Sunday, May 19, marked the Golden Anniversary of the annual Eckerd College graduation commencement in Saint Petersburg. More than 500 graduates, their families and well-wishers, the faculty and the board of trustees all gathered under a circus-styled big top for the ceremony. This year’s commencement address was delivered by Bill McKibben, a world-renowned environmental activist and educator.
McKibben has written several books on global warming and alternative energy, and is the founder of the grassroots climate movement 350.org. The 350 number refers to the amount of CO2 in parts per million which is the safe upper limit on a human tolerance scale.
Scientists, including McKibben, assert that an accelerated greenhouse effect will be the outcome if 350 ppm is exceeded, and that translates directly into bizarre and erratic climate change. 350.org is behind what's considered to be the largest globally coordinated protest, with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries.
Are green energy jobs the philosopher's stone that can turn stagnant employment cyphers into golden opportunities? They are according to U.S. Representative Kathy Castor.
Castor visited the Tampa Area Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee school Friday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate their first solar-powered electric vehicle charging stations. There were roughly 20 people in attendance representing the school and the business community.
As Castor spoke to those gathered outside the school, she was flanked by two electric vehicles; a Finnish Fisker Coup and a modified Porsche 911.
Many common hair care products, including shampoos, conditioners and hair sprays, can pose health hazards. Most of the shampoos for sale on supermarket and drugstore shelves use a chemical called sodium laureth sulfate (or one of its derivatives), a foamy de-greaser that can cause follicle, skin and eye irritation, and which has been linked to some cancers when combined with other common shampoo ingredients.
Meanwhile, mass-market conditioners typically rely on so-called quaternary compounds to produce thicker, silkier and tangle-free hair, but these chemicals can also irritate the skin and eyes and likewise have been linked to cancer. As for hair spray and other styling products, most work by coating the hair with polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP), a plastic polymer that has been dissolved in solvents to keep it flexible. Environment Canada, Canada’s counterpart to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, classifies PVP as a medium health priority, although phthalates, triethanolamine, parabens and other hair spray ingredients may be more harmful, having been linked to respiratory, immune and endocrine problems as well as cancer.
Luckily for those who spend a lot of time and money getting their hair to look, smell and feel just right, a wide range of greener, healthier hair care products has emerged in recent years. Aveda has been a pioneer in the industry ever since Horst Rechelbacher launched the company in 1978 after visiting India and witnessing the healing powers of Hindu medicine and aroma. Today the company offers seven hair product lines tailored to different hair types, with the majority of the ingredients derived from plants, non-petroleum minerals or other natural sources. Furthermore, upwards of 89 percent of the essential oils and raw herbal ingredients Aveda uses in its hair cars products are sourced from certified organic producers.
Dear EarthTalk: I know that large fish contain a lot of mercury, but where does it come from? And what are we doing to prevent this contamination? — Alison Bronner, Atlanta, GA
Mercury in the fish we like to eat is a big problem in the United States and increasingly around the world. Mercury itself is a naturally occurring element that is present throughout the environment and in plants and animals. But human industrial activity (such as coal-fired electricity generation, smelting and the incineration of waste) ratchets up the amount of airborne mercury which eventually finds its way into lakes, rivers and the ocean, where it is gobbled up by unsuspecting fish and other marine life.
Once this mercury gets into the marine food chain, it “bioaccumulates” in the larger predators. That’s why larger fish are generally riskier to eat than smaller ones. Those of us who eat too much mercury-laden fish can suffer from a range of health maladies including reproductive troubles and nervous system disorders. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that human fetuses exposed to mercury before birth “may be at an increased risk of poor performance on neurobehavioral tasks, such as those measuring attention, fine motor function, language skills, visual-spatial abilities and verbal memory.” Up to 10 percent of American women of childbearing age carry enough mercury in their bloodstreams to put their developing children at increased risk for developmental problems.
In partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the EPA issues determinations periodically in regard to how much mercury is safe for consumers to ingest from eating fish. State and tribal environmental authorities and/or health departments issue fish consumption advisories for water bodies in their respective jurisdictions based on federal guidelines. The EPA consolidates these local and regional advisories on its website, where concerned consumers and fisher folk can click on a map of the states to find out which advisories may be in effect in their area.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that gas furnaces cost less to run and burn cleaner than their oil counterparts? If I make the switch, how long should I expect it to take for me to pay back my initial investment? And are there any greener options I should consider? — Veronica Austin, Boston, MA
It is true that natural gas has been a more affordable heat source than oil for Americans in recent years. The federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the average American homeowner will pay only about $732 to heat their home with gas this winter season (October 1 through March 31) versus a whopping $2,535 for oil heat. While the price of natural gas has remained relatively stable in the last few years, oil prices have been high and rising thanks in large part to continued unrest in Middle Eastern oil producing countries. Just two years ago the average winter home oil heating bill was $1,752.
While oil prices are likely to remain high and volatile in the foreseeable future, most energy analysts agree that pricing for natural gas, much of which is still derived domestically, is not expected to rise or fluctuate substantially in the U.S. any time soon. According to EIA economist and forecaster Neil Gamson, the U.S. already has a glut of natural gas and expects even more domestic production to come online soon as drillers are set to open up the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York to more gas development.
Only about eight percent of U.S. homes are on oil heat today. Most are in the Northeastern U.S. and were built back in the day when oil was the cheapest way to keep toasty through the long winters. Many utilities have since put gas lines into neighborhoods that didn’t have them in the past, opening the door for homeowners to switch out old inefficient oil furnaces for more efficient gas units.
Dear EarthTalk: Thorium is a naturally occurring element that is supposedly more available, more efficient and safer to use than uranium for generating nuclear energy. Is this true and, if so, why haven’t we made the switch? — Jane Westermann, Austin, TX
Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element found in abundance in the Earth’s crust all around the world, might well be a better fuel source than uranium for nuclear power generation for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, just one ton of the silvery metal can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium or 3.5 millions tons of coal, according to Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Another advantage is that it comes out of the ground as a 100 percent pure, usable isotope. Unlike uranium, which contains only 0.7 percent fissionable material, thorium doesn’t require enrichment to be used in nuclear reactors. Also, the spent-fuel waste from thorium fission cannot be re-formulated for nuclear weapons like plutonium, the waste product of uranium-based fission.
Also, proponents say that thorium doesn’t require the high temperatures and mitigation equipment of uranium-based reactors. “The plants would be much smaller and less expensive,” Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering, told the UK’s Telegraph last year. “You wouldn’t need those huge containment domes because there’s no pressurized water in the reactor.” With no high temperatures, thorium reactors can’t “melt down” and release radiation.
“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away,” adds Sorensen. “You can run civilization on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free.” The advocacy-oriented Thorium Energy Alliance reports that there is “enough thorium in the U.S. alone to power the country at its current energy level for over 1,000 years."
Nuclear researchers in the U.S. first contemplated using thorium as a nuclear energy feedstock back in the 1940s, but its lack of feasibility in making nuclear weapons put it on the back burner, where it has sat for the last six decades despite various attempts to revive the technology for practical use. In Russia, China and India, thorium reactors represent the next generation of nuclear power. India possesses about a quarter of the world’s thorium reserves. The country is working to develop a network of large thorium-based reactors, and plans to meet 30 percent of its electricity needs with thorium by 2050.
Dear EarthTalk: How clear (or not) are the links between the rising incidents of cancers around the world and the prevalence of synthetic chemicals in modern society? — Alberto Buono, Lee, MA
With the World Health Organization hinting that cancer could unseat heart disease as the leading cause of death around the world, it’s no surprise that per capita cancer incidence is on the rise globally. In fact, cancer is the only major cause of death that has continued to rise since 1900. While it might depend on whom you ask, most researchers now agree that environmental factors—including exposure to chemicals and pollution—play a significant role today in determining who gets cancer and who doesn’t.
A blue ribbon panel of cancer experts initially convened by President George W. Bush researched hundreds of studies and concluded in 2010 (in its 240-page report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now”) that our exposure to chemicals, pollution and radiation is to blame for the uptick in cancer deaths. “The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures,” the panel reported. “With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action.”
The panel cited grim statistics about cancer’s march, noting that 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, with 21 percent likely to die from it. Cancer researchers fear that our reliance on chemicals is the main culprit, as borne out by hundreds of studies.
To wit, a 2000 study involving the examination of health records of more than 44,000 pairs of twins across Scandinavia found that “inherited genetic factors make a minor contribution” in causing most cancers but that “the environment has the principle role in causing sporadic cancer.” A 2010 UK study, whereby researchers investigated the level of chemical exposure of more than 1,100 women during their employment history, found that those study subjects who had been exposed to various industrial chemicals and airborne hydrocarbons were at least three times more likely to get breast cancer later on than women with little or no exposure in their backgrounds.
Not everyone agrees. Writing in Forbes magazine, Henry I. Miller and Elizabeth Whelan of the industry-friendly American Council on Science and Health argue that the findings of the presidential panel are based on politics not science: “If the authors had only bothered to consult a standard textbook on cancer epidemiology, they would have learned that lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and overexposure to sunlight—not chemicals in air, water and food—are the underlying causes of most preventable human cancers.”
While few today would doubt the health risks of such personal lifestyle factors, the President’s cancer panel nevertheless concluded that “the burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health,” and urged President Obama to use the power of his office to “remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation's productivity, and devastate American lives.”
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Dear EarthTalk: What is shark finning and why have several U.S. states outlawed it? — Betsy Englund, Tampa, FL
Shark finning is the practice of catching sharks, hacking off their fins, and returning them to the ocean (maimed and unable to swim or circulate oxygen through their systems) where they starve to death, suffocate or get eaten by other predators. Fishermen sell the fins, typically on the black market, for use in shark fin soup, a delicacy throughout Asia and increasingly in other areas of the world with large Asian populations. Analysts value the worldwide market for shark fins at upwards of $1.2 billion annually.
“As a result of China’s expanding economy and rising affluence, an increasing number of people can now afford the soup, priced at up to $100 per bowl, and demand has risen dramatically,” reports the non-profit WildAid. “Though shark fin soup represents status in Asian culture, the fin itself adds no flavor, nutritional or medicinal value.” The group adds that the consumption of shark fin poses a serious threat to human health since they contain an extremely high concentration of mercury and other toxins now omnipresent in our oceans.
Besides being inhumane, shark finning is taking a heavy toll on shark populations. According to the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute, upwards of 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins alone. Another 50 million die annually as “bycatch” when they become entwined in fishing nets targeting other seafood (some fishermen do make use of this bycatch by selling off what fins, cartilage, liver oil and meat they can). As a result of these multiple threats, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that a third of all shark species are nearing extinction, with some species declining by more than 80 percent in recent decades.
Dear EarthTalk: Most gold mining operations use cyanide to extract gold from surrounding rock. What are the environmental implications of this, and are there alternatives? — J. Pelton, via e-mail
Although “cyanidation”—the use of a sodium cyanide compound to separate a precious metal from finely ground rock—has become less common in other forms of mining, it is still the dominant practice in gold mining. Some 90 percent of gold mines around the world employ cyanidation to harvest their loot.
“In gold mining, a diluted cyanide solution is sprayed on crushed ore that is placed in piles or mixed with ore in enclosed vats,” reports the State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), a project of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. “The cyanide attaches to minute particles of gold to form a water-soluble, gold-cyanide compound from which the gold can be recovered.”
But of course not all the cyanide gets recovered. Some of it gets spilled, and some is left within mine waste that is often buried underground woefully close to groundwater, leaving neighbors and public health officials worried about its effects on drinking water and on surrounding ecosystems and local wildlife.
Dear EarthTalk: Why don’t more states mandate deposits on beverage bottles as incentives for people to return them? Most bottles I’ve seen only list a few states on them. — Alan Wu, Cary, NC
So-called bottle bills, otherwise known as container recycling laws, mandate that certain types of beverage containers require a small deposit (usually five or ten cents) at checkout beyond the price of the beverage itself. Customers can return the empty containers later and reclaim their nickels and dimes. The idea is to provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle and to force industry to re-use the raw materials.
According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a California-based non-profit which encourages the collection and recycling of packaging materials (and runs the website BottleBill.org), the benefits of bottle bills include: supplying recyclable materials for a high-demand market; conserving energy, natural resources and landfill space; creating new businesses and green jobs; and reducing waste disposal costs and litter. The 10 U.S. states that currently have container recycling laws recycle at least 70 percent of their bottles and cans; this amounts to a recycling rate 2.5 times higher than in states without bottle bills.
Beverage containers make up a whopping 5.6 percent of the overall U.S. waste stream, so every bottle and can that gets recycled counts toward freeing up landfill space. And CRI reports that beverage containers account for some 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from landfilling municipal solid waste and replacing the wasted products with new ones made from virgin feedstock. So by promoting more recycling, bottle bills indirectly reduce our carbon footprints.
The 10 U.S. states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Delaware’s legislature repealed its bottle bill after almost three decades on the books last year as the state’s bottle recycling rate had dropped to just 12 percent due to more and more retailers refusing to deal with the hassle of accepting returned containers. In place of its bottle bill, Delaware enacted a $0.04/bottle recycling fee that will help defray the costs of starting up a curbside recycling pickup system to service the entire state.