E Magazine answers all your questions on health, organic foods, environmental news and much more.

E Magazine answers all your questions on health, organic foods, environmental news and much more.

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Dear EarthTalk: Do houseplants really help to clean indoor air?

— Jackson Schlemmer, London, England

One positive result of the 1970s energy crisis was the development and widespread adoption of improved insulation materials to maintain indoor energy efficiency. Unfortunately, however, many of these materials have compromised indoor air quality due to their tendency to ?off-gas? various airborne toxins, including formaldehyde, trichloroethylene (TCE), benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Much of the synthetic carpeting, upholstery and paint used indoors also contain sometimes noxious gases that get trapped inside air-tight homes and offices and which can build up gradually over time. And most synthetic air fresheners only make matters worse, adding even more harmful VOCs to the indoor air. With most people spending upwards of 90 percent of their time indoors, it may be no coincidence that cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases have been on the rise in recent years.

The unlikely hero in this scenario may in fact be the humble houseplant. In a landmark 1984 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study, initially commissioned to find ways to clean air in space bases and vehicles, researcher Bill Wolverton found that some common houseplants actually cleaned polluted indoor air. He found that philodendrons and golden pothos excelled at stripping formaldehyde from the air, gerbera daisies and chrysanthemums wiped out excessive amounts of indoor benzene, and pot mums and peace lilies absorbed a toxic degreasing solvent known as TCE.

A later NASA study, also conducted by Wolverton, saw houseplants removing up to 87 percent of toxic indoor air within 24 hours. And a 1994 German study reported that one spider plant could cleanse a small room of formaldehyde in just six hours. Further, English ivy, bamboo palm and snake plants have been shown to be effective in removing cigarette smoke as well as noxious odors from carpeting and chemical-laden household cleaners.

Just how can a houseplant be so good at cleansing the air? The reason lies in its basic ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air while releasing oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process. Houseplants are essentially doing indoors what other plants and trees ordinarily do outdoors.

To maximize the benefits of houseplants in cleaning indoor air, it is generally recommended to use one plant for every 100 square feet of indoor space. Besides those plants mentioned above, other good indoor air cleaners include palms, ferns, dracaenas, corn plants, weeping figs, dumb canes, orchids, arrowheads, dwarf bananas and Chinese evergreens.

For its part, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends opening the windows and letting in some good old-fashioned fresh air as the best antidote to breathing in off-gassed airborne toxins in both homes and offices. But many modern buildings do not permit such exchanges between indoor and outdoor air, and it is in just these situations where houseplants can really make the difference.

Dear EarthTalk: Why do modern bacteria ?resist? antibiotics, confounding medical treatment? — Hugo Mestres, Seattle, WA

Antibiotics have played a profoundly important role in staving off bacterial infections since Alexander Fleming first discovered them in 1927. But the effectiveness of these so-called miracle drugs has waned in recent years as some of the very bacteria they are meant to control have been mutating into new forms that don’t respond to treatment. Many medical experts blame this phenomenon on both the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in recent years in both human medicine and in agriculture.

Doctors first noticed antibiotic resistance more than a decade ago when children with middle ear infections stopped responding to them. Penicillin as a treatment for strep has also become increasingly less effective. And a recently-discovered strain of staph bacteria does not respond to antibiotic treatments at all, leading medical analysts to worry that certain ?super bugs? could emerge that are resistant to even the most potent drugs, rendering some infections incurable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls antibiotic resistance one of its ?top concerns? and ?one of the world?s most pressing health problems.

One large part of the problem, according to the CDC, is the tendency for people to take antibiotics to fight viruses, which they cannot do. Antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses, and will not fight colds, flu, bronchitis, runny noses, or sore throats not due to strep. Nonetheless, says CDC, ?more than 10 million courses of antibiotics are prescribed each year for viral conditions that do not benefit from antibiotics.? To address this, a growing number of doctors, including Dr. Randel Cardott, an internist with Iowa?s Genesis Convenient Care, are advocating a ?wait-and-see? approach to prescribing antibiotics, especially in cases like middle ear infections that sometimes prove to be viral and not bacterial in origin. Cardott says that European physicians have taken this approach for years with no adverse effects.

Scaling back on antibiotics for human maladies won’t address the whole problem. Farmers and ranchers use antibiotics heavily, too. In North America, industrial beef, pig and poultry farming is a big unsanitary business, and antibiotics are used extensively to ward off diseases and also for non-medical reasons, such as to promote growth. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit research and advocacy group, estimates that some 70 percent of all antibiotics are used as additives in the feed given to healthy pigs, poultry and cattle. These drugs leave the animals? bodies as waste and work their way into local water supplies, as well as right into the food chain. Nonetheless, says UCS, agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry are fighting hard to thwart restrictions on the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

Keep Antibiotics Working, a non-profit dedicated to reducing antibiotics overuse in agriculture, advocates phasing out unnecessary antibiotics in healthy livestock and poultry. In lieu of Congressional action along these lines, the group is encouraging meat wholesalers and retailers to voluntarily stop buying or selling meat that has been produced using antibiotics for purposes other than treating sick animals. Consumers looking to avoid antibiotics in meat should seek out organic offerings at natural foods markets.

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is the “greenhouse effect” and how is it a bad thing?— Suanne Gladstone, Queensland, Australia

The “greenhouse effect” occurs naturally when heat from the sun enters our atmosphere but cannot escape because it is blocked by water vapor, carbon dioxide and other airborne elements, thereby causing a warming of the Earth. Without a natural greenhouse effect, the average temperature of the Earth would be about zero degrees Fahrenheit instead of its present 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

But increasing amounts of pollutants from manufacturing and power plants, agricultural activities, automobiles and other sources that burn fossil fuels have led to an excessive build-up in the Earth’s atmosphere of “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane. Scientists believe that this build-up is exaggerating the naturally occurring greenhouse effect and is to blame for the average temperature on Earth rising by more than one degree over the last century.

The International Panel on Climate Change, an international group of climatologists, predicts that Earth’s temperature will continue to rise from two to 10 degrees Fahrenheit during this century as a result of human industrial activity. According to the Sierra Club, the likely effects of this global warming include the melting of massive icebergs and glaciers, sea level rise, accelerated coastal erosion, more (and more severe) hurricanes, the spread of infectious diseases and widespread species extinctions, among other problems.

To address this crisis, 127 countries have agreed on mandatory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions via an international treaty set to go into effect in 2005 called the “Kyoto Protocol.” The treaty is so-named because it was the outcome of a meeting held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997. Under the Protocol, the United States is supposed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by seven percent by the period between 2008 and 2012. With four percent of the world’s population, the U.S. currently accounts for about 25 percent of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S., however, has refused to sign this United Nations-backed agreement, arguing that U.S.compliance with the terms of the treaty would harm the American economy.

But, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), some of the U.S. government’s own studies should quell such fears: “While industry trade associations have published many misleading claims of economic harm,” says NRDC, “two comprehensive government analyses have shown that it is possible to reduce greenhouse pollution to levels called for in the Kyoto agreement without harming the U.S. economy.”

Instead, the U.S. is pushing for technological approaches that would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it below ground or under water. But environmentalists fear that loading massive mounts of carbon dioxide into the Earth and oceans could wreak ecological havoc in other ways, and doubt that human-induced global warming can be solved by American ingenuity alone.

CONTACT: Kyoto Protocol, www.unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.html; International Panel on Climate Change, www.ipcc.ch; Sierra Club Global Warming and Energy Program, (415) 977-5500, www.sierraclub.org/globalwarming/; Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, www.nrdc.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the impact of the skiing industry on our environment? — Elizabeth Marley, San Bernardino, CA

While skiing affords millions of enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors during the winter, its impact on the environment is fairly substantial. The creation and ongoing expansion of ski resorts leads to the development of otherwise unspoiled alpine ecosystems and often destroys vital wildlife habitat. Ski resorts also use substantial amounts of water for snowmaking and other activities, and generate significant carbon dioxide pollution from energy used to run lifts and visitor facilities.

For instance, Colorado’s famed Aspen Mountain ski resort churns through 45 million gallons of water each year to make snow in the winter, irrigate the landscape in the summer, and to provide for the personal needs of staff and visitors year round. Sprawling guest accommodations, not to mention the construction of new trails and runs, have kept the endangered Canada lynx–as well as myriad other alpine fish and wildlife species–on the run and teetering on the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, the resort’s mechanical facilities and related services emit 76 pounds of carbon dioxide per skier each year. Despite these statistics, Aspen is still considered to be among the more environmentally responsible ski resorts.

In light of such problems as well as increased pressure from environmental advocates, many ski resorts in recent years have started to focus on lightening the impact of their operations. More than 170 ski resorts–representing about 60 percent of U.S. skier destinations–have signed onto the National Ski Areas Association’s environmental charter, which calls for responsible management of resources, decreased energy use and limits on development. While adherence to the charter’s tenets is voluntary, its adoption by a majority of the country’s leading ski resorts is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the non-profit Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition (SACC) publishes an annual Ski Area Environmental Scorecard which rates hundreds of U.S. ski resorts on the basis of environmentally sound management practices, especially individual resorts’ efforts to maintain ski terrain and service facilities within existing boundaries so as to maximize the preservation of undisturbed lands. SACC’s criteria also include the protection of wetlands, old growth forest, unique geological formations and roadless areas. SACC also takes into account energy and water consumption habits. Some Colorado ski resorts that received high marks in that regard include Aspen, Buttermilk and Wolf Creek

Meanwhile, a handful of forward-thinking operations–including Mt. Hood Meadows, Cooper Spur and Mount Bachelor in Oregon, Deer Valley and Park City in Utah, and Lake Tahoe’s Northstar in California–allow skiers to add a few extra dollars onto their lift ticket prices to purchase wind energy which then increases the amount of clean energy that goes into the grid that powers the operations.

CONTACTS: Aspen Skiing Company, (800) 525-6200, www.aspensnowmass.com; National Ski Areas Association, (303) 987-1111, www.nsaa.org; Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, www.skiareacitizens.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any movies with positive environmental messages that would be appropriate for kids? — Betsy Lieser, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

From 1979’s The China Syndrome to 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, numerous films with controversial environmental themes have enticed grown-ups to theatres over the past few decades. But the pickings are a little slimmer when it comes to green flicks for kids.

That said, nothing beats the 1972 film version of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, where a cartoon industrialist (aren’t they all?) ignores the voice of nature and pays the price. Another animated can’t-miss is 1992’s Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, in which forest pixies save a lumberjack from crazed mechanized clear-cutting bulldozers. If your little ones like that one, you can rent them the sequel, Ferngully 2.

While other animated films may not address environmental themes so directly, many generate empathy toward nature and wildlife. King among these would be Finding Nemo, the animated blockbuster starring a fish. Disney’s 1992 The Little Mermaid also gets high marks for sending positive messages about undersea life. Meanwhile, A Bug’s Life and Antz, both originally released in 1998, paint insects and their ecosystems in a favorable if cartoony light.

Perhaps on a scale better for kids, 1995’s Balto—based on a true story but rendered in stunning animation–tells the heart-warming tale of how an Alaskan sled dog helps save the village of Nome from diphtheria. And the highest-grossing animated film of the 20th Century, The Lion King, puts the wild life of Africa’s Serengeti into a majestic format which kids love to take in over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the original Free Willy from 1993 gets kudos for teaching kids about some weighty themes, but along those same lines, it might be best for older kids. Similarly, The Secret of Nimh and Plague Dogs, both from 1982, and 1978’s Watership Down are great environmental movies, but might best be saved for older kids who can deal with more complex issues and emotions.

Those looking for more details on environmental movies for kids and adults alike would enjoy reading David Ingram’s book Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema. The book is organized by environmental theme and provides critical reviews of hundreds of movies accordingly. Another good resource is the Internet Movie Database, which offers information and user reviews on just about every movie ever released.

CONTACT: Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Which carpet cleaners are safe for the environment and my family’s health?— Roger Schatz, Chicago, IL

Most of the carpet cleansers on store shelves today contain toxic ingredients such as petroleum solvents and glycol ethers that are effective on tough rug stains but harmful to both the environment and our health.

First concocted in industry labs in the 1950s, these chemicals have been linked to a wide range of human health maladies. According to Cynthia Wilson of the Chemical Injury Information Network, aside from the headaches and respiratory, throat, nose and eye irritation that can result from just mild exposure, longer-term exposure can result in damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver–even the inhibition of the body’s ability to produce blood.

Fortunately, in recent years a number of companies have come to the fore and developed kinder and gentler alternatives. Seventh Generation’s non-toxic, biodegradable Carpet Cleaner, for instance, uses natural citrus and hydrogen peroxide to remove spots and stains due to everything from coffee and pet stains to ground-in dirt, grease and other oil-based soils–all without leaving behind potentially hazardous fumes or residues. The company claims that if every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle of solvent-based carpet cleaner with its product, Americans would prevent 11 million pounds of petroleum based solvents and glycol ethers from entering our environment.

Meanwhile, Earth Friendly Products’ Everyday Stain and Odor Remover employs natural enzymes instead of harsh chemicals to lift carpet stains and get rid of pet odors. And the company’s Carpet Shampoo with Bergamot and Sage, for use in carpet cleaning equipment, is free of phosphates, chlorine, petrochemicals and other harsh chemicals. Bi-O-Kleen, Enviro-Rite and Natural Choices are a few other green-friendly brands with similar formulations. Large natural food markets like Whole Foods and Wild Oats usually stock a wide range of these products, but they can also be obtained online via Kokopelli’s Green Market and directly from the makers’ websites.

For big or particularly messy jobs, outsourcing the job to green-friendly pros might be the easiest way to go. Bio-Tech All Natural, for instance, which serves the San Francisco Bay area, employs natural enzymes in an all-natural cleaning process that deep cleans carpeting without chemicals in area homes and offices. It’s patent-pending “Naturell Clean” product is available in some janitorial supply and carpet maintenance supply stores and is also employed by other commercial cleaning establishments.

Another alternative for cleaning seriously soiled carpets is to rent a steam-cleaning machine. Steamatic and other manufacturers offer environmentally friendly all-in-one units that dispense hot water and emulsifiers (which attract debris) and vacuum up everything but the carpet fibers and base. Given that many carpets are laden with unhealthy chemicals right off the assembly line, steam cleaning might just get your carpet cleaner than the day it was installed.

CONTACTS: Chemical Injury Information Network, www.ciin.org; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com; Earth Friendly Products, www.ecos.com; Kokopelli’s Green Market, www.kokogm.com; Bio-Tech All Natural, www.bio-techan.com; Steamatic, www.steamatic.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What?s better for the environment, a fake or real Christmas tree? — R.M. Brandt, Nutley, NJ

While there is no crystal clear answer to the age-old ?real versus fake? Christmas tree debate, most environmentalists, ?tree-huggers? among them, would agree that real trees are the better choice, at least from a personal and public health standpoint. Some might make a case for fake trees, because they are re-used every year and thus don’t generate the waste of their real counterparts. But fake trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC, otherwise known as vinyl), one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic.

Furthermore, several known carcinogens, including dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride, are generated during the production of PVC, polluting neighborhoods located near factory sites. Most of those factory sites are actually in China, from where 85 percent of the fake trees sold in North America originate. Labor standards there don’t adequately protect workers from the dangerous chemicals they are handling.

In addition to PVC, fake trees contain lead and other additives designed to make the otherwise rigid PVC more malleable. Unfortunately many of these additives have been linked to liver, kidney, neurological and reproductive system damage in lab studies on animals. The Children?s Health Environmental Coalition warns that fake trees ?may shed lead-laced dust, which may cover branches or shower gifts and the floor below the tree.? So heed the advice of the label on your fake tree telling you to avoid inhaling or eating any dust or parts that may come loose.

The primary downside of real Christmas trees is that, because they are farmed as agricultural products, they often require repeated applications of pesticides over their typical eight-year life cycles. Therefore, while they are growing–and then again once they are discarded–they may contribute to pollution of local watersheds. Beyond the run-off issue, the sheer numbers of trees that get discarded after every holiday can be a big waste issue for municipalities that aren’t prepared to mulch them for compost.

The most eco-friendly way to enjoy a Christmas tree is to buy a live tree with its roots intact from a local grower, and then replant it in your yard once the holiday has passed. However, since trees are dormant in the winter, live trees should spend no more than a week indoors lest they ?wake up? and begin to grow again in the warmth of your home. If this happens there is a good chance the tree will not survive once it is returned to the cold winter outdoors and replanted.

CONTACTS: Children?s Health Environmental Coalition, < >www.checnet.org; About.com?s ?How to Care for a Live Christmas Tree,? http://forestry.about.com/od/christmastrees1/ht/living_x_tree.htm.

Dear EarthTalk: What?s up with these ?eco-fashions? I keep hearing about? –Glenn Hammond, San Francisco, CA Simply put, the term ?eco-fashion? refers to stylized clothing that uses environmentally sensitive fabrics and responsible production techniques.

The nonprofit Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP) defines eco-fashions as clothes ?that take into account the environment, the health of consumers and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry.? Clothes and accessories that meet such criteria are usually made using organic raw materials, such as cotton grown without pesticides, or re-used materials such as recycled plastic from old soda bottles. Eco-fashions don’t involve the use of harmful chemicals and bleaches to color fabrics–and are made by people earning fair wages in healthy working conditions.

Designers have been playing around with organic and natural fibers for years, but so-called ?eco-fashions? had their coming out party at New York City?s famed Fashion Week back in February 2005 when the non-profit EarthPledge teamed up with upscale clothing retailer Barneys to sponsor a special runway event called FutureFashion. At the event, famous and up-and-coming designers showcased outfits made from eco-friendly fabrics and materials including hemp, recycled poly and bamboo. Barneys was so enthused that it featured some of the environmentally sensitive designs in its window displays for several weeks following the event, imparting a unique mystique to this emerging green subset of the fashion world.

One of the highlights of FutureFashion was a stunning pink-and-yellow skirt made from corn fiber by uber-cool Heatherette designer Richie Rich. ?It?s definitely something we?re going to continue toying with,? Rich told reporters. ?People often perceive the fashion world as superficial, so it?s great to work with materials that are actually good for the environment. I had my doubts, but when we actually saw the fabric swatches we were blown away. They were gorgeous, and it wasn’t hard to design with them.?

The party moved to the west coast in June when San Francisco culminated its World Environment Day celebration with ?Catwalk on the Wild Side,? an eco-chic fashion show sponsored by the nonprofit Wildlife Works featuring top models and designs from the likes of EcoGanik, Loomstate, Fabuloid and others.

One of the pioneers of the emerging eco-fashion movement is designer Linda Loudermilk. Her ?luxury eco? line of clothing and accessories uses sustainably produced materials made from exotic plants including bamboo, sea cell, soya and sasawashi. The latter is a linen-like fabric made from a Japanese leaf that contains anti-allergen and anti-bacterial properties. Loudermilk also incorporates natural themes in each season?s line–her most recent one being an oceanic motif. ?We aim to give eco glamour legs, a fabulous look and a slammin? attitude that stops traffic and shouts the message: eco can be edgy, loud, fun, playful, feminine (or not) and hyper-cool,? Loudermilk says.

CONTACTS: Earth Pledge, www.earthpledge.org; Wildlife Works, www.wildlifeworks.com; Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP), >www.stepin.org; Linda Loudermilk, >www.lindaloudermilk.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Did global warming cause Hurricane Katrina or make its impact worse? –John O?Dwyer, Hull, MA

No single storm or its intensity can be attributed to climate change alone, but scientists do believe that warmer ocean temperatures as a result of global warming may be intensifying the strength of hurricanes–and therefore could have contributed to Katrina?s fury. The reason is that warmer ocean temperatures, like those that occur in the tropics between June and November, cause instability in the lower atmosphere, which, in turn, ?fuels? developing hurricanes. Thus, if ocean temperatures rise a few extra degrees above normal, it follows that the ensuing hurricanes will gain added strength accordingly.

A recent study by climatologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that tropical storms and hurricanes in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have increased in both duration and intensity by a whopping 50 percent since the 1970s. These increases have taken place over the same time period as average temperatures at the ocean?s surface, suggesting that this warming is responsible for the greater power of the storms.

Indeed, the hottest years in recorded history have been over just the last 15 years, and with worldwide industrial emissions of carbon dioxide at their highest levels ever, most scientists agree that human industrial activity is a significant culprit. Scientists have been predicting that worldwide sea level rises due to melting polar ice caps would bring about frequent flooding of low-lying areas as well as more frequent and intense hurricanes, among other weather irregularities. ?My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in [hurricanes?] destructive potential, and–taking into account an increasing coastal population–a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century,? says MIT?s Emanuel.

Beyond reigniting debate about global warming, Katrina?s impact is also highlighting the consequences of the rapid destruction of wetlands throughout the United States. Louisiana alone has lost more than a million acres of coastal wetlands since the 1940s, and some environmental leaders maintain that the installation of the levees surrounding New Orleans a half century ago led to the decay of nearby wetlands that historically served as buffers in protecting against flooding and other storm damage.

According to the environmental organization, Ducks Unlimited, which has pledged $15 million to help restore coastal wetlands in Louisiana damaged by Hurricane Katrina, as a general rule one mile of marsh can reduce a storm surge by about one foot. ?Theoretically,? explains Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning for the group?s Southern Regional Office, ?if you had a healthy chunk of marsh when Katrina hit, that could have mitigated some of the damage?the storm surge that hit the Gulf Coast reached some 29 feet, the highest ever recorded. But, in New Orleans, a few miles of marsh may have made a difference.?

CONTACTS: Kerry Emanuel, ?Anthropogenic Effects on Tropical Cyclone Activity,? < >http://wind.mit.edu/~emanuel/anthro2.htm; Ducks Unlimited, < >www.ducks.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Where can I recycle my plastic CD jewel cases? Bianca Hoffman, Bridgeport, CT

Environmentalists have been worried about CD jewel case disposal ever since compact discs first became popular in the 1980s. Jewel cases are made out of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a petrochemical-based plastic that is notoriously difficult to recycle and has been linked to elevated cancer rates among workers and neighbors where it is manufactured. Also, the lead often added to strengthen PVC can contaminate water, soil and air around PVC manufacturing sites.

Worse yet, because it contains a variety of additives and lacks a uniform composition, PVC is far less recyclable than other plastics. Its quality degrades after only two or three ?cycles.? Recycling operations are burdened by having to carefully sort out PVC since it melts into corrosive gases at lower temperatures than other plastics, contaminating whole batches while ruining equipment and raising health concerns. Greenpeace has identified PVC as the least recycled of the six major common plastics used in consumer, household and construction projects. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that less than one percent of total post-consumer PVC is recovered or reprocessed.

As a result, most municipal recycling centers do not accept PVC products, meaning that millions of CD jewel cases either take up room indefinitely in landfills, where they won’t biodegrade, or are incinerated. And unfortunately the burning of PVCs creates airborne dioxins, some of the most toxic carcinogens known to man.

While options for recycling CD jewel cases and other PVC plastics are limited, the Sammamish, Washington-based GreenDisk company will take jewel cases and any other hard-to-recycle ?technotrash? (such as defunct printer cartridges, cell phones, compact discs, videotapes and rechargeable batteries) for a fee of $5.95 for up to 20 pounds. GreenDisk then turns the resulting raw materials into GreenDisk-branded office supplies including, you guessed it, CD jewel cases containing at least 76 percent post-consumer waste content. The company makes it easy by charging just one flat fee that covers the collection box and its shipment to the GreenDisk processing facility.

Another way to make use of old jewel cases–as well as the compact discs within–would be for art?s sake. The website Make-Stuff.com suggests reusing jewel cases for picture frames or to show off collections of miniature items (like coins, stamps, butterflies or dried flowers), or as necklace holders. Meanwhile, compact discs themselves, also hard to recycle, can be re-used as reflectors, drink coasters, large poker chips or game pieces, or other fun stuff.

CONTACTS: GreenDisk, < >www.greendisk.com; Make-Stuff.com, < >www.make-stuff.com; Greenpeace, ?Why PVC is Bad News,? http://archive.greenpeace.org/toxics/pvcdatabase/bad.html.

Laurie Garrett: Are We Prepared for Avian Flu? Interviewed by Jim Motavalli Editor, E – The Environmental Magazine

Laurie Garrett, the only reporter to win all three of journalism?s big ?P? awards (the Peabody, the Polk and the Pulitzer) is extraordinarily well positioned to tell the frightening and emerging story of avian flu. The author of two major public health books, Betrayal of Trust and The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance, she was a science correspondent at National Public Radio before joining the science-writing staff of Newsday in 1988.

Today, Garrett is Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her story ?The Next Pandemic?? was published in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, the Council?s bi-monthly magazine. In it, Garrett traces the history of U.S. pandemics, including the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans. Avian flu could be even worse. ?If the relentlessly evolving virus becomes capable of human-to-human transmission, develops a power of contagion typical of human influenzas, and maintains its extraordinary virulence,? she writes, ?humanity could well face a pandemic unlike any ever witnessed. Or nothing at all could happen.? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an H5N1 avian influenza that is transmittable from human to human could sicken 80 million people and kill 16 million.

Influenza comes from aquatic birds, including migratory ducks, geese and herons. As Garrett explains, the loss of these birds? migratory routes in China has brought them into direct contact with humans in farms and parks. In this way, influenza is spread from migrating birds to domestic birds, then to pigs and ultimately to humans. This chain of events involves veterinary science, ecology and medicine, the triumvirate studied by the science of conservation medicine.

E Magazine: How is avian flu progressing?

Garrett: It is becoming more of a danger physically, and to add to that there?s been a steady effort by the public health community to get policymakers more aware and more concerned about the situation. That is meeting with some success finally.

How does avian influenza spread?

I wish we knew the answer to that question. There?s evidence of transmission via dining on the meat of animals. There?s evidence [of transmission through] some very, very close contact with chickens, such as professional cock-fighting roosters. The owners of these roosters suck the blood out of the roosters? beaks with their own mouths when they start bleeding during cockfights. But it?s all rather mysterious: Lots and lots of chicken handlers, chicken farmers and poultry workers are infected. And then we find infections in people who seemed to be several steps away from any chickens. So it?s all quite baffling.

Americans have probably been lulled into believing we have effective vaccines for threats like avian flu.

The only diseases we have any hope of eradicating–and I’m not really sure that we?re ever going to eradicate any more diseases besides smallpox–are ones that are present only in humans and are not found in animals. So smallpox was unique in that the vaccine was 100 percent effective. It was easy to spot people who were infected because they had very gross and obvious physical symptoms, and there were no animals that harbored that virus. But avian flu is not like that; it goes through dozens of different species of animals. We are the final end point on a long food chain of animals that this virus goes chopping its way through, and as it does so it constantly mutates. A vaccine that is effective against the flu strain one year may have very little, if any, effect against the flu strain circulating the next year. So influenza is just orders of magnitude more difficult to deal with.

All influenza virus seem to originate in southern China, in the Pearl River Delta region. It?s a unique ecology, with a tropical climate, extremely dense human population, a booming economy with rapid Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and giant mega-cities sprouting up overnight. But meanwhile, there is a large peasant population still conducting traditional poultry rearing in the way they have for centuries. The Chinese predilection for purchasing live animals that are slaughtered at home means that possible routes of exposure are infinitely greater than what would be the case in the U.S.

The virus is normally carried by aquatic migratory birds, including ducks and geese, that transverse the Asian Flyway, extending from southern Indonesia all the way up into the Arctic Circle of Siberia. The largest landmass on this migratory route is China, which has really devastated its natural ecology. So the birds are unable to find many pristine natural places to land as they make their migration every year. They?re landing on farms and getting into fights with domestic animals over food and water.

The ecology of this virus is very much about what?s going on right now in China. And then it?s compounded by rising GDP growth, which means that more Chinese people can now afford to eat protein on a regular basis. So a family that just as recently as 10 years ago would slaughter a chicken only on a special occasion can now afford to have a chicken every week. And soon most Chinese may be able to afford to have chicken or pork every day, just as we can. And that is going to dramatically increase the number of livestock being reared in China, with very dire potential outcomes. So all of this means we?re hastening the probability of the emergence of a truly lethal flu strain.

Has the appearance of avian flu led to changes in Chinese agricultural practices?

China?s agricultural practices have not change appreciably in any of the peasant areas. And, of course, the majority of China?s population is still peasant, even though the society is experiencing this overall boomtown economy. Purchasing live chickens and other animals, then taking them home and killing them is still very much a cultural tradition that?s deeply embedded across much of Asia, and not just China. You can see it in Vietnam and all up the way up into Singapore and all the way down towards parts of India. This is about culture, and it will not change overnight.

You were describing a process by which migratory ducks and geese have been forced out of natural areas. Doesn’t that make this a good example of what is known as conservation medicine?

West Nile virus, it?s ecology, and how it was behaving in New York in 1999 was understood by a very complicated host of medical professionals, including veterinarians and people dealing in wildlife management. But at that time we really had no respectful mutual lines of communication between those protecting human health and those protecting animal health and those dealing with ecology. And so vital clues that might have slowed the spread of West Nile were overlooked because people in the traditional public health community weren’t listening to veterinarians or people dealing with wildlife. We would hoped that all of this would have been sewn up by now, but we still see the same sort of snobbery and the same professional niche way of thinking operating in infectious diseases all the time.

Even now there?s not a real smooth operating relationship between the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. So those agencies in the UN system that deal with animals and agricultural are not as neatly plugged onto the World Health Organization, and vice versa, as one would hope. And the same is true here in the U.S. institutionally. Our U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services are not exactly good bedfellows. Agencies that traditionally deal with agriculture tend to have as their mission statement the defense of the agricultural industry. So they?re very tied into the economic side of agriculture, whereas health agencies tend to view that with suspicion, and to be tied into a whole different kind of economy. So it creates a kind of natural tension between these forces, and it filters all the way down to the average doctor, the average veterinarian, the average wildlife scientist or ecologist. So the bridges haven’t been built at the institutional level or at the personal level.

But some organizations like the Wildlife Trust are trying to build those bridges.

Well, they can keep on trying (laughs).

Some of our modern transportation systems also have helped spread disease. I understand, for instance, that it would be very easy for a single mosquito infected with West Nile to travel to Hawaii on board one of the frequent flights.

Right after the World Trade Center attack, Hawaii was contending with the fact that the country was in a panic about anthrax. Hawaii was being deluged with claimed anthrax samples, and at the very same time dengue hemorrhagic fever had arrived in the form of mosquitoes that had hitchhiked their way from Asia into Hawaii. And, of course, the latter was a much more serious problem for the state of Hawaii, but its resources were sorely taxed at that time. And so several people did end up getting dengue fever on the island of Maui.

What is the likelihood of mass human-to-human transmission of avian flu?

If we could say what the odds were, we could immediately advise policy makers on what they ought to do. But we don’t really know what genetic change the virus has to undergo to become a rapid human transmitter, and therefore we can’t really tell how close it is. It?s not fully understood how the virus makes that change. It may have at least three different ways of doing it–one of which involves recombining in a host that?s dually infected with a normal human flu virus and then the H5N1. It may be that the H5N1 is constantly undergoing mutation, and we certainly see that–it?s known as antigen drift–in flu viruses all the time. There may be a third process that involves a more active genetic mechanism inside mammalian cells–particularly in pigs–and so it?s fairly complicated.

The actual biology is not well enough understood to be able to make a prediction. One aspect we don’t really understand is this: If the virus makes the genetic change to become human transmissible, does it give up its virulence in the process? We hope so, but we don’t know, actually. So, there are many factors that play into trying to map it out. Imagine if you had a supercomputer and you were trying to do a future forecast about what might happen with this epidemic. The number of input factors is just enormous and several of them are unknown.

Do you think the CDC is doing what it should be doing in terms of preventative action?

I think the CDC is doing a lot. But what I keep trying to get across to people is that flu starts in Asia. We?re a lot better off if we can stop it in Asia than if we wait until it is here and try to figure out some means to minimize the damage. And that means a whole lot more multinational agreements, more working on the international level, and this is difficult at a time when our Congress is full of members saying really terrible things about China all the time. It?s China with whom we need to be collaborating on this. And it?s hard when you have some members of Congress who still think of Vietnam as the enemy, as if we were still fighting the Vietnam War. Vietnam is another crucial partner if we are going to deal with flu at its source, rather than waiting.

In a recent study published in Nature, a team at Oxford University did a computer model just simply asking if it possible to stop pandemic flu. And the good news is their answer is yes, it is possible, but the bad news is only if you identify it when there are only 30 human cases. Well, we?re not going to spot those first 30 human cases before it spreads to hundreds or thousands of people of people unless we have a much better infrastructure of public health, vigilance and surveillance in poor countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and in countries with more money but completely lacking in sophisticated public health infrastructure, like China.

Those countries are not going to be able to make the necessary changes overnight. They are going to require a lot of assistance, a lot of expertise, a lot of money, a lot of support. Now, the CDC is doing some of that, but we?re not ramped up on an urgent basis. We?re still operating as if we have a lot of time, and we don’t know how much time we have.

Is one of the problems that we?re distracted by the war on terrorism to the exclusion of everything else?

I think that can be blamed for other things, but not for this. The problem is that at a higher political level it has to do with how our government perceives its role in the world and how it deploys resources. We tend to prefer as Americans–and particularly with this administration–to operate on a bilateral or unilateral basis. We like to go it alone or we like to forge very intimate alliances with particular countries we tend to get along with. We?re less happy working with big multinational mechanisms, with the UN system, with other big umbrella organizations. We tend not to give a lot of money to such organizations and we tend to try to stay away from them. It?s hard to work with partners that come from different political systems and cultures. It takes a lot of patience and it doesn?t always work out the way you want it to. But I don?t think we have much choice in the context of pandemic flu.

One thing that is woefully lacking is really detail-level strategic planning by communities and states–thinking about what we will do. What if pandemic flu is in Oregon and I?m the governor of California? Do I threaten to cut the border between Oregon and California? We really haven?t planned sufficiently, and some parts of the country haven?t done it at all for pandemic flu. Most political leaders will do things that are ultimately destructive, but will in the short term appear to be responsive. They have to do something, so they will try quarantines and closed borders, they?ll try slaughtering millions of chickens or shutting down the whole poultry industry.

And in contrast, many of the hardball things that might make a difference won?t be thought of or addressed. You have to prepare in advance and go through this thought process, so that a governor, a state legislator, a state or city health commissioner, has some kind of guide to work from. Fortunately, the CDC just released in the last 30 days a detailed flu response cookbook, if you will, for the federal level. But I still think we have a long way to go.

Does the threat of a pandemic also have military and strategic implications?

Yes. In World War I, the 1918 flu drastically affected the conduct of the war. At one point, the French army literally had no spare soldiers to fight–everybody either had the flu or was tending somebody with the flu. For the U.S., our shipments of soldiers were literally death ships. By the time the ships had reached their destinations, huge percentages of soldiers had died of the flu onboard. We?re involved in war in more than 60 countries right now. We?re involved in peacekeeping operations or direct warfare and conflict all over the world. We have an enormously difficult and very intense military situation in Iraq, one in which our soldiers are hunkered down. They?re often in gridlock positions, not all that different from the situation in World War I. They?re fighting in very close contact with civilians and with the insurgents. I think that there needs to be a whole lot more thinking and a whole lot more planning about how we conduct our national security operations in the context of pandemic virulent flu.

I understand that malaria was a huge problem in the Pacific theater during World War II. My grandfather came down with it on Guadacanal, for instance.

In World War II in the Pacific, DDT, antibiotics and chlorofin were all introduced into military medicine for the first time.


Laurie Garrett www.lauriegarrett.com

Laurie Garrett?s article in Foreign Affairs http://www-dev.foreignaffairs.org/20050701faessay84401/laurie-garrett/the-next-pandemic.html

Wildlife Trust www.wildlifetrust.org

Dear EarthTalk: Are there environmentally friendly car waxes, washes and bug removers? — Graham Berg, Portland, Oregon

Conventional car waxes, bug removers and other auto detailing formulas are good at their jobs because they contain strong chemicals. Unfortunately these synthetic substances–including glycol monobutyl ether, a registered pesticide, and the petroleum derivatives naptha and cosmoline–can irritate skin, cause other more serious health problems, and get into our groundwater once they are rinsed away.

Luckily consumers have many alternatives to choose from. A handful of forward-thinking companies have risen to the challenge of developing car care products that won’t harm our bodies or the environment. Many car wax manufacturers have discovered that wax naturally-extracted from the Carnauba palm of Brazil does a great job of protecting auto paint and clear coat from bird poop, dead bugs and other nasties. Optimum Car Wax, for example, can protect your car?s finish without abrasive chemicals and instead combines Carnauba wax with lanolins (obtained from sheep?s wool) like those found in gentle hand lotions.

For washing your vehicle, Simple Green Car Wash Cleaner handles automotive dirt, grime, grease, bug stains and everything in-between without polluting. The concentrated formula contains none of the toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in most such cleaners. It can be used safely to clean paint, clear coat, windows, chrome, rubber, canvas and vinyl. Another environmentally sensitive way to clean off caked-on bug guts and other gooey debris without resorting to noxious chemicals is by dissolving baking soda in warm water, then gently rubbing the mixture into the car with a soft cloth.

Detailer?s Pride Gel Wheel Cleaner, available online at driveit.com, among other retailers, is an environmentally sensitive choice for removing caked on brake dust on wheels and grime off trunk lids and engine compartments. It also gets stains off of vinyl and convertible tops, cleans greasy door jams, and is ideal for loosening and removing bug and white wax residues. It is water based, and contains no harmful solvents or chemicals.

For keeping your vehicle?s moving parts at optimal performance, Balchip Corporation, based in Toronto, Ontario, offers a wide range of environmentally friendly engine treatments and fuel additives that serve to dissolve corrosive build-ups and keep parts working together smoothly. Based on the pioneering research of Canadian biochemist Paul Deogrades, all Balchip products are derived from plants and trees and as such are completely biodegradable and non-toxic.

CONTACTS: Simple Green, http://consumer.simplegreen.com; driveit.com/Detailer?s Pride Gel Wheel Cleaner, www.driveit.com/tirewheelcare.html; Balchip Corporation, www.greencarcare.com; Optimum Car Wax, www.optimumcarcare.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What?s the story with electro-magnetic fields? Can you really get cancer from living near clusters of power lines or from sleeping near the fuse box in your house? — Tim Hutchins, Arcata, CA

Over the past 25 years, there has been growing concern and controversy in the scientific community–and in the public domain–about possible links between electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) and any of several forms of cancer.

EMFs are invisible lines of force that radiate from sources of electricity, including power lines and transformers, interior home wiring and all electrical appliances, gadgets and machinery. These fields have both electric and magnetic components that diminish in strength with distance. The electric segment of the field may be at least partially blocked by physical barriers, such as walls, trees and partitions, but the magnetic segment is much less easily shielded.

In an attempt to clear up concerns and uncertainties about the health effects of EMFs, the federally funded National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) conducted a multi-million dollar, five-year study of all relevant EMF research during the mid-1990s. Although NIEHS concluded in 1998 that there was still no clear answer to the question of risk, it did affirm that extremely low frequency (ELF) EMFs should be classified as possible human carcinogens in the case of two cancers: childhood leukemia related to residential exposure; and chronic lymphocytic leukemia in adults in occupational settings.

A few years later the World Health Organization concluded, based on studies of childhood leukemia, that ELF magnetic (but not electric) fields were possibly carcinogenic to humans.

But uncertainty remains. One of NIEHS?s key conclusions in 1998 was: ?Despite a multitude of studies, there remains considerable debate over what…health effects result from exposure to EMF. There is still no clear answer to the question, ?Can exposure to electric and magnetic fields resulting from production, distribution and use of electricity promote cancer or initiate other health problems??? NIEHS decided there was inadequate evidence to draw any clear conclusions.

But while the evidence of EMFs effects on humans is not conclusive, May Dooley, whose company Enviro Health Environmental Home Inspections provides comprehensive on-site EMF testing, cites several scientific studies showing that EMF exposure has increased the size and number of tumors in laboratory animals. She recommends reducing exposure as much as possible: ?If someone with cancer knew that eating a certain food would speed up the growth of tumors, you can bet that he or she wouldn?t eat that food.

CONTACTS: World Health Organization, www.who.int/peh-emf/en/; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/news/emfnew.htm; Enviro Health Environmental Home Inspections, (888) 735-9649, www.create-your-healthy-home.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Why is bottled water so ubiquitous in stores now? Isn’t tap water safe enough to drink?-– Matthew Lieberman, Wellesley, MA

Today just about all Americans have access to clean, safe and healthy tap water. Indeed, in many cases tap water may be safer to drink than some bottled water brands, which may not be subject to testing and might originate from sources near industrial facilities, despite the beautiful nature scenes found on many bottled water labels. Furthermore, about 40 percent of bottled water starts out as–you guessed it–tap water.

Early in 2004 there was public outrage in Britain when it was discovered that Coca Cola’s Dasani brand, marketed as “pure, still water” and sold for 95 pence ($1.74) for a half liter, was simply tap water from a public water supply southeast of London. To make matters worse, shortly thereafter the beverage giant had to hastily withdraw 500,000 bottles when it was learned they contained nearly twice the legal amounts of a chemical, added by Coke during treatment, that can cause cancers if consumed in large amounts.

Despite the facts, bottled water enjoys a “cool” factor that tap water can never match. A 2001 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study confirmed that consumers widely associate bottled water with social status and healthy living. But in test after test, most people can’t tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. When “Good Morning America” conducted a blind taste test with its studio audience, New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over Poland Spring, Evian, and the oxygenated water 02.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of public water supplies, but it has no authority over bottled water. Bottled water that crosses state lines is considered a food product and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the influential International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), “By law, the FDA Standard of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the EPA’s standards for public drinking water.”

The IBWA goes on to urge consumers to trust bottled water in part because the FDA requires water sources to be “inspected, sampled, analyzed and approved.” However, experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) argue that the FDA provides no specific restrictions–such as proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or dumps–on bottled water sources.

Meanwhile, if a brand of bottled water is wholly packaged and sold within the same state, it is not regulated by the FDA and is subject only to state standards, which can vary widely. The organization Co-op America reports that 43 states have just one full-time or part-time staff member dedicated to bottled water regulation.

Bottled water starts to look good when flooding, pollution or terrorism might compromise public water supplies. Watchdog groups, however, advocate addressing such threats by increasing protection of public water sources. But as it stands today, water from the tap might be the healthiest thing you consume all day!

CONTACTS: International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), www.bottledwater.org; FDA Article: “Bottled Water: Better Than the Tap?” www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2002/402_h2o.html; NRDC’s “Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” report, www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental and health effects of the use of depleted uranium, such as that used in weapons in the Iraq War?— Ziad, Kuwait (via e-mail)

Developed in the 1970s by the U.S. military, weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) were originally used during the first Gulf War, and have played a key role more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. DU–a radioactive and toxic waste product recycled from nuclear energy facilities–is utilized primarily in artillery shells. Its density and combustibility make it ideal for cutting through and blowing up armored vehicles. Meanwhile, DU sheeting makes many American tanks impenetrable to enemy fire.

But despite its utility in military applications, DU weaponry poses serious environmental and health threats. Tens of thousands of American veterans of the first Gulf War, not to mention even larger numbers of Iraqi soldiers and civilians, blame exposure to DU for a wide range of ailments collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, nervous system disorders and depression.

Meanwhile, DU is an extremely toxic heavy metal in its own right beyond its radioactive properties, with exposure linked to numerous health problems including neurological abnormalities, kidney problems, rashes, vision impairment or loss, various forms of cancer, sexual dysfunction and birth defects.

According to a U.S. Army report, when a DU projectile explodes, tiny particles of uranium are inhaled by anybody in the surrounding area–be they survivors of the blast, rescue workers or bystanders who happen along days or weeks later. Four out of five allied soldiers in the first Gulf War climbed in or on top of destroyed Iraqi vehicles; many of which were exposed to DU dust. “They were blowing locations up and we were driving through bodies and blown -up tanks. You were breathing all the smoke and the dust off the sand,” reports Mike Kirkby, a British Gulf War veteran who today suffers from Gulf War Syndrome.

Meanwhile, DU weapons that miss their targets, as the majority of fired munitions do, corrode in the ground, slowly discharging toxic heavy metals into the surrounding environment. The resulting contamination of air, land and water causes thousands of additional cases of health problems for civilians already dealing with the destruction of their homelands.

A network of non-profit advocacy groups–including the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, the Military Toxics Project and the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium–is pushing for an international ban on military applications of DU, despite resistance from the U.S., which still manufacturers and supplies the weaponry to U.S. forces as well as to foreign militaries.

CONTACTS: International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, www.bandepleteduranium.org ; Military Toxics Project, www.miltoxproj.org ; Campaign Against Depleted Uranium, www.cadu.org.uk .

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any healthy alternatives to sugar?–Andrew Young, New York, NY

Perhaps since the diet crazes of the 1970s, Americans have been looking to cut back on their intake of sugar. And doctors couldn’t be happier, as they consider the prevalence of sugar in our society a root cause of numerous health problems, including the recent trends in obesity and adult onset diabetes.

By far the most commonly used sugar alternative today is aspartame. Most diet sodas contain aspartame, and it is the main ingredient in artificial sweeteners Equal and Nutrasweet, among others. But aspartame itself has been linked to a host of health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, anxiety attacks, depression, and brain tumors.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services listed 90 documented symptoms associated with aspartame exposure. And according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aspartame accounts for 75 percent of reported adverse reactions to food additives.

Honey, another popular sugar substitute, contains vitamins C, D, E and B-complex, as well as traces of amino acids, enzymes and minerals. However up to 50 percent of these nutrients are lost, unfortunately, when honey is commercially processed. Also, honey is high in calories and is absorbed by the body in much the same way sugar is, so it’s not good a good choice if you are diabetic.

Luckily for those with cravings for sweets, several healthy alternatives to sugar do exist and can be found at most natural foods markets if not in mainstream supermarkets which increasingly have natural foods sections.

For a taste similar to honey with fewer calories, agave nectar–made from the Mexican agave plant–is a good choice. Agave nectar is a fruit sugar, which absorbs more slowly into the bloodstream and is suitable for diabetics. It has a light, mild flavor with a thinner consistency than honey. One organic brand is Colibree. Another comes from Sweet Cactus Farms and can be ordered from their website online.

For baking, date sugar is a good alternative to conventional sugar. Actually consisting of finely ground dates, it contains all the fruit’s nutrients and minerals. Date sugar isn’t highly processed, and it can be used cup-for-cup as a replacement for white sugar. Also good for baking is xylitol, which sounds like a chemical but is actually birch sugar. Unlike conventional sugar, xylitol is actually reported to fight tooth decay, and has fewer calories. Both date sugar and xylitol are suitable for diabetics and others who are sugar sensitive.

Another sugar alternative–and one that has grown in popularity in recent years–is stevia, which comes from the stevia leaf in Paraguay. It is about 300 times as sweet as sugar, but has no calories. The FDA considers stevia a dietary supplement, because in its unprocessed form it is very nutritious, containing such vitamins as magnesium, niacin, potassium and vitamin C. But Japanese drink manufacturers have been using stevia as a sweetener for more than 30 years. Because stevia is so concentrated, it is best used as an additive to drinks, cereals or yogurts, and not for baking, as it doesn’t have enough bulk.

CONTACTS: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (888) INFO-FDA, www.fda.gov; Colibree, (866) 635-8854, www.agavenectar.com; Sweet Cactus Farms, (310) 733-4343, www.sweetcactusfarms.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What is “geothermal” heating and cooling, and how is it environmentally friendly?—John Moran, Cranston, RI

Geothermal (sometimes called “geoexchange”) heating and cooling is a technology that relies primarily on the Earth’s natural thermal energy, a renewable resource, to heat or cool a house.

In winter or in colder climates, the Earth’s natural heat is collected through a series of pipes, called a loop, installed underground or sometimes in a pond or lake. Water circulating in the loop carries the heat to the home where an indoor system using compressors and heat exchangers concentrates the Earth’s energy and releases it inside the home at a higher temperature. In a typical system, duct fans distribute the heat to various rooms. These systems can also provide all or part of a household’s hot water, according to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, a trade organization.

In summer or in warmer climates, the process is reversed in order to cool the home. Excess heat is drawn from the home, expelled to the loop, and absorbed by the Earth. Thus the system is providing cooling in much the same way that a refrigerator keeps its contents cool–by drawing heat from the interior, not by injecting cold air from the exterior. The only additional energy that these systems need, other than the heat from the Earth’s surface, is a small amount of electricity to power the pumps that circulate the collected heating or cooling throughout the home.

“It’s a truly renewable system requiring a minimal amount of energy,” says Lisa McArthur of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, another trade group. “The temperature underground is constant year round (low 40s in the northern U.S. to the low 70s in the South). If a home needs to be heated in the winter or cooled in the summer, the energy source is in one’s own backyard,” she says.

Depending upon the size and quantity of pumps needed, homeowners can expect to pay a few thousand dollars more for installation than for a conventional fossil-fuel system. But with geothermal, homeowners enjoy reduced energy bills, high reliability and long life. “There is always initial sticker shock, but our clientele is more concerned with the environment and long-term use rather than the initial bottom line,” says Scott Jones, a sales manager at ECONAR, a Minnesota-based heat pump producer.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal technology can reduce energy costs up to 60 percent compared to traditional furnaces. This means that a geothermal unit will pay for itself in two to 10 years. Subsidies and tax incentives, which vary from state to state, can make the systems even more affordable.

Homeowners can check with the free online Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy to see if their state provides any such incentives.

CONTACTS: Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, (410) 953-7150, www.geoexchange.org; International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, www.igshpa.okstate.edu; ECONAR, (763) 241-3110, www.econar.com; Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE), www.dsireusa.org.

Dear EarthTalk: My new dishwasher has receptacles for both soap and “rinse-aid.” Is rinse-aid safe for the environment, and do I need to use it in my dishwasher? –Britten Clark, Seattle, WA

If your region’s water source is rich in magnesium and calcium salts (“hard” water), adding rinse-aid to your dishwasher along with the detergent may help prevent streaks and spotting on your glassware and dishes.

Rinse-aid–the ingredients of which are usually ethanol, citric acid, sodium, dyes and acrylic acid polymers–breaks down the salts in hard water, thereby preventing the adhesion of soap clumps during the rinse cycle, leaving cleaner-looking results (although consuming food and drinks from streaked or spotted dishes and glassware is not a health hazard in its own right). The National Institutes of Health report that most rinse-aid is completely biodegradable, and while it is neither carcinogenic nor dangerous if used properly, it can cause eye and skin irritation following prolonged exposure and should not be ingested, of course.

While the use of rinse-aid to combat dishwasher streaking is no environmental crime, those concerned about the consumption of resources might think twice about the need for it. Mainstream rinse-aid, like dishwasher soap itself, contains phosphates in its cleaning agents. Wastewater containing phosphates which escapes sewage treatment can cause excessive algae growth in waterways which in turn pollutes drinking water and leads to marine “dead zones”–underwater environments deprived of oxygen and thus unable to support life. Consumers should keep in mind that dishwasher soaps, as well as laundry detergent and many other household items, also contain phosphates that can cause problems if not disposed of properly.

It’s easy to avoid rinse-aid and other household items with phosphates by seeking out products from any of several companies that only use plant-based ingredients. Earth Friendly Products, Ecover and Simply Clean, to name just a few, make environmentally friendly rinse-aid that can be found in most natural foods markets. Beyond avoiding phosphates, these companies also pride themselves in avoiding petrochemicals and dyes in their products.

Also, just because your dishwasher may need rinse-aid does not mean you should fear drinking hard water from the tap. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), drinking hard water regularly poses no health threat and can actually help lower the incidence of heart disease, as the abundant magnesium and calcium salts help break down arterial plaque in the bloodstream.

CONTACTS: Earth Friendly Products, (800) 335-3267, www.ecos.com; Ecover, www.ecover.com; Simply Clean, www.simplyclean.ca; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: With all the talk of hydrogen fueled vehicles, I can’t help but wonder if millions of cars driving around spewing out water vapor–a well-known “greenhouse gas” itself–is any better than the carbon dioxide emitted by traditional cars? –Kelly Grube, Fleetwood, PA

Climate analysts do believe that water vapor in the atmosphere–mostly due to natural evaporation from bodies of water–is already contributing significantly to climate change. According to the esteemed International Panel on Climate Change, atmospheric water vapor exacerbates warming caused by the emission of fossil fuels by as much as 50 percent. However, the additional water vapor that might be created by millions of fuel-cell vehicles running on hydrogen–while it may sound like a lot–would constitute only a drop in the bucket compared to that which naturally occurs.

Water vapor is actually present in our atmosphere at much higher concentrations than carbon dioxide. According to Mississippi State University meteorologist Jeff Haby, who runs the Weather Prediction Website, the average concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere around the globe is presently between two and three percent, while carbon dioxide levels are only at about .04 percent (four one-hundredths of a percent). “That means there is more than 60 times as much water vapor in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in average conditions,” says Haby.

However, water vapor is far less efficient at trapping heat within Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the leading fossil-fuel-based greenhouse gas. Despite its prevalence, water vapor tends to concentrate locally and then get cycled through the meteorological system quickly (in the form of clouds and then rain). Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is an insidious greenhouse gas that lingers in the upper atmosphere for long periods of time and forms a dense barrier to the escape of heat. While water vapor can cause short-term day-to-day warming locally, carbon dioxide can actually raise the Earth’s temperature both globally and permanently.

Meanwhile, fuel cell advocates such as industrial designer Robert Q. Riley do not see the increased production of water vapor by the hoped-for hydrogen-powered vehicles of the future as a major concern. “Natural evaporation from lakes and rivers produces about 1000 times more water vapor than would come from a transportation system that was totally powered by fuel cells,” says Riley. “So the increased moisture in the air is pretty much inconsequential.”

CONTACTS: International Panel on Climate Change, www.ipcc.ch; The Weather Prediction Website, www.theweatherprediction.com; NASA’s Earth Observatory, www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that the solvents commonly used in commercial dry cleaning are unhealthy and unsafe for the environment. Is this true? — Earl Eckstrom, Portland, OR

Studies show that perchloroethylene–the solvent used by the vast majority of dry cleaning establishments–is both hazardous to human health and injurious to the environment. For one, “perc,” as the solvent is commonly known in the industry, can have negative effects on the central nervous system. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, short-term exposure to perc can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory problems.

The environmental organization Greenpeace found that perc breaks down into toxic byproducts like phosgene, vinyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride and trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, “Phosgene is an extremely hazardous gas which evaporates and in closed spaces is potentially lethal. Vinyl chloride is a proven carcinogen and carbon tetrachloride is a known liver toxin.” And TCA has been linked to the extensive damage done to trees in the Black Forest in Germany, where it was used as an herbicide in the 1950s and 1960s.

A Danish study by Kolstad, Brandt and Rasmussen revealed that pregnant dry cleaning workers are twice as likely to have a miscarriage as pregnant women in other professions. And the University of California at Berkeley found that male dry cleaning workers have more sperm abnormalities and a significantly lower sperm count than men not employed by the industry.

Less toxic alternatives to perc are beginning to take hold. Comet Cleaners, which has 350 locations in 17 states and Mexico, replaced perc a decade ago with the more benign petroleum solvent, Exxon D-2000. Other cleaners have switched over to Chevron-Phillips’ EcoSolv, a similar hydrocarbon-based alternative. Meanwhile, more than 200 cleaners–including Chicago’s Greener Cleaner–employ “wet cleaning,” a non-toxic, non-polluting alternative that uses biodegradable soap and water.

Perhaps the most promising non-toxic perc alternative is produced by GreenEarth Cleaning, which has patented its silicone-based dry cleaning solvent called Cyclic Silioxane. This product poses no threat to the environment or human health and simply degrades to sand, water and carbon dioxide. General Electric and Proctor & Gamble have formed a joint venture with GreenEarth to help dry cleaners worldwide switch over to this more benign alternative. At greenearthcleaning.com, consumers can search an international database to find dry cleaners in their area that are using the new solvent.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the use of perc under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, states have been reticent to adopt phase-outs. The dry cleaning industry has mounted a strong lobby in favor of keeping perc legal, but consumer opposition is building, especially as more non-toxic alternatives are becoming available.

CONTACTS: Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, www.nrdc.org; Comet Cleaners, (817) 461-3555, www.cometcleaners.com; Green Earth Cleaning, (816) 926-0895, www.greenearthcleaning.com; EPA Perc Fact Sheet, www.epa.gov/opptintr/chemfact/f_perchl.txt.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental and health risks of genetically engineered foods, and do they outweigh the benefits such as reducing pesticide use and increasing crop yields? –Liz from California

Genetic engineering is a technology that manipulates the genes of organisms and transfers them between species. While genetically engineered (GE) foods such as corn and wheat appear identical to their natural counterparts, they differ in that they contain genes from bacteria, viruses, insects, nuts or animals.

Proponents of genetic engineering claim that the technology actually improves upon Mother Nature, as altered plants can be made resistant to weeds, insects or even cooler temperatures. As such, the technology has been touted as the future of agriculture and looked to as a solution for world hunger.

But many scientists believe that the reality of genetic engineering is quite different. According to UC Berkeley biologist Miguel Altieri, the replacement of a wide variety of crops with a few genetically modified monocultures (large groups of a single species of plant) threatens to undermine the very genetic diversity which helps crops avoid insect infestation and the spread of disease in the first place.

“Although biotechnology has the capacity to create a greater variety of commercial plants,” says Altieri, “the trend…is to create broad international markets for a single product, thus creating the conditions for genetic uniformity…” He adds that the potential transfer of genes from GE crops to wild or semi-domesticated relatives may help create “super weeds” resistant to any and all control efforts.

Additionally, some believe that GE foods can be hazardous to human health when ingested. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association says that GE foods have been linked to many health problems, including blood disorders and food allergies. For instance, a few years ago Pioneer Hi-Bred International, in order to boost the protein content of its products, developed a soybean using a gene from a Brazil nut. Independent tests on the GE soybean revealed that people allergic to Brazil nuts could have severe allergic reactions to the modified soybeans.

While many American lawmakers and farmers have embraced genetic engineering, governments in other parts of the world are not convinced that the known benefits of the technology outweigh the potential risks. According to Yale University researcher Kathleen McAfee, American advocacy for genetic engineering has strained foreign relations as European and African nations reject any such “modified” products for trade and food aid.

With more than 40 varieties of GE crops approved for marketing and use in the U.S., as much as 70 percent of the foods on American grocery shelves today already contain genetically modified components. Since the federal government does not require GE foods to be labeled as such, the best way for consumers to avoid them is by buying only products that have been certified organic.

CONTACTS: Organic Consumers Association, (218) 226-4164, www.organicconsumers.org; The Ecological Impacts of Agricultural Biotechnology, www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/altieri.html; Yale Global Online, www.yaleglobal.yale.edu/environment.

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