Monday, December 31, 2007

Chicago to Tax Water Bottles

From the Chicago Tribune, December 24th, 2007:

Chicago is set to impose a 5-cent tax on bottled water on Jan. 1, becoming the first major U.S. city to demand such a surcharge. The move -- which officials predict will secure an extra $10.5 million annually -- will help the city plug a budget hole by building on the growing disdain for environmentally suspect bottles.

In the last year, the tide has turned on bottled water, once admired as a healthy alternative to soft drinks. Now, as environmentalists take aim at the clear plastic bottles, politicians can take their own potshots.

Critics of the tax warn it could create a black market for water and spur consumers to shop in neighboring towns where a case of water will cost significantly less. While convenience store or vending machine water may only increase from $1.25 to $1.30 per bottle, the average cost of a 24-pack will go from $3.99 to $5.19, a 30 percent hike.

With 90 percent of bottled water sales consisting of cases sold at supermarkets, retail experts predict the tax will hurt local grocers as customers go outside the city to save money on water. The bottled water industry expects a 50 percent drop in Chicago sales, putting a dent in anticipated revenue from the tax...

Businesses in neighboring communities are preparing themselves for the border crossings...In an effort to promote city tap water -- which consistently earns high marks for its taste and cleanliness -- city officials acknowledge they want to curb the bottled variety's use. Illinois residents consumed 270 million gallons of bottled water in 2005, making it the seventh-biggest bottled water consumer in the United States, according to New York-based Beverage Marketing.

Consumers can avoid the tax by purchasing enhanced or sparkling water such as Perrier, Water Joe, Smart Water or Vitamin Water. The additives, supplements or carbonation in those beverages differentiate themselves enough from kitchen sink variety to evade the surcharge, according to the new law.

"It has to be like tap water [to be subjected to the tax] because that's the alterative you have to plain bottled water," said Ed Walsh, spokesman for the city's Revenue Department. "You can't go to the tap and get flavored water or enhanced water."

Once touted as the gateway to a healthier lifestyle, bottled water has quickly transformed into a symbol of American wastefulness. U.S. sales of bottled water topped 11.9 billion in 2006, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

Americans drink more bottled water than any other beverage with the exception of carbonated soft drinks, according to the International Bottled Water Association. To meet the demand, the Earth Policy Institute estimates manufacturers use more than 17 million barrels of oil -- enough fuel to run 1 million U.S. cars for a full year -- in making polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottles.

Only 23 percent of those bottles, however, are recycled, according to the Container Recycling Institute. The rest are tossed in to landfills, many of which already grapple with space shortages.

As bottled water consumption nearly doubled over the past five years, conservationists launched an aggressive campaign against the industry..."Bottled water is an easy way to get people involved in protecting the environment," said local activist Rachael Albers, a Lakeview resident who has worked to get bottled water banned from social functions at her church. "Not everyone can buy a Prius or hybrid car. But everyone can stop drinking bottled water."

I always enjoy reading the comments section of articles regarding environmental laws that will impact people's lives in some way. For the most part, the Chicagoans' comments are nuanced and thought-provoking, such as this one from Scott Free: "Recycling" plastic water bottles does not turn them into new plastic water bottles; it turns them into a lower grade of plastic that's used for things like replacing wood in outdoor furniture. New water bottles are still made of petroleum, and all the plastic that went into your water bottle is still there in the environment, waiting for its ultimate disposal. This may take hundreds of thousands of years, until nature evolves a bacterium capable of digesting plastic. Bottom line: recycling these things is a feel-good activity that does little to reduce trash in the environment and nothing to reduce our consumption of oil.

In the end, the tax is likely to be worse for the environment, as people burn more gasoline and emit more pollution driving to the 'burbs to stock up. Of course, it's not about the environment; it's about money. As is everything in Chicago.

Many of the comments bring up the interesting issue of driving out of your way to save a few cents on gas or a product at a store. Are you ultimately saving any money? I guess you'd have to do the math of how much you save on a gallon x the number of gallons/ how many miles you can go on a gallon and compare it to the number of extra miles you have to drive. Just something to think about!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Well, the month of December was quite busy for me, and I was unable to keep up with the blog for a few weeks. Despite the lack of articles on The Future Earth lately, I have been following many environmental stories in the news, I have gotten some new books to read, and I am brimming with ideas for articles.

Much has been happening in Congress regarding laws that will impact our health and the environment. Since toxic toys and other products have been in the news much lately, voters have been pressuring politicians to do something about it. From the Washington Post, December 20th:

The House passed legislation yesterday that would ban lead from children's products, require toy testing by independent labs, and boost funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission over the next several years. But the Senate left without taking up that bill or a version passed by a Senate committee in October, making it less likely that toys sold next year will be affected by any regulatory changes. On Tuesday, Congress approved two far more limited measures affecting the agency as part of a larger spending bill. It passed $80 million for the 2008 fiscal year budget for the CPSC and a ban on industry-sponsored travel for commissioners and staff...The bill's sponsors hope to cut a deal with the White House and Senate Republicans by the time Congress returns in late January. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who sponsored the Senate bill, said on the floor yesterday that he was "very close to achieving bipartisan compromise to allow this bill to go forward early next year."

Another issue that voters are demanding action on is higher energy standards for vehicles. And not just because of global warming. According toUS News and World Report on December 13th: This fall, Republican pollster Bill McInturff was surprised to find one issue uniting every segment of the U.S. electorate, from solid Republicans focused on national security to Democratic global-thinking environmentalists. All put America's dependence on foreign oil at the top of the political agenda. "An issue essentially not on the radar screen two years ago now cuts across all different segments," McInturff says.

It's a finding in repeated polls, and it goes a long way toward explaining the relentless drive to force automakers for the first time in decades to engineer better gas mileage for their fleets. Although Congress and President Bush remain at odds over energy policy, both say they want to increase the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard—to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 in the favored Capitol Hill proposal. Meanwhile, in a drama that may play out through President Bush's final days, as many as 17 states, led by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have vowed to force carmakers to improve mileage even faster.

While battles continue, the carmakers themselves say that the atmosphere is altered and that they support higher standards, even as they work to shape the details in their favor. "Certainly, there have been changes with regard to the cost of gasoline, the political situation in the Middle East, and most importantly, control of Congress," says Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It "was more of a question of how the standards would be increased, not whether they'd be increased."

...In October, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman completed a survey for Pew finding that a stunning 87 percent of Americans favored stricter CAFE standards and that voters' views on Congress would improve if this goal were achieved.

McInturff came up with similar findings in his work for Pew and for Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "We have the confluence of gas fatigue and Iraq fatigue," says McInturff. "There's no question a majority of Americans think we have gone to war for oil and that it's a huge cause of our engagement in the Middle East. Combine that with $3-a-gallon gasoline."

On December 6th, the House passed the 2007 Energy bill. A week later, the Senate passed a watered-down version of the bill that was signed into law by President Bush on Decmber 19th. Representative Ed Markey explained the bill on the Huffington Post:

Improving Fuel Economy? Yes. 40 percent increase by 2020, from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon.
Investing in Renewable Fuels? Yes. Ambitious goals for transition from corn ethanol to climate-friendly cellulosic ethanol.
Renewable Electricity Standard? No, not yet. The Senate failed to overcome objections lodged by Senators from the southeast who believe -- against all evidence to the contrary -- that the South is not a good region for turning the sun into energy.
Lighting and Appliance Efficiency? Yes.
Creating Green Jobs? Yes.
Building Efficiency? Yes. Although incentives for zero-emissions efficient building were cut back, these provisions are still a robust new initiative.
Nuclear Loan Guarantees? Not in the energy bill, although proponents are busy reinforcing the fact that without endless subsidies, nuclear electricity can't survive in a capitalist economy.
Long-term Production Tax Credit for Wind and Solar? No, not yet.
Ending the special tax deduction for Hummers? No, not now. Ouch. When the Senate dropped most tax provisions, this went with it, but it may soon return.

Overall, by 2030, the Energy Bill will reduce the U.S. global warming emissions by nearly a quarter of what's needed to save the planet and will reduce our consumption of oil by more than 4 million barrels per day, which is more than twice the amount of oil we currently import from the Persian Gulf. The strong energy efficiency provisions for our buildings and appliances will make more than 100 coal-fired power plants unnecessary, avoiding massive amounts of heat-trapping pollution. In short, we are making serious progress towards breaking down the barriers to more energy efficiency and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

I know that getting a bill passed requires compromise , but 35mpg by 2020? My Honda got that mileage in 1994. I am not fooled into thinking this is landmark legislation. We can do better than this!

California proposed its own, more restrictive limits to greenhouse gasses from automobiles, requiring a 30-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the first cutbacks starting in 2009. The Clean Air Act allows California to pass its own emmission standards provided that the EPA grants it a waiver. Other states are allowed to adopt the same rules as California. A suit brought by automakers to stop California's stricter regulations was thrown out of court and it appeared that there were no further obstacles. But in a surpise move in mid-December, the EPA refused to grant the waiver.

On December 21st, the LA Times reported The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored his staff's written findings in denying California's request for a waiver...

"California met every criteria . . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers," said an EPA staffer. "We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

PA administrator Stephen L. Johnson announced Wednesday that because President Bush had signed an energy bill raising average fuel economy that there was no need or justification for separate state regulation. He also said that California's request did not meet the legal standard set out in the Clean Air Act.

But his staff, which had worked for months on the waiver decision, concluded just the opposite, the sources said Thursday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media or because they feared reprisals...California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to fight in court to overturn the decision.

Technical and legal staff also concluded that if the waiver were denied, EPA would very likely lose in court to the state, the sources said. But if Johnson granted California the waiver and the auto industry sued, "EPA is almost certain to win," said two sources quoting the briefing document. They advised him to either grant the waiver outright or give California a temporary one for three years.

Instead, three sources said, Johnson cut off any consultation with his technical staff for the last month and made his decision before having them write the formal, legal justification for it. "It's very highly unusual," said one source with close ties to the agency.

"Clearly the White House said, 'We're going to get EPA out of the way and get California out of the way. If you give us this energy bill, then we're done, the deal is done,' " said one staffer....Staff and critics said delay or outright elimination of the federal regulation on vehicles spells possible trouble for regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from other major sources.

"Once EPA makes the . . . finding on vehicles, then it opens the door to standards for smokestack industries as well," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch. "That's why the Chamber of Commerce and all the others wrote to the Senate. . . . They weren't doing it because they were worried about fuel economy for cars. The did it because they understand the legal ramifications if EPA moves forward with greenhouse gas standards."

Other news that I have been following includes the 2007 Farm Bill. I hope to write about this subject very soon.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Manufacturers and Retailers Selling Bisphenol A Products React to Consumer and Shareholder Pressure

Perhaps I have been wrong in looking to the government to act on the problem of Bisphenol A. There are signs that the marketplace will ultimately be where action is taken. This week, Mountain Equipment, a large Canadian retailer of hiking and camping supplies, announced that it is pulling all water bottles made from BPA from its shelves.

And according to today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, In the past two years, more than two dozen shareholder resolutions have taken publicly held corporations to task for their use of potentially toxic chemicals, according to the Investor Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit for money managers and shareholder groups that use investments to pressure corporations on chemical issues.

Whole Foods Market reacted to the pressure by removing baby bottles containing Bisphenol A from its shelves. Wal-mart has been urging suppliers to inform them of the chemicals used in their products.

According to the Sentinel: Though the chemical resolutions have received little media attention, activist shareholders are convinced that will soon change.

"Have you seen the number of recalls lately?" said Lauren Compere, director of shareholder advocacy at Boston Common Asset Management. "We're saying, 'Deal with this proactively, it's a form of risk management . . . We're talking about risk to your reputation.'"

...Last year almost 45% of Hasbro shareholders backed a resolution that noted the toy giant "sells many toys made out of or packaged in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, a substance which has come under scrutiny due to health and environmental concerns." It called on the company to review its policies regarding "social, environmental and economic sustainability," including the PVC issue.

Liroff explained that the softly worded bureaucratic language in the resolutions is required by law. Even with that, he said, corporations are getting the message, noting that the Hasbro vote was the largest one ever cast favoring a chemical resolution. Generally, winning 10% of the vote on a resolution opposed by management is viewed as a victory.

Wayne Charness, a Hasbro spokesman, said the company responded by posting an expanded and "more robust" corporate social responsibility statement on its Web site.

...RiskMetrics Group, a consulting firm that advises large institutional investors such as pension and mutual funds, frequently recommends that its clients support resolutions that would remove potentially dangerous chemicals from products. Last month it expanded its policy so that it will now also typically advise investors in retail operations to favor the motions.

Jim Letsky, RiskMetrics director of governance research and policy, said a company can damage its reputation or face lawsuits if it sells products that are later found to contain toxic chemicals.

"It's not a matter of being altruistic," Letsky said. "It's a matter of being smart in the long term."

As consumers, we can put pressure on retailers too by not buying products laced with bisphenol A, phthalates, styrene, or PVC. Only buy packaged food and drink in glass, paper or plastics labelled 1, 2, 4 and 5. Avoid plastics numbered 3, 6 or 7. Buy stainless steel bottles for drinking water on-the-go such as Klean Kanteen instead of nalgene drinking bottles. Complain to the store if a product you purchase is over-packaged with non-recyclable materials.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Toxic Toys Databases

With the holidays fast approaching and toy recalls being announced daily, it occurred to me that someone should create a database of all toys being reported to contain lead or other toxins. I looked, and found that people already have. So if you want to check anything before buying it, here are some links.

Toy Safety Database
Consumer Product Safety Commission

Saturday, November 24, 2007

More About Dry Cleaning

In August, The Future Earth researched 3 types of dry cleaning, finding that each one posed a hazard to the environment or to the wearer. The good news is that I have since heard about 2 new kinds of professional cleaning methods- one wet and the other dry- that appear to be much safer.

Professional wet cleaning has been adapted for use on 'dry clean only' fabrics. The machines are much gentler than standard washing machines. There are no volatile organic compounds involved. This is pretty much the same thing as hand-washing clothes yourself, as I often do with my 'dry clean only' clothes. In 2003, Consumer Reports did a comparison of professional cleaning methods. This is what they found for the garments they had wet-cleaned: This method left the lambswool jacket severely pilled in all three cases. Two jackets looked as though they had not been pressed. One shrank. The sizing was removed from one skirt, so it looked limp. Another skirt shrank from a size 14 to about a size 10. The silk blouses took to water fairly well: Only one showed slight fading. They also mention wet cleaning is not covered by textile-care-labeling regulations. So if your garment is labeled "dry-clean," you opt to have it wet cleaned, and the garment is damaged, the clothing manufacturer likely would not be liable. I had no idea you could hold a garment manufacturer liable once something has been cleaned, did you?

Then there is liquid carbon dioxide cleaning. I was sceptical of this method at first, because I wondered if more CO2 is created during the process. But according to the Co-op America website, While CO2 is a main greenhouse gas, no new CO2 is generated with this technology, so it does not contribute to global warming... Liquid CO2 companies recapture the CO2 that's already a by-product of several manufacturing processes, and they then recycle it into the liquid solvent for cleaning clothes. The main drawback is that, while the CO2 itself is both cheap and abundant, the cost of a CO2 dry cleaning machine is very high—a new machine costs around $40,000. Few dry cleaners are adopting this technique for this reason. However, in the long run, these machines will save money by eliminating the disposal and regulatory costs associated with perc. Consumer Reports found this to be the best method of all of the methods tried in terms of preservation of the look and feel of the clothing tested.

The Co-op America website warns that you should ask the business whether they use a Solvair machine. In this case, the machine also uses glycol ether, which is a suspected neuro-, respiratory, and kidney toxin, and a possible hormone disrupter, according to the EPA. Another way to tell is to find out if the business is a member of the Carbon Dioxide Dry Cleaners Alliance (I couldn't find a website for them), which does not admit those who use Solvair machines.

To find out if there is a professional wet-cleaner or liquid carbon dioxide (glycol-ether-free) cleaner in your neighborhood, plug your zip code into this website. According to the website, there are none within 25 miles of my Brooklyn neighborhood. I heard about a CO2 cleaner that just opened in TriBeCa. I wonder if they are not listed because they are too new, or because they use a Solvair machine?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Even Fox News Features a Clip About the Dangers of Bisphenol A

I thought this segment on Fox News was a good description of the dangers of bisphenol A. (In a bit of irony from an environmental perspective, you have to watch a short add for an SUV at the beginning of the video.) Anyway, I am so glad that this is finally being discussed in the mainstream media. The day this chemical is finally banned in the United States, I am going to throw a huge party.

Jellyfish Attack Salmon Farm

Today's London Telegraph features a story that is a really bizzare example of the side-effects of global warming.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

REACH: What Effect Will European Legislation Have on Your Life?

In December 2006, the European Union enacted legislation entitled REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of CHemicals). It requires industries to gather information on the chemicals they produce or import, and to register that information with a database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki.

Furthermore, it will restrict the use of or require substitution for chemicals shown to be harmful. From the website of the European Commission Environment Directorate General: Substances with properties of very high concern will be made subject to authorisation; the Agency will publish a list containing such candidate substances. Applicants will have to demonstrate that risks associated with uses of these substances are adequately controlled or that the socio-economic benefits of their use outweigh the risks. Applicants must also analyse whether there are safer suitable alternative substances or technologies... The Commission may amend or withdraw any authorisation on review if suitable substitutes become available... The restrictions provide a procedure to regulate that the manufacture, placing on the market or use of certain dangerous substances shall be either subject to conditions or prohibited.

The website has a timeline for enactment of the legislation: By 1 June 2008 the Commission will review Annex I (rules for chemical safety reports), Annex IV (substances exempted from registration where sufficient information is known showing that they cause minimal risk because of their intrinsic properties) and Annex V (substances exempted from registration under the pre-REACH legislation) of the REACH Regulation. By 1 December 2008 the Commission will review Annex XIII (criteria for identification of persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic or very persistent and very bio-accumulative substances (PBTs and vPvBs). By 1 June 2012, the Commission will review the scope of the REACH Regulation. This is to avoid overlaps with other relevant Community provisions and the rules concerning the European Chemicals Agency. By 1 June 2013, the Commission will review whether or not substances that have endocrine disrupting properties should still be authorised if a suitable safer alternative exists. By 1 June 2019, the Commission will review whether or not to extend the obligation to submit a Chemical Safety Report (CSR) to CMR substances below 10 tonnes and after twelve years a similar review will consider all substances below 10 tonnes. Furthermore, by 1 June 2019, the Commission will also carry out a review on whether or not to extend the duty to inform consumers about substances in articles to other substances which are not of very high concern but which could still be dangerous or unpleasant (e.g. allergens). The requirement for a reproductive toxicity test for volumes between 10 and 100 t per year (laid down in Annex VIII) will be also reviewed by the same date.

So what does this mean for American consumers and industries? Currently, we are protected by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed by Congress in 1976. The act authorizes, but does not require, the EPA to review the risks of a new chemical, require testing if it deems necessary, and regulate its use if it is found to show harmful effects on humans or the environment. The EPA must impose the least burdensome regulations possible. They are allowed to require warning labels if appropriate. However, any chemical already on the market before 1981 was grandfathered in, and is not regulated under this act (that's a total of 62,000 chemicals). I found some well-written descriptions of the TSCA on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) website: and the the Environmental Health Perspectives website:

The US chemical industry (as well as then Secretary of State Colin Powell) lobbied heavily against the passage of REACH out of fear that changing their formulations will be costly. This angered many officials in the European Union and may have backfired, according to Mark Schapiro, in his article for the Nation magazine and in his book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power. I enjoyed this passage from the Nation article:

Never before has an EU proposal drawn fire from such heavy guns. The US chemical industry, like other American industries, has been discovering that a presence in Brussels is now a must, and has had to learn new ways to exert influence in a governing institution with three chambers, twenty-five countries and twenty national languages, and in which the usual cocktail of campaign contributions, arm-twisting and seduction are neither warmly received nor, in the case of campaign contributions, legal. "We've certainly had to learn a lot about a new parliament, new procedures, new political parties," says Joe Mayhew, senior adviser to the American Chemical Council.

I heard an interview with Mr. Schapiro on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. He explained that now that the legislation has passed, many manufacturers will be changing their formulations for the European market, and US consumers may be the accidental beneficiaries. I attended a "modern materials" course for art conservators. An art material manufacturer and a distributer that spoke at the conference said that the law will have a big impact on the formulations of their products available worldwide.

It may also have a negative impact on the products available to US consumers. Since Japan already has stricter regulations that the US, and China has passed stricter regulations that will go into effect next year, the US may become the dumping ground for products that can't be sold in many other countries. Mark Schapiro cites this as an example of the diminishing influence of the United States as the rest of the world moves forward with greener laws and initiatives.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Government Agency Gives OK to Industry Despite Safety Concerns - Sound Familiar?

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article about carbon monoxide gassing of red meat to keep it looking fresh. It highlights how industries do their own scientific testing to determine if products are safe for the public, and how organizations like the Agriculture Department give approval without even questioning the findings. In these times, it is more important than ever to be an educated consumer. Our government's safety standards are lower than those of many other countries.

A New Carbon Credit for Old Trees

Next month, there will be a UN climate change summit in Bali. One proposal on the table concerns giving annual carbon credits (described here) to countries that currently have vast reserves of forests- provided they do not cut the forests down. This is a great idea because carbon credits are currently only available when trees are planted. But everyone agrees it is much more important to keep the aboriginal forests that are still standing in place. Cutting them releases large amounts of CO2. But why should the money go to the government? Shouldn't it go to the landowners and small farmers that would otherwise be doing the cutting?

I'll be keeping an eye on the summit to see how this idea is actually implemented.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Know Your Plastics

The numbers on plastic bottles actually refer to the type of plastic, not just the recycling method. Plastics 1, 2, and 4 are the easiest to recycle. Plastics 2, 4 and 5 are the least toxic. Stay away from plastics 3, 6, and 7 as much as you can.

#1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Often used for soft-drink and single-use water bottles. May leak antimony, a heavy metal.

#2 High density polyethylene (HDPE). Often used in opaque detergent bottles, juice bottles, hard plastic milk jugs and some plastic grocer bags.

#3: Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The problems with this plastic are that dioxins are produced during manufacturing and that they can contain heavy metals. See the documentary "Blue Vinyl" for more information. You can borrow it from me. Also, phthalates are often added to enhance flexibility. These are loosely bound and can be ingested when children chew or suck on toys made from PVC.

#4 Low density polyethylene (LDPE). Often used for see-through dry cleaning bags and produce bags.

#5: Polypropylene (PP). Often used in yogurt containers.

#6: Polystyrene, or styrofoam. Not recycled. Styrene molecules can get into your food if heated, if the food is acidic or fatty, or through cutting action with a knife or fork. You may also swallow some styrene when you leave those teeth marks on the cup.

#7: Anything that does not fit into categories 1-6, like polycarbonate. Not recycled. Some people mistakenly believe that polycarbonate is better to use than other plastics. This is not true. Although it appears to be more durable and is easy to reuse, it contains a chemical called bisphenol A.

Several scientists in the last couple of decades have had disturbing findings related to Bisphenol A. Bisphenol A (BPA) was originally invented as an estrogen replacement, but did not come into wide usage until the discovery was made in the 1950s that it made a good plasticizer. Plasticizers are added to plastics to improve their properties. Bisphenol A makes plastics clearer and more flexible. It is not well bound into the polymer; however, and it is soluble in water. This much is agreed upon by the scientific community.

The Centers for Disease Control published a study today on bisphenol A. You can read a synopsis here. They found the levels of BPA in Americans to be higher than the "safety threshold."

Another article tells the history of the research into the affects of Bisphenol A on mammals. Much of this story is also recounted in Theo Colburn's book Our Stolen Future.

At first, it wasn't clear exactly what the effects of this chemical were. To understand them requires a different understanding of toxicity than what we are used to. Traditional toxicity studies assume that it is the dosage of a chemical that leads to its effect. When it comes to a chemical like Bisphenol A, it is not the amount, but the timing of the exposure that is important. Because it is similar in shape to estrogen, the human body can mistake it for estrogen. One single molecule is enough to confuse the endocrine system. It is especially dangerous to developing fetuses and children. BPA exposure at a young age can lead to cancer, obesity, and fertility problems as an adult. (For this reason, I beg of everyone: do not feed babies with polycarbonate bottles- please use glass!) The effect on adults is less clear; however, some studies have found that exposure does lead to an increase in diabetes, obesity and cancer even in adults.

While independent and government scientists are getting results that would suggest that this chemical is dangerous, industry scientists are creating confusion by casting doubts on their results. Meanwhile, people around the world are consuming this product. As Ana Soto says in the article, “Now the industry will say that animals are not humans, which you can say as much as you wish, but that brings us to a situation; in order to know what is happening to humans, what are you going to do? Intoxicate pregnant women on purpose? In any case, we're already exposing people, because 95% of us have bisphenol A in our urine, so the experiment cannot even be done.”

Please avoid the use of plastics whenever possible. Every piece of plastic ever manufactured is still on the earth with us, and a lot of it is in the ocean. Plastic photodegrades into particle-size plastic shards that get mistaken for food by fish and mammals. Bioplastic is a good idea, but it does not degrade well in the ocean. A better solution is for federal, state and local governments to require take-back programs and require manufacturers to reuse or recycle what they make.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

More About Seafood

Someone just sent me an ABC news article about seafood. I don't know how long the link will stay up, so I will give a brief synopsis:

According to the article, around 80% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, but the FDA tests less than 1% of it. The state of Alabama has it's own comprehensive testing program, rather than relying on the federal government to safeguard its consumers. They reject 50-60% of imported fish due to the presence of banned chemicals, such as antibiotics and malachite (which is used as a fungicide and has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects). The state's agriculture commissioner has visited foreign fish farms and seen that some of the fish are raised in sewage.

Fortunately, there is talk this week of strengthening the FDA's ability to test, conduct recalls, and visit sites where food is produced. It may take some time for the bill to be written and passed.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stop the Catalogs!!

Do you get unwanted catalogs in the mail? The New York Times has alerted me to a new FREE service called Catalog Choice that you can sign up for. It lets retailers know you don't want their catalogs and you can add on to the list every time you get a new one in the mail that you don't want.

According to the Catalog Choice website:

* Over eight million tons of trees are consumed each year in the production of paper catalogs.
* Nearly half of the planet’s original forest cover is gone today. Forests have effectively disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 have lost more than 90% of their forest cover.
* Deforestation contributes between 20% and 25% of all carbon pollution, causing global climate change.
* More than one billion people living in extreme poverty around the world depend on forests for their livelihoods.
* There are other significant environmental impacts from the catalog cycle. The production and disposal of direct mail alone consumes more energy than three million cars.
* The manufacturing, distribution, collection and disposal of catalogs generates global warming gases as well as air and water pollution. Reducing the number of unwanted catalogs that are mailed will help the environment.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

California Passes Limited Ban on Pthalates

Good news!

I have written before about plasticizers added to plastic products to soften them and their potential effects on the human endrocrine system. Yesterday, California became the first state to ban their use in any products intended for children under three. Nine other states are looking into enacting a similar ban, including my state, New York.

For the full story, see the article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Seafood: To Eat or not to Eat?

I have eaten only a few ounces of seafood in my life. I was a picky eater as a child, and then I became a vegetarian, so I have almost no experience with eating fish. Now that I am recently married and contemplating having children, I am puzzled by contradictory messages about the consumption of fish. This is another one of those unbelievably complicated issues at the intersection of science and politics. Just the kind of thing I enjoy!

By now, you've heard about mercury levels in fish. Most of the mercury comes from coal-burning power plants. It is emitted into the air and eventually comes to rest in bodies of water. In the 1990s, the EPA under the Clinton administration limited mercury emissions from all other industries. The EPA was set to regulate power plants as well, with new regulations that would have reduced mercury emissions by 90% by 2008. Bush administration appointees weakened the regulations in 2003, requiring only a 70% reduction by 2018.

Animals don't easily absorb mercury in its natural form. It becomes problematic when it gets into water, though. Microorganisms methylate it into methylmercury (in this reaction, a hydrogen gets replaced with a methyl group), which is easily absorbed into digestive tracts and stored in fat and muscle. Small fish and algae eat the microorganisms, and larger fish eat them. A bigger fish will eat several smaller fish, and build up a concentrated dose. Most humans eat lots of the bigger fish in a lifetime and build up an even more concentrated dose. There have been documented affects on the human nervous system frommethylmercury poisoning, with the greatest danger to developing fetuses and young children.

Mercury isn't the only toxin found in concentrated doses in fish. Among the other dangerous chemicals are dioxins, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-drichloroethane) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The latter two chemicals have been banned from use in the United States for over 30 years, but they remain in the environment and in the water.

In 1994, the FDA issued an advisory that pregnant and nursing women should limit their consumption of fish (revised 2001 & 2004). The current position of the FDA is that women who are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant, or breast feeding should eat no more than 12 ounces fish that are lower on the food chain per week. The full advisory can be seen on their website. These warnings initially led to a decline in fish sales. But since the late 1990s, omega-3 fatty acids (a.k.a.docosahexaenoic acid a.k.a. DHA) have been heavily touted as beneficial to brain health and development and the decline in sales has reversed.

If these claims are to be believed, I may be doing potential harm to myself and my future children by not eating fish. I may have a higher risk of heart disease and less intelligence and ability to concentrate. My children may have lower IQs and more behavioral problems. The FDA approved the health claims after an intensive lobbying effort by the fish industry.

Omega-3s have been in the news a lot recently because of a press conference held by an organization called the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition on October 4th. This is a non-profit coalition that includes scientists, members of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the March of Dimes, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They stated that pregnant and breast-feeding women should eat at least 12 ounces of seafood per week to avoid low birth weight, low IQ scores, post-partum depression, and behavioral problems. The FDA is not a part of this coalition and has not altered its position.

The story got more interesting with an article in USA Today on October 12. This article states that many scientists involved with the coalition are 'distancing'themselves from the statement. The article goes on to say: The dietary recommendations were put together by the Coalition's Maternal Nutrition Group. The group's work was paid for in part by a $60,000 grant from the National Fisheries Institute, a fishing industry trade association...

On Tuesday, the March of Dimes issued a statement saying, "We continue to recommend that pregnant and nursing women eat no more than a maximum each week of 12 ounces of fish that are low in mercury."

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Health Resources and Services Administration issued a statement that they did not help craft the recommendation and learned about it only after it was announced.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one of the coalition's founding members, also said it supports the FDA's guidelines.

The National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition has posted a note on its website saying that the recommendation supported by its board "in no way implies that it has been endorsed by our member organizations."

"Clearly, when these studies come out that are funded by industry that completely dismiss the potentially harmful effects of mercury on mothers and fetus, one certainly has to question the validity of their findings," says Urvashi Rangan, a scientist at the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

So are omega-3s as important as they say? Are vegetarians' children less intelligent than those of the fish-eating population? I have personally known 3 people with vegetarian mothers who were vegetarian from birth who were also quite intelligent. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal and summarized on the BBC website found that vegetarians were generally more intelligent than the general population. The Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation also refutes the fact that eating fish is better for heart health or intelligence than eating fruits and vegetables.

I'm inclined to believe that much of the hype about omega-3s comes from an industry worried about losing consumers due to toxic chemicals in their product. In order to preserve their profits, they ought to be active in trying to promote regulation of the polluters. Think about it, fishing industry, think about the difference you could make in all of our lives and the good press you'd get if you assumed this strategy. We know you have powerful lobbyists at your disposal.

Contaminants aren't the only concern of the fishing industry, though. Fish populations around the world are in rapid decline. Humans have become too good at catching fish and are catching more than can be replenished through reproduction. We are also damaging habitats with global warming, trawling, and pollution. It is hard to count the number of fish in the ocean, but a very thorough study was published in the journal Nature and summarized here in 2003. The authors found a 90% reduction in worldwide fish populations since 1950. The only way to prevent a complete collapse of every large species is through a 60% reduction in fishing worldwide. Since the world's governments have not come together to commit to saving the oceans, it's up to each consumer to reduce their individual consumption by 60%.

For the remaining 40%, there are several websites that provide downloadable pocket guides that you can take along to the store or restaurant to ensure that you are making the best possible selection in terms of health and sustainability:
The Monterey Bay Aquarium
Environmental Defense
The Blue Ocean Institute

As a footnote, I know that some readers will wonder about whether farmed fish are the solution. Greenpeace describes the problems with fish farming on their website:

Aquaculture is often promoted as being the solution to sustainable fisheries, and has undergone a massive growth over the last 50 years. Unfortunately, with the exception of some shellfish farms and freshwater fish reared in ponds, most aquaculture exacerbates the pressures placed on over-exploited marine ecosystems. In particular:

* Wild caught fish are used for fishmeal and fish oil to feed farmed stocks. It takes over three tonnes of wild fish to produce one tonne of salmon.
* Industrial fishing for smaller fish like sandeels and anchovies for use in fishmeal has caused massive disruption to marine food webs. It has almost certainly led to the decline in numbers of cod, seals and seabirds in the North Sea.
* Disease spreads easily from farmed to wild populations, further depleting wild stocks.
* Water and surrounding ecosystems are polluted by chemicals, antibiotics and vaccines used to control diseases in intensively farmed fish.
* Many aquaculture practices are associated with poor human rights records, including loss of land and access to fishing grounds and poor employee rights.

I will also add that farmed fish are much higher in fat since they are penned in for their entire lives.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Soy: The Blood Crop

I read a fascinating story in the London Telegraph today about soya growers in Brazil.

The story doesn't suggest anything that the average consumer can do about violence against activists in South America, but I suggest eating less meat and prepared foods and more fruits and vegetables for a start. I wonder what the per-capita consumption of soy products in western countries is nowadays. It's in everything, from meat to prepared foods to fried foods to meat and dairy substitutes to soap and cosmetics. Statistics offered on various websites seem to vary widely.

There are abundant websites claiming soy is great for you and that soy is bad for you, and I'm not sure which to believe, but anything consumed in excess should be a concern, especially of the demand for it is causing rainforest to be cut down and environmental activists to be murdered. I did find a website about the science of soy that seems to offer really good information without taking sides.

Over 14,000 Bloggers Agree: The Environment is Worth Writing About

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Monday, October 8, 2007

Warning to Consumers about Trans Fats

Did you know that if a product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, it can be labelled '0 Trans Fats'? This means that if a serving size is 2 cookies and you have 8 cookies, you are actually consuming a significant amount of trans fats even though the label says '0'. There's always a loophole, isn't there?

So make sure the list of ingredients does not include any kind of partially hydrogenated oil. For more information on trans fats, see the FDA website.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Letter from The American Insitute for Conservation

The American Institute for Conservation is an organization I belong to that focuses on the preservation of our cultural heritage, such as art or monuments.

AIC has learned that officials at Arlington National Cemetery plan to replace the original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a new replica solely due to two nonstructural cracks. These slight imperfections pose no threat to visitors or the historic structure. This 1932 monument is nationally significant and eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The proposed replica will be carved from new stone that experts agree will likely crack again along its grain, just as marble does naturally when exposed to the elements. Repair and proper care of the Tomb is possible.

The decision about replacing the Tomb Monument is expected by September 30th.
We need your help to influence decision-makers to help save the memorial. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has set up an automated email system that you can use to contact John Metzler, Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, to let him know about your concerns. You can access this system at the link below. This should only take a few minutes of your time.

Also, consider writing an email or letter against replacing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to your members of Congress. This link is to an online Congressional Directory that will quickly give you the emails and addresses of your congressional representatives.

Remember, since the decision will be made by the end of the month, it is important to act as soon as possible. Often, congressional staff counts the number of emails or letters coming in for or against a topic rather than fully reading them. So a quick and timely email can make a difference.


Ruth Seyler
Membership & Marketing Director

Friday, August 31, 2007

More Reasons not to Wear "Pre-Worn" or "Stonewashed" Jeans

Images (left to right): Justin Jin/Panos Pictures; Nikolay Okhitin/Panos Pictures

So how does denim get that worn look? It is either hand-sanded or treated with potassium permanganate by workers in Mexico or China. Both methods are damaging to the lungs of the workers, who are often not given adequate safety gear. In addition, the waste ends up polluting the water and the farm fields of nearby communities.

Image: Maquila Solidarity Network and the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley

The good news is, jeans look better if you take the time to wear them in yourself. The wear patterns on jeans manufactured that way look fake, and kind of dorky, to be honest. If you really want old-looking jeans, I suggest buying them at a thrift store.

For more information, please read this transcript from NPR program Living on Earth dated July 13th, 2007.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nail Polish

I have mixed feelings about wearing nail polish. My toes look naked without it, but if I am trying to avoid ingesting harmful synthetic chemicals, I probably shouldn't put them on my skin either. I used to polish my fingers and toes religiously when I was a teenager. I was one of the first to wear wacky colors back in the 80s, when they were really hard to find. I used to buy pigments at the art supply store and mix them with clear nail polish to get intersting colors. I realize now what a bad idea that was- some pigments can be absorbed through the skin and are banned from use in cosmetics by the FDA.

I thought I would do a little research on nail polish to help make up my mind. I found a great site that explains the history and technology of nail polish. Then I went to the Skin Deep website (see link at right). According to this site, the safest brand of nail polish is called Honey Bee Gardens ( The ingredients are water, water-miscible acrylic, polyurethane formers and thickeners (soy based), non-ionic soaps, carmine, mica, iron oxides, and/or titanium dioxide. I looked online for some customer reviews, but couldn't find any. It does say that it can take up to an hour to set.

The worst brand is Barielle Natural Nail Camouflage. The ingredients are butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, nitrocellulose, polyester resin, isopropyl alcohol, dibutyl phthalate, stearalkonium hectorite, camphor, propyl acetate, tosylamide epoxy resin, benzophenone-1, titanium dioxide, fd&c yellow 5, d&c red 6, hydrated silica, tocopheryl acetate, calcium panthothenate, calcium fluoride, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and parfum. (Update: this product has been re-formulated- see comments)

It got me wondering whether there were any nail salons in New York that used less toxic nail polish. An internet search tuned up Priti Organic Spa. It's expensive, but I always feel rotten when I go to a regular salon where the young employees are getting exposed to volitile organic compounds such as butyl acetate, ethyl acetate and isopropanol all day. Those nail salons should not be so cheap considering the costs these women will pay with their lives and health in later years.

The possible health effects of all chemicals used in industry are spelled out in their MSDS (or 'Material Safety Data Sheet'). The one for ethyl acetate reads Inhalation can cause severe irritation of mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract. Symptoms may include burning sensation, coughing, wheezing, laryngitis, shortness of breath, headache, nausea and vomiting. High concentrations may cause lung damage. An irritant to the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract. Exposure to high concentrations have a narcotic effect and may cause liver and kidney damage. Causes irritation to skin. Symptoms include redness, itching, and pain. Repeated or prolonged contact with the skin has a defatting effect and may cause dryness, cracking, and possibly dermatitis.

So I went into Priti Organic Spa and gave it a try. They use a few different brands of polishes, some of which are for sale at the salon. Their polish remover has the following ingredients: soy ester, corn ester, orange oil and vegetable glycerin. (As I reported in Films to Watch Part 1: The Future of Food, soy and corn products may be genetically modified.) This remover will even take off your old 'toxic' nail polish with a bit of scrubbing. You get a nice long foot treatment for your money. Expect to spend at least an hour there, because the polishes do take a long time to dry. But what I was most delighted to discover is that once dried, the polishes last about 4 weeks before they begin to look like they need a new application.

Less toxic polishes and salons is an idea that I expect will gain in popularity in the next few years. The EPA has awarded to Seattle non-profit groups $100,000 to help local salons become greener in what they are calling the 'Toxic Beauty Project.' The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the story on June 26. Here is an exerpt:

The issue is a matter of environmental justice, an area of environmental protection that targets low-income and minority populations, who often bear the brunt of pollution and related threats.

"The interesting environmental justice issue here is that the owners and operators (of the nail salons) are largely Vietnamese, but the clientele is largely African American -- not exclusively -- but to a large degree," Cunniff said. "It's an interesting intersection between two communities."

The three-year project will be a partnership between Cunniff's organization and the Seattle-based Community Coalition for Environmental Justice. His group will focus on the shop owners and workers, while the latter will address the customer side.

"We really want to look at community education about what people are putting into and onto their bodies," said Melissa Carnay, project lead for the Community Coalition of Environmental Justice.

The non-profit groups will be researching chemicals that would be safer to use in the salons.

They'll be figuring out if the alternative products are effective and readily available through distributors.

Carnay said she wants to empower women to know that they can lobby nail-polish makers to provide a safer product.

Another focus will be on installing equipment to reduce exposure to the chemicals, including simple fixes such as providing salons with stainless steel containers with tight-sealing lids for disposing cotton balls soaked in solvent.

More-involved projects could be the installation of ventilation systems.

The goal is to target all the aspects of the industry, from manufacturer to customer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Films to Watch Part 1: The Future of Food

This is a documentary that I will be thinking about for a long time. I think it is really important for everyone who eats food to see this. If you'd rather just read my synopsis, here it is (but if you plan to see the film, you may want to stop reading now):

In the 19th century, there were 7000 kinds of apples and 5000 kinds of potatoes grown in the world. Now, 90% of those varieties are extinct. There are only 4 kinds of potatoes commonly grown today. With less biodiversity, crops are more vulnerable to pests and drought. It has put farmers on a pesticide treadmill. The nitrogen bombs used during World War II led to the technology that gave us nitrogen fertilizers, while nerve gas led to insecticides. Both have led to polluted water.

In the 1980s, Monsanto introduced Round-Up herbicides. In the 1990's, they introduced genetically modified seeds called "Round-Up Ready." To create these seeds, they put genes that are resistant to the herbicides directly into the plant's DNA using bacteria and viruses. Now, Monsanto sells the farmer both the herbicide and the seed. The thing that is most concerning of all about this is that, once released into the environment, the spread of these new genes cannot be controlled.

The US patent office did not allow the patenting of living things until 1978, when thay allowed the patenting of an oil-eating microbe. That microbe was never used, but the case opened the way for corporations to begin patenting human genes, body parts, species, and seeds. One result is that a company patented the breat cancer gene, and has limited research for a cure. Monsanto, Dupont, and ConAgra bought every seed company and patented them all. Over the last two decades, they have also staffed the FDA and the EPA with Monsanto executives.

A farmer in Canada named Percy Schmeiser has been using canola seeds derived from those used by his grandparents his whole life. One day, Monsanto came onto his property, sampled his plants, and discovered some with Round-Up Ready technology. The demanded that he purchase a license. He fought the company in the courts because he did not choose to use Round-Up Ready plants; the seeds had blown onto his property. After years of litigation, during which time he had to destroy his entire store of seeds, the Canadian Supreme Court decided in favor of Monsanto saying that the farmer's plants were Monsanto's property. There are estimates that 9000 other farmers have been forced to settle with Monsanto, and now pay them a license fee.

In the United States, the government does not require testing or labelling of genetically modified (GMO) foods. Japan, Iceland, and the European Union require labelling, which makes it harder for US farmers to sell their products there. Mexico banned GMO corn to protect their heritage of native corn varieties, but GMO seeds have been spreading into the country anyway.

Right now, there are only 5 genetically modified crops grown: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, and wheat. Many other GMO crops are in the development stages, including what is known as a 'terminator gene.' This will render a plant's offspring infertile and require the farmer to buy all of their seeds from a supplier. The problem is, if this gene gets out and cross-pollinates with other plants in the wild, it could be devastating for the environment.

Polls have shown that American consumers would prefer to have genetically modified food to be labelled as such, so that they can choose whether or not to buy it. Since 2000, senators Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Boxer have repeatedly introduced the The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, S. 2080. If you support this act, please let your senator know. Meanwhile, the best way to avoid buying GMO food is to buy organic fruits and vegetables, or to buy directly from local farmers who do not use genetically modified seeds.

Hooray for NYC Council Member Bill de Blasio!!

from a press release issued by Bill de Blasio, 39th District, Brooklyn, on August 22nd, 2007:


City Hall— Council Member Bill de Blasio will introduce legislation at today’s Stated Meeting that would prohibit the use of Styrofoam by City agencies and food establishments. De Blasio’s bill would ban the use of Styrofoam by all city agencies. The Department of Education (DOE), for example, goes through 850,000 Styrofoam trays a day which add up to over 4 million trays per week and over 153 million per school year. In June, Councilmember de Blasio joined Parents Against Styrofoam in Schools (P.A.S.S.) to call on the DOE to switch to either reusable plastic trays or trays that are biodegradable.

Polystyrene, more widely known as Styrofoam, is composed of Benzene, Styrene and Ethylene, which are all listed on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s hazardous substance list. Styrofoam is virtually immune to biological decomposition and also resists compacting and therefore, by volume, consumes more landfill space than other types of materials, such as paper. Due to the physical properties of polystyrene foam, the EPA states, “that such materials can also have serious impacts on human health, wildlife, the aquatic environment and the economy.”

“It is mind boggling that our City which is becoming a leader on environmental issues, is still using Styrofoam when we know it is extremely harmful to our environment and creating massive amounts of waste,” said Councilmember de Blasio, a member of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee. “It is unacceptable that the DOE is using Styrofoam, a substance that once it hits our landfills stays there forever.”

The legislation will also include a ban on Styrofoam “to-go” containers used by city restaurants and delis. The bill states that “no owner, operator or employee of a food establishment shall place, wrap, or otherwise package food or beverages in packaging made of polystyrene foam or offer for sale food or beverages packed in such material.”

The cities of Berkeley, California and Portland, Oregon were some of the first to prohibit polystyrene food packaging. Other jurisdictions which have instituted similar bans on polystyrene include: San Francisco, California, Freeport, Maine, Santa Cruz, California, Santa Monica, California, Sonoma County, California, Malibu, California and San Clemente, California.

Styrofoam Fact Sheet

➢ Polystyrene, or the Dow Chemical brand name, Styrofoam, is composed of Benzene, Styrene, and ethylene. Polystyrene becomes Styrofoam when it is injected with certain gases, known as blowing agents, to make it 30 times lighter than its original weight.

➢ The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger
associated with Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

➢ 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste.· The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.

➢ Studies show that toxic chemicals can leak out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems. These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.

➢ Polystyrene foam is often dumped into the environment as litter. This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.

➢ Initially a portion of polystyrene production was aided by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals that break down ozone in the troposphere. When this issue came to light, polystyrene manufacturers negotiated a gradual phase-out of CFCs in the production process and no CFCs have been used since the late 1980's. Though polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are "ozone-friendly" or free of CFCs, this is only partially true. Some polystyrene is now manufactured with HCFC-22, which, though less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC’s, is still a greenhouse gas and harmful to the ozone layer. In fact, according to a 1992 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, HCFCs are three to five times more destructive to the ozone layer than previously believed.

Source: "Polystyrene Foam Report." Earth Resource Foundation.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Non-stick Pans - Just Say No

From today's London Independent:

Chemicals in non-stick pans may retard babies' growth
Toxin in daily use in the home should be phased out, says researcher
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Published: 26 August 2007

Chemicals used in non-stick pans, fast-food containers, carpets, furniture and a host of other everyday household products are retarding babies' growth and brain development, two startling new studies suggest.

The studies – from the United States and Denmark, both published in the past month – found that babies with increased levels of the chemical in their umbilical cords were born smaller and with reduced head sizes. Though the changes were small, reductions in weight and brain development at birth have been associated with health problems throughout life.

The chemical – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – has been used so widely and is so persistent in the environment that it has been found all over the world – even in the Arctic and in remote Pacific atolls – in rain and water supplies, food, wildlife and human blood.

One of the studies, carried out by researchers at the blue-chip Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, found the chemical in every single one of the 299 umbilical cords analysed, suggesting that every baby is born already contaminated by it. Similar levels have been found in babies in Europe and Japan.

It also found that the babies whose cords had the highest concentrations of PFOA were born lighter, thinner and with smaller head circumferences than others. The second study – carried out in the US and Denmark, with babies drawn from the Danish National Birth Cohort – came up with similar findings for birth weight, the only measurement it made.

The studies, published in the prestigious journal Environmental Health Perspectives, are important because they measure effects on people, and suggest that PFOA is damaging at far lower levels in the blood than had been realised. Laboratory research has previously shown that the chemical causes rats to be born smaller, but only at levels many thousands of times higher.

The results are bound to cause increasing controversy over the chemical, which is used to make non-stick pans and stain resistant coatings for fabrics. It has already been under attack as a suspected cause of cancer , but this is the most damning evidence of damage to date.

Non-stick pans left accidentally on rings and in ovens to heat up without food in them are known to give off the chemical at high temperatures, and it has also been found in household dust – but nobody yet knows how it is getting into women's blood and being passed on to their babies. The results are bound to increase pressure for it to be banned.

Professor Lynn Goldman, the main author of the Baltimore study and a former head of toxic substances at the official US Environmental Protection Agency – calls for the chemical to be phased out and "not released to the environment".

And Dr Gwynne Lyons, the director of Chem Trust, a new British charity for protecting people and wildlife from harmful chemicals, says that failing to do so would be "sheer folly".

DuPont, the only US manufacturer of PFOA, has announced plans to phase it out – but not until 2015. The company says it is taking the step merely because of the chemical's persistence and as a result of public concern.

DuPont has long insisted that "there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA", and now adds: "Our position is that the studies have not changed our position.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dry Cleaning

There are some new drycleaning stores opening up in North America that advertise themselves as "green" or "organic." What do these terms mean exactly?

Traditional drycleaners use perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, perc, PCE, ethylene tetrachloride, or tetrachloroethene. The chemical formula is Cl2C=CCl2. There are a number of different chemical processes used for making it. According to NIOSH, or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, overexposure causes irritation, nausea, vertigo, incoordination, headache, somnolence, skin erythema, or liver damage. According to the Merck Index: "This substance is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

OK, so we know it's bad for the workers who use it, but how bad is it for us? Since there is a lingering scent, there must be lingering chemical on the clothes. I have incredible sensitive skin, but I have never had a reaction to drycleaned clothes, while I've had skin reactions to some kinds of laundry detergent. Nonetheless, whatever the level of your exposure, this is the kind of chemical that gets stored in your fat, can linger in the body for a long time, and can get passed on to your offspring. We are exposed to those kinds of chemicals all too often, who wants one more, even if the effect is not immediately obvious?

According to the EPA, "[perchloroethylene] can be added to aerosol formulations, solvent soaps, printing inks, adhesives, sealants, polishes, lubricants, and silicones. Typewriter correction fluid and shoe polish are among the consumer products that can contain PERC." There have been many incidences of soil contamination from dry cleaning plants. Perchloroethylene spills are particularly problematic because it does not bind soil, but is soluble in water, so it can get into groundwater supplies or evaporate into the air.

So, when an "organic" drycleaner opened in my neighborhood, at first I was happy to see an alternative, but then someone at work mentioned that although it is more expensive, this might not be any better. Further reasearch indicate that the solvent used is petroleum based, and is manufactured by Exxon-Mobil. It turns out that this was the most common drycleaning solvent until 1921, when perchloroethylene was invented. The health and environmental effects of petroleum are well-known. It is called "organic" based on the chemical definition of organic, which means that it is carbon-based. It bears no relation to the meaning of "organic" we have come to associate with certain kinds of food.

"GreenEarth cleaning" uses a silicone-based solvent called D-5 (manufactured by Dow-Corning) that attaches to the grime embedded in fabric and removes it when the solvent is extracted. NPR's Morning Edition reported on this on January 10th. A study on rats found that it caused cancer and liver damage. The EPA says there is not enough information to regulate it, therefore they don't need to.

So, why do we need to dryclean anything anyway? These methods actually involve a liquid, so the term "drycleaning" is a misnomer that really just refers to the fact that there is no water used. Water causes plant-based fibers to shrink or swell, and results in the fabric becoming misshapen. It also lingers in the fabric longer before evaporating, weighing it down and stressing the seams. Nonetheless, I have discovered over the years that most clothing with a "dry clean only" label can actually be hand-washed without any noticeable damage. I would be most wary of washing clothes cut on a bias, or things with many layers, like a coat. For those, I wish I could recommend which of the three processes was the safest. We could use some more scientific studies as well as guidance by our regulatory agencies to help us to make an informed decision about these new choices. Meanwhile, I will be skeptical of "organic" and "green" claims.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bottled Vs. Tap Water

I am happy to see that there have been several news articles and emails forwarded to me regarding the choice between tap water and bottled water. It seems that many people are beginning to consider this topic seriously.

From City Tap Water: Picking the Clear Favorite, By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, Wednesday, July 11, 2007:

In 2005, according to the consumer group Food & Water Watch, U.S. consumers spent $8.8 billion for almost 7.2 billion gallons of non-sparkling bottled water. Those people, according to a fledgling coalition of government officials, chefs, environmentalists and public health advocates, are making a huge mistake. Why go to the trouble of buying water when perfectly good H2O is ready and waiting for you at home, especially since your local government has already paid for it by maintaining the infrastructure that delivers it?

Although often advertising themselves as superior to tap water, bottlers are required in most cases only to meet the same quality standards as tap water, and are required to test for contaminants less often. The Environmental Protection Agency tests for contaminants in public drinking water on a daily basis, but they test bottled water only once a year.

The bottles often picture a beautiful waterfall or spring, but there is no law saying that the water has to come from the source pictured. According to the FDA website, artesian well water is from a well that taps an aquifer--layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water--which is under pressure from surrounding upper layers of rock or clay. When tapped, the pressure in the aquifer, commonly called artesian pressure, pushes the water above the level of the aquifer, sometimes to the surface. Other means may be used to help bring the water to the surface. According to the EPA, water from artesian aquifers often is more pure because the confining layers of rock and clay impede the movement of contamination. However, despite the claims of some bottlers, there is no guarantee that artesian waters are any cleaner than ground water from an unconfined aquifer, the EPA says.

Mineral water [is] from an underground source that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water. They cannot be added later. Spring water [is] derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the earth's surface. Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring. If some external force is used to collect the water through a borehole, the water must have the same composition and quality as the water that naturally flows to the surface. Well water [is obtained] from a hole bored or drilled into the ground, which taps into an aquifer.

Purified water is tap water that has been filtered or purified in some way. Since tap water is better regulated, this is probably the best choice. But the bottle itself is also a big concern.

Plastic is made from petroleum. It is shipped to the store using petroleum, and it will most likely soon be taking up space in a landfill. Much more energy is used to ship bottled water to consumers than to provide municipal tap water.

The water in a plastic bottle can become contaminated with phthalate plasticizers used in the manufacture of plastic. These molecules act as estrogen mimics when they enter the human body, confusing the endocrine system, possibly causing cancers and developmental abnormalities.

From the Maryland Gazette, Wednesday, July 4, 2007, in an article titled Edible Insights: Drinking water: Is bottled best? Susan Mudd writes According to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), the plastic most commonly used for bottles is polyethylene terepthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil, and 1.5 million barrels of oil are needed annually to meet the demands for PET bottled water production. The Container Recycling Institute in Washington, D.C., also notes that approximately 86 percent of plastic water bottles become garbage or litter. Those plastics can take between 400 and 1,000 years to degrade. We pay for the convenience of bottled water, but at the cost of the environment.

If a plastic water bottle is still your carry around choice, you may want to, at the very least, find a water bottle that contains either polypropylene (#5PP), high density polyethylene (#2HDPE) or low density polyethylene (#4LDPE). These plastics are safer to use for storing food and beverages, and none are known to leach out harmful substances. The code for the type of plastic should be printed on the bottom of the bottle.

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was quoted in the July 15th New York Times: “More than 90 percent of the environmental impacts from a plastic bottle happen before the consumer opens it. Oil for plastic, oil for shipping, oil for refrigeration — and in the end, most of the effort goes to landfills."

Is tap water completely healthy and safe?

The infrastructure that provides tap water to you is much more energy efficient, but what's in the water? Both tap water and bottled water come from the ground, and both can have contaminants from farming and industry. Additives in tap water may include corrosion inhibitor, fluoride, and phosphoric acid. The EPA website doesn't make it easy, but if you persist you can find a water quality report for your municipality. I live in New York City, and here is an excerpt from the 2006 report:

The sources of drinking water worldwide (both tap water and bottled water) include rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs, and wells. As water travels over the surface of the land or through the ground, it dissolves naturally-
occurring minerals and, in some cases, radioactive material and can pick up substances resulting from the presence of animals or from human activities. Contaminants that may be present in source water include: microbial contaminants, inorganic contaminants, pesticides and herbicides, organic chemical contaminants, and radioactive contaminants.

In order to ensure that tap water is safe to drink, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and EPA prescribe regulations that limit the amount of certain contaminants in water provided by public water systems. The State Health
Department’s and the federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations establish limits for contaminants in bottled water which must provide the same protection for public health. Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that water poses a health risk. More information about contaminants and potential health effects can be obtained by calling the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791...

All surface water and groundwater entering New York City’s distribution system is treated with chlorine, fluoride, food grade phosphoric acid and, in some cases, sodium hydroxide. New York City uses chlorine to meet the New York State Sanitary Code and federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) disinfection requirements. Fluoride, at a concentration of one part per million, is added to help prevent tooth decay and has been added since 1966 in accordance with the New York City Health Code. Phosphoric acid is added to create a protective film on pipes that reduces the release of metals such as lead from household plumbing. Sodium hydroxide is added to Catskill/Delaware water to raise the pH and reduce corrosivity.

If you live in a building built before 1952 (which I do), the pipes are most likely composed of copper with lead solder. If you live in a newer house, the pipes are probably made of PVC, a kind of plastic with added plasticizers. It is recommended that you run the tap for 5 minutes before using it for drinking water because contaminants can accumulate while it sits in the pipes. Also, it is recommended that you do not use hot water for drinking or cooking because it is more likely to leach things out of the storage tanks and pipes. Leaving a pitcher of tap water uncovered for several hours will allow chlorine to evaporate and improve taste.

Clear 2o, a competitor to Brita filters, claims to remove 53 contaminants as opposed to Brita's 10. The 53 contaminants are listed on their website. I haven't tried it myself. Unfortunatly, the storage container is made of plastic, like Brita's. If the container were glass, I'd buy one today. A better option may be to use a sink-mounted filter.

One reason people drink bottled water is convenience. The market has provided us with so may convenient things, but many are not sustainable. Please consider buying a reusable bottle to carry your water around in. Polycarbonate bottles contain plasticizers. Aluminum bottles may be lined with plastic on the inside. I recommend a product called Klean Kanteen because it is stainless steel and has a wide mouth, making it easy to clean.

Because stainless steel bottles are a cutting-edge idea, it may take some time for widespread acceptance. You will probably not be allowed to bring a Klean Kanteen to a concert or club. You are allowed to take it on a plane, but you have to bring it through security empty, then fill it up at a water fountain.

Links for further reading:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Farm Bill

The House of Representatives will begin debate this week on the US Farm Bill. This is a $33 billion piece of legislation that has a huge impact on the cost and types of food available to consumers. Critic say that the caparatively huge subsidies to producers of corn, soybeans, grains, oilseeds, and cotton result in the overabundance of highly processed foods in our supermarkets and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Why not share the subsidies equally with all kinds of crops? Read more about the Farm Bill at: Watershed and at Organic

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Get More Funding for Organic Agriculture

Grow Organics

The Farm Bill is coming up for a vote in 2 weeks. Let your representative know that you support more funding for organic agriculture. Sign the Environmental Working Group's petition. They want 10,000 more signatures by July 15th.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Clean Water Authority Restoration Act

In June of 2006, the Supreme Court ruled on the Clean Water Act of 1972 (in a case called Rapanos v. United States), saying that the regulations also apply to temporary marshes and ponds that form during heavy rains if they could potentially affect water quality in nearby bodies of water. The new guidelines were to go into affect in September, but after intensive lobbying, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers delayed issuing them until a few weeks ago, when they put out a revised version.

While the White House and the EPA claim that revision was necessary because the ruling was muddled and open to different interpretations, organizations like the Sierra Club and Earth Justice are concerned that the regulations were weakened once again in favor of industry, agriculture, and development. In response, they are calling for The Clean Water Authority Restoration Act to be passed by congress.

You can easily let your representative know that you support this act through the National Wildlife Federation website.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Vegetables have more Pesticides than Others

I just wanted to alert everyone to the Environmental Working Group's list of 44 fruits and vegetables and their pesticide score. This is based on the results of 51,000 tests conducted by the FDA between 2001 and 2005. Not everyone can afford to buy organic all of the time, so if you have to pick and choose, they recommend that you always buy organic for the top 12 items on the list. You can also get a printable list of "The Cleanest 12" and "The Dirty Dozen" to take with you to the store.

Sadly, my very favorite fruit, the cherry, is one of the Dirty Dozen! And organic cherries are very expensive, so I can't eat as much of them as I would like to. This list does not indicate which fruits and vegetables tend contain pesticides within their flesh, and which ones tend to have surface residues that could be potentially washed off. When you buy fruit out-of-season, it is more likely to come from other countries with less restrictions on pesticides. This is especially true of strawberries and grapes.

Washing should certainly help to remove some residues. Even if the fruit or vegetable is organic, it should still be washed to remove bacteria. Always wash produce in cold water, as warm water opens up pores, enabling the residues to be absorbed. Scub with a soft brush. If you are eating non-organic apples, pears, or other fruits with a skin, it is best to skin them. Remove the outermost leaves of lettuce and spinach.

The EPA website says: Wash and scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Running water has an abrasive effect that soaking does not have. This will help remove bacteria and traces of chemicals from the surface of fruits vegetables and dirt from crevices. Not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing.

What is so weird about pesticides and bacteria is you can't see them. You have no idea when and how much you are eating them. If you think about it too much, it could ruin a perfectly good meal.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

It's a Shame that You Can't Trust the EPA

I was not living in New York on September 11, 2001. If I had been, I would be outraged at the government's response to the contamination spread by the disaster across parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (including the neighborhood I live in now). The then EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, assured New Yorkers that the debris was not toxic, with quotes such as "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." A 2003 EPA report from after she left the agency found that she was told by the White House to make these false assurances. What kind of person would accept the job of EPA chief while having such little regard for the health of US citizens? What kind of president would have such little regard for the health of the country's citizens? What kind of people would re-elect a president like that?

A group of people exposed to the debris brought a class action lawsuit against Ms. Whitman. The US District Court Judge who rejected Whitman's request for immunity against the suit said "No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," and called Whitman's actions "conscience-shocking." However, a 3-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit later ruled that no EPA officials can be liable for the statements made in the days after September 11th.

Recently, the GAO come out with its own report that federal government officials deliberately misled New York residents about the safety of working at the site or returning to their apartments. Tomorrow, Whitman will be testifying before a House committee investigating the EPA's actions on the matter. I will be very curious to read about what she says. But it sounds like she will never be prosecuted.

So what justice is available for those who have been or will be suffering from the effects of the pollution? The Senate appropriations subcommittee has included $55 million in the 2008 budget for the testing and treatment of people exposed to the dust. So it looks like us taxpayers will again pay for this administrations lies and ineptitude, while they continue to do and say whatever they want.