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by The Editors of E!/The Environmental Magazine

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Wouldn’t a return to installing bidets in bathrooms at home go a long way toward cutting disposable tissue use and saving forests? -- Peter K., Albany, GA

Besides being more sanitary than toilet tissue, bidets—those squirty accessories so popular in Europe, Japan and elsewhere that clean your underside using a jet of water—are also much less stressful on the environment than using paper.

Justin Thomas, editor of the website metaefficient.com, considers bidets to be “a key green technology” because they eliminate the use of toilet paper. According to his analysis, Americans use 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year, representing the pulping of some 15 million trees. Says Thomas: “This also involves 473,587,500,000 gallons of water to produce the paper and 253,000 tons of chlorine for bleaching.” He adds that manufacturing requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually and that significant amounts of energy and materials are used in packaging and in transportation to retail outlets.

To those who say that bidets waste water, advocates counter that the amount is trivial compared to how much water we use to produce toilet paper in the first place. Biolife Technologies, manufacturer of the high-end line of Coco bidets, says the amount of water used by a typical bidet is about 1/8th of a gallon, with the average toilet using about four gallons per flush. Lloyd Alter of the website treehugger.com reports that making a single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood. Thomas points out that toilet paper is also a public nuisance in that it clogs pipes and adds a significant load onto city sewer systems and water treatment plants.

“Basically, the huge industry of producing toilet paper could be eliminated through the use of bidets,” offers Thomas, who has been testing different toilet-seat mounted units for the past two years. He would like to someday pair a bidet with a composting sawdust toilet for the ultimate green bathroom experience.

Once reserved for Europeans, bidets are now popular all over the world—except in North America. Thomas reports that 60 percent of Japanese households today have high-tech bidets made by Toto called Washlets, while some 90 percent of Venezuelan homes have bidets. Most people use a small amount of paper to dry their posteriors after the bidet has done its job, but more expensive air-drying models dispense with the need for paper altogether. Thomas adds that bidets provide important health benefits such as increased cleanliness and “the therapeutic effect of water on damaged skin (think rashes or hemorrhoids).”

On the public health front, bidet maker BioRelief reports that almost 80 percent of all infectious diseases are passed on by human contact and that only about half of us actually wash our hands after using the facilities—making hands-free bidets a safer alternative all around. “If you don’t have to use your hands at all then there is less chance of passing or coming in contact with a virus,” claims the company. BioRelief’s full featured BidetSpa sells for $549, but Lloyd Alter reports that consumers willing to go without heated water and air-drying mechanisms can get a perfectly adequate one they can install themselves for less than $100, such as the Blue Bidet, which retails for just $69.

CONTACTS: MetaEfficient, www.metaefficient.com; Treehugger, www.treehugger.com; Biolife Technologies, www.biolifetechnologies.com; Toto, www.totousa.com; Blue Bidet, www.bluebidet.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is “vertical farming” and how is it better for the environment?

Jonathan Salzman, New York, NY

“Vertical farming” is a term coined by Columbia University professor of environmental health and microbiology Dickson Despommier to describe the concept of growing large amounts of food in urban high-rise buildings—or so-called “farmscrapers.”

According to the vision first developed in 1999 by Despommier and his students, a 30-story building built on one city block and engineered to maximize year-round agricultural yield—thanks largely to artificial lighting and advanced hydroponic and aeroponic growing techniques—could feed tens of thousands of people. Ideally the recipients of the bounty would live in the surrounding area, so as to avoid the transport costs and carbon emissions associated with moving food hundreds if not thousands of miles to consumers.

“Each floor will have its own watering and nutrient monitoring systems,” Despommier elaborated to online magazine Miller-McCune.com, adding that every single plant’s health status and nutrient consumption would be tracked by sensors that would help managers ward off diseases and increase yield without the need for the chemical fertilizers and pesticides so common in traditional outdoor agriculture.

“Moreover, a gas chromatograph will tell us when to pick the plant by analyzing which flavenoids the produce contains,” Despommier said. “It’s very easy to do…These are all right-off-the-shelf technologies. The ability to construct a vertical farm exists now. We don't have to make anything new.”

With world population set to top nine billion by 2050 when 80 percent of us will live in cities, Despommier says vertical farming will be key to feeding an increasingly urbanized human race. His Vertical Farm Project claims that a vertical farm on one acre of land can grow as much food as an outdoor farm on four to six acres. Also, vertical farms, being indoors, wouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of weather and pests.

“The reason we need vertical farming is that horizontal farming is failing,” Despommier told MSNBC, adding that if current practices don’t change soon, humanity will have to devote to agriculture an area bigger than Brazil to keep pace with global food demand. Another benefit of vertical farming is that former farmland could be returned to a natural state and even help fight global warming. As agricultural land becomes forest and other green space, plants and trees there can store carbon dioxide while also serving as habitat for wildlife otherwise displaced by development.

Vertical farming is not without critics, who argue that the practice would use huge amounts of electricity for the artificial lights and machinery that would facilitate year-round harvests. Bruce Bugbee, a Utah State University crop physiologist, believes that the power demands of vertical farming—growing crops requires about 100 times the amount of light as people working in office buildings—would make the practice too expensive compared to traditional farming where the primary input, sunlight, is free and abundant. Proponents argue that vertical farms could produce their own power by tapping into local renewable sources (solar, wind, tidal or geothermal) as well as by burning biomass from crop waste.

CONTACT: The Vertical Farm Project, www.verticalfarm.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of the hyena in the wild? Though unloved by many, the hyena has always struck me as one of God’s survivors. -- Jim Reddoch, Portland, TX

Among the most intelligent animals on Earth, three species of hyenas still roam in wilder parts of Africa and Asia. Of them, the striped hyena and the brown hyena are most at risk. Both are considered “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a “Red List” of at-risk and extinct species around the world. The spotted hyena is doing well enough to be considered of “Least Concern” by IUCN, but its population is also declining, primarily due to habitat loss.

In general, hyenas are large, strong, flesh-eating animals that hunt a wide range of prey but mostly feed on carrion (the kills of other predators). They most closely resemble dogs but are in fact more closely related to cats. When full-grown, hyenas range from about 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet long and weigh between 75 and 175 pounds. Considered as smart as some primates, hyenas work in teams to hunt zebras and wildebeests. They communicate through a series of yells and growls, and their cries resemble human laughter.

The striped hyena roams a very large, patchy range stretching from northern Africa through the Middle East to India. Biologists estimate that only 5,000 to 14,000 individuals exist today in the wild. According to the IUCN, major reasons for the animals’ decline include persecution (especially poisoning) by humans, decreasing sources of carrion due to declines in the populations of other large carnivores (wolves, cheetahs, leopards, lions and tigers) and their prey, and changes in livestock practices. “Humans are consistently indicated as the major source of mortality…largely because the [hyena] is loathed as a grave robber, and because of incidents of damage to agriculture…and livestock,” reports the IUCN. Also taking a toll is illegal hunting for striped hyena skins and body parts for use in traditional medicine.

Meanwhile, only 5,000 to 8,000 Brown hyenas today roam parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The brown hyena is relatively safe in protected areas, but clashes with humans elsewhere have taken their toll. The IUCN reports that negative attitudes toward brown hyenas prevail across South Africa and elsewhere, with many ranchers and farmers shooting, poisoning, trapping and hunting them with dogs. The UK-based Predator Conservation Trust has established the Brown Hyena Research Project to help form strategies to promote the long-term survival of the species and its southern Africa habitat.

As many as 47,000 spotted hyenas live in sub-Saharan Africa. They suffer similar forms of persecution as other hyenas but have fared better due to their ability to adapt to life in proximity to humans.

The IUCN’s Hyena Specialist Group focuses on developing hyena conservation strategies worldwide through integrated research and public education to change attitudes toward these much maligned animals. Conservationists underscore the importance of preserving hyenas because, if for no other reason, we can learn much from them. For one, hyenas possess unique immune systems that allow them to withstand diseases that kill other animals. “Only if hyenas are available to study will we be able to unravel the mysteries of their immune responses,” reports IUCN.

CONTACTS: International Union for the Conservation of Nature, iucn.org; Predator Conservation Trust, predatorconservation.com; IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group, www.hyaenidae.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I ride my bike to work along busy urban streets. Should I be worried about inhaling pollutants from vehicle emissions and other sources? -- J. Kaufman, San Francisco, CA

The short answer is, yes, probably. Cars, trucks and buses emit considerable amounts of airborne pollution as they make their ways along city streets and highways. The fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) spewing out of tailpipes have been linked to a wide range of human health problems, from headaches to respiratory illness to cancer. Though Australian researchers found that exposure to these pollutants is actually higher while riding inside a vehicle than while riding a bike, turning your handlebars in the direction of back roads might still be a good idea, for safety’s sake as well.

Western Washington University Geophysicist Bernie Housen, concerned about the air quality on his own bicycle commute along busy Bellingham roads, recently launched a study of the magnetism in local trees to gauge air quality along his route and elsewhere in his region. The magnetism in a tree’s leaves is created by tiny particles of iron oxides and other pollutants that drift through the air, emanating primarily from eroding vehicle brake pads and diesel exhaust. The particles are small enough to pass through our nasal passages and get lodged in our lungs. Housen and his colleagues found 10 times as much magnetism on urban roadside tree leaves as on their rural counterparts that contend with little traffic.

Housen has also altered his own bike route to campus to avoid the more polluted thoroughfares. “One underlying concern is that if you are riding your bike, you are being more physically active; you are breathing deeper and breathing more air in, and so if you are doing that in an area where there is a concentrated elevation of this material it might not be such a good thing,” he added.

Ironically, many cities that offer dedicated bike lanes often lay them out right next to busy bus lanes, unintentionally ensuring that bicyclists breathe in as much diesel exhaust as possible. “I ride along one of these high-traffic bus routes,” Housen says, “and … there was between two and five or six times more magnetic fine particulate matter along the bus route than [on less-busy streets].” Housen would like to expand his research so it could be used by urban planners to better design bike and pedestrian routes so as not to intermingle so much diesel transit and pedestrian/bicycle traffic.

Of course, there are other ways to track urban pollution levels. In the UK, for instance, researchers from the government-funded Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have created the Urban Pollution Monitoring Project, which builds and distributes GPS-enabled mobile pollution sensing systems that can be carried by hand or placed on a bike rack. The group is using data gleaned from the sensors to map where and when pollution levels are at their highest around London and other UK cities, and hopes to use its research to influence the way roads and urban areas are planned in the future as well.

Those who want or need to keep on riding through polluted areas should consider wearing an anti-pollution respiratory mask, many of which can filter out upwards of 95 percent of particulate pollution before it enters the human lung. Some leading manufacturers include Totobobo, G-Flow and Respro.

CONTACTS: Urban Pollution Monitoring Project, www.equator.ac.uk/index.php/articles/563; Totobobo, www.totobobo.com; G-Flow, www.gflowmask.com; Respro, www.respro.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook. 

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the current status of whales? How effective is the International Whaling Commission and which countries are involved in illegal whaling? -- Jonathan Wingate, Yulee, FL

Some larger whale species have been recovering since the dark days before the whaling industry was regulated, but the majority of cetaceans—that is, the distinct order of marine mammals consisting of whales, dolphins and porpoises—are in decline, with some likely headed for extinction in the near term.

According to data collected by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a “Red List” of threatened or endangered species, two of the largest whale species, humpbacks and southern rights, have rebounded since 1982 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling. Based on IUCN’s 2008 survey of cetaceans, both species, while still threatened, were upgraded from “Vulnerable” to “Least Concern” status on the Red List. “Humpbacks and southern right whales are making a comeback in much of their range mainly because they have been protected from commercial hunting,” says Randall Reeves, IUCN’s assessment leader. “This is a great conservation success and clearly shows what needs to be done to ensure these ocean giants survive.”

But other cetaceans haven’t fared so well. Almost a third of the world’s 80-plus cetacean species had their Red List status changed based on the IUCN’s 2008 assessment, with the vast majority now considered at greater risk than before. Overall, nearly a quarter of cetacean species are considered threatened, and of those, more than 10 percent (nine species) are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, the highest categories of threat. Reeves says that the real situation could be much worse, as researchers could not obtain enough data on more than half of the world's cetacean species to properly classify their status.

While commercial whaling is what first put cetaceans at risk—the IWC’s 1982 moratorium greatly reduced stress on many species—other threats loom larger than ever: Whales the world over withstand ship strikes, habitat deterioration and declining prey. And the smaller cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and small whales) often drown in huge fishing nets that trawl the ocean scooping up everything in their path.

And of course commercial whaling still goes on despite the moratorium. Norway, Even with its IWC membership, disregards the moratorium and resumed commercial whaling in 1994. Iceland, which initially withdrew from the IWC over the moratorium, began commercial whaling again in 2006. Japan claims to hunt whales for scientific research purposes—but critics say this is just a front to obtain and sell whale meat under the false pretense of species counts. Whalers from several nations, including the U.S., hunt limited amounts of cetaceans for subsistence purposes, but these numbers are very small.

The IWC is a voluntary organization not backed up by any treaty, so its ability to regulate whaling is limited. Perhaps the biggest factor in nations’ willingness to honor the moratorium is the court of public opinion; awareness of the plight of cetaceans has skyrocketed since the 1960s when environmental groups like Greenpeace first began publicizing the threats faced by the largest creatures on the planet. Today “Save the Whales” might seem like a cliché from bygone days, but with so many cetacean species in decline, it just might be a more needed environmental battle cry than ever before.

CONTACTS: IUCN, www.iucn.org; IWC, www.iwcoffice.org; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk I’ve heard of extremely environmentally friendly homes and communities called “Earthships” popping up across the U.S. What are they exactly? -- Kelsey Kuehn, Kirtland, OH

An Earthship is a kind of passive solar home—or community of homes—typically made of natural and recycled materials such as old tires and recycled cans. Such homes make use of non-polluting renewable energy sources and smart design to meet most if not all heating, cooling and power needs. The term Earthship, coined by self-proclaimed “biotect” Mike Reynolds, is derived from the homes being in and of the Earth—that is, constructed responsibly out of earthen materials and built into the ground. It also refers to living in a ship, which requires inhabitants to be autonomous from outside help (such as a power grid).

The concept has spread well beyond from its roots in the desert surrounding Taos, New Mexico. Besides being the headquarters for Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture business, the Taos area is also home to several Earthship communities which generate their own power without contributing to the atmosphere's growing carbon load and make use of local recycled materials to minimize resource use.

Construction materials in Earthship homes vary according to what particular recycled items are plentiful and useful in a given locale. The New Mexico versions usually consist of exterior walls made from earth-filled tires stacked like bricks and covered in stucco or adobe. These thick outer walls employ “thermal mass construction” to naturally regulate indoor temperatures. Wintertime heating is provided primarily by the Earthship’s layout and orientation, with windows on the sunny sides of the building letting in light and heat. A properly constructed Earthship can maintain a comfortable indoor air temperature with plentiful natural ventilation all year-round with little or no help from power-hungry heating or cooling equipment.

According to the website Greenhomebuilding.com, some other common features in Earthship homes include: curving interior walls fleshed out with recycled cans mortared together with concrete; rooftop water catchment; reuse of so-called gray water for landscaping irrigation and plumbing; composting toilets; and other cutting-edge eco-friendly techniques and technologies.

Earthship Biotecture makes available via its website several books and videos outlining different perspectives on the Earthship concept, as well as practical information on how to build one of your own. The website also provides a wealth of information on existing Earthships and helps those interested in the concept connect with one another via a global network of builders and enthusiasts. It is also a great place to find an existing Earthship home for sale or rent. The firm also offers internships with Michael Reynolds and other leading practitioners in the emerging discipline.

Earthships can be found in most U.S. states today, though New Mexico is the leader, followed closely by Colorado. Several have sprung up in England and France as well as in South Africa, among other countries. And with more and more governments tightening up their building codes to require increased energy efficiency and smarter use of resources, Earthships are bound to become even more popular.

CONTACTS: Earthship Biotecture, www.earthship.net; Greenhomebuilding.com, www.greenhomebuilding.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook. 

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been following reports about President Obama’s stimulus package and what it may mean for creating green jobs. Beyond that, are there programs in place to help businesses switch to greener raw materials and/or to green up operations overall? -- Diane, via e-mail

Even though the push to create green jobs is getting the lion’s share of business news headlines right now, almost $7 billion of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill President Obama signed into law earlier this year, has been allocated to help businesses reduce their environmental footprints in any number of ways.

For starters, the stimulus package rewards businesses (as well as individuals) for investments in energy efficiency—that is, for doing more with less power. The federal government has extended its tax credit program for energy efficient business improvements—whereby 30 percent of qualified expenses up to $1,500 can be credited against your tax bill—through 2010. No one knows yet if the program will be extended beyond that, so 2010 could be a great time to finally go for that upgrade you've been putting off.

Qualifying upgrades include the installation of central air conditioners, heat pumps, furnaces, boilers, windows, doors and roofing that meet efficiency standards set by the government’s Energy-Star program. Likewise, the costs of upgrading to code-appropriate insulation and sealing as well as installing solar water heaters and biogas or biomass stoves also qualify for the tax credit. Business owners beware, though, that they can only claim a maximum of $1,500 combined for all efficiency-related upgrades.

Stimulus money—some $2.3 billion over the next 10 years—is also available to businesses, institutions and government agencies that green up their vehicle fleets and/or take steps to encourage or subsidize employees to go green with their commutes. Companies that install alternative fuel (ethanol, biodiesel or hydrogen) pumps on site can qualify for tax credits for between 30 and 50 percent of installation costs through 2010. Likewise, businesses that buy electric or plug-in hybrid cars or trucks for their fleets can score credits of between $2,500 and $7,500 per vehicle depending on battery size and fuel efficiency.

Another way businesses can make use of tax credits is to install on-site wind or solar power systems. The federal government will pay up to 30 percent of the set-up cost. Congress has also allocated $1.6 billion for Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) to help finance construction of renewable energy facilities run by public utilities, electric cooperatives and city, state and tribal governments.

Businesses that qualify for any of the aforementioned tax credits should be sure to file IRS Form 5695 with their tax returns and keep all relevant receipts and copies of manufacturer certifications and Energy-Star labels where applicable. Tax advisors can provide more details on how to qualify for these federal incentives, and can also advise as to what additional incentives might be available from states. Be sure to check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), which provides a continuously updated list of both state and federal ways for both businesses and homeowners to save cash by going green.

CONTACTS: American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, www.recovery.gov; DSIRE, www.dsireusa.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the story with West Coast salmon runs? I’ve heard conflicting reports in regard to whether the fish are abundant or going extinct. --Rebecca Shur, Kirkland, WA

West coast salmon runs have been in decline for decades, stemming largely from the damming of rivers and the pollution throughout the fish’s extensive range from freshwater mountain streams to deep offshore ocean currents. Analysts estimate that only 0.1 percent of the tens of millions of salmon that used to darken rivers every summer and fall up and down the West Coast before white settlement still exist.

Particularly worrisome is the accelerated downward trend in the last few years, signaling that some populations just may not be able to cope with fast-changing climatic conditions heaped on top of other existing pressures. But others suggest that the health of some of the region’s salmon populations—such as bountiful pink salmon off of Oregon and Washington and still thriving Alaskan runs—shows that with proper management we may be able to retain lively populations of both wild salmon and fishers.

Perhaps the hardest hit and most talked about salmon fishery in the world—California’s Sacramento River Chinook run—has been off-limits to fishers for two years now because of the low volume of wild fish returning to spawn. In 2008, only 66,000 Chinook salmon, a fraction of the former run, returned to spawn. While last year was slightly better, biologists warn that numbers are still too small to warrant reopening the fishery anytime soon. As to reasons for the decline, most analysts point to a range of factors including diversions of river water for farming, pollution, the intermingling of wild salmon with weaker, disease-ridden hatchery fish, and global warming—which creates some problems and exacerbates others.

Elsewhere the news is also bad. Sockeye salmon numbers in British Columbia’s Fraser River were at a 50 year low this past season, forcing closure for the third year in a row of what had been an abundant and reliable fishery. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans had predicted that some 10.5 million sockeye would return to spawn in the Fraser this past summer, but only 1.37 million made it back.

Glimmers of hope do exist. Salmon fisheries in Washington and many parts of Oregon had a big year in 2009. “Returns to the Columbia River, the region’s biggest salmon producer, were on the increase," reports Dennis Hull, an Oregon-based fishing guide and a contributor to Oregon Fishing News. “Coho returns in Oregon and points north were also on the upswing, allowing some commercial and recreational fishing off the coasts of Oregon and Washington.” The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that 2009’s Columbia River Coho salmon run, numbering some 700,000 fish, was the biggest since 2001.

Groups such as Save Our Wild Salmon and the Klamath Forest Alliance are pushing policymakers to remove several large dams in the Columbia basin and elsewhere to spur wild salmon recovery. Other groups, such as Salmon-Safe and Stewardship Partners, are working with farms and other intensive users of the land to try to reduce pollution into salmon-rich watersheds. With 13 different salmon populations in the region already teetering on the brink, and the climate only getting hotter, time is surely of the essence.

CONTACTS: Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca; Save Our Wild Salmon, www.wildsalmon.org; Klamath Forest Alliance, www.klamathforestalliance.org; Salmon-Safe, www.salmonsafe.org; Stewardship Partners, www.stewardshippartners.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I am very concerned about the amount of chlorine in my tap water. I called my water company and they said it is safe just let the tap run for awhile to rid the smell of the chlorine. But that just gets rid of the smell, perhaps, not the chlorine? -- Anita Frigo, Milford, CT

Thousands of American municipalities add chlorine to their drinking water to get rid of microbes. But this inexpensive and highly effective disinfectant has a dark side. “Chlorine, added as an inexpensive and effective drinking water disinfectant, is also a known poison to the body,” says Vanessa Lausch of filter manufacturer Aquasana. “It is certainly no coincidence that chlorine gas was used with deadly effectiveness as a weapon in the First World War.” The gas would severely burn the lungs and other body tissues when inhaled, and is no less powerful when ingested by mouth.

Lausch adds that researchers have now linked chlorine in drinking water to higher incidences of bladder, rectal and breast cancers. Reportedly chlorine, once in water, interacts with organic compounds to create trihalomethanes (THMs)—which when ingested encourage the growth of free radicals that can destroy or damage vital cells in the body. “Because so much of the water we drink ends up in the bladder and/or rectum, ingestions of THMs in drinking water are particularly damaging to these organs,” says Lausch.

The link between chlorine and bladder and rectal cancers has long been known, but only recently have researchers found a link between common chlorine disinfectant and breast cancer, which affects one out of every eight American women. A recent study conducted in Hartford, Connecticut found that women with breast cancer have 50-60 percent higher levels of organochlorines (chlorine by-products) in their breast tissue than cancer-free women.

But don't think that buying bottled water is any solution. Much of the bottled water for sale in the U.S. comes from public municipal water sources that are often treated with, you guessed it, chlorine. A few cities have switched over to other means of disinfecting their water supplies. Las Vegas, for example, has followed the lead of many European and Canadian cities in switching over to harmless ozone instead of chlorine to disinfect its municipal water supply.

As for getting rid of the chlorine that your city or town adds to its drinking water on your own, theories abound. Some swear by the method of letting their water sit for 24 hours so that the chlorine in the glass or pitcher will off-gas. Letting the tap run for a while is not likely to remove any sizable portion of chlorine, unless one were to then let the water sit overnight before consuming it. Another option is a product called WaterYouWant, which looks like sugar but actually is composed of tasteless antioxidants and plant extracts. The manufacturer claims that a quick shake of the stuff removes 100 percent of the chlorine (and its odor) from a glass a tap water. A year’s supply of WaterYouWant retails for under $30.

Of course, an easier way to get rid of chlorine from your tap water is by installing a carbon-based filter, which absorbs chlorine and other contaminants before they get into your glass or body. Tap-based filters from the likes of Paragon, Aquasana, Kenmore, Seagul and others remove most if not all of the chlorine in tap water, and are relatively inexpensive to boot.

CONTACTS: Aquasana, www.aquasana.com; WaterYouWant, www.wateryouwant.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk®is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve read that human breast milk contains toxins from pollution and other causes. How serious is this and what affect will it have on my baby? -- Skylar S., New York, NY

Researchers have found that those of us living in developed countries—men, women and children alike—carry around quite a toxic burden in our bodies from the constant exposure to various chemicals in our urban, suburban and even rural environments. If this weren’t alarming enough, the fact that these chemicals end up in breast milk and are in turn passed along to newborns is even more troubling.

According to writer Florence Williams, whose groundbreaking 2005 article in the New York Times Magazine opened many women’s eyes to the environmental health issues with breastfeeding, breast milk tends to attract heavy metals and other contaminants due to its high-fat and protein content. “When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms and cerebral synapses,” she reports. “We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.”

In the wake of such kinds of news reports, four nursing mothers came together in 2005 to form Make Our Milk Safe (MOMS), a nonprofit engaging in education, advocacy and corporate campaigns to try to eliminate toxic chemicals from the environment and in breast milk. The group educates pregnant women and others about the impacts on children of exposure to chemicals before, during and after pregnancy, and promotes safer alternatives to products such as cleaning supplies, food storage containers and personal care products that contain offending substances.

“Along with its antibodies, enzymes and general goodness, breast milk also contains dozens of compounds that have been linked to negative health effects,” reports MOMS, which lists Bisphenol-A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (used in flame retardants), perchlorate (used in rocket fuel), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics), polyvinyl chloride (PVC, commonly known as vinyl) and the heavy metals cadmium, lead and mercury as leading offenders.

Despite these concerns, some recent research has shown the toxic load in breast milk to be smaller than that in the air most city dwellers breathe inside their homes. Researchers from Ohio State and Johns Hopkins universities measured levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breast milk and in the air inside the homes of three lactating Baltimore mothers, finding that a nursing infant’s chemical exposure from airborne pollutants to be between 25 and 135 times higher than from drinking mother’s milk.

“We ought to focus our efforts on reducing the indoor air sources of these compounds,” said Johns Hopkins’ Sungroul Kim, the study’s lead author. He concurs with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other public health experts that, despite breast milk’s vulnerability to chemical contamination, the benefits of breast feeding—from the nutrition and important enzymes and antibodies it supplies to the mother/child bonding it provides—far outweigh the risks.

CONTACTS: MOMS, www.safemilk.org; Study: Volatile Organic Compounds in Human Milk, www.pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es062362y; CDC, www.cdc.gov.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.

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