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EarthTalk®

by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I heard about a supposed dangerous chemical called “triclosan” that is in many personal care and other consumer products. Can you enlighten? -- Carl Stoneman, Richland, WA

Triclosan is a synthetic chemical compound added to many personal and household care products to inhibit illness by preventing bacterial infection. It works by breaking down the biochemical pathways that bacteria use to keep their cell walls intact, and as such kills potentially harmful germs if used in strong enough formulations. First developed as a surgical scrub back in 1972, triclosan is now used in upwards of 700 different consumer-oriented products, many of which people use more than once a day. They include hand soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, kids’ toys, yoga mats and, of course, hand sanitizers.

Whether triclosan is actually as effective as advertised, especially in the small doses found in consumer products, is a topic of much debate. Manufacturers insist that the product helps reduce infections. But researchers from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health found, after surveying 27 different studies conducted between 1980 and 2006 on the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps, that washing hands with products containing triclosan was no more effective in preventing infectious illness—and did not remove any more bacteria—than plain soaps. The analysis, “Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky?” was published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal, Clinical Infectious Diseases. According to lead researcher Allison Aiello, triclosan—because of the way it reacts in living cells—may cause some bacteria exposed to it to become resistant to amoxicillin and other commonly used antibacterial drugs, but she adds that more research is needed to bear out this hypothesis.

Anti-bacterial soaps and other products utilizing triclosan may in fact be doing more harm than good for the people who use it regularly. According to the non-profit Beyond Pesticides, triclosan has been linked to various human health problems. “It is associated with skin irritation, has been shown to interfere with the body’s hormones, and has been linked to an increased risk of developing respiratory illness, or asthma, and cancer, as well as subtle effects on learning ability,” reports the group, adding that 75 percent of Americans are walking around today with trace levels of triclosan in their bloodstreams. Tests using lab animals have verified that exposure to large doses of triclosan can cause irreparable health damage, but industry representatives say that the levels found in consumer products are much too small to do so.

Beyond its potential human health effects, triclosan can also harm the environment. According to Beyond Pesticides, some 96 percent of the triclosan from consumer products is washed down drains where it flows into wastewater treatment plants often ill-equipped to deal with it. Inevitably some of the triclosan escapes treatment and is released into local waterways, where exposure to sunlight can convert it into dioxins, a highly toxic group of chemicals responsible for contaminating waterways and wreaking havoc on wildlife.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finally taking a fresh look at triclosan after years of controversy, consumers can do their part by asking the places they shop to stop selling products containing the controversial chemical additive. The Beyond Pesticides website offers a customizable sample letter designed to help consumers convince local retailers to forego stocking items with triclosan.

CONTACTS: Clinical Infectious Diseases, www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/cid/current; Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org; U.S. Food & Drug Administration, www.fda.gov.

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.


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I am a bartender in Sacramento and I would love to be able to use some sort of locally made or sustainable version of sugar. What’s out there? -- Ryan Seng, via e-mail

It sure would be nice if we could obtain all of our food and drink items from local sources, but sugar provides an excellent example of why such a desire may remain a pipe dream in the United States for a long time to come. The sugar we consume that is produced domestically comes from sugar cane grown in Hawaii and the Southeast and sugar beet from the Upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest, California and elsewhere. However, it is likely milled and refined hundreds if not thousands of miles from where it is harvested, and then shipped all over the country—causing untold greenhouse gas emissions—in various sized packages for our consumption in our coffee, on our cereal and, for some of us, in our cocktails.

Massive government subsidies and land giveaways to the sugar industry in the American Southeast beginning in the early 18th century established a market for American-grown sugar despite the fact that the region’s climate was not tropical enough to grow cane efficiently. To add insult to injury, the rerouting of south Florida’s fragile water table to irrigate thirsty sugar plantations contributed to the decimation of the Everglades, one of the nation’s most unique and diverse ecosystems—and now the subject of a multi-billion dollar restoration effort.

While you might be hard pressed to find commercially available local sugar anywhere in the U.S., you could make your own. “Years ago, when sugar was an expensive commodity, many people of lesser means made their own sugar from sugar beets,” reports writer Kat Yares on the eHow.com website. “Every farm and every home garden had a spot reserved for beets, and a day was set aside to cook the beets down into sugar.” While very few of us grow our own food these days, growing sugar beets and making sugar from scratch can be a fun, educational and tasty project for parents and kids or for foodies intent on local sourced, preservative-free ingredients. Yares explains the whole process in her “How to Make Sugar from Beets” article on eHow.com.

If that all sounds like too much work, perhaps you can settle for store-bought organic sugar, which may not be local but which is at least produced without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Florida Crystals, Hain, C&H, Domino and others each offer organic sugar varieties in many traditional grocery stores coast-to-coast. There are even more choices at natural foods specialty stores (like Whole Foods). Believe it or not, there are even vegan sugars out there—that is, sugars not processed with animal-derived bone char in the refinement process.

While sugar itself may be a staple item for many cocktails, some interesting alternative natural sweeteners, some of which may be locally sourced in your region, do exist. Agave nectar, honey or even maple syrup are some options that might just give that Tom Collins the extra kick it needs to make it stand out from the other bartender’s drinks down the street—or in your breakfast cereal, for that matter.

CONTACTS: eHow, www.ehow.com; Florida Crystals, floridacrystals.com; Hain, www.hainpurefoods.com; C&H, www.chsugar.com; Domino, www.dominosugar.com.

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I always thought eating fish was healthy, but now I’m concerned about mercury in tuna and other fish. Are there any fish that are still safe to eat? -- Brit Brundage, Fairfield, CT

You should be concerned about contaminants in certain fish, including some kinds of tuna. The non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recommends minimizing consumption of albacore (white) tuna, a large fish that accumulates moderate amounts of mercury in its fatty tissue. But other kinds of (smaller) tuna, such as skipjack (usually canned as “light”), which accumulates a third the amount of mercury as albacore, are OK to eat in moderation, though consumption by those under age seven should be limited.

To further complicate the issue, some canned light tuna may contain yellowfin tuna, which has mercury levels similar to those of albacore; these products are sometimes but not always labeled as “gourmet” or “tonno”—and their consumption should be limited, even by adults.

Mercury, a known “neurotoxin” (a poison that affects the nervous system), is particularly insidious because it is widespread in our oceans, primarily due to emissions from coal-burning power plants. These smokestacks deposit mercury into waterways, which carry it to the ocean where bacteria convert it into methylmercury. Fish then ingest it with their food and from water passing over their gills.

Generally speaking, bigger, older and large predatory fish (such as sharks, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and some tuna) near the top of marine food chains are more likely to have high levels of mercury than fish lower in the marine food chain. People exposed to high levels or frequent doses of mercury can suffer nervous system disorders, impaired mental development and other health problems.

An April 2003 study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that 89 percent of study subjects, chosen because they ate a significant amount of fish, had blood mercury levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) safety threshold of five micrograms per liter. Even though there are health benefits to eating fish (including the intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids), the EPA advises that young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age limit their intake of high-mercury fish to one serving per week at most, while limiting their overall intake of any fish or shellfish to no more than two to three servings, or 12 ounces total, per week.

Mercury isn’t the only harsh pollutant lurking in the ocean. Industrial chemicals like PCBs and pesticides like DDT are awash in marine food chains around the world. According to EDF, it can take five years or more for women of childbearing age to rid their bodies of PCBs, and 12-18 months to appreciably reduce their mercury levels. EDF adds that moms who eat toxic fish before becoming pregnant may have children who are slower to develop and learn because fetuses are exposed to stored toxins through the placenta.

To learn more, visit the EPA’s Fish Advisories website. It includes links to individual state advisories, which have details on what fish should or shouldn’t be eaten from nearby lakes or coastal areas. Catfish, Pollock, salmon, shrimp and canned light tuna are currently on the EPA’s safe list, as they feed toward the bottom of the food chain and thus have less opportunity to accumulate mercury and other contaminants.

CONTACTS: EDF, www.edf.org; EPA Fish Advisories, www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish.

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.


 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What does it mean when one uses the phrase, “building a green economy?” I’ve heard it repeated a few times lately and would like to have a better understanding of the concept.

-- Rosie Chang, Islip, NY

The phrase “building a green economy” means different things to different people, but in general it refers to encouraging economic development that prioritizes sustainability—that is, working with nature and not against it in the quest to meet peoples’ needs and wants—instead of disregarding environmental concerns in the process of growing the economy. The primary way governments around the world are trying to “green” their own economies today is by increasing investment in—and, by extension, creating jobs in—industries on the cutting edge of non-polluting renewable forms of energy, such as solar and wind power.

President Obama has repeatedly invoked his vision of a green economy as a tool for helping the U.S. lift itself out of recession and position itself as an economic powerhouse in a carbon-constrained future. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, the $787.2 billion stimulus package that Congress signed into law in 2009, was chock full of provisions to boost renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental restoration initiatives. Examples include $4.5 billion to convert government buildings into high-performance green buildings, $8.4 billion for investments in public transportation, and tens of billions of dollars more for research into new technologies to amplify existing efforts. ARRA also earmark $11 billion for the implementation of the “smart grid,” a new approach to power distribution that will bring more clean energy sources into the mix and promote energy efficiency.

Infusing such huge amounts of cash into sustainability-oriented projects is one way the Obama administration hopes to “green” the U.S. economy while simultaneously pulling the country out of recession. “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy,” Obama told Congress a few months ago.

Of course, Americans aren’t the only ones bent on building a green economy. During the 1980s and 1990s, while the American government was largely asleep at the wheel on environmental issues, countries such as Denmark, Germany, Spain and Japan were already busy investing in wind and solar research and implementation. And while these nations’ ongoing efforts are nothing to sneeze at, economists point out that what is most needed is action on the part of the world’s fastest growing economies—China and India.

A recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that China—which surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of greenhouse gases three years ago—has great potential for building a green economy over the coming decades. According to McKinsey, by 2030 China could reduce its oil and coal imports by up to 40 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by investing upwards of 1.5 trillion yuan ($220 billion in U.S. dollars) per year in both existing and new green technologies. China has begun to see the light with regard to reducing emissions, increasing energy efficiency and embracing renewable alternative energy, but it has yet to make significant financial commitments, which will be key to both warding off catastrophic climate change and building a truly global green economy.

CONTACTS: ARRA, www.recovery.gov; McKinsey & Company, www.McKinsey.com.

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Within my lawn I have over 100 citrus, mango and avocado trees. When I use Scott’s Bonus S Weed and Feed, am I feeding my new fruit any poison? Will the weed killer be taken up by the fruit? -- Richard Weissman, Miami, FL

In short, yes and yes: You will jeopardize the health of your fruit trees and your yard in general if you use such products. Scott’s Bonus S Weed and Feed, as well as many other “weed-and-feed” fertilizers (Vigero, Sam’s, etc.), contain the harsh chemical herbicide atrazine, which excels at terminating fast-growing weeds like dandelions and crabgrass but can also kill other desirable plants and trees and damage your entire yard as toxin-carrying root systems stretch underground in every corner and beyond.

Howard Garrett, a landscape architect who founded the DirtDoctor.com website and is an evangelist for natural organic gardening and landscaping, points out that anyone who reads the label on such products will learn that even manufacturers don’t take their health and environmental effects lightly. Some of the warnings right there in black and white on the Scott’s Bonus S Weed and Feed packaging include precautions against using it “under trees, shrubs, bedding plants or garden plants” or in the general vicinity of any such plants’ branch spreads or root zones.

Scott’s also recommends not applying it by hand or with hand-held rotary devices or applying “in a way that will contact any person either directly or through drift.” And just in case you were thinking it was okay for the environment, Scott’s adds that “runoff and drift from treated areas may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in neighboring areas” and that the product is “toxic to aquatic invertebrates.”

Of course, homeowners aren’t the only ones who want lush plant or grass growth without weeds. Farmers have been using atrazine for decades all over the country, although not surprisingly concentrations are highest along the
Midwest’s so-called Corn Belt. The herbicide consistently delivers slightly increased agricultural yields, but environmentalists wonder at what cost. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental research and advocacy non-profit, 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 the herbicide can develop female sex characteristics, including hermaphroditism and the presence of eggs in the testes. Researchers believe such effects are amplified when atrazine and other chemicals are used together.

As to safer alternatives, Garrett recommends organic fertilizers. “Synthetic fertilizers are unbalanced, often contain contaminants, have no carbon energy, contain far too much nitrogen and have few trace minerals,” he says. “Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, contain naturally buffered blends of major nutrients, trace minerals, organic matter and carbon. They have lots of beneficial life and, most important, they contain nothing that will damage the roots of your trees and other plants.” Some of Garret’s top choices include corn gluten meal (a natural way to prevent the growth of new weeds), THRIVE by AlphaBio, Garrett Juice, Ladybug,
Medina, and Soil Mender. More and more choices are coming on the market all the time thanks to the growing popularity of organic gardening.

CONTACTS: Scotts, www.scotts.com; The Dirt Doctor, www.dirtdoctor.com; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

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.


 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Where do you recycle plastic stuff like sandwich bags, Saran wrap and plastic grocery store wrappers? Can they just go in with other plastics in the recycling bin? There never seems to be any information available about this. -- Renee La-Fountaine, Lake Hughes, CA

The reason you don’t hear much about recycling these types of plastic films is that most municipalities don’t take back items intended to wrap food. One exception may be sandwich bags, which are made from easy-to-recycle polyethylene, as long as any hard (i.e. “Ziploc”) components are removed and they are rinsed free of any food debris or stains.

For that matter, if you are going to the trouble to wash them, you may as well dry and reuse them at home a few times before relegating them to the recycling bin. There are even small countertop racks available for hanging plastic bags to dry before reusing them.

Clinging plastic like Saran wrap is problematic for recyclers because the resin that it contains (to give it wrapping power) cannot be re-extracted without massive amounts of energy—more than it takes to make it new from scratch. And given that it’s usually soiled with some kind of food, used plastic wrap should always just go right into the trash.

Other non-recyclable plastic films include dark-colored plastic bags, bags with handles or drawstrings, and anything else designed to be wrapped around food. Since you can’t even rinse or recycle these kinds of plastics, it’s better to avoid them altogether and invest in some reusable containers to store leftovers.

Another option is to use plastic grocery store shopping bags (though they are increasingly being phased out) to wrap your food leftovers in. Many municipalities and most stores that provide such bags accept them for recycling, so once you’re done with them they can be recycled or returned to the store, after which they can be melted down and incorporated into weather- and rot-resistant window and door frames, decking (such as Trex), palettes, pipes and other long-lasting hard goods. Like with sandwich and other bags you intend to recycle, make sure plastic grocery bags are clean before you turn them in for recycling.

If you are a Ziploc bag or plastic wrap fanatic but want to do the right thing by the environment, look for plastic food storage film or bags made from biodegradable polymers. Some popular brand names to keep an eye out for at Whole Foods and elsewhere are Eco Wrap, EcoFlex and BioBag. These plastics—some of which are made from agricultural scraps left over from corn crops—can go right in with yard waste or other compostables and will break down over time accordingly just like cardboard or food scraps. With time major brands will undoubtedly be offering similar products.

But even though there may in fact be “greener” plastic out there, reducing our reliance on disposable bags altogether should be the ultimate goal. Luckily many grocery chains are hip to greening their own operations and image, and are giving away or selling for a nominal amount reusable canvas shopping bags so customers don't have to choose between wasting plastic and paper at the checkout line.

CONTACTS: PlasticBagRecycling.org, www.plasticbagrecycling.org; Trex, www.trex.com; BioBag, www.biobagusa.com.

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that some wind farms use fossil fuels to power their generators when the wind won’t. Doesn’t that defeat their whole renewable energy purpose? Why not let the wind power it or not? Also, I've heard that the low-frequency sounds generated by these turbines can harm people and animals. Is this true? -- Ryan Lewis, Plainwell, MI

Indeed, one of the major drawbacks to wind power is the fact that, even in windy locations, the wind doesn’t always blow. So the ability of turbines to generate power is intermittent at best. Many turbines can generate power only about 30 percent of the time, thanks to the inconsistency of their feedstock.

In order to overcome this Achilles’ heel of intermittent production, some wind companies have developed back-up systems that can spin turbines even when the wind isn’t blowing, thus optimizing and keeping consistent the power output. For example, Colorado-based Hybrid Turbines Inc. is selling wind farms systems that marry a natural gas-based generator to a wind turbine. “Even if natural gas is used, the electricity produced…is twice as environmentally clean as burning coal,” reports the company. Better yet, if a user can power them with plant-derived biofuels, they can remain 100 percent renewable energy-based.

While some wind energy companies may want to invest in such technologies to wring the most production out of their big investments, utilities aren’t likely to suffer much from the intermittent output if they don’t. Even the utilities that are most bullish on wind power still generate most of their electricity from other more traditional sources at the present time. So, when wind energy output decreases, utilities simply draw more power from other sources—such as solar arrays, hydroelectric dams, nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants—to maintain consistent electrical service. As such, reports the American Wind Energy Association, utilities act as “system operators” drawing power from where it’s available and dispatching it to where it is needed in tune with rising and falling power needs.

But just because generating wind power all day long isn’t imperative doesn’t mean that suppliers aren’t doing all they can to maximize output. To wit, turbine manufacturers are beginning to incorporate so-called Active Flow Control (AFC) technology, which delays the occurrence of partial or complete stalls when the wind dies down, and also enables start-up and power generation at lower wind speeds than conventional turbines. The non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists lauds AFC for these capabilities, which in turn can help system operators create a more reliable electric grid less dependent on fossil fuels.

As to whether or not noise from wind farms can harm people and wildlife, the jury is still out. New York-based pediatrician Nina Pierpont argues in her book, Wind Turbine Syndrome, that turbines may produce sounds that can affect the mood of people nearby or cause physiological problems like insomnia, vertigo, headaches and nausea. On the flip side, Renewable UK, a British wind energy trade group, says that the noise measured 1,000 feet away from a wind farm is less than that of normal road traffic. Here in the U.S., a Texas jury denied a 2006 noise pollution suit against FPL Energy after FPL showed that noise readings from its wind farm maxed out at 44 decibels, roughly the same generated by a 10 mile-per-hour wind.

CONTACTS: Hybrid Turbines, Inc., www.hybridturbines.com; American Wind Energy Association, www.awea.org; Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org; Nina Pierpont’s Wind Turbine Syndrome, www.windturbinesyndrome.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.


 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: My neighbor told me to pour bleach down my drains every week to keep them clear. Is this safe to do? -- Trish Osterling, via e-mail

Bleach is a useful cleaner and disinfectant, but pouring it down the drain will not do anything to help keep the drains clear. In addition, you could cause a dangerous chemical reaction if it comes into contact with other household products you might be using.

Common household bleach, also known as chlorine bleach, is a liquid compound of sodium hypochlorite, which is a combination of sodium chloride (a salt) with water and chlorine. It’s often used to whiten laundry or to disinfect kitchen surfaces. Bleach is also an ingredient in other household cleaners, like those used for bath and toilet cleaning. (A different sort of bleach, known as oxygen bleach, is used for laundry stain removal and does not have the same disinfecting/cleaning properties as chlorine bleach.)

According to the Household Products Database at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), chlorine bleach is corrosive to the eyes; injures skin and mucous membranes on contact; and is harmful if swallowed. Bleach is “a lung and eye irritant,” warns the Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC), a Seattle non-profit that advocates for green friendly household products. Even used alone, fumes from chlorine bleach can irritate the lungs, so it should not be used by people with asthma or lung or heart problems, says the group. It is also “reactive” with ammonia and acids, forming more harmful fumes.

“One of the most common home accidents is the mixing of products containing chlorine bleach with those containing ammonia,” says WTC. The combination creates chloramine gas, which is highly irritating to the lungs. Since many cleaning products contain ammonia, the inadvertent mixing must be avoided. Mixing bleach and acids results in the release of chlorine gas, according to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, exposure to which can cause coughing and breathing problems, burning eyes and, at high levels, vomiting, pneumonia and even death. Products containing acids include vinegar, some glass and window cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners and rust removers. An “incompatibility chart” listing many chemicals that will react with bleach is available at the Chlorine Institute’s cl2.com website.

Bleach alone is not necessarily hard on the environment. When use as directed, it will break down mostly into salt water in wastewater treatment or septic systems, says WTC. A dilution of bleach in water is effective as a disinfectant, and can be scrubbed onto non-porous food-contact surfaces like plastic cutting boards or refrigerator shelves and left to air dry. The Clorox Company recommends a solution of one tablespoon bleach per gallon of water for sanitizing.

So, what are the better ways to keep drains clear? Home drains in the kitchen and bath generally get clogged by grease, food waste and hair, none of which will be effectively dispersed by bleach. WTC recommends carefully pouring a kettleful of boiling water down the drain to free up a slow drain, or using mechanical methods such as a plumber’s snake, plunger or hose-end bladder to clean a clogged drain.

CONTACTS: DHHS Household Products Database, http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov ; Washington Toxics Coalition, www.washingtontoxics.org; New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, www.state.nj.us/health; Chlorine Institute, www.cl2.com.

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I've noticed that wildflower blooms in the mountains have been coming earlier and earlier in recent years. Is this a sign of global warming? And what does this mean for the long term survival of these hardy yet rare plants? -- Ashley J., via e-mail

As always, it’s hard to pin specific year-to-year weather-variations and related phenomena—including altered blooming schedules for wildflowers—on global warming. But longer term analysis of seasonal flowering patterns and other natural events do indicate that global warming may be playing a role in how early wildflowers begin popping up in the high country.

University of Maryland ecologist David Inouye has been studying wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado for four decades, and has noticed that blooms have indeed begun earlier over the last decade. Aspen sunflowers, among other charismatic high country wildflowers, used to first bloom in mid-May, but are now are doing so in mid-April, a full month earlier. Inouye thinks that smaller snow packs in the mountains are melting earlier due to global warming, in turn triggering early blooms.

Smaller snow packs not only mean fewer flowers (since they have less water to use in photosynthesis); they can also stress wildflower populations not accustomed to exposure to late-spring frost. According to Inouye’s research, between 1992 and 1998 such frosts killed about a third of the Aspen sunflower buds in some 30 different study plots; but more recently, from 1999 through 2006, the typical mortality rate doubled, with three-quarters of all buds killed by frost in an average year thanks to earlier blooming.

Inouye’s worrisome conclusions are backed up by experiments conducted by fellow researcher John Harte, who over a 15 year period used overhead heaters in nearby wildflower study plots to accelerate snow melt. The results were the same: Wildflowers bloomed early and not as vigorously.

Several studies in Europe have shown that some species of wildflowers there may be able to migrate north and to higher elevations as the climate warms, but Inouye fears his beloved Aspen sunflowers and many other American wildflowers may be lost forever as they are not able to migrate as quickly as needed in order to survive widespread surface temperature increases and escape extinction.

Harte is also gloomy about the prospects for Colorado’s mountain wildflowers. He predicts that the wildflower fields he and Inouye have been studying will give way to sagebrush desert within the next 50 years, whether or not the governments of the world can get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions.

As a hedge against such dire predictions, the nonprofit Center for Plant Conservation is spearheading seed collection efforts on thousands of rare wildflower species across the U.S. for inclusion in the Colorado-based National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, a repository for both common and rare “prized” American plant seeds. The “banked” seeds, useful if not solely for preserving the genetic makeup of species that may go extinct in the wild, can also be used for future restoration projects on otherwise compromised landscapes.

CONTACTS: David W. Inouye, http://chemlife.umd.edu/facultyresearch/facultydirectory/davidwinouye; Center for Plant Conservation, www.centerforplantconservation.org; National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, www.ars.usda.gov/main/site_main.htm?modecode=54-02-05-00.

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.


 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the most important foods to buy organic?

-- Rachel Klepping, Bronxville, NY

Given the usual higher prices of organic versus conventionally-grown foods, it can be a challenge to get the biggest bang for our buck while eating healthy and avoiding the ingestion of synthetic chemicals along with our nutrients. One approach, say some experts, is to only buy organic when the actual edible parts of a non-organically grown food might come into direct contact with toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that consumers can reduce their chemical exposure by some 80 percent by either avoiding the most contaminated conventionally grown fruits and vegetables altogether, or by eating only the organic varieties. To help us sort through what and what not to buy, the group offers a handy Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which fits on a small piece of paper that you can keep in your pocket and have handy on grocery trips. You can print it out for free from EWG’s FoodNews.org website, or you can download it as a free App for your iPhone.

To make it easy to use, EWG has distilled its analysis into two lists. The first, “Dirty Dozen: Buy These Organic,” lists foods that when grown conventionally contain the largest amounts of pesticide and fertilizer residues. These include peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard, greens, potatoes, and (imported) grapes. Consumers should definitely spend the extra money for organic versions of these foods.

On the other side of the coin, EWG’s “Clean 15” list includes foods that contain the least amount of chemical residues when grown conventionally. These include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangos, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and honeydew. It’s OK to eat conventionally grown varieties of these foods.

EWG analysts developed the “Clean 15” guide using data from some 89,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce conducted between 2000 and 2008 and collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What’s the difference, you may ask? EWG found that by eating five conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen list, a consumer on average ingests 10 different pesticides; those who stick to the Clean 15 list ingest less than two.

Other foods you and your family eat, such as meats, cereals, breads and dairy products, might also be exposing you to unwanted chemicals. According to EWG, the direct health benefits of organic meat, eggs and milk are less clear, but you should play it safe by sticking with all-natural, free-range, grass-fed meats that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and by choosing only organic dairy products.

Thanks to increasing demand, more and more food purveyors are putting extra emphasis on organics. This will ultimately result in both lower prices and larger selections. Natural foods market aisles are already teeming with organic choices—and chances are your local supermarket or big box store has introduced organic versions of many popular items. Consequently, there has never been a better time to take stock of what you are feeding yourself and your family, and to make changes for better health.

CONTACT: EWG, www.foodnews.org; USDA/FDA, http://usda-fda.com/articles/organic.htm.

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