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.