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EarthTalk®

by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Given the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last month, isn’t it high time the government put a stop to offshore oil drilling once and for all? Short of banning it altogether, what can be done to prevent explosions, leaks and spills moving forward? --­ P. Greanville, Brewster, NY

The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig on April 20 and the resultant oil spill now consuming coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico could not have come at a worse time for President Obama, who only recently renewed a push to expand drilling off the coast of Virginia and other regions of the U.S.

The debate over whether or not to tap offshore oil reserves with dangerous drilling equipment has been raging since extraction methods became feasible in the 1950s. It heated up in 2008 when George W. Bush convinced Congress to lift a 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling outside of the already developed western Gulf of Mexico and some areas off Alaska. Despite public protests, cash-strapped governments of several coastal states wanted the moratorium lifted given the potential for earning windfall revenues.

Barack Obama had historically toed the Democratic party line on offshore drilling—don’t allow it—but changed his tune during his 2008 campaign to compromise with pro-drilling Republicans if they would play ball with him on his carbon emissions reduction and energy efficiency initiatives. Then on March 31, three weeks prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and has caused untold environmental damage, Obama called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic from Delaware to central Florida and in Alaska’s untapped northern waters. He also asked Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, just 125 miles from Florida’s beaches.

A key aspect of Obama’s new plan is to assess the potential risks and benefits of each specific offshore site before drilling there can commence. While Obama’s plan wouldn’t grant any new leases until 2012, the Deepwater Horizon problem is casting a long shadow over the public comment process now going on in Virginia and other coastal states otherwise ready to sign on the dotted line for exploratory wells to go into their offshore waters. Whether or not Congress and the American people are willing to let their government expand on what appears already to be some risky business is anybody's guess at this point.

Oil industry representatives maintain their equipment and processes are safer than ever. The U.S. Minerals and Management Service (MMS) blames the vast majority of the 1,400 offshore drilling accidents in U.S. waters between 2001 and 2007 on “human error,” not malfunctioning equipment, though some might argue that the distinction is irrelevant because there will always be human error. A small fire on the Deepwater Horizon in 2005 was found to be caused by human error, and most analysts agree some kind of bad judgment call also likely caused the rig’s ultimate demise. The MMS says it was already in the process of drafting new regulations that would require rig operators to develop programs focused on preventing human error, including operations audits once every three years for each rig.

Some Congress members don’t think the new regulations are enough, especially in the wake of the BP tragedy. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has led opposition to offshore drilling, has now called for a congressional investigation of safety practices at offshore oil rigs, and has asked the U.S. Interior Department to undertake a full review of all U.S. drilling accidents over at least the last decade.

CONTACTS: BP, www.bp.com; U.S. Minerals and Management Service, www.mms.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: I am very interested in purchasing household cleaners whose ingredients and final product are not tested on animals. Where do I look? -- Debbie Reek, via e-mail

According to most animal advocates, the fact that manufacturers of household cleaners still use animals to test the toxicity of their products is not only inhumane—why should innocent animals have to suffer and die so we can get our floors a little cleaner?—but also illogical, as modern lab tests not involving living creatures can discern more practical information faster and for less money. Another problem with animal testing is that its findings don’t always successfully predict real-world human outcomes.

According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), for instance, animal tests on rats and rabbits over several decades “failed to predict the birth defect-causing properties of PCBs, industrial solvents and many drugs, while cancer tests in rats and mice failed to detect the hazards of asbestos, benzene, cigarette smoke, and many other substances.” The group blames these shortcomings of animal testing for “delaying consumer and worker protection measures by decades in some cases.”

While animal product testing is still allowed in the U.S. (researchers here are continuing to improve alternative testing methods that can potentially replace the use of live animals in the lab), Europe is leading the charge toward a future where highly trained lab technicians with computers and robots will replace sacrificial animals in assessing the toxicity of various substances. A ban on animal testing in cosmetics and household products will go into effect across the European Union in 2013.

American animal advocates would like to see similar legislation on the books in the U.S., but at this juncture it appears unlikely to happen for some time. Nonetheless, many are hopeful that Europe’s action on the issue will help move the cosmetics and household products industries in the U.S. and elsewhere away from harming animals for consumers’ sake.

In the meantime, if you’re looking to avoid household cleaners that subject critters to poisons, you’ve never had so many choices. Back in 1996 eight national animal protection groups banded together to form the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC) in order to unify behind one standard for so-called “cruelty-free” cosmetics and household products. The resulting Leaping Bunny certification logo is now proudly displayed on the packaging of more than 300 cosmetics and household products for sale across the U.S. The shopping guide on the coalition’s LeapingBunny.org website points consumers to various household cleaning and other types of products that don’t contain any ingredients subject to new animal testing.

Some of the top household cleaning products that meet Leaping Bunny criteria and are practical for a wide range of domestic tasks come from companies such as Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products, Earth Alive, Citra Solv, Nature Clean and Vermont Soapworks, among many others. You can order these products online via websites like Planet Natural and Green Feet, and many are sold in natural food stores.

CONTACTS: HSUS, www.hsus.org; LeapingBunny.org, www.leapingbunny.org; Planet Natural, www.planetnatural.com; Green Feet, www.greenfeet.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I understand there’s an issue with the herbicide atrazine showing up in dangerous quantities in drinking water, mostly throughout the central U.S. Why is this happening and what’s being done about it? -- Marcus Gerde, Spokane, WA

Atrazine is an herbicide that is widely used across the U.S. and elsewhere to control both broadleaf and grassy weeds in large-scale agricultural operations growing corn, sorghum, sugar cane and other foods. While its use is credited with increasing agricultural yields by as much as six percent, there is a dark side. The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that atrazine exposure has been shown to impair the reproductive systems of amphibians and mammals, and has been linked to cancer in both laboratory animals and humans. Male frogs exposed to minute doses of atrazine can develop female sex characteristics, including hermaphroditism and the presence of eggs in the testes. Researchers suspect that these effects are amplified when atrazine and other harmful agricultural chemicals are employed together.

Atrazine’s wide use makes its impacts that much scarier. NRDC reports that it is the most commonly detected pesticide or herbicide in U.S. waters, with the highest levels found in Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska. The Southeast also faces atrazine overload issues. What irks many public health advocates is that, even though study after study implicates atrazine in a long list of environmental and health problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still allows farms to apply 75 million pounds of it each year. The European Union banned atrazine in 2004 due to persistent groundwater pollution there.

Critics of the EPA accuse the agency of selling out the health of the American people so industrial agricultural companies can make big profits. Indeed, in 2003, the EPA estimated a total annual economic impact, if atrazine were to be banned, of over $2 billion, including a yield loss plus increased herbicide cost averaging $28 per acre. In 2006, the EPA concluded that triazine herbicides (such as atrazine) posed “no harm that would result to the general U.S. population, infants, children or other...consumers.”

In light of the EPA’s refusal to consider a ban on atrazine, NRDC and other groups have taken up the cause of educating consumers about the dangers posed by our national addiction to dangerous herbicides and pesticides, and lobbying elected officials to add their voices. President Obama has promised to take a hard look at atrazine, but it remains to be seen how long it will be before any such review takes place.

Of course, organic farmers aren’t waiting around for Obama to ban atrazine. By planting diverse crops, rotating them regularly and employing other age-old agricultural techniques, a new generation of American farmers is learning that expensive chemicals may not be able to boost their yields enough to warrant the high financial and environmental costs associated with constant chemical spraying.

As for you and I, the best way to prevent ingesting atrazine with our tap water is to buy a water filter that employs activated charcoal. NRDC publishes a free list of water filter recommendations on its Simple Steps website. If you’re on a well, NRDC recommends having its water tested annually for atrazine and other contaminants. Even bottled water producers may not filter out atrazine from their source aquifers, so filtering at the tap is the only way consumers can be sure to remove it along with other contaminants.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; Simple Steps, www.simplesteps.org; EPA, www.epa.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m told that, despite improvements in recent years, pesticides in flea collars are still harmful to pets and humans. Are there ways to minimize fleas without resorting to chemical concoctions? And is anything being done to ban these dangerous products from store shelves? -- Nancy Trouffant, Lancaster, PA

Americans spend some $1 billion each year on products designed to combat fleas. Many of these products do their jobs handsomely, but two of the most egregious chemicals widely used in flea collars, tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur, have been shown to cause damage to our brains and nervous systems, and are known human carcinogens. Residues containing these chemicals can stay on a pet’s fur—and whatever he or she rubs up against, including your rugs, furniture and children—for weeks on end.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that residue levels produced by some flea collars are 1,000 times higher than which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe for children to be around. Previous campaigning by NRDC and other nonprofit groups convinced the federal government to ban six other dangerous pesticides formerly common in flea collars, but tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur are still wreaking havoc on the environment and human and pet health.

In light of these dangers, what’s a concerned pet owner to do? For starters, ditch the collar and buy a flea comb. NRDC reports on its GreenPaws.org website that regular combing of a pet can help reduce fleas while allowing owners to monitor the extent of a given flea problem. Fleas caught in the comb should be drowned in soapy water. Also, vacuum frequently to rid your carpets, floors and crevices of fleas and their eggs. Dispose of any used vacuum bags immediately so fleas don’t escape and re-infest the room.

In the case of an extreme infestation, a professional steam carpet cleaning might be your best bet. As for your pet, frequent soapy baths are a great way to control fleas. Pet bedding should also be washed weekly in hot water. Outside of the house—where your pet romps and frolics—keep your grass and shrubbery clipped short to increase dryness and sunlight, which inhibits fleas. Nematodes—all-natural non-chemical biological agents available at most garden stores—will get rid of fleas in problem areas outdoors.

Of course, all this diligent work might still not be enough to keep fleas at bay, so you may need to turn to products formulated with essential oils that repel insects but do not harm pets or people. Be sure to start with small doses and monitor pets and family for allergic responses. Another non-pesticide option is S-Methoprene, a so-called Insect Growth Regulator which halts the growth of chitin, the substance that creates an insect’s exoskeleton, and won’t harm humans or pets. S-Methoprene is best used as a tool in preventing an extended infestation since adult insects are unaffected by it.

With the federal government apparently uninterested in banning tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur from flea products, NRDC is taking the issue straight to the people. Via its GreenPaws.org website, users can customize a letter to PETCO and PetSmart, the nation’s two largest pet supply retailers, asking them to stop selling products containing such dangerous chemicals. And whether or not these companies will heed the call may well depend on consumer behavior, so the more you buy safer alternatives, the better.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA, www.epa.gov; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; GreenPaws.org, www.greenpaws.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that Walmart is having a bigger positive impact on the environment than any other U.S. institution. What are they doing along these lines? -- R. Schlansker, Beaverton, OR

Walmart has indeed been working to clean up its image in recent years, and many environmentalists are pleased with the company’s commitment to reduce its massive carbon footprint. Many, however, view the company’s initiatives with skepticism, especially considering its overall impact on communities.

What’s noteworthy on the environmental front is not so much the significant energy and emissions the company is reducing at its stores and distribution centers and in its vehicles, but the ripple effect that its new carbon-cutting policies are having on the entire supply chain. This March, Walmart CEO Mike Duke announced a new goal of eliminating 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from its global supply chain—the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year—by the end of 2015.

“To find these reductions, Walmart will be asking its estimated 100,000 suppliers to cut the amount of carbon they emit when they produce, package and ship their products,” reports Dominique Browning of Environmental Defense Fund, which has been a key advisor to Walmart on green issues. Browning cites Walmart’s elimination of large laundry detergent bottles—since so much of them are water and energy-intensive to ship—in favor of concentrates sold in smaller bottles. As a result, concentrated laundry detergent is now the top seller at not only Walmart but at other stores, too. Walmart also convinced CD, DVD and video game makers to make their cases lighter to reduce transport carbon emissions, and they helped energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulb sales by spurring makers to refine their designs.

Many environmental and community advocates, however, consider Walmart’s pro-green efforts as too little too late or insignificant in relation to the company’s larger impact. Walmart Watch, a nonprofit group run by the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, says the company has paid numerous fines over the last decade for violating air and water pollution rules, and that’s its green initiatives will easily be erased by its sheer growth which will mean more energy usage, more delivery truck trips and even more miles driven by consumers to get to Walmart stores that displaced smaller, more local ones.

Wake-Up Walmart, a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, says the company—which employs two million people in its 7,000+ stores—is also no friend to employees. Its average wage, says the group, is six percent below the Federal poverty level for a family of four and its move into urban areas, aside from destroying small businesses, often depresses other nearby wages where similar jobs otherwise pay as much as 18 percent more than Walmart. Further, says Wake-Up Walmart, the company pays $5,000 less yearly to full-time female employees than male ones, and its health plan is so poor that it forces many employees to rely on publicly assisted healthcare, at taxpayer expense.

Walmart Watch says the company has also been fiercely anti-union: “Labor law violations range from illegally firing workers who attempt to organize…to unlawful surveillance, threats and intimidation of associates who dare to speak out.” Meanwhile, Walmart made a $14.3 billion profit in 2009, and its CEO earned $12.2 million in 2008, 587 times the annual income of an average full-time Walmart associate.

CONTACTS: Walmart, www.walmart.com, Environmental Defense Fund, www.edf.org; Walmart Watch, www.walmartwatch.com; Wake-Up Walmart, www.wakeupwalmart.com.

Dear EarthTalk: At a meeting of a local art association, an artist who paints in acrylics said that doing so is more eco-friendly than painting in oils. I somehow doubt it. Aren’t acrylics petroleum based? And aren't some oil paints made from natural materials? -- Linda Reddington, via e-mail

Of course, there are no easy answers. There are environmental and health issues with both oil and acrylic art paints. The big downside of oil paints is the paint thinner required to clean them up. While some of the pigments in oil paint might be toxic or poisonous depending on color—reds, yellows, some blues and many whites are produced using potentially toxic heavy metals—the paint itself is typically made of food-grade linseed oil, which could hardly be more harmless to the environment (where it came from, after all). But oil paint is notoriously hard to clean up; getting those brushes, palettes and work areas clean requires the use of paint thinners, such as turpentine or mineral spirits, that are not only potentially toxic if used improperly but give off noxious odors and are highly flammable.

As for acrylic paints, they are water-based so clean-up is a breeze: Just wash it down the drain with some warm water, no paint thinner required. But acrylic paint is a petroleum-derived polymer, i.e. plastic. While cleaning it up might be easier than cleaning up oil paints, do we really want to be rinsing plastic down our drains? How good could this be for surrounding ecosystems? The other negative, of course, is that just buying them contributes to our reliance on petroleum.

So what’s a green painter to do? One option is to go for so-called water mixable oil paints that, according to manufacturers like Grumbacher, appear and behave in the same manner as traditional oil paints in every aspect except when it comes to clean-up—like acrylics, they thin and clean up with water instead of noxious chemicals. Water mixable oils are ideal for those sensitive to chemical fumes. Art supply chain Utrecht sells a wide variety of water mixable oil paints online and at its retail locations across the U.S.

If you must use traditional oil paints—many professional artists just prefer them for their thickness, color brilliance and other qualities—you can go with a brand that pays attention to the environmental impact of its products and operations. Oregon-based Gamblin Artists Colors Company uses only high-quality raw materials in its paints, avoiding preservatives that degrade the quality and release chemicals. Gamsol, the company’s paint thinner, uses mineral spirits that evaporate much more slowly than turpentine, which has a reputation for irritating breathing passages and inducing nausea. Every spring the company cleans its machinery, and instead of throwing the filter dust out, it recycles it and gives away tubes of the resulting gray paint free to artists through retail locations, and hosts a contest for art created with the unique color.

Another way to go would be truly all-natural. Berkeley, California-based GLOB crafts its paints from food-grade botanical extracts, so it’s even safe for kids aged three and older. Colored by real fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices, GLOB paints are all-natural, non-toxic, and free of chemicals, parabens, petroleum and synthetic preservatives. The palette is limited to just six colors, but creative artists should be able to mix to their heart’s content. The paints can be mail ordered, and they come in a dry powdered format, which saves weight, money and energy when shipped—users add water and start painting.

CONTACTS: Grumbacher, www.grumbacherart.com; Utrecht, www.utrechtart.com; Gamblin Artists Colors Company, www.gamblincolors.com; GLOB, www.globiton.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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