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