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