these two trends contradictory might be premature—as the two regions of ocean interact with one another and are part of a larger whole. Looking instead at the big picture, it’s clear that climate change is already having a relatively large effect on the world’s oceans by fundamentally altering evaporation and precipitation cycles. Only time will tell how dramatic the results of these changes will be.

 CONTACTS: National Oceanography Center, www.noc.soton.ac.uk; Met Office, www.metoffice.gov.uk; Geophysical Research Letters, www.agu.org/journals/gl/.

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

EarthTalk®  From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk
: I am very concerned about the amount of chlorine in my tap water. I called my water company and they said it is safe just let the tap run for awhile to rid the smell of the chlorine. But that just gets rid of the smell, perhaps, not the chlorine?
   -- Anita Frigo, Milford, CT
 Thousands of American municipalities add chlorine to their drinking water to get rid of contaminants like microbes, nitrates, arsenic and pesticides. But this inexpensive and highly effective disinfectant has a dark side. “Chlorine, added as an inexpensive and effective drinking water disinfectant, is also a known poison to the body,” says Vanessa Lausch of filter manufacturer Aquasana. “It is certainly no coincidence that chlorine gas was used with deadly effectiveness as a weapon in the First World War.” The gas would severely burn the lungs and other body tissues when inhaled, and is no less powerful when ingested by mouth.

 Lausch adds that researchers have now linked chlorine in drinking water to higher incidences of bladder, rectal and breast cancers. Reportedly chlorine, once in water, interacts with organic compounds to create trihalomethanes (THMs)—which when ingested encourage the growth of free radicals that can destroy or damage vital cells in the body. “Because so much of the water we drink ends up in the bladder and/or rectum, ingestions of THMs in drinking water are particularly damaging to these organs,” says Lausch.

 The link between chlorine and bladder and rectal cancers has long been known, but only recently have researchers found a link between common chlorine disinfectant and breast cancer, which affects one out of every eight American women. A recent study conducted in Hartford, Connecticut found that women with breast cancer have 50-60 percent higher levels of organochlorines (chlorine by-products) in their breast tissue than cancer-free women. But don't think that buying bottled water is any solution. Much of the bottled water for sale in the U.S. comes from public municipal water sources that are often treated with, you guessed it, chlorine. A few cities have switched over to other means of disinfecting their water supplies. Las Vegas, for example, has followed the lead of many European and Canadian cities in switching over to harmless ozone instead of chlorine to disinfect its municipal water supply. As for getting rid of the chlorine that your city or town adds to its drinking water on your own, theories abound. Some swear by the method of letting their water sit for 24 hours so that the chlorine in the glass or pitcher will off-gas. Letting the tap run for a while is not likely to remove any sizable portion of chlorine, unless one were to then let the water sit overnight before consuming it.

Of course, an easier way to get rid of chlorine from your tap water is by installing a carbon-based filter, which absorbs chlorine and other contaminants before they get into your glass or body. Tap-based filters from the likes of Paragon, Aquasana, Kenmore, Seagul and others remove most if not all of the chlorine in tap water, and are relatively inexpensive to boot. A more aggressive solution is to restructure your water for increased health benefits with a Kangen water machine.

 Editors Note: See our sponsor link  KANGEN = MiracleWater 

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk®is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

 Dear EarthTalk: Where do I recycle old ski boots (hard plastic)? My recycling center does not take hard plastic.                                                                                                                              -- Beth Fitzpatrick, Stamford, CT               

Americans recycle more plastic than ever these days, but there are still plenty of items that are not accepted by municipalities, including many hard plastic items like ski boots.

 If such items are still usable, consider donating them to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army store, which can sell them and put the money earned toward housing and feeding those less fortunate. Another option would be to sell or give them to a second-hand sporting goods store, which might even give you trade-in credit toward an upgrade. If you can’t find somewhere local, you can ship them to Colorado-based Boulder Ski Deals. The company accepts ski boots (along with skis, bindings, poles and snowboards) for recycling, donating usable equipment to charitable programs and shredding the rest for re-use in making new products.

 The fact that it is so difficult to recycle hard plastic items is a growing issue as we all try to minimize our impact on the environment. Everyone involved with the lifecycle of a given item—from manufacturer to retailer to consumer—can share the blame when something ends up taking up precious space in a landfill instead of being recycled in one way or another. Concerned consumers should make sure that a given item is easy to recycle when its usefulness runs its course before buying it in the first place. It also can’t hurt to let a manufacturer know that you didn’t purchase a given product because it didn’t meet your recyclability standards. Manufacturers want to make products that people will buy and such feedback can go a long way to getting them to re-think their practices.

 Likewise, municipalities need to hear from residents if there is a need to expand the types of items accepted for recycling. If enough people are willing to recycle a certain type of item, it may be worthwhile for the municipality to expand capacity and move into new markets.

 The good news is that there are plenty of firms that are happy to take back otherwise difficult-to-recycle stuff. The non-profit Earth911 offers up a free searchable online database of different types of recyclers keyed to the user’s zip code anywhere across the United States. If no local provider comes up, the site will refer users to a place that accepts shipped items. Another good resource is the consulting firm Eco-Officiency’s concise yet comprehensive online list of companies around the country that accept different types of hard plastic and other hard-to-recycle items.

 Consumers should keep in mind that they may have to pay for the privilege of recycling certain items, as well as shipping costs. If you can swing it, think of it as a tax for buying something less friendly to the environment. Maybe next time you’ll look for one made out of easier-to-recycle materials.

 CONTACTS: Boulder Ski Deals, www.boulderskideals.com; Earth911, www.earth911.org; Eco-Officiency’s Recycling and Donation Resources, www.eco-officiency.com/resources_recycling.html.

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

EarthTalk®  From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine Haiti Aftermath Concerns
Dear EarthTalk
: What are the primary environmental concerns in the aftermath of the big earthquake in Haiti?
-- Frank Dover, Portland, OR

As would be the case after any natural disaster, water-borne illness could run rampant and chemicals and oil could leak out of damaged storage facilities as a result of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that ripped apart Haiti on January 12. Surprisingly, no large industrial spills have been found during initial post-quake rescue efforts, but of course the focus has been on saving human lives and restoring civil order.  According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the biggest issue is the building waste; some 40 to 50 percent of the buildings fell in Port-au-Prince and nearby towns. “Thousands of buildings suddenly become debris and this overwhelms the capacity of waste management,” says UNEP’s Muralee Thummarukudy, who is directing efforts to collect the waste for use in reconstruction projects.

 Even before the quake Haiti had major environmental problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s reduced Haiti’s forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. “If you have forest cover, when heavy rain takes place it doesn’t erode the land,” UNEP’s Asif Zaidi reports. “It doesn’t result in flash floods.” He adds that, due to its lack of forest cover, Haiti suffers much more during hurricanes than does the neighboring Dominican Republic. "Even before the earthquake Haiti had major environmental and economic problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s has reduced Haiti's forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. The earthquake has only exacerbated problems in this country of 9.7 million people that is the poorest in the Western hemisphere."  Photo credit "Remi Kaupp, Wikipedia."

 Compounding these ecological insults is Haiti’s fast growing population, now 9.7 million and growing by 2.5 percent per year. This has pushed millions of Haitians into marginal areas like floodplains and on land that could otherwise be used profitably. “Most fertile land areas are often used for slums, while hillsides and steep landscapes are used for agriculture,” reports USAID’s Beth Cypser. The resulting sanitation problems have stepped up cases of dysentery, malaria and drug-resistant tuberculosis among Haiti’s poverty-stricken population. Trash-filled beaches, smelly waterways, swarms of dead fish and tons of floating debris stand testament to Haiti’s water pollution problems—now exacerbated by the earthquake.

 “We need to…create mechanisms that reinforce better use of natural resources," says UNEP’s Zaidi. Prior to the quake, UNEP had committed to a two-year project to bolster to restore Haiti’s forests, coral reefs and other natural systems compromised by the island’s economic problems. Providing access to propane to encourage a shift from charcoal-burning stoves is an immediate goal. Longer term, UNEP hopes the program will help kick-start reforestation efforts and investments in renewable energy infrastructure there.

 Perhaps the silver lining of the earthquake in Haiti is the fact that millions of people around the world now know about the plight of the country’s people and environment, and donations have started to pour in. Anyone interested in helping relief efforts in Haiti can send a text message triggering a small donation to the American Red Cross (text “HAITI” to 90999 and $10 will be donated and added to your next phone bill). Those concerned about clean water specifically should donate to World Water Relief, a non-profit focusing on the installation of water filtration systems in Haiti and other distressed areas of the world.

 CONTACTS: USAID, www.usaid.gov; UNEP, www.unep.org; American Red Cross, www.redcross.org; World Water Relief, www.worldwaterrelief.org. SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

EarthTalk®  From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve read that human breast milk contains toxins from pollution and other causes. How serious is this and what affect will it have on my baby?
      -- Skylar S., New York, NY

 Researchers have found that those of us living in developed countries—men, women and children alike—carry around quite a toxic burden in our bodies from the constant exposure to various chemicals in our urban, suburban and even rural environments. If this weren’t alarming enough, the fact that these chemicals end up in breast milk and are in turn passed along to newborns is even more troubling.

 According to writer Florence Williams, whose groundbreaking 2005 article in the New York Times Magazine opened many women’s eyes to the environmental health issues with breastfeeding, breast milk tends to attract heavy metals and other contaminants due to its high-fat and protein content. “When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms and cerebral synapses,” she reports. “We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.”

 In the wake of such kinds of news reports, four nursing mothers came together in 2005 to form Make Our Milk Safe (MOMS), a nonprofit engaging in education, advocacy and corporate campaigns to try to eliminate toxic chemicals from the environment and in breast milk. The group educates pregnant women and others about the impacts on children of exposure to chemicals before, during and after pregnancy, and promotes safer alternatives to products such as cleaning supplies, food storage containers and personal care products that contain offending substances. Photos Getty Images

“Along with its antibodies, enzymes and general goodness, breast milk also contains dozens of compounds that have been linked to negative health effects,” reports MOMS, which lists Bisphenol-A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (used in flame retardants), perchlorate (used in rocket fuel), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics), polyvinyl chloride (PVC, commonly known as vinyl) and the heavy metals cadmium, lead and mercury as leading offenders.

 Despite these concerns, some recent research has shown the toxic load in breast milk to be smaller than that in the air most city dwellers breathe inside their homes. Researchers from Ohio State and Johns Hopkins universities measured levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breast milk and in the air inside the homes of three lactating Baltimore mothers, finding that a nursing infant’s chemical exposure from airborne pollutants to be between 25 and 135 times higher than from drinking mother’s milk.

 “We ought to focus our efforts on reducing the indoor air sources of these compounds,” said Johns Hopkins’ Sungroul Kim, the study’s lead author. He concurs with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other public health experts that, despite breast milk’s vulnerability to chemical contamination, the benefits of breast feeding—from the nutrition and important enzymes and antibodies it supplies to the mother/child bonding it provides—far outweigh the risks.

 CONTACTS: MOMS, www.safemilk.org; Study: Volatile Organic Compounds in Human Milk, www.pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es062362y; CDC, www.cdc.gov.

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

EarthTalk®  From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk
: I am very concerned about the amount of chlorine in my tap water. I called my water company and they said it is safe just let the tap run for awhile to rid the smell of the chlorine. But that just gets rid of the smell, perhaps, not the chlorine?
   -- Anita Frigo, Milford, CT
 Thousands of American municipalities add chlorine to their drinking water to get rid of contaminants like microbes, nitrates, arsenic and pesticides. But this inexpensive and highly effective disinfectant has a dark side. “Chlorine, added as an inexpensive and effective drinking water disinfectant, is also a known poison to the body,” says Vanessa Lausch of filter manufacturer Aquasana. “It is certainly no coincidence that chlorine gas was used with deadly effectiveness as a weapon in the First World War.” The gas would severely burn the lungs and other body tissues when inhaled, and is no less powerful when ingested by mouth.

 Lausch adds that researchers have now linked chlorine in drinking water to higher incidences of bladder, rectal and breast cancers. Reportedly chlorine, once in water, interacts with organic compounds to create trihalomethanes (THMs)—which when ingested encourage the growth of free radicals that can destroy or damage vital cells in the body. “Because so much of the water we drink ends up in the bladder and/or rectum, ingestions of THMs in drinking water are particularly damaging to these organs,” says Lausch.

 The link between chlorine and bladder and rectal cancers has long been known, but only recently have researchers found a link between common chlorine disinfectant and breast cancer, which affects one out of every eight American women. A recent study conducted in Hartford, Connecticut found that women with breast cancer have 50-60 percent higher levels of organochlorines (chlorine by-products) in their breast tissue than cancer-free women. But don't think that buying bottled water is any solution. Much of the bottled water for sale in the U.S. comes from public municipal water sources that are often treated with, you guessed it, chlorine. A few cities have switched over to other means of disinfecting their water supplies. Las Vegas, for example, has followed the lead of many European and Canadian cities in switching over to harmless ozone instead of chlorine to disinfect its municipal water supply. As for getting rid of the chlorine that your city or town adds to its drinking water on your own, theories abound. Some swear by the method of letting their water sit for 24 hours so that the chlorine in the glass or pitcher will off-gas. Letting the tap run for a while is not likely to remove any sizable portion of chlorine, unless one were to then let the water sit overnight before consuming it.

Of course, an easier way to get rid of chlorine from your tap water is by installing a carbon-based filter, which absorbs chlorine and other contaminants before they get into your glass or body. Tap-based filters from the likes of Paragon, Aquasana, Kenmore, Seagul and others remove most if not all of the chlorine in tap water, and are relatively inexpensive to boot. A more aggressive solution is to restructure your water for increased health benefits with a Kangen water machine. Editors Note: See our sponsor link  KANGEN = MiracleWater 

 SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk®is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

 

 

 

 

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