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by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: ?There are a number of companies out there now doing “energy audits” for the home, after which they try to sell you attic insulation and other products and services. Is this just a scam or would it be wise for me to look into this? -- Bill Richards., New York, NY

For the most part, companies offering energy audits are reputable and legitimate and will help you both save money and reduce your carbon footprint if you follow their advice in regard to upgrading things like insulation, windows and appliances. “A home energy assessment, also known as a home energy audit, is the first step to assess how much energy your home consumes and to evaluate what measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient,” reports the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). “An assessment will show you problems that may, when corrected, save you significant amounts of money over time.”

“During the assessment, you can pinpoint where your house is losing energy,” adds DOE. “Energy assessments also determine the efficiency of your home’s heating and cooling systems [and] may also show you ways to conserve hot water and electricity.”

You can conduct your own energy audit if you know where to look for air leaks (drafts), water waste and other key areas of a home’s inefficiencies. The DOE’s energysavers.gov website has guidelines to help homeowners conduct their own do-it-yourself home energy assessments. For instance, DOE recommends that homeowners make a list of obvious air leaks, such as through gaps along baseboards or at the edges of flooring and at wall and ceiling junctures. The potential energy savings from reducing drafts in a home can be as high as 30 percent per year, reports DOE. (The DOE website also provides information on other ways to save money and resources through less obvious things such as outdoor landscaping. It also posts guidelines for energy-efficient designing and remodeling.)

You should also check the filters on heating and cooling equipment to see if they need to be changed so as to keep your furnace and air conditioners functioning at maximum efficiency. And if these or other appliances over 15 years old consider replacing them with newer models that meet federal EnergyStar efficiency criteria. Also, swapping out older incandescent bulbs in light fixtures with higher efficiency compact fluorescent or LED bulbs will save money and energy.

A professional energy auditor with dedicated assessment tools and the knowledge of how to use them will in all likelihood carry out a more comprehensive assessment than you can do yourself. “Thorough assessments often use equipment such as blower doors, which measure the extent of leaks in the building envelope, and infrared cameras, which reveal hard-to-detect areas of air infiltration and missing insulation.”

If you are concerned about enlisting a for-profit firm that upsells its own energy efficiency upgrade services based on a “free” energy audit, check with your utility to see whether it offers unbiased, independent energy audit services (which it may do for free or for a nominal cost). The assessor from your utility may be able to recommend window and door replacement companies, heating and cooling specialists and other vendors nearby that do reputable work to make your home is not only energy efficient but warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

CONTACTS: DOE Energy Savers, www.energysavers.gov; EnergyStar, www.energystar.gov.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the story with Echinacea? Many herb teas contain it, and many people swear by it as a cold remedy. But I’ve also seen headlines saying that the herb has no medicinal value whatsoever. Can you set the record straight? -- Arlene Hixson, Portland, ME

Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, has gained popularity in recent years as a nutritional supplement that proponents believe is helpful in staving off the common cold and shortening its duration. But given the variation between dosages and formulations—such herbs are not regulated as medical drugs by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and so makers have little incentive to standardize—it’s hard to get definitive answers as to Echinacea's effectiveness.

Historically, Native Americans relied on the root of Echinacea to numb toothache pain and treat dyspepsia as well as snake, insect and spider bites. While some modern day folks rely on Echinacea just based on this anecdotal evidence, scientific studies have verified that the herb can be effective. To wit, a 2008 University of Connecticut review of 14 different clinical trials of Echinacea use found that taking the supplement reduced the chances of getting a cold by 31 percent, and helped people get over cold and flu symptoms a day and a half earlier than those who didn’t take it.

Researchers initially thought Echinacea’s effectiveness was due to its immune-boosting traits, but they now believe instead that the herb works more as an anti-inflammatory agent. A 2009 University of British Columbia study found that typical commercially available Echinacea preparations are effective in reducing the body’s production of inflammatory proteins in human bronchial cells. In layman’s terms, this means that Echinacea can help lessen the annoying symptoms of common colds, the flu and other respiratory ailments. Furthermore, the study found that Echinacea is just as effective in reducing bronchial inflammation whether it is consumed before or after a viral infection sets in, indicating that taking moderate doses on a regular basis during cold season can help prevent some bronchial irritation if and when cold symptoms begin.

Interestingly, though, a 2010 study of 719 participants in Wisconsin focusing on illness duration and severity found that the duration of the common cold could be shortened by taking a pill of some sort, whether Echinacea or a placebo with no active ingredients. But this study merely underscored the importance of psychological factors in fighting illness and did not say that Echinacea isn’t effective.

Given the lack of FDA oversight of herbs, different formulations may contain vastly different amounts of Echinacea. A 2004 evaluation of 19 different Echinacea brands by the non-profit Consumers Union and published in Consumer Reports found that the amount of Echinacea actually present in supplements varied considerably from brand to brand—and even in some cases from bottle to bottle of the same brand. The magazine recommended a few brands as “best picks,” including Spring Valley, Origin and Sundown, all which featured high concentrations of Echinacea and reliable dosage amounts from pill to pill.

Before taking the Echinacea plunge, beware that the herb can cause allergic reactions in some people and may interact negatively with some common medications. Researchers warn that anyone with autoimmune disease or a handful of other illnesses should not take Echinacea without first consulting with their doctor.

CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov; Consumers Union, www.consumersunion.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that global warming could negatively impact water supplies in the U.S.? -- Penny Wilcox, Austin, TX

Climate change promises to have a very big impact on water supplies in the United States as well as around the world. A recent study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group, and carried out by the consulting firm Tetra Tech found that one out of three counties across the contiguous U.S. should brace for water shortages by mid-century as a result of human induced climate change. The group found that 400 of these 1,100 or so counties will face “extremely high risks of water shortages.”

According to Tetra Tech’s analysis, parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas will be hardest hit by warming-related water shortages. The agriculturally focused Great Plains and arid Southwest are at highest risk of increasing water demand outstripping fast dwindling supplies.

While the mechanisms behind this predicted dwindling of water supplies is complex, key factors include: rising sea levels and encroaching ocean water absorbing lower elevation freshwater sources; rising surface temperatures causing faster evaporation of existing reservoirs; and increasing wildfires stripping terrestrial landscapes of their ability to retain water in soils.

Researchers have already begun to notice dwindling water supplies across the American West in recent years, given less accumulation of snow in the region’s mountains as temperatures rise. According to a 2008 study out of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography and published in the journal Science, Western snowpack has been melting earlier than it did in the past thanks to global warming, leading to markedly longer dry periods through the late spring and summer months in states already suffering from extended droughts. Given that the length and strength of these changes over the last 50 years cannot be explained by natural variations, researchers believe human induced climate change is the culprit.

The upshot of these changes is that Americans of every stripe need to curtail their water usage—from farmers irrigating their crops to homeowners watering their lawns to you and I taking shorter showers and turning off the tap while brushing our teeth. Even more important, water and resource policy managers need to conceive of new paradigms for the management of freshwater reserves to make the most of what we do have. And all of us need to work together to cut down on the emissions of greenhouse gases that have led to global warming in the first place.

Analysts also worry that warming-related water shortages could erupt into conflict, especially in parts of the world where one country or group controls water resources needed by others across national borders, such as the Middle East where already five percent of the world’s population relies on just one percent of the world’s fresh water. Parts of Africa, India and Asia are also at risk for water-related conflicts. American policymakers hope that the situation won’t get that dire in the U.S., but only time will tell.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; Tetra Tech, www.tetratech.com; Scripps Institute for Oceanography, www.sio.ucds.edu.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Ever since the red dye #2 scare in the 1970s I’ve been wary of using food colorings or buying food that appears to contain them. Are there natural and healthy food colorings? -- Nancy McFarlane, Methuen, MA

Many of us are still wary of food dyes because of reports about links between red dye #2 and cancer in the 1970s. While red dye #2 was subsequently banned from products sold in the United States, many health-conscious consumers continue to avoid foods with other artificial colors or dyes—even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still considers them safe for human consumption.

But a 2010 analysis of past research on links between food dyes and health by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found compelling evidence that ingestion of artificial dyes can contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness and attention problems in some children—particularly those with ADHD. “What’s more, the studies suggested that removing dyes from those children’s diet was a quarter to half as effective in reducing those symptoms as giving the kids Ritalin or other stimulants,” reports Nancy Cordes, CBS News’ Consumer Safety Correspondent. “In other words, certain kids with ADHD might not need drugs if the artificial dyes were removed from their diets.” Several commonly used artificial food dyes are suspected carcinogens as well.

While it might be impossible to prevent your children from eating anything with artificial dye, you can do your part by shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s—both chains have banned products that use artificial dyes and carry all-natural food coloring for home cooking and baking projects.

One brand to look for is India Tree, which makes a line of food coloring derived from vegetable colorants. The company’s “Nature’s Colors Natural Decorating Colors” contain no corn syrup or synthetic dyes, and are highly recommended for coloring icing in rich jewel tones or soft pastels.

Another company specializing in natural (as well as organic) food colors is Nature’s Flavors, whose products are widely used commercially in ice cream, baked goods, frosting, dairy products, syrups, sauces, beverages and even hair colors. The company recently began to sell their products to consumers, as well, through retail stores. They use a variety of plant materials, including beets, turmeric root, annatto seeds, purple carrot, purple cabbage, gardenia flowers, hibiscus flowers and grape skin. “Our natural food colors are made from plants and contain powerful antioxidants, which help the body repair itself from the effects of oxidation,” claims Nature’s Flavors. “Using natural or organic food colors may actually help the brain and slow down the effects of aging.”

Another leading maker of all-natural food coloring is Chefmaster, whose products can be found at Whole Foods and other natural and high end food retailers, as well as on
amazon.com and elsewhere online.

CPSI would like the FDA to ban eight of the most common artificial dyes, or at least affix a warning label to products that contain them: “Warning: The artificial coloring in this food causes hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.” In the meantime, concerned eaters should stick with products, stores and restaurants that use natural ingredients.

CONTACTS: India Tree,
www.indiatree.com; Nature’s Flavors, www.naturesflavors.com; CPSI’s “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Are there healthy, green-friendly mouthwashes? I’ve heard that some contain formaldehyde and other nasty substances. -- Marina Sandberg, Albany, NY

Many mainstream mouthwashes contain ingredients that you definitely don’t want to swallow, or even put down the drain. According to the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s (EHANS’s) “Guide to Less Toxic Products”—a free online resource designed to help consumers choose healthier, greener everyday products—conventional mouthwash is often alcohol-based, with an alcohol content ranging from 18-26 percent. “Products with alcohol can contribute to cancers of the mouth, tongue and throat when used regularly,” the guide reports, adding that a 2009 review in the Dental Journal of Australia confirmed the link between alcohol-based mouthwashes and an increased risk of oral cancers.

And you might want to avoid mouthwashes with fluoride (aka sodium fluoride). While fluoride may help fight cavities, ingesting too much of it has been linked to neurological problems and could be a cancer trigger as well. Common mouthwash sweeteners have also been linked to health problems: Saccharin is a suspected carcinogen while sucralose may trigger migraines. Synthetic colors can also be troublesome.

Some brands contain formaldehyde (aka quanternium-15). According to the National Cancer Institute, overexposure to formaldehyde can cause a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat as well as coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers formaldehyde a “probable human carcinogen” and research has shown an association between long term workplace exposure and several specific cancers, including leukemia. Few of us are exposed to as much formaldehyde as, say, morticians, but does that mean its okay to swish it around in our mouths every day?

Other problematic ingredients in many conventional mouthwashes include sodium lauryl sulfate, polysorbate, cetylpyridinium chloride and benzalkonium chloride, all which have been shown to be toxic to organisms in the aquatic environments where these chemicals end up after we spit them out.

So what’s a concerned green consumer to do? EHANS recommends the following mouthwashes that do not contain alcohol, fluoride, artificial colors or sweeteners: Anarres Natural Candy Cane Mouthwash, Auromere Ayurvedic Mouthwash, Beauty with a Cause Mouthwash, Jason Natural Cosmetics Tea Tree Oil Mouthwash, Dr. Katz TheraBreath Oral Rinses, Hakeem Herbal Mouthwash, and Miessence Freshening Mouthwash. Besides these brands, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database also lists Tom’s of Maine Natural Baking Soda Mouthwash, Healing-Scents Mouthwash, and Neal’s Yard Remedies Lavender and Myrrh Mouthwash as least harmful to people and the environment.

You can also make your own all-natural mouthwash at home. Eco-friendly consumer advice columnist Annie Berthold Bond recommends mixing warm water, baking soda or sea salt, and a drop of peppermint and/or tea tree oil for a refreshing and bacteria-excising rinse. Another recipe involves combining distilled or mineral water with a few dashes of fresh mint and rosemary leaves and some anise seeds; mix well and swish! A quick Internet search will yield many other down-home natural mouthwash formulas.

CONTACTS: Guide to Less Toxic Products,
www.lesstoxic.ca; Skin Deep Database, www.ewg.org/skindeep/; Annie Berthold Bond, www.anniebbond.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that some Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic U.S. states have banded together to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Can you enlighten? -- Bo Clifford, Cary, NC

Given the lack of federal action to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., several East Coast states joined together in 2008 to form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), committing to a market-based system to cap carbon pollution and lower energy bills while creating more green jobs.

Under RGGI, the 10 participating states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont—agreed on a region-wide greenhouse gas emissions limit, enforced through the sale of pollution permits to large fossil fuel power plants there. The utilities that run the plants purchase the right (at quarterly auctions) to emit certain capped amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). The money raised is in turn invested in local businesses throughout Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states that promote energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. RGGI’s overall goal is to reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector in the states involved by 10 percent by 2018.

The program was conceived in 2008 by then New York governor George Pataki based on a similar federal program launched by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 that successfully curbed emissions of other pollutants that led to acid rain.

While RGGI had strong bipartisan support at launch, changing priorities have since forced some states to reconsider their commitments. According to RenewableEnergyWorld.com, New Jersey is likely to back out, while factions in New Hampshire and Maine have also called for a withdrawal. “The political tides have turned significantly since the program was started, and many legislatures are now dominated by a new crop of lawmakers looking to cut spending in cash-strapped states,” the website reports.

Environmentalists and many business owners have banded together to try to save RGGI in the face of economic threats to its viability. Last July some 200 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic businesses signed on to an open letter urging the governors of the 10 participating states to keep up with the program so that it can achieve its goals. “The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative shows that market-based programs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while boosting our economy and improving energy security, and we encourage you to support and strengthen RGGI going forward,” the letter states. The letter goes on to cite research showing a $4-6 increase in economic output for every $1 invested in energy efficiency programs in the RGGI states. “Even better, these market-driven investments create jobs in the clean tech sector—one of the most dynamic segments of our state economies.”

Perhaps more important, RGGI “serves as a powerful model for what a comprehensive national energy policy should do” says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. Whether or not the economy will improve enough or climate change will become dramatic enough for Congress and the White House to take federal action to limit greenhouse gas emissions across the board is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, keeping alive programs like RGGI might be the best we can hope for.

CONTACTS: RGGI, www.rggi.org; RenewableEnergyWorld.com, www.renewableenergyworld.com; Businesses Letter to State Governors,

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that some companies are now looking to cut down forests and burn them as “biomass” for generating electricity. Is nothing sacred? -- Audrey Barklay, Newark, NJ

In theory, burning biomass (any kind of plant material) to derive energy is a carbon-neutral endeavor, meaning that the carbon dioxide released during the process is in turn absorbed by other plants and put to use in photosynthesis—and as such does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. Biomass is also flexible: It can be turned into ethanol to power up automobiles, or can be burned like coal to generate heat and/or electricity. Factor in that biomass feedstock is usually inexpensive, widely available and a seemingly perfect alternative to the carbon-spewing, foreign-derived fossil fuels we rely on so much these days.

Typically unmarketable trees, brush and logging debris becomes the feedstock for biomass processing plants or for coal-fired power plants equipped to “co-fire” with plant material. But environmentalists warn that some timber companies and their utility and state customers are taking things too far by levelling entire forests—including some within publicly owned national forest land—to generate more feedstock for otherwise underutilized biomass energy production facilities.

Among the negative environmental impacts, chopping down forests to burn for ethanol production—even if replanted as tree plantations—is like biting the hand that feeds you. “Natural forests, with their complex ecosystems, cannot be regrown like a crop of beans or lettuce,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “And tree plantations will never provide the clean water, storm buffers, wildlife habitat, and other ecosystem services that natural forests do.”

Another negative for biomass is that burning it, like coal or anything else, produces air pollution including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and a variety of toxic substances. According to NRDC, these pollutants increase the incidence of asthma, heart disease, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments, and premature death.

But perhaps most troubling about plans to cut down forests for biomass feedstock is taking carbon neutrality out of the equation, given the fact that tree loss in and of itself is already responsible for some 20 percent of the world’s total carbon pollution. “When biomass is harvested from forests, carbon stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere,” reports NRDC. “This is in addition to the carbon that is emitted when the wood is burned for energy. And there’s no guarantee the lost trees will ever be replaced.”

NRDC concedes that there is still a place for biomass in the alternative energy universe, but cautions that “only biomass that is carefully chosen, grown responsibly, and efficiently converted into energy can reduce carbon and other emissions compared to fossil fuels.” The group would like to see Congress put in place tighter regulations on biomass harvesting and processing. “Biomass can be harvested and utilized in ways that reduce pollution and protect forest habitats, but only with sustainability safeguards and proper accounting for carbon emissions—including carbon released due to deforestation,” concludes NRDC.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the bathroom is where over half of our household water usage takes place? What are some ways to take a bite out of that? -- Shelby McIntyre, Chico, CA

Yes indeed, some 60 percent of our household indoor water usage happens in the bathroom. As such, updating old leaky fixtures and changing a few basic habits could go a long way to not only saving fresh water, an increasingly precious resource, but also money.

Undoubtedly, the toilet is the biggest water hog in the bathroom. Those made before 1993 use up to eight gallons of water per flush, five times what modern toilets use. “It’s a good idea to replace pre-1993 toilets if you can,” says Patty Kim of National Geographic’s Green Guide. (FYI, usually a toilet’s manufacture date is stamped under the lid if you want to check how old it is.) If it is older and you can’t or don’t want to upgrade it, Kim recommends rescuing a two liter soda bottle from the recycling bin and filling it partially with some water and sand or pebbles and then putting it into your toilet’s tank, where it will take up space and force your toilet to use less water every flush. Or get a Toilet Tank Bank for less than two bucks; it hangs in your toilet tank and displaces almost a gallon of water to save water on every flush.

Plumbing leaks account for some 14 percent of the total water usage in an average U.S. home. Toilets are often a major culprit. Kim recommends testing your toilet by putting 5-10 drops of food coloring into the tank, then put the lid back on but don’t flush. Check back in 15 minutes or so to see if any of the colored water leaked down into the bowl. If so, you have a water-wasting leak, and it might finally be time to replace that aging toilet after all. The EarthEasy website reports that replacing an older18 liter per flush toilet with an ultra-low volume (ULV) 6 liter flush model “represents a 70 percent saving in water flushed and will cut indoor water use by about 30 percent.”

The shower can also be problematic as a water-waster, especially if the shower head in question was made before new regulations went into effect in 1992 mandating lower flow. Kim says you can check to see if your shower head is older or not by turning the shower on full blast and catching its output for two minutes in a bucket. If the bucket is overflowing, then your shower head is an older, more wasteful model. Newer low flow shower heads won’t come anywhere near to filling the bucket after two minutes. A new shower head costs around $10 and is a great investment because you can save water and money with every ensuing shower. Regardless of whether or not you have a newer shower head, you can save more water by turning off the shower to soap up, then turning it back on to rinse. Eartheasy reminds us that even with a new shower head, even a moderately short shower can still use between 20 and 40 gallons of water. But that’s nothing compared to a bathtub, which can hold as much as 50-60 gallons of water.

Additional pearls of wisdom in regard to reducing bathroom water waste include turning off the faucet while brushing teeth. Better yet, fill up a glass with just enough water to rinse after brushing. Likewise for shaving, stop up the sink with a little warm water in it and wiggle your razor around in the basin between strokes. And if you suspect your faucet may be spraying harder than it needs to, unscrew the aerator tip where the water comes out and take it into a hardware store for a more stingy replacement.

CONTACTS: The Green Guide,
http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/green-guide/; EarthEasy, www.eartheasy.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I was horrified to read recently that our oceans are actually becoming acidic, that the continued burning of fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of our seas. What’s going on?

-- Kim Richardson, San Diego, CA

It’s a known fact that our oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the increasingly large load of human-generated carbon dioxide (CO2) entering our atmosphere. About 25 percent of all the CO2 we send skyward out of our tailpipes and smokestacks ends up in the world’s oceans, where it triggers chemical reactions in the water column that lead to increased acidification. Researchers estimate that the acidity of our seas has increased 29 percent since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. If we do not slow down the pace of greenhouse gas emissions, our oceans could be two to three times as acidic in 2100 as they already are today, which could prove disastrous to marine ecosystems and the world’s food chain.

“When carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, chemical reactions occur that reduce seawater pH, carbonate ion concentration and saturation states of biologically important calcium carbonate minerals,” reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These calcium carbonate minerals, typically abundant in areas where most marine life congregates, are the building blocks for the skeletons and shells of many marine organisms, from oysters to coral. “However, continued ocean acidification is causing many parts of the ocean to become undersaturated with these minerals, which is likely to affect the ability of some organisms to produce and maintain their shells,” adds NOAA. The process will not only wreak havoc on the shellfish we eat, but also on smaller marine organisms that are key components on the lower end of the marine food chain.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading green group, coral reefs around the world may face an even greater risk than shellfish because they require very high levels of carbonate to build their skeletons. “Acidity slows reef-building, which could lower the resiliency of corals and lead to their erosion and eventual extinction,” they write. This would be an unmitigated environmental disaster, given that an estimated one million marine species depend on healthy coral reefs for survival.

“Such losses would reverberate throughout the marine environment and have profound social impacts, as well—especially on the fishing and tourism industries,” NRDC reports. “The loss of coral reefs would also reduce the protection that they offer coastal communities against storms surges and hurricanes—which might become more severe with warmer air and sea surface temperatures due to global warming.”

Researchers are working on strategies to protect aquaculture farms from further losses due to acidic water, but any large-scale effort to address ocean acidification will require the slowing down or phasing out of fossil fuels. Powering our cars, heating our homes and running our machines and appliances all require burning fossil fuels which generate greenhouse gas emissions and in turn cause acidification. Cutting back on our consumption of oil, gas and coal and switching to renewable energy sources—solar, wind, biomass and others—will be a necessary part of the strategy to counteract ocean acidification.

We can all help by driving less and walking/biking more; upgrading our vehicles, light bulbs and appliances to more energy efficient versions; patronizing companies that work to reduce their carbon footprints; and pushing our state and federal governments to enact binding reductions in CO2 pollution.

CONTACTS: NOAA, www.noaa.gov; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that cable and other pay TV boxes that sit atop television sets consume massive amounts of energy, in part because they are always on, even when the TV is off?
-- Sam Winston, Metarie, LA

We hear a lot about how much energy modern day flat screen TV sets consume, but the innocuous set-top boxes that drive them, along with their built-in digital video recorders, may be even more to blame. A recent analysis conducted by the consulting firm Ecos on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that “the average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television.” Overall, set-top boxes in the U.S. consume some 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. This is equal to the annual output of six average (500 megawatt) coal-fired power plants and accounts for the emission of 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Part of the reason these boxes are such energy hogs is that they typically operate at nearly full power even during the two-thirds of the time when they are not actively in use driving TV screens or recording to built-in DVRs. “As a nation, we spend $2 billion each year to power these boxes when they are not being actively used,” reports NRDC.

To make matters worse, American consumers have little if any choice about which set-top boxes they get from their cable or satellite service providers. Since the providers usually own the boxes yet don’t have to pay consumers’ electric bills, they have little incentive to utilize or develop more efficient models. In Europe, Sky Broadcasting is beginning to distribute more efficient equipment to subscribers there. NRDC is urging the largest pay-TV service providers in the U.S. (Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon and AT&T) to heed the efficiency call with their own set-top box and DVR offerings.

Redesigning set-top boxes to power down when not in use is perhaps the biggest opportunity for energy savings. “Innovation to reduce power consumption when not in active use—such as has occurred with mobile phones, which also work on a subscriber basis and require secure connections—is sorely needed in set-top boxes,” counsels NRDC. Also, re-jiggering content delivery systems so that only one main set-top box sends signals to all the televisions in the house (or to lower power “thin client” boxes) could also cut down household electric bills and carbon footprints. The group adds that “better designed pay-TV set-top boxes could reduce the energy use of the installed base of boxes by 30 percent to 50 percent by 2020.”

Last year the U.S. government released new energy efficiency standards for set-top boxes within its EnergyStar appliance efficiency rating program. While this new specification is a step in the right direction, consumers have little knowledge about such options. NRDC urges pay-TV subscribers to request that their providers make available set-top boxes and DVRs that meet the newer EnergyStar 4.0 standards. The more of us that request such improvements, the likelier they are to happen. And the cable or satellite provider that can save customers money while reducing overall environmental impact may just win over an increasingly large sector of the American people that actually cares about being green.

CONTACTS: NRDC’s “Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution,”
www.nrdc.org/energy/files/settopboxes.pdf; EnergyStar, www.energystar.gov.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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