Fun, easy, affordable ways to clean up & green up…
I dont know about anyone else, but I have had this invisible weight on my shoulders ever since I started learning in school about oil spills, global warming, ozone layers, and something called a carbon footprint. Silly myths, right? Well this nagging little green angel on my shoulder keeps tugging on my ear to stop ignoring the “what ifs” and just DO SOMETHING.
Who doesnt like a great workout to get your adrenaline going and have a burst of energy? But is that burst of energy slowly draining the environment? Eco-expert Kim Carlson is encouraging workout enthusiasts (and those less enthusiastic) to green their routine. Before hitting the gym, check out Kim’s top 10 tips to consider when greening your workout.
Apparently boxed wine (instead of bottled) is becoming all the rage for environmental reasons. What are the eco-benefits of boxed wine over bottled? — Justin J., Los Angeles, CA
With more and more wineries offering organic varieties to lower their eco-footprint, its no surprise that theyre looking at the environmental impacts of their packaging as well. The making of conventional glass bottles (and the corks that cap them) uses significant quantities of natural resources and generates considerable pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the process of manufacturing glass not only contributes its share of greenhouse gas emissions but also generates nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and tiny particulates that can damage lung tissue when breathed in.
As I understand it, hair salons are pretty toxic enterprises on many counts. Are there any efforts underway to green up that industry? — Paula Howe, San Francisco, CA
Hair salons have long been criticized for the pollution they generate. Traditional hair dyes and many shampoos contain harmful synthetic chemicals that are routinely used on customers scalps-and then washed down the drain where they can accumulate in waterways, soils and even our bloodstreams.
While there doesnt appear to be an industry-wide, coordinated effort to green up these operations, green-friendly salons are popping up all across the country, leading the charge by taking matters into their own hands. A simple Google search for “green hair salons” followed by your two-letter state abbreviation may well turn up one or several within driving distance.
Not surprisingly, Southern California seems to be ground zero for the green hair salon movement. For example, Beverly Hills Shades Hair Studio prides itself on its chemical-free atmosphere. Spurred on by her own health problems related to working with conventional hair dyes, owner Susan Henry-so-called “colorist to the stars”-first created her own line of natural hair colors that contain no harmful ammonia, and then transformed her Shades salon into a model for environmentally friendly hair care.
Across town, Noris EcoSalon in Encino is making waves in the industry for its non-toxic permanent hair color treatments and 100 percent botanical henna using home-grown formulations. To boot, Noris interior features energy efficient lighting, recycled denim insulation, low-VOC paints on the walls and sustainably sourced bamboo on the floors, along with a number of other green touches to keep indoor air quality high. And up the coast, San Franciscos Descend Salon goes to similar lengths, and then steps it up a notch by recycling its hair clippings for use in absorbent mats used in oil spill clean-up efforts.
Not just for California anymore, eco-friendly hair salons occupy just about every major North American city, many operating in the same spirit as Shades, Noris and Descend in making use of non-toxic and/or organic ingredients while greening indoor surroundings for an overall healthy experience. Then theres the granddaddy of them all, Aveda, which in addition to operating some 200 of its own spas, supplies natural hair care and personal care products to 7,000 professional hair salons and spas in 29 countries.
Another way to get a greener hair treatment is to search on the websites of green hair care product makers such as EcoColors, Aveda, Modern Organic Products or Innersense for salons that use their products.
Of course, if none of the salons in your area have gone green, take it upon yourself to encourage them to make the transition. You can start by showing them this article and suggesting they begin to carry some all-natural products, perhaps by first contacting companies like EcoColors, Aveda, Modern Organic Products or Innersense to see whats out there that they could easily transtion to.
CONTACTS: Shades, www.shadesnaturalcolor.com; Noris EcoSalon, www.norisecosalon.com; Descend salon, www.descendalon.com; EcoColors, www.ecocolors.net; Aveda, www.aveda.com; Modern Organic Products, Innersense, www.innersensebeauty.com.
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; firstname.lastname@example.org.
If train travel is so much less polluting than driving or flying, why are passenger rail options in the U.S. so limited compared to Europe? And is anything being done to shift more travelers over to American rail lines from cars and planes? — Jeffrey Orenstein, Bradenton, FL
Its true that train travel is one of the lowest impact ways to get from point to point short of walking, jogging or bicycling. In the early part of the 20th century, with car and air travel both in their infancies, taking the train was really the only practical way for Americans to get from city to city. And take the train they did: By 1929 the U.S. boasted one of the largest and most used rail networks in the world, with some 65,000 railroad passenger cars in operation across some 265,000 miles of track.
But a concerted campaign by U.S. carmakers to acquire rail lines and close them, along with a major push in Congress to build the worlds most extensive interstate highway system, combined to shift Americans tastes away from rail travel and toward cars. As a result, while Europe focused on building its own rail networks, the U.S. became the ultimate auto nation, with more cars per capita than anywhere else in the world. By 1965 only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation across just 75,000 miles of track.
In response to the declining use of Americas rail network, the U.S. government created Amtrak in 1971 to provide intercity passenger train service across the country, running mostly on pre-existing track already in use for freight transport. Today Amtrak runs some 1,500 rail passenger cars on 21,000 miles of track connecting 500 destinations in 46 states. In 2008, upwards of 28 million passengers rode Amtrak trains, representing the sixth straight year of record ridership for the publicly-owned rail line. Despite this growth, the U.S. still has one of the lowest inter-city rail usage rates in the developed world.
But that may all change soon. In the spring of 2009, President Obama allocated $8 billion of his stimulus package toward development of more high-speed rail lines across the country, citing the need to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil. Currently only one high-speed rail line exists in the U.S., Amtraks Acela Express, which can reach speeds of 150 mile per hour on its Washington, D.C. to Boston route. The success of high-speed, high-efficiency “bullet” trains in Asia and Europe-where train rides can be as fast as flying but without the long waits and security hassles-has helped convince American transportation analysts that the U.S. should also take the high speed rail plunge.
The first round of federal funding will go toward upgrading and increasing speeds on existing lines, but the majority of it will be used to jump-start construction of new high speed lines in 10 corridors across the country, including in northern New England, across New York State, across Pennsylvania, in and around Chicago, throughout the Southeast, and up and down the length of the west coast.
A 2006 study by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology concluded that building a high speed rail system across the U.S. (similar in scope to that proposed by Obama) would likely result in 29 million fewer car trips and 500,000 fewer plane flights each year, saving six billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions-the equivalent of removing a million cars from the road annually.
What effects do fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used on residential lawns or on farms have on nearby water bodies like rivers, streams-or even the ocean for those of us who live near the shore? — Linda Reddington, Manahawkin, NJ
With the advent of the so-called Green Revolution in the second half of the 20th century-when farmers began to use technological advances to boost yields-synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides became commonplace around the world not only on farms, but in backyard gardens and on front lawns as well.
These chemicals, many of which were developed in the lab and are petroleum-based, have allowed farmers and gardeners of every stripe to exercise greater control over the plants they want to grow by enriching the immediate environment and warding off pests. But such benefits havent come without environmental costs-namely the wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.
When the excess nutrients from all the fertilizer we use runs off into our waterways, they cause algae blooms sometimes big enough to make waterways impassable. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic species cant survive in these so-called “dead zones” and so they die or move on to greener underwater pastures.
A related issue is the poisoning of aquatic life. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Americans alone churn through 75 million pounds of pesticides each year to keep the bugs off their peapods and petunias. When those chemicals get into waterways, fish ingest them and become diseased. Humans who eat diseased fish can themselves become ill, completing the circle wrought by pollution.
A 2007 study of pollution in rivers around Portland, Oregon found that wild salmon there are swimming around with dozens of synthetic chemicals in their systems. Another recent study from Indiana found that a variety of corn genetically engineered to produce the insecticide Bt is having toxic effects on non-target aquatic insects, including caddis flies, a major food source for fish and frogs.
The solution, of course, is to go organic, both at home and on the farm. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic farmers and gardeners use composted manure and other natural materials, as well as crop rotation, to help improve soil fertility, rather than synthetic fertilizers that can result in an overabundance of nutrients. As a result, these practices protect ground water supplies and avoid runoff of chemicals that can cause dead zones and poisoned aquatic life.
There is now a large variety of organic fertilizer available commercially, as well as many ways to keep pests at bay without resorting to harsh synthetic chemicals. A wealth of information on growing greener can be found online: Check out OrganicGardeningGuru.com and the U.S. Department of Agricultures Alternative Farming System Information Center, for starters. Those interested in face-to-face advice should consult with a master gardener at a local nursery that specializes in organic gardening.
Is there any truth to the rumor about high levels of birth control chemicals being found in some cities drinking water? If so can these be filtered out? — Elizabeth Yerkes, via email
It is true that trace amounts of birth control and other medications-as well as household and industrial chemicals of every stripe-are present in many urban and suburban water supplies around the country, but there is considerable debate about whether their levels are high enough to warrant concern.
In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tested water in nine states across the country and found that 85 man-made chemicals, including some medications, were commonly slipping through municipal treatment systems and ending up in our tap water. Another report by the Associated Press found trace amounts of dozens of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of some 46 million Americans.
But according to USGS, such chemicals and medications are so diluted-at levels equal to a thimble full of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool-that they do not pose a health threat. But others arent so sure. Researchers have found evidence that even extremely diluted concentrations of drug residues harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species, and have been shown to labs to impair human cell function.
One of the common culprits is estrogen, much of which is inadvertently released into sewers through the urine of women taking birth control. Studies have shown that estrogen can wreak reproductive havoc on some fish, which spawn infertile offspring sporting a mixture of male and female parts. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that human breast cancer cells grew twice as fast when exposed to estrogen taken from catfish caught near untreated sewage overflows. “There is the potential for an increased risk for those people who are prone to estrogenic cancer,” said Conrad Volz, lead researcher on the study.
What may be more troubling is the mixture of contaminants and how they might interact to cause health problems. “The biggest concern is the stew effect,” says Scott Dye of the Sierra Clubs Water Sentinels program. “Trace amounts of this mixed with trace amounts of that can equal what? We dont know.”
With such contaminants proving elusive to municipal filtration systems, the burden of protection often lies with the end user. But getting traces of birth control and other drugs out of your tap water isnt so easy. Of the many different kinds of in-home water filtration systems available today, only those employing reverse osmosis have been shown to filter out some drugs. Some makers of activated carbon water filters claim their products catch pharmaceuticals, but independent research has not verified such claims.
“The best choice,” says Cathy Sherman of the natural health website Natural News, “would probably be a combination of a reverse osmosis filter augmented by pre- and post-activated carbon filters.” Installing such a system just for drinking water is sufficient, she says, given that water used for cleaning and plumbing doesnt typically get ingested. As to prevention, the non-profit public health and safety agency, NSF International, urges individuals to not use their toilets or sinks to dispose of unused medications and to opt for the garbage instead; most modern landfills are lined to keep such contaminants inside.
Photo: Getty Images
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
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Regardless of the season, it’s never too soon (or late) to do a spring clean-for your health’s sake. In the United States, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found indoor levels of air pollution may be two to five times higher than outdoor pollutant levels.
Environmentalists call for an end to the age of coal-one of the dirtiest and most common of all the fossil fuels we now use-took on new urgency this past December when some 525 million gallons of wet coal ash, enough toxic slurry to flood more than 3,000 acres of nearby land, spilled into the nearby Tennessee River and surrounding areas when a retaining wall at a power plant in the town of Harriman gave way.
The sludge destroyed 12 homes, though no one was directly injured. However, an unprecedented fish kill occurred in the Tennessee River and area tributaries in the aftermath of the spill. According to John Moulton, a spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority which owns the plant, a test of river water near the spill site found elevated levels of lead and thallium, both of which have been linked to birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders. He reassured locals that, although these substances exceeded safety limits for drinking water, they would be filtered out by normal water treatment processes.
But some area residents arent so sure that they are safe from the effects of the spill, which is estimated to have been over 40 times bigger by volume than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Calling it an “environmental disaster of epic proportions,” Carol Kimmons, a local resident who works at the non-profit Sequatchie Valley Institute, told reporters that the nasty black ash flowed into “the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.” She added that the spill was 70 percent bigger than a similar one in Kentucky in October 2000 (306 million gallons) that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) referred to at the time as “one of the worst environmental disasters in the Southeastern United States.”
More than a year after that Kentucky spill, researchers found levels of lead downstream from where the spill took place that were 400 times higher than the EPAs safe limit. And levels of Beryllium were 160 times higher than acceptable EPA levels.
“Coal contains huge amounts of heavy metals, and when coal is burned, the organic matter burns off, but many of the nasty chemicals stick around, in higher concentrations,” said Kimmons. “Also, coal is ‘washed’ using some really nasty chemicals, which are also left over in coal slurry.” The bottom line, she concluded, is that “coal slurry is really, really toxic stuff.”
Ironically, on the very same day as the huge Tennessee spill, a coalition of 39 non-profit groups delivered a letter to then President-elect Barack Obama asking him to overturn a pending Bush administration rule change that would ease regulations on coal waste disposal. The groups contend that coal ash has already polluted 23 states and that the proposed new rule would only allow more pollution and more risks to human health and the environment. Now-President Obama has pledged to undertake a comprehensive inventory of liquid coal ash waste and propose new regulations to ensure its safe disposal.
“This disaster proves that regulations around coal slurry impoundments need to be tightened, and not loosened,” says Kimmons. Only time will tell if verbal commitments from Washington materialize into help on the ground.
CONTACTS: Sequatchie Valley Institute, svionline.org; Tennessee Valley Authority, tva.gov.
Dear EarthTalk: I run a sorting machine at the post office, and am worried about all the paper dust swirling around the building. I asked both management and our union if this was a health or safety problem and both said no, but Im not sure they really know. Can you set the record straight? — J.G. Eddins, Phoenix, AZ
One of the drawbacks to the increasing mechanization of postal facilities is the increase in paper dust. The machines doing the grunt work loosen the dust and send it airborne where workers can breathe it in copiously. Contrary to what management and the union may say, paper dust can be a hazard to postal workers, causing and exacerbating respiratory problems. Sorting machines could also theoretically disperse contaminants (such as anthrax) intentionally sent through the mail into postal facilities, further adding to the risk of the job.
“Theres no federal safety standard on it, so its a real problem,” reports Bob Williamson, president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). “Weve had people who have developed occupational asthma from breathing the fine dust.” Other reported problems include bronchitis, allergic reactions, migraines, bacterial infections, conjunctivitis and sore throats.
In the Fall of 2008, more than 450 current and former postal employees, many in the Chicago area, signed a petition to occupational health officials and postal unions blaming health problems on paper dust fibers inside post offices. Some are seeking health benefits to pay for related medical treatment.
“I do believe that my life is going to be shortened,” Delphine Howard, a former manager at two local post offices, told Chicagos ABC7 News. “I started having severe bronchitis attacks, severe asthma attacks, and severe chest pains.” She worked for the postal service from 1987 until 2005 when her doctor diagnosed her with “a medical condition that is affected by unclean air, dust particles and residue in volumes in her present employment areas.” Several other Chicago area postal workers complained of similar symptoms as a result of ongoing exposure to postal dust.
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) studied the issue in 1998 and found no direct link between health and postal dust, but did discover that sorting machines could send potentially carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (such as ink) and other irritants like dust mites, into the air. The USPS told ABC7 News it had “only received two direct complaints of respiratory problems in the last several years.”
Diligent cleaning of the machines can help keep the problem in check. “Vacuum and wipe down the machines every day rather than resorting to the quicker method of blowing the dust off the machines and into the air,” says the APWUs Williamson, adding that workers can also wear masks to minimize breathing in of postal dust and any contaminants in the air with it. He also recommends that post offices rotate their workers around to different duties to avoid perpetual exposure to potentially harmful or aggravating activities. Besides dealing with paper dust, mail sorters frequently suffer from muscular-skeletal problems associated with repetitive motion strain.
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; firstname.lastname@example.org. EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook
Each week on The Green Dove, EarthTalk features questions submitted by readers on a wide range of environmental topics — from recycling to rainforests; and from the global village to your backyard.