Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Bush Administration's 11th Hour Environmental Shenanigans

As someone who is concerned about the environment, it has been agonizing for me to live through the Bush presidency. Because the current administration (and most conservatives) believe that this country would be better with less regulation, the president has installed pro-industry, anti-regulation fanatics into government agencies so that they can dismantle generations of protections that have been put in place for things like consumers and the environment. Fortunately, the financial crisis has shown that de-regulation can have dangerous consequences. Unfortunately, people have been so concerned about the economy that they have not had time to consider the environment.

I believe that the best thing we can do for this country is to preserve its natural resources for future generations. People should have to pay a heavy cost for damage that they do to what should be all of ours to share and appreciate. Even if that makes it harder for people to make a buck.

I have high hopes that the Obama administration will do what it can to reverse the damage that has been done, but some regulations will be difficult to undo. Congress may have an easier time than the executive branch, due to the Congressional Review Act of 1996, as explained here. Although I was pleased to see a democrat win the election, my enthusiasm has been offset by my dismay at watching government agencies pushing through last minute anti-environmental policies. Since government regulations have a 60-day review period, the various agencies have been rushing to get them done by November 22nd, so that they go into effect just before the inauguration. Examples have abounded in the newspapers in the last few months.

There are many good webpages that spell out some of these new rules.

Propublica article
Propublica Complete List
The New York Times editorial/ overview on all of the regulations
The Washington Post article with list of specific examples
The Guardian
Associated Press story on changes to endangered species regulation
Washington Post on some permanent appointments of previously political appointees to government agencies
The Chicago Tribune on weakening of lead regulations
The Salt Lake Tribune on oil and gas drilling in or near national parks
The New York Times on irradiation of produce
The New York Times on easing of mountaintop removal mining restrictions

There is one regulatory action that is open for public comment until November 28th. The EPA has decided not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water after finding that there are no currently unsafe levels. This is based on their determination that a safe level is anything lower than 24.5 parts per billion (ppb). Some states, however, regulate perchlorate at as low as 1 ppb. This new standard will pre-empt any state regulations. Perchlorate gets into drinking water when rockets, flares, and fireworks are manufactured or exploded. It persists in the environment and eventually ends up in the water. Many scientists disagree about what a safe level is, whether it causes cancer, and what kinds of effects it has on the thyroid. Read this congressional report.Regulation could potentially be very costly for Department of Defense facilities, construction sites, and manufacturers, however the cost is necessary if it is damaging to our health. It seems that more study is needed before concluding that no regulation is necessary. This EPA site provides instructions for making a public comment.

One piece of good news is that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on November 20th that the US Government is required to do a more extensive environmental review before allowing oil drilling in the arctic. This effectively leaves this important issue for the next administration to re-think.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

BPA in Canned Foods

To follow up on the previous post about BPA, I want to warn everyone about canned food. BPA is used to line aluminum cans, and seems to be the source of a major amount that we ingest. According to the Environmental Working Group, no matter what brand you use or where you buy your canned food, the cans are almost certainly lined with an epoxy resin that contains BPA. If they didn't use it, the cans might rust, or you might end up with metal residues in your food. But because of the high temperatures used in the canning process, your potential exposure to BPA from canned food is much higher than your potential exposure from plastic water bottles.

The Toronto Globe and Mail conducted a study in conjunction with a Canadian TV station, and reported the results in an article on Thursday, May 29, 2008.

They found the following results:

Hunt's tomato sauce: 18.21
Allen's apple juice: 17.90
Heinz tomato juice: 14.11
Labatt beer: 9.27
Campbell's chicken noodle soup: 8.61
Molson beer: 8.19
Del Monte peas and carrots: 6.76
Green Giant cream style corn: 6.52
Chef Boyardee mini been ravioli: 6.17
Heinz zoodles: 4.65
Heinz baked beans: 2.88

An article in Chemical and Engineering News reports that the food packaging industry maintains that BPA has done much to improve the health and safety of consumers..."The primary function of the internal coating is to avoid food poisoning," adds John M. Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, an industry group that represents the metal food and beverage packaging industry. Without the coating, Escherichia coli and botulism poisoning would be rampant, he says.

The Environmental Working Group indicates that one manufacturer uses non-BPA lining on some of their food cans, however. Eden Organic Beans are packed in lead free tin covered steel cans coated with a baked on oleoresinous c-enamel lining that does not contain bisphenol A (BPA). (Oleoresin is a natural mixture of an oil and a resin extracted from various plants, such as pine or balsam fir). These cans cost 13.77 percent more than the industry standard cans that do contain BPA. This costs Eden $300,000 more a year. To our knowledge Eden is the only U.S. company that uses this custom made BPA-free can. Eden's tomato products are still packaged in cans with a BPA-based lining.

For everything else, the safest choice is to use fresh, instead of canned, fruits and vegetables, and to make your soups from scratch. It will taste better and contain more nutrients, too.

Further Reading:
Environmental Working Group: Bisphenol A: Toxic Plastics Chemical in Canned Food
How Cans Are Made (well-illustrated!)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Growing Evidence of Conflict of Interest in FDA's Ruling on BPA

The Future Earth reported on August 24th about the Food & Drug Administration's questionable evaluation of the chemical bisphenol A in a draft report released earlier that month.

This evaluation, that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects was obtained by examining only plastics industry-funded studies. How did they justify excluding the hundreds of other studies that found the opposite to be true? The FDA claims that only those studies using GLP, or Good Laboratory Practices, qualified. GLP were regulations set in place in 1978 when it became clear that some commercial testing laboratories were conducting sloppy research. Meanwhile, government- funded research agencies were not required to adopt GLP because they were already adhering to the much more stringent regulations required to get non-commercial funding.

Now the current FDA, which is staffed with industry cronies placed by the Bush Administration to carry out the neoconservative agenda of de-regulation, has chosen to use GLP to eliminate from consideration all studies not funded by the chemical industry- the very people who manufacture the chemicals the FDA is supposed to regulate. Read more. But, using suspicious criteria to determine which studies to use is just the tip of the iceberg.

The BPA draft is under review by a subcommittee, which will present their assessment to the FDA's science board on Oct. 31st. The Washington Post reported on October 13th that there may be a conflict of interest. Charles Gelman, a retired head of a medical device manufacturing company and outspoken BPA proponent, donated $5 million to the University of Michigan's Risk Science Center. The acting director of the center is Martin Philbert, who is also the head of the subcommittee.

And this week, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that FDA documents suggest that the August report was written in consultation with the plastics industry. The newspaper reviewed the body of evidence that the task force considered. It found memos with entire sections blacked out, reviews commissioned by the American Plastics Council, an arm of the American Chemistry Council [an industry group], and reviews completed by consulting firms with clients who have financial interests in the sale of bisphenol A.

By the end of this week, criticism of the FDA on this issue has intensified. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach has been called before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and its subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation to explain the agency's decision-making relating to bisphenol A. "Specifically, why industry-funded studies provide the basis of your regulatory decisions and why the totality of the science around the chemical continues to be ignored by your science-based agency," the committee letter said.

Meanwhile, Canada placed bisphenol A on its list of toxic chemicals on October 18th. The country also banned its use in baby bottles and dedicated $1.7 million to research into the chemical. Read more.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Are Neonicotinoid Pesticides Killing the Honeybees?

Photo credit: Michelle Barte Photography

On May 27th, 2007, I first wrote about the mysterious illness that has been killing off honeybees in hives across North America known as 'colony collapse disorder,' or CCD. One of the bizarre aspects of CCD is that the worker bees just disappear and leave behind the queen, the honey, and the brood (or non-adult bees). It is assumed that they are going off to collect honey and either dying before they return or becoming disoriented and are unable to locate the hive again. One-third of the produce that Americans consume is pollinated by honeybees (including tomatoes, peppers, apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, squash, carrots, avocados, berries, melons, and almonds), so this is a serious threat to our food supply.

From the Milford, MA Daily News, May 10, 2008: A national survey of bee health from the Apiary Inspectors of America showed 36.1 percent of beehives were lost since last year. That's up from the previous year's losses of 32 percent. Some commercial beekeepers had far greater than 36 percent losses. "For two years in a row, we've sustained a substantial loss," Dennis vanEngelsdorp, president of the group, told the Associated Press. "That's an astonishing number. Imagine if one out of every three cows, or one out of every three chickens, were dying? That would raise a lot of alarm."

Back in 2007, when I wrote the first article about bees, many people theorized that the possible culprit was a pesticide called imidacloprid, manufactured by Bayer, AG, a German company. It is part of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which are derived from nicotine. Now, scientists are even more concerned about another pesticide from the neonicotinoid class called clothianidin (also a Bayer product). Clothianidin is used on corn and canola and sold under the brand name Poncho. Many beekeepers and scientists suspect that it, in combination with other pesticides they are exposed to, weakens the immune system of bees, making them more susceptible to viruses and parasites such as the varroa mite.

The Popular Science website explains further: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates agricultural pesticide use, but this regulation does not account for the interaction of these chemicals that inevitably takes place through the bees' pollination processes. Some of these combinations of pesticides have been found to have a synergistic effect hundreds of times more toxic than any of the pesticides individually, says James L. Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State. Bees' exposure to these toxic chemical combinations both outside of, and within, the home -- er, hive -- may cause behavioral changes. These changes include immune system blocks and disorientation, which may help to explain the CCD crisis of late.

The EPA fact sheet, which is posted online even admits that clothianidin is dangerous to bees: Clothianidin has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen...
Clothianidin is highly toxic to honey bees on an acute contact basis (LD50 > 0.0439 μg/bee). It has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen. In honey bees, the effects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects in the queen.

That sounds pretty alarming, but there may be even more alarming research that is being withheld. The Raleigh News & Observer reports that a German investigation began on August 13th into whether Bayer submitted flawed studies on their product in order to get approval for its use. And recently, the National Resources Defense Council filed suit against the EPA because they failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for the results of studies on clothianidin. In 2003, it was granted conditional approval by the EPA provided that they perform the studies. The EPA has never indicated whether the studies were done, and if they were, what the results were.

As explained by the San Francisco Chronicle, On July 17, after getting no response from the EPA about securing the studies, the environmental group filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which requires the records within 20 business days absent unusual circumstances. When the federal agency missed the August deadline, the group filed the lawsuit, asking the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to force the EPA to turn over the records.

Scientists presenting at the American Chemical Society national meeting reported that dozens of pesticides had been found in samples of adult bees, broods, pollen and wax collected from honeybee colonies suspected to have died from symptoms of colony collapse disorder, including some neonicotinoids.

The Organic Consumers Association reports that in recent Congressional hearings, USDA was unable to account for the $20 million that Congress has allocated to the department for fighting CCD in the last two years. "This is a real mystery right now," said Dr. Gabriela Chavarria, director of NRDC's Science Center. "EPA needs to help shed some light so that researchers can get to work on this problem. This isn't just an issue for farmers -- this is an issue that concerns us all."

60 Minutes Segment on Colony Collapse Disorder
Video of bees that have adapted to have the ability to remove varroa mites from their bodies.
Video about applying even more pesticides to the bee hives to kill the mites.
Athens Herald, July 6th, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle, April 19th, 2008 (Quote: The hand of Congress works in equally mysterious ways: A new five-year farm bill under negotiation may spend a few million dollars saving bees, but definitely will spend billions on farm subsidy policies that contribute to their destruction.)
The Daily Green, August 1, 2008
The Guardian, September 29th, 2008
Vanishing Bees Movie

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Food Labeling Law Takes Effect

Stores are now required to tell you where your (unprocessed) food came from. Read the article in the San Jose Mercury News.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The EPA Decides There's Nothing Wrong with Rocket Fuel in Your Glass of Water

Image courtesy turbojoe at Flickr (Creative Commons)

Continuing its' run of impeccable judgements, the EPA has decided that perchlorate (rocket fuel) contaminated water isn't a problem (according to an Associated Press advance review of a report not yet made public by the EPA.) Slightly more accurately, the agency feels that there's no point in trying to clean up perchlorate contamination, because... well... take their word for it, there's just no point. It certainly has nothing to do with the Pentagon's efforts to discredit EPA efforts that could link their rocket tests with the contamination.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ice cream: cup or cone?

Here's a simple thing you can do for the environment: next time you go to an ice cream shop, make sure to order your tasty treat in a cone. Even if you don't plan to eat the cone, you are still choosing a biodegradable container instead of the throw-away styrofoam or plastic alternative. And eating out of a cone is just more fun!

Image source: Turkey Hill Ice Cream Journal

Monday, September 1, 2008

The North Pole Can Now Be Circumnavigated

The photo above is from today's London Daily Mail, showing the opening of passages in the Arctic sea ice on either side of the north pole.

The accompanying story says: The pictures, produced by Nasa, mark the first time in at least 125,000 years that the two shortcuts linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have been ice-free at the same time. In 2005, the North-East Passage around Russia opened, while the western one, across the top of Canada, remained closed, and last year the position was reversed.

But the satellite data shows that the North-West passage opened last weekend and the remaining tongue of ice blocking the North-Eastern one dissolved a few days later. Professor Serreze, of the U.S. government-funded National Sea and Ice Data Center [NSIDC], told a Sunday newspaper: 'The passages are open. It is an historic event. 'We are going to see this more and more as the years go by.'

The London Independent explains further: Some scientists predict that [the arctic sea ice] could vanish altogether in summer within five years...But it is the simultaneous opening – for the first time in at least 125,000 years – of the North-west passage around Canada and the North-east passage around Russia that promises to deliver much the greatest shock. Until recently both had been blocked by ice since the beginning of the last Ice Age...

The opening of the passages – eagerly awaited by shipping companies who hope to cut thousands of miles off their routes by sailing round the north of Canada and Russia – is only the greatest of a host of ominous signs this month of a gathering crisis in the Arctic. Early last week the NSIDC warned that, over the next few weeks, the total extent of sea ice in the Arctic may shrink to below the record low reached last year – itself a massive 200,000 square miles less than the previous worst year, 2005...

The Bremen-based Beluga Group says it will send the first ship through the North-east passage – cutting 4,000 nautical miles off the voyage from Germany to Japan – next year. And Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, last week announced that all foreign ships entering the North-west passage should report to his government – a move bound to be resisted by the US, which regards it as an international waterway.

But scientists say that such disputes will soon become irrelevant if the ice continues to melt at present rates, making it possible to sail right across the North Pole. They have long regarded the disappearance of the icecap as inevitable as global warming takes hold, though until recently it was not expected until around 2070.

Many scientists now predict that the Arctic ocean will be ice-free in summer by 2030 – and a landmark study this year by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, concluded that there will be no ice between mid-July and mid-September as early as 2013.

Earlier this month, as the sea ice was already starting to recede at unprecedented rates, the Guardian wrote This startling loss of Arctic sea ice has major meteorological, environmental and ecological implications. The region acts like a giant refrigerator that has a strong effect on the northern hemisphere's meteorology. Without its cooling influence, weather patterns will be badly disrupted, including storms set to sweep over Britain.

At the same time, creatures such as polar bears and seals - which use sea ice for hunting and resting - face major threats. Similarly, coastlines will no longer be insulated by ice from wave damage and will suffer erosion, as is already happening in Alaska.

Other environmental changes are likely to follow. Without sea ice to bolster them, land ice - including glaciers - could topple into the ocean and raise global sea levels, threatening many low-lying areas, including Bangladesh and scores of Pacific islands. In addition, the disappearance of reflective ice over the Arctic means that solar radiation would no longer be bounced back into space, thus heating the planet even further.

In my research, I discovered the answer to something that has been puzzling me throughout the last decade: why has the fall in the northeast US been so warm lately? I found my answer on this ABC Channel 7 Denver site. It's called 'Arctic amplification.' That's when the warming up north is increased in a feedback mechanism and the effects spill southward starting in autumn. Over the last few years, the bigger melt has meant more warm water that releases more heat into the air during fall cooling, making the atmosphere warmer than normal.

Sadly, in a related story, 9 stranded polar bears were seen off Alaska trying to swim 400 miles north to the retreating icecap edge after the ice float they were living on melted. The furthest a polar bear has ever been known to swim and survive is 100 miles. Read more here.

And what has been going on down in Antarctica? Well, their summer season ends in late February. This year at that time, a chunk of the Wilkins ice shelf the size of Manhattan collapsed. Full story here and here and video here.

Further reading and images:
New York Times graphic showing sea ice change from 2003-2007
February 20th, 1969, New York Times article on Arctic ice
The story of one walrus.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin's Environmental Record

Sarah Palin (Republican governor of Alaska) was recently chosen by John McCain to be his running mate. Although hailed by some as a bold choice, Palin's record on environmental issues is not encouraging to those hoping for "green leadership" in the coming years.

In an attempt to remove blocks to oil exploration in her state, she sued to have the polar bear removed from the Endangered Species list after it was added by the Bush Administration's Interior Secretary (as reported previously by The Future Earth.)  As would be expected of someone taking such action, Palin strongly supports opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Palin has close ties to the oil industry. Her husband is an employee of oil giant BP, and she received campaign funding from oil contractors (as it turns out, the same contractors connected to the scandal surrounding Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens.)  In case Palin's ideas and motivations regarding fossil fuels weren't clear, she stated in an interview: "I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can't drill our way out of our problem or that more supply won't ultimately affect prices. Of course it will affect prices." 

Despite claiming in the same interview that "Here in Alaska we love our clean air and our clean water and abundant wildlife", Palin worked desperately to block a major clean-water initiative in her home state (the initiative would have conflicted with expanding mining interests.)  Fortunately for Alaskans truly concerned with the health of their waterways, the initiative passed.

As for the greater issue of global warming, Palin has been quoted as saying, "I'm not one though who would attribute it [global warming] to being man-made."

In her term as governor, Sarah Palin has regarded environmental concerns merely as obstacles to oil-focused energy policies.  She has fought to preserve or expand Big Oil's interests while doing her best  to obstruct environmentally progressive action.  Her positions put her to the right of John McCain on some "green" issues, and even to the right of the Bush Administration regarding the protection of an endangered species.

With this record to consider, it is also worth remembering the time-worn saying: a Vice-President is "only a heartbeat away" from the Oval Office.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

We Cannot Trust the FDA on BPA

As reported on August 3rd, a bill was passed that will ban 3 types of phthalates from children's toys. This is a huge environmental victory, but we are still unable to get an equally dangerous chemical, bisphenol A, or BPA, out of our food products. While a government organization in Canada called Environment Canada has declared BPA toxic, and announced its intention to ban the chemical (New York Times, April), the American Food & Drug Administration last week declared it to be safe for the rest of us in North America.

Bisphenol A, which is added to polycarbonate plastics, dental sealants, and metal can linings, has been found in the urine of 93% of the American people tested. We have been brought up to understand the traditional theory of toxicity: the dose makes the poison. And this is true for some kinds of toxic materials, such as organic solvents or heavy metals: as long as a certain exposure threshold is not crossed, the person is not poisoned.

For some synthetic chemicals, like BPA, it is not the amount, but the timing of the exposure that is important. As I explained in a Future Earth post from November 8th; because BPA is similar in shape, the human body can mistake it for estrogen. A small amount is enough to confuse the endocrine system. It is especially dangerous to developing fetuses and children. See the Environmental Working Group's website for a chart describing studies that have shown this.

Concern has been growing over the last decade about the folly of exposing ourselves to this chemical in some kind of vast, uncontrolled human experiment. While independent scientists are getting results that would suggest that this chemical is dangerous, industry scientists are creating confusion by casting doubts on their results. One way in which they are doing this is by denying this new understanding of toxicity.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from August 15th; Hundreds of studies conducted by government and independent academic have shown that bisphenol A causes breast cancer, testicular cancer, diabetes and hyperactivity in laboratory animals...The chemical was developed in 1891 as a synthetic estrogen but came into widespread use in the 1950s when scientists realized it could be used to make polycarbonate plastic and some epoxy resins to line food and beverage cans.

More than 6 billion pounds of bisphenol A are produced annually in the United States for use in an array of products, including dental sealants, baby bottles and compact discs.

The Chicago Tribune reported the story on August 16th with the following quotes:

"It's ironic FDA would choose to ignore dozens of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health — this country's best scientists — and instead rely on flawed studies from industry," said Pete Myers, chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences. Myers said the agency disregarded recent studies of bisphenol's effects included in the National Toxicology Program's April draft report...

Some environmental groups questioned the timing of the FDA's report, noting California lawmakers are expected to soon vote on removing bisphenol from children's products. If signed into law, it would be the first state ban of the chemical. "For this to come out on a Friday afternoon, just before California takes action, it definitely raises some eyebrows," said Renee Sharp, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group.

The bill in California did not pass, with many lawmakers reporting that the FDA statement did influence their decision. Read more in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Environmental Working Group has a page on their site with tips on avoiding BPA. We have to educate ourselves and do what we can to avoid exposure since the government agency charged with ensuring our safety cannot be trusted.

Joe Biden's Environmental Record

Barack Obama's just-announced running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, has a solid record of support for pro-environment issues (according to Grist; which also conducted this 2007 interview with him.)  Biden has sponsored major legislation to address climate change, pressed for raising fuel-economy standards, and has stated that his top priority is "energy security".  This track record has helped him earn an 83% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.  (Obama himself has an 87% lifetime score from the LCV.)

Also, as noted on DailyKos, Biden is probably the #1 supporter of Amtrak in Congress.  A daily rail commuter—from Washington D.C. to his home in Delaware!—Sen. Biden has a track record of speaking out for the beleaguered system. Hopefully, an administration with Biden in the #2 spot would bring a much-needed lift  in funding and recognition to Amtrak.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Environmental Kitty Litter Considerations

The Environmental Working Group has created a blog page that considers the environmental impact of different methods of cat-poop disposal. The 'comments' section is packed with great questions and thoughts, too. Although I you may not come away with an ideal solution after reading the site, you will have much to think about. And you will be pleased to see how many people really want to find answers. It is an illustration of how complex it can be to come up with solutions that lower our impact on the environment without eliminating any of the comforts of 21st century life that we have all gotten used to.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reform Bill for Consumer Safety Products Commission Includes Phthalate Ban

The House and Senate voted to ban 3 types of pthalates from children's products as part of legislation to reform the Consumer Products Safety Commission. This synchronizes the aims of some earlier legislation that was introduced in the legislature, as described by the Future Earth on May 30th and June 26th. It passed the House 424-1, with the 'no' vote coming from Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. It passed the Senate 89-3, with 'no' votes from Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jon Kyl of Arizona.

The Washington Post reported on July 28th: White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that President Bush opposes the ban but that it is too early to say whether he will veto the measure...

The measure had wide support in the Senate, but it bogged down in the House, where the chemical industry waged a costly battle to defeat it. The campaign was led by Exxon Mobil, which manufacturers diisononyl phthalate, or DINP, the phthalate most frequently found in children's toys. The company spent a chunk of its $22 million lobbying budget in the past 18 months to try to prevent any ban...

Phthalates make plastics softer and more durable and also are added to perfumes, lotions, shampoos and other items. They are so ubiquitous that in one 1999 study, the Food and Drug Administration found traces in all of its 1,000 subjects.

The Los Angeles Times reported on July 31st: The administration has objected to parts of the bill, but White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Thursday that President Bush would sign it...

The legislation bolsters the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a 400-staffer agency that took the brunt of criticism last year over the massive recalls and the failure of the government to better test and monitor toy imports before they reach store shelves.

The bill would double the agency's budget, to $136 million by 2014, and give it new authority to oversee testing procedures and impose civil penalties on violators.

Another key provision requires pre-market testing by certified third-party laboratories of children's products for lead and for compliance with safety standards.

—Provides whistle-blower protections to employees who report consumer product hazards. The provision was championed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

—Requires the CPSC to set up a user-friendly database where consumers, government agencies, child care providers or doctors could report incidents of injury, illness, death or risk related to products.

—Makes more products now covered by voluntary industry standards subject to mandatory standards. With that, more toy hazards, including goods containing small magnets that were included in products recalled last year, would be subject to third-party testing requirements.

—Bans three-wheel all-terrain vehicles and strengthens regulation of other ATVs.

The three phthalates to be banned (according to the Library of Congress site for the bill, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008) are di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), or benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP).

Friday, August 1, 2008

Biodegradable dishes from Verterra

TFE last visited the subject of "disposable" serving-ware with a story about bagasse trays (alternatives to dishes made of of pressed sugarcane.)  A similar product has recently debuted that also shows great promise.  These reusable, 100% compostable dishes by Verterra are made solely of leaves and water.

Verterra's site artfully describes the raw material as "fallen leaves" (ie dead leaves), which are then treated to a combination of steam, heat, and pressure to form elegant looking servingware.  No lacquers or chemicals are used; and the pieces are UV-sterilized three times before packaging.  They are also described as microwave, oven, and refrigerator friendly (according to Verterra's FAQ.)

Verterra claims the dishes can be reused, but ultimately should be returned to the earth via composting.  (It's also worth noting that Verterra describes it's South Asian workforce as "fairly compensated", working under "safe conditions", and with "access to healthcare"—phrases which are rarely mentioned by other American companies manufacturing in such areas, if they acknowledge doing so at all.)

TFE has yet to test Verterra dishes first-hand.  If you have any experience with them, please comment and let us know if they live up the hype— and if you found them practical to serve/eat food from.  The only drawback we saw (and it's a big one) is... the price. At around $1 apiece, it's hard to imagine these renewable-resource dishes will replace wasteful paper plates at the average American family's picnic (much less the Styrofoam favored by cafeterias and fast-food.)  We'd prefer to be optimistic however, and hope that they gain enough popularity to make prices competitive.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Kid-Safe Chemicals Act of 2008

On May 30th, The Future Earth wrote about this bill, currently in the House of Representatives, that would regulate chemicals in products specifically for children. Now, the Organic Consumers Association has made it very easy to send a note to your congressperson to let them know you support it.

As they explain, this bill:
* requires that industrial chemicals be safe for infants, kids and other vulnerable groups;
* requires that new chemicals be safety tested before they are sold;
* requires chemical manufacturers to test and prove that the 62,000 chemicals already on the market that have never been tested are safe in order for them to remain in commerce;
* requires EPA to review "priority" chemicals, those which are found in people, on an expedited schedule;
* requires regular biomonitoring to determine what chemicals are in people and in what amounts;
* requires regular updates of health and safety data and provides EPA with clear authority to request additional information and tests;
* provides incentives for manufacturers to further reduce health hazards;
* requires EPA to promote safer alternatives and alternatives to animal testing;
* protects state and local rights; and
* requires that this information be publicly available.

Please visit their website and express your support!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Recycling CFL Bulbs Just Got Easier

On May 8th, The Future Earth wrote about compact fluorescent bulbs and the difficulty in finding a place to recycle them.

Today, The New York Times reports that Home Depot will begin accepting the bulbs for recycling. The article is unclear when this program will begin, so I assume it begins immediately. Ron Jarvis, Home Depot’s senior vice president for environmental innovation, reports that 75% of the nation's homes are within 10 miles of a Home Depot. I already have a bulb to recycle. Home Depot, here I come!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Greenmarket NYC: Find a Farmer's Market in New York City

After TFE's post about the searchable database of farmer's market's (maintained by the USDA), we noticed that our local market had yet to make an appearance. An email to the USDA site manager requested that we provide them with info about the market.

So, intrepid Future Earthling Denise made her way down to Carroll Gardens Market and spoke with an organizer. It turns out that our local green market is one of many in the NY metro area under the administration of Greenmarket, which is in turn part of the Council on the Environment of New York City.

The Greenmarket site contains a wealth of information on NYC farmer's markets, including this downloadable .pdf map showing locations and seasons/hours of operation.

We turned over our findings to the USDA, who tell us that our local market should be added to their database this week; while the entire Greenmarket network will be added by sometime in July.

The Future Earth is pleased to have helped link the efforts of these two organizations; and further hopes that our readers in New York City will benefit from a Greenmarket (or any farmer's market) in their neighborhood!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Good Driving Habits Save Gas

With gas prices continuing to rise, this is a good time to remind everyone of the good habits that will squeeze more distance out of your gas tank. All of these suggestions will improve your gas mileage a little bit; together they may make a noticeable difference:

**Keep to the speed limit.

**If you maintain a greater distance behind the car in front of you, you can regulate your speed with the amount of weight you have on the pedal, and you won't have to do as much braking and accelerating.

**Don't store heavy items in your car if you don't need them.

**Don't inch up at the intersection while the light is still red.

**Turn your car off at a particularly long light if you arrive just after it has turned red.

**Don't idle! If you have to wait for someone for a few minutes, turn the car off.

**Use cruise control whenever possible.

**Keep your tires inflated to the PSI recommended in the manual. But don't over-inflate: this make handling more difficult.

**Check your owner's manual and make sure you have the type of motor oil recommended for the season.

**Make sure your car is tuned up and that everything is in good working order.

**Combine trips whenever possible. Pick up groceries on the way home instead of making a second trip later.

**If you go to two stores near each other, park between them and walk to each.

**If you are traveling at highway speed, the car is more aerodynamic if you keep the windows closed and run the A/C if necessary. If you are traveling at lower speeds, you'll get better gas mileage with the A/C off and the windows open to cool the car interior off.

In honor of father's day this weekend, this post is dedicated to my dad, who taught me many of these things. See, dad? I was listening after all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Find a Farmer's Market in Your Area

Now you can quickly find vendors of locally-grown fresh produce within easy access of your home!

The USDA has made a searchable database of local farmer's markets available online. Simply enter your city, county, state, and/or zip code; and the database will tell you where you can go for farm-fresh, locally grown produce. It also notes hours of operation, and whether the market is seasonal or year-round. (You can even enter just a name— or partial name— if that's all the information you have.)

In a test of the system, I entered my Brooklyn zip code. The system returned two farmer's markets in the nearby neighborhood of Red Hook. However... it did not list the warm-weather farmer's market that operates every Sunday less than a block from my front door. Fortunately, the system includes an email address for adding markets to the database. I've emailed them and hope to see our local market added soon!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, The Future Earth

One year ago, on May 23rd, 2007, I wrote the first post on The Future Earth. so much has happened in environmental news in the last year that I have wished that I had more time to write about it. The greatest victory over the last year has been seeing bisphenol A finally get the media attention it deserves. The Bill Moyers website has a transcript of an interview with the reporter and editor from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that published the recent expose on BPA that ignited the interest of many other media outlets. I provided excerpts and links to these articles in a January 7th Future Earth post.

When I first began trying to spread the word about this issue, people would often be unsure whether or not to believe me. This is understandable, because to believe it, you have to accept that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have not been doing their job to protect the American people. I have been pleased to see awareness and skepticism about bisphenol A growing in the last several months. Now, there are bills before both the House (The Kid Safe Chemical Act of 2008) and the Senate (S. 2928, The BPA-Free Kids Act of 2008) that would regulate BPA in products made for children.

This is a good start, but adults are vulnerable, too, especially those of child-bearing age. And, there are many other problem chemicals out there, such as phthalates, pesticides, and flame retardants. But still, these bills are a good start, especially since plastic products can be made without BPA, and the use of it is completely unjustified.

There have been other stories I have been following that have seen victories as well. After months of reporting on the saga of the Interior Department's refusal to list the polar bear as a threatened species while leasing their land for oil exploration and drilling, I am happy to report that the bear was finally listed on May 14th. A listing of 'threatened' means that the species is at risk of becoming 'endangered,' and 'endangered' means that the species is at risk of becoming extinct. Conservation groups differ with the Interior department as to what kinds of protections this ruling will give the bears, and it looks like this will ultimately be decided after many drawn-out court battles. Additionally, Alaskan governor Sarah Palin has announced that the state may sue to have the listing overturned.

Over the last year, this blog has been steadily gaining readers, and many people have found it through google searches. The overwhelmingly most viewed post in the last year was Plastic Baby Bottles Without Bisphenol A, with 289 page views. The other 5 most popular were, in order, Biodegradable Pressed Sugar Cane Trays, Nail Polish, Some Facts About Aluminum, Bottled vs. Tap Water, and Don't Throw Away Old Cell Phones.

What is your favorite Future Earth post? What subjects would you like to know more about? I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Read more:
Canada to Ban 11 Chemicals
More on Polar Bear listing
More on possible Alaska suit
Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs: Pros, Cons, Clean-Up and Recycling

By now, we've all heard the reports that compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs save energy by using it more efficiently. The Washington Post reports that incandescent bulbs will be phased out by the middle of the next decade. For reasons of energy conservation this switch is a good thing. The US Department of Energy estimates that if every household replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent, the United States would save more than $600 million each year in energy costs and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to 800,000 cars.

But these new bulbs are only a step on the way to a better solution. For one thing, the wavelengths of light are different. A forensic scientist told me that he uses incandescent lights with filters to read altered inscriptions, but that this doesn't work with fluorescent bulbs. Another defect of CFLs is that they contain small amounts of mercury. Mercury can accumulate in the body and harm the central nervous system, especially in young children.

Once a CFL bulb has burnt out or broken, it is hazardous waste (just like batteries and paint), since each one contains between 1- 30mg of mercury (by comparison, mercury thermometers used to contain about 500mg of mercury). However, they are so widespread nowadays that they will soon represent a significant source of mercury in the waste-stream.

I searched for a simple explanation as to how these bulbs work and why the mercury is necessary, and I discovered that it's actually all very complicated. Each fluorescent light tube is filled with an inert gas, such as argon, and the previously mentioned small amount of mercury. The interior is coated with phosphor powder. When the light is turned on, electrodes at each end of the tube creates a current of electrons that travel through, the mercury changes from liquid to gas, and the mercury atoms become excited when they collide with the electrons. This causes a release of energy in the form of light in the ultraviolet wavelength. The particles in the phosphor powder then convert it to visible light. Whew!

The big question with CFL bulbs is, what to do with it when it burns out or breaks. Some states, such as New Hampshire, have passed a law requiring that the bulbs be recycled. In New York, where I live, households are not required to, but businesses of a certain size are. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation strongly encourages recycling on their website, but it takes a determined following of links from there to find out more exactly where you can take the bulbs. This website lists drop-off points in every borough that are open some Fridays and Saturdays. The website Earth 911 lets you search for recycling sites by zip code. I have read that IKEA stores also accept fluorescent bulbs for recycling. Unfortunately, all of these options require that you have a car. You can also purchase mail-in recycling kits from Sylvania.

NYS DEC also page describes what to do if a bulb breaks in your house:

1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

2. Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Use disposable rubber gloves, if available (i.e., do not use bare hands). Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

3. Place all cleanup materials in a second sealed plastic bag. Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag and put it in the outdoor trash container or in another outdoor protected area for the next normal trash disposal. Note: some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a local recycling center. Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.

4. If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet:
First, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner, following the steps above. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

Caution: many articles I read, such as this one say never to use a vacuum when a CFL bulb breaks. One article actually suggests cutting out the piece of carpet where the bulb fell and disposing of it.

As The London Daily Mail points out: Shouldn't these cleanup precautions be posted on the label when you buy the product? I guess this is why the fluorescent bulbs come in such heavy-duty non-recyclable plastic wrap rather than the cardboard sleeves that incandescent bulbs come in- so that if they break before they are opened, there is no special cleanup needed.

The New Hampshire Union Leader wisely suggests not installing them in children's rooms and play rooms where they are most likely to get broken and where the occupants are most sensitive.

So what better choices do we have than compact fluorescent light bulbs? Well, National Geographic News predicts that in a not-too-distant future we will soon be making the switch to LED (light emitting diode) lights. These are already in use as small lights in electronics, but they are still a little too expensive to light an entire room. It is not clear whether entirely new sockets will be necessary for LED bulbs. If so, getting the general population to switch to LEDs will be much harder than the switch to CFLs has been.

I hope all of this information has helped you to choose the right bulb for you, and to be wiser about clean-up and disposal. This post is dedicated to Future Earth friend Ann, who's questions about light bulbs prompted this research.

Further reading:
More Complete Cleanup Guidelines
How fluorescent light bulbs work
How LEDs work
The Baltimore Sun on CFL disposal
Save even more electricity with Smart Power Strips

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hundreds of Migrating Ducks Die in Canadian Oil Sands Disaster

Photo credit: The Toronto Star

You've probably heard by now about the Canadian oil sands. Until the recent increases in oil prices, the cost of extracting oil from them made it unprofitable. Now, oil companies are extracting over 700,000 barrels of oil a day from the region.

On Friday, one of the largest of these companies, Syncrude, posted an apology after failing to set up deterrent sounds at a trailings pond. Migrating ducks mistook the pond for water and dove into it to rest, becoming encrusted with sludge. Many died quickly, succumbing to drowning or hypothermia, but at least one oil-covered duck was shot by a hunter miles from the site.

Read more:
Toronto Star
See videos

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Scathing Report on Industrial Farm Production in America

The Washington Post reported today that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a joint report about the cost of factory farming on human health and the environment.

From the Post article: The report... finds that the "economies of scale" used to justify factory farming practices are largely an illusion, perpetuated by a failure to account for associated costs.

Among those costs are human illnesses caused by drug-resistant bacteria associated with the rampant use of antibiotics on feedlots and the degradation of land, water and air quality caused by animal waste too intensely concentrated to be neutralized by natural processes.

Several observers said the report, by experts with varying backgrounds and allegiances, is remarkable for the number of tough recommendations that survived the grueling research and review process, which participants said was politically charged and under constant pressure from powerful agricultural interests.

In the end, however, even industry representatives on the panel agreed to such controversial recommendations as a ban on the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals -- a huge hit against veterinary pharmaceutical companies -- a phaseout of all intensive confinement systems that prevent the free movement of farm animals, and more vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws in the increasingly consolidated agricultural arena...

With thousands of animals kept in close quarters, diseases spread quickly. To prevent some of those outbreaks -- and to spur faster growth -- factory farms routinely treat animals with antibiotics, speeding the development of drug-resistant bacteria and in some cases rendering important medications less effective in people...

The report also calls for implementation of a long-delayed national tracking system that would allow trace-back of diseased animals within 48 hours after a human outbreak of food-borne disease. And it calls for an end to forced feeding of poultry to produce foie gras, a delicacy...described unpalatably as "diseased liver."

Pew Trust's press release lists several recommendations:

1. Ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics and other microbials.

2. Implement a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow 48-hour trace-back of those animals through aspects of their production, in a fully integrated and robust national database.

3. Treat IFAP [International Federation of Agricultural Producers] as an industrial operation and implement a new system to deal with farm waste to replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today, to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.

4. Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of IFAP to public health and improve animal wellbeing (i.e., gestation crates and battery cages).

5. Federal and state laws need to be amended and enforced to provide a level playing field for producers when entering contracts with integrators.

6. Increase funding for, expand and reform, animal agriculture research.

What can we do? There is now a bill before the House Energy and Commerce Committee called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. You can express your support of this act through the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Whole Foods Market Stops Offering Plastic Bags

The Future Earth would like to offer kudos to Whole Foods Market for voluntarily ceasing to offer plastic bags to its customers in honor of Earth Day this past Tuesday. Customers will now have the choice between recycled paper, bringing their own bag, or purchasing a reusable one. We hope more retailers will follow their initiative.

Read more:
New York Times
USA Today
Whole Foods Market Website

Pharmaceuticals in Water

There has been much news coverage in the last month about trace amounts of chemicals in the nation's drinking water including pharmaceuticals, caffeine, nicotine byproducts, and teflon. This comes at a time when sales of bottled water were starting to decline after years of steady increase, as larger numbers of people were beginning to weigh the environmental and health benefits of bottled versus tap water. Some of the main differences: bottled water falls under FDA regulations, which are less stringent than the EPA regulations for tap water; plastic bottles are made from petroleum with added loosely-bound phthalate plasticizers which can leach into the water; much more energy is used to ship the bottled water to the consumer than that used to provide water through the tap; and the bottles are taking up vast space in landfills.

What lucky timing for the bottling industry that these scary articles have led many people to go back to bottled water! According to the Kansas City Star, Lots of people lunged for bottled water after they were told last month that tap water in many U.S. cities contains traces of pharmaceuticals. “They wanted 5-gallon bottles, half-liter cases — anything that wasn’t municipal water,” said Jennifer Brandon, who was taking phone orders for home-delivered Deer Park water the day the Associated Press story broke.

The thing is, I have been aware that there are chemicals in our water supply for a long time, and so have many people. I have seen warnings before against flushing pharmaceuticals down the toilet for this very reason. This isn't NEW news. And believe me, I have been angry that I don't know what's in my water. I have to drink water to survive, but every time I take a sip, I am exposed to unknown contaminants, no matter whether the source is the tap or a bottle. This is one of the many things that led me start this blog. I am glad to see this issue finally being discussed by the mainstream press.

According to a Belleville, Illinois newspaper, The working group on pharmaceuticals in the environment was formed two years ago through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy...But it is impossible to track any possible progress by the group because the White House has classified task force agendas and minutes as internal documents, and therefore cannot be released...The group's deadline to produce a national research strategy came and went in December...[Kyla] Bennett, who directs the New England branch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said Congress first ordered the EPA to address the issue 12 years ago.

I don't believe bottled water is any safer than tap water. The Associated Press reports Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration systems...More than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and streams throughout the world...In the United States, the problem isn't confined to surface waters. Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep underground, source of 40 percent of the nation's water supply. Federal scientists who drew water in 24 states from aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs...

Another issue: There's evidence that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic...Pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life such as earth worms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show.

The impact on people is hard to quantify. If changes are currently being noted in wildlife, remember that many species have much shorter generations than we do. The damage we are seeing in fish and earthworms now may show up in the human population in another generation or two. There is another issue too. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, was quoted saying

"Although the human health impacts of these exposures to pharmaceuticals and personal care products are poorly understood, what we do know is troubling. For example, we know that widespread exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the growth of bacterial resistance, and this problem is of grave concern."

Unless the EPA regulates pharmaceuticals and other trace chemicals in tap water, and the FDA regulates them for bottled water, there is no way that we, as consumers, can know that either is safe unless we have our own reverse-osmosis filtering system, or set up our own testing laboratory. The Park Slope Food Co-op, where I am a member, had an article on page 5 of their March 27th newsletter explaining why the Co-op is going to go ahead and discontinue selling bottled water despite the recent news: What if the rebirth of confidence in our excellent public water and the growing awareness that much of the marketing of bottled water is empty hype were to collapse and people returned to bottled water in the mistaken belief that it was pure and free of these traces? We fear that in the current political environment this would likely provide the states and federal government excuses to deny the funding and resources required to improve our wastewater treatment technologies, keep our waterways clean, and ensure the quality of our public water. It would allow the giant corporations that make up the bottled water industry to gain ever greater control over and exploit our public waters.

Further reading:
EPA Website
Office of National Drug Control Policy sheet on proper pharmaceutical disposal
Teleosis Pharmaceutical Take-Back Program
Your Sewer on Drugs
Philadelphia water supply
MSNBC: Mutated fish swimming in tainted water
DEET in drinking water
Canada's reaction

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mold Can Cause Severe Health Problems

I recently read an interesting blog post written by a friend about her experiences with mold in her home.

For more about mold, see The EPA website.

Every apartment I have lived in has had some degree of mold growing on the bathroom tiles. Of the products I've tried, it seems the only thing that will get rid of it temporarily is bleach, which can affect your health in high concentrations and is bad for the environment because it decomposes into dioxins.

Has anyone else had any luck with less toxic products?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Salmon Fishing Banned on West Coast

There will be no salmon fishing season at all this year in California and the Pacific Northwest. After a week-long meeting, the Pacific Fishery Management Council decided that the population has collapsed to such a degree that it needs at least a year to rebound.

Read more.

And more. (Photo credit)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Great Online Resources at

If you've ever looked for advice on the merits of a new product, you've likely come across the print or online resources offered by Consumer Reports. For decades their rigorous, impartial testing has been a popular resource for those trying make intelligently informed choices.

Now, CR has launched a free online portal dedicated to information about environment-related issues, with an emphasis on making earth-friendly consumer decisions. offers not only "green ratings" for products such as appliances and electronics, but also features like online tools that help you decode "green" claims on product labels, discover reuse and recycling options for electronics, and search for toxic risks associated with products you might use or own.

The above is only a small sampling of the reviews, ratings, calculators, tools, and blog features offered on I would highly recommend this free online resource to anyone trying to make smarter earth-and-life-friendly decisions in their lives.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne Refuses to Testify at Senate Hearing on Polar Bears

The Future Earth has been keeping track of the ongoing saga of the Polar Bear's endangered species listing. The US Fish & Wildlife Service proposed listing the polar bear as endangered in January 2007 due to climate change and habitat destruction. It had one year to finalize the decision. As reported on The Future Earth on January 10th, 2008, they missed the deadline despite a record number of letters from the public in support of the listing. It was widely suspected that this delay was so that the administration could move forward with an oil lease sale on February 6th of land in the Chukchi Sea, which is an important part of their habitat.

They delayed the listing until February 8th. And then they missed that deadline as well. As reported by The Future Earth on February 14th, the Chukchi Sea land had been sold on February 6th. If the bear is listed as threatened, the exploration would be subject to regulations under the Endangered Species Act.

A letter was sent from the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to Mr. Kempthorne requesting that he appear before the Committee on April 2nd: As Secretary of Interior, you have a responsibility to the people to answer questions before the oversight committee on this serious breach of the Department's duty to follow the law and protect the magnificent polar bear from the threat of extinction.

The Secretary did not show up for the hearing. As reported by the Anchorage Daily News, Kempthorne instead sent a letter and spoke personally to several of the committee members. He also pledged to testify once he had issued a decision, now three months late.

"Careful deliberation will not imperil the survival of the polar bear, it will better ensure that the decision is legally sound and based upon the best available science and the requirements of the law," Kempthorne wrote in his letter.

But that was not enough for the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, who said she was "disappointed" with Kempthorne's behavior -- especially since he had been on the panel while in the Senate. Boxer scolded Kempthorne's record on endangered species designations, pointing out that he had yet to classify a single species as endangered during his tenure as interior secretary.

I'll keep you posted on this story as it undoubtedly continues throughout 2008.

Further Reading:

LA Times
Contra Costa Times

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Biodegradable Pressed Sugar Cane Trays: School Makes Greener Choice; Local Paper Plays it for Laughs

As reported in The Brooklyn Paper last week, a Windsor Terrace elementary school became the first in the city to replace Styrofoam lunch trays with ones made from 100% biodegradable pressed sugarcane. Despite the Department of Education's refusal to underwrite the cost of the green trays, the forward-thinking school administration and students made a commitment to phase out the Styrofoam ones.

Although pressed-cane (or "bagasse", as the material is called) trays are certainly less noxious than the Styrofoam they are replacing, there is an even more responsible choice— elegantly described in a comment to the Brooklyn Paper article posted by Parents for Climate Protection's Claudia Friedetzky:

... Based on my research, it is much, much more energy-efficient and produces less waste to use re-usable products rather than disposable or recycled materials. The energy consumption involved in making non-reusable trays available is massive, from production, packaging, transportation, and disposing the trays, whether bio-degradable or not ... Why not purchase re-usable trays made from recycled materials, get dishwashers into school, and hire someone to run them? ... Let's show our kids that we don't just use something once and then throw it out. Let's teach them about the environmental cost involved in producing and using disposables.

The Brooklyn Paper made it's own commentary on the subject in the form of an accompanying "field test" article that purports to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Styrofoam and bagasse trays. Sadly, the trial is utterly biased and seemingly serves only one purpose: to mock the attempt to create and use environmentally better alternatives to "superior" Styrofoam. I personally found this to be utterly irresponsible as journalism, as well as insulting to the parents, students and staff of PS 154 that believe we CAN do better than Styrofoam. The Brooklyn Paper may not choose to print my response as a letter to the editor, but I will include it here:

To the editor: I was dismayed to read your front-page article comparing pressed-sugar-cane trays with Styrofoam trays ("Field test: It's a tale of two trays", in the Mar. 29, 2008 issue.) Rather than attempting an unbiased analysis of the costs and benefits of the two food trays, you chose to toss objectivity and any pretense of scientific method out the window and instead play it for laughs— or so I have to assume after reading of your fundamentally flawed "battery of experiments". Rather than testing the trays with a normal student lunch in a school cafeteria (in the manner they are intended to be used) you instead had a local restauranteur pile an obscene amount of food on them, smothering each tray with a mass of carbohydrates that (as your own photo proves) would be more than enough to feed several children. Unless your goal is to prove that sugar cane trays won't assist in making our kids fatter than they already are, it's baffling why you would choose to test school trays this way. The article almost audibly snickers as the grossly overloaded tray becomes flimsy "after a few minutes", but then immediately moves on to even grosser distortions. You admit that studies show toxins can leach from Styrofoam into hot foods, but apparently that must not be the case here because "you didn't see any." Consult any study on the subject: the toxins in question are real, have serious consequences if ingested (look up "endocrine disruptors" on Google, or the proven cancer-causer benzene), and they are MOLECULAR in size. When was the last time you saw molecules of anything with unaided vision? (What you could see— particles that flaked off the cane tray— are a plant material that should pose no health risks if ingested.) You go on to support your claim for Styrofoam's superiority by noting that it "[lasts] years longer". You didn't include actual numbers, but I'll do you the favor: a Styrofoam tray lives in our landfills for at least 10,000 years, steadily adding to the dump site's toxin leakage until it finally decomposes. Ten thousand years. The cane tray safely biodegrades after 45 days.

Flawed methodology makes your article's observations a self-fulfilling exercise. But hey, why bother doing a real comparison when your apparent goal is to simply laugh at the idea (and by extension dismiss the forward-thinking efforts of a school, a local public leader, and hundreds of Brooklyn schoolchildren?) While you amuse yourself in this manner, the rest of us will continue to seek alternatives to plastic waste and toxins that are poisoning us, our children, and our planet.

Stop the Junk Mail!!

Image credit

On October 21, I wrote about a website that helps you to reduce the number of catalogs you get. On March 12th, my co-blogger, Dirt, wrote about the obscene amount of phone books that have been showing up on our doorstep.Today, I turn my attention to all of the other junk mail I get, which mainly consists of credit card offers. I receive offers from Continental Airlines/ Chase Bank twice a week! If someone steals a credit card offer from your mailbox, they could do damage to your credit. The offers have to be torn up or shredded before disposal for the same reason. And they are a big waste of paper.

There is a way to cut back on the number of offers you get, but it requires a leap of faith. You can dial 1-888-5-OPT-OUT or visit the Opt Out Website. The number and the website are associated with the three credit agencies, Equifax, Trans Union and Experian, which already know all of your credit information. You have to give them your social security number for them to verify your identity, though, and that's the scary part. I put the phone number into google and looked at page after page of websites verifying it is safe, including police departments, state attorneys general, and the Federal Trade Commission. I recommend that you do the same until you are absolutely positive that you trust it.

I made the call recently, so I can't yet say how well it worked. The call lasted 4 minutes, 20 seconds, so it didn't take a big chunk of time at all. The recording said that I my information would be refused for 5 years from all companies that want to make a 'firm offer.' A firm offer is one that is made based on your credit history and guarantees that you will get a card if you fill out the form. This is in contrast to an 'invitation to apply' for a card. Since the latter does not require pre-approval, the Opt-out number will do nothing to stop those.

There is another avenue you can try if you get a lot of non-credit card junk mail. Direct Marketing Association will take you off of any of their member's mailing lists. You can peruse the list and tell them which ones you want to be removed from, or you can ask to be taken off all of them. To sign up for the service, you have to give them your credit card number so that they can authenticate your identity. The card will show a pending authorization for several days, which is then removed. I have not tried this one, as my junk mail mainly consists of credit card offers.

The following websites also suggest strategies for cutting back on junk mail such as sweepstakes and Val-Pak. I also suggest that when you donate to a non-profit organization, specify that you don't want your name sold to other non-profits.

Do-it-yourself: Stop junk mail, email and phone calls
Smart Money