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EarthTalk®

by E - The Environmental Magazine


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I know that there are many issues with personal care products being unsafe for our health, but where do I look to find out what’s safe and what’s not? -- Mary Pulaski,
Trenton, NJ

The average American uses about 10 personal care products each day, resulting in exposure to some 100 unique chemicals. But the vast majority of the 12,500 chemicals used by the $50 billion beauty industry have never been assessed for safety, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a coalition of eight non-profits concerned about the health of cosmetics and personal care products.

“Many of these chemicals are linked to adverse health effects like cancer, birth defects and other serious health issues,” CSC reports. And with cosmetics chemicals showing up in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, not to mention rivers, lakes and drinking water aquifers, it is indeed a problem that affects us all.

Unfortunately for American consumers, these products aren’t held to the same high safety standard as foods and drugs in the
United States
, and as such manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients on their products’ labels. That means it’s up to consumers to educate themselves as to what products to buy and which to avoid if human health and the environment are concerns.

To the rescue comes the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which launched its SkinDeep database back in 2004 to give consumers a way to learn about what’s in the products they use on their skin and bodies. Today, SkinDeep—which is free to use and has a user-friendly, keyword-searchable interface—features health and safety profiles on 69,000 different cosmetics and personal care products.

“Our aim is to fill in where industry and government leave off,” reports EWG, whose researchers cross-reference hundreds of safety studies and nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases against thousands of product ingredient labels to help consumers find the safest cosmetics and personal care items.

Beyond searching for your most frequently used creams, gels and elixirs to get the low-down on their safety, users can also learn what to avoid by browsing the site’s “What Not to Buy” section. Harsh soaps, anything with chemical fragrances, many nail polishes and most dark permanent hair dyes top the list of products health-conscious consumers should steer clear of—or at least check out on SkinDeep. The website lists safer versions of all these product types for those who just can’t live without.

But public health advocates and environmentalists alike, of course, would prefer that all personal care products could be trusted to not be rash-inducing, carcinogenic or otherwise harmful. CSC has been lobbying Congress about the need for stricter laws and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight, and last year was instrumental in getting the Safe Cosmetics Act (HR 2359) introduced into the House of Representatives. While the bill stalled in committee, it would have required the FDA to create a list of specific contaminants likely to be found in certain cosmetics ingredients and provide testing protocols to determine which ones qualified for warning labels, phase-outs or outright bans. Whether a similar bill will come up again anytime soon remains to be seen. In the meantime, consumers should make sure to visit the SkinDeep database before lathering up.

CONTACTS: EWG’s SkinDeep Database,
www.ewg.org/skindeep; CSC, www.safecosmetics.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.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: How is it that Latino communities are among those hardest hit by air pollution?

-- Miguel Aragones,
Los Angeles, CA

Latinos are indeed among the U.S. ethnic groups hardest hit by air pollution. A recent report from the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change (NLCCC), Center for American Progress, National Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation found that Latinos face a disproportionately large air pollution risk than even other minority groups. According to the report, “U.S. Latinos and Air Pollution: A Call to Action,” Latinos face increased health care costs, more lost days at school and work, and a shorter life expectancy due to increased exposure to air pollution.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 26.6 percent of U.S. Hispanics live in counties that violate the federal government’s 24-hour standards for fine particulate matter, the greatest percentage of any ethnic group. Meanwhile, 48.4 percent of Hispanics live in counties that frequently violated eight-hour ground-level ozone standards.

According to the National Coalition of Hispanic Health & Human Services Organizations (COSSMHO), 80 percent of U.S. Latinos (compared with 65 percent of non-Hispanic U.S. blacks and 57 percent of non-Hispanic U.S.
whites) live in so-called “non-attainment” areas where ambient air quality is worse than what the federal government considers safe. “Although Hispanics in general live as long as or longer than non-Hispanic whites, what morbidity data are available reveal that the quality of that life is severely impaired by a variety of chronic conditions, such as asthma,” adds the coalition.

Meanwhile, another recent report from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) found that seven out of 10 Hispanic Americans face air pollution threats some 16 percent greater overall than the overall U.S. population. “The increased exposure to air pollution makes Latino families more vulnerable to health problems associated with air pollutants such as low birth weight and asthma attacks,” stated the report. “Factors such as poverty, language barriers and lack of access to health care increase the danger.”

In June 2011, 14 Latino groups from California, Texas and other states joined together to urge President Obama to bring permissible levels of ground-level ozone—a key component in the formation of smog—down to below 70 parts per billion. Under George W. Bush, the limit was lowered from 85 to 75 parts per billion, but environmentalists maintain that the limit must be even lower to reduce respiratory and related illnesses in densely populated, largely minority urban areas already hardest hit by pollution.


But in September 2011 the Obama administration cited economic concerns in announcing that it would leave the ozone standard as is for now. Lowering it further at this point, the White House argued, would cost American businesses and the federal government billions to upgrade or retrofit industrial facilities with pollution scrubbing equipment and other technologies. The administration hinted it would revisit the topic once the economy improves, but in the meantime those living in urban areas with unsafe amounts of air pollution should check daily air quality forecasts before going outside for extended periods. The federal government’s Airnow.gov website offers daily air quality reports across 300+ urban areas from coast-to-coast, and also provides links to more detailed state and local air quality information sources.

CONTACTS: NLCCC, www.latinocoalitiononclimatechange.org; COSSMHO, www.clnet.ucla.edu/community/cossmho.html; LULAC, www.lulac.org; Airnow, www.airnow.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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the road ahead as laid out by President Obama in his recent State of the Union? -- Marilyn Pike, Bethesda, MD

The economy dominated President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, but his discussion about energy and the environment took up almost seven minutes—or nine percent—of the hour-plus address. And while much of what Mr. Obama said was comforting to environmentalists, his statements about expanding natural gas production—albeit “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk”—and opening up more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources did not sit well.

Even so, natural gas is cleaner burning than oil or coal, and reducing our reliance on foreign oil is a good thing overall. “Right now American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “…last year we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.”

Michelle Wilson Berger of the National Audubon Society points out that when George W. Bush told us in his 2006 State of the Union that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil, some 60 percent was coming from foreign sources. “Now it’s just less than half,” Berger says, adding: “The trend is going to continue in that positive direction and within a couple decades, it’s going to be even less, say something like 36 percent.”

Nonetheless, environmental advocates were hoping for less bullish talk from Obama on expanding fossil fuel development of any kind, given the dire climate predictions we are facing. But Obama isn’t giving up his commitment to renewables, despite the recent bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra after it had received upwards of $500 million in loan guarantees. “Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail,” stated Obama in the speech. “But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.”

Obama also called on Congress to pass a new standard aimed at boosting wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables, and to extend related tax credits to help diversify and green the country’s energy mix, adding that he wants to end tax subsidies for oil companies. In underscoring that Americans don’t have to choose between the economy and the environment, he cited the case of the revival of the American auto industry thanks in part to automakers’ willingness to innovate to meet aggressive fuel economy standards.

Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund considers Obama’s State of the Union “a strong defense of the importance of clean energy to America’s long-term economic prosperity.”


Speeches aside, 2011 wasn’t a bad year for Obama on the environment. He proposed raising the average fuel efficiency standard for new cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025—this alone, says Natural Resources Defense Council’s Frances Beinecke, “will save drivers more than $80 billion a year at the pump and cut our annual oil use by more than the amount we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.” Obama’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project—which would have transported dirty Alberta tar sands oil across U.S. soil—was another triumph, as were establishing the first national standards to limit mercury and other air toxins from power plants, proposing a visionary national oceans policy, protecting the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, and supporting clean energy investments at record levels.

CONTACTS: White House State of the Union 2012, www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2012.

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.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that Bisphenol A (BPA)—which is harmful to human health—was found to be present in retail cash register receipts and that, since those receipts get recycled, the chemical may also be present in toilet paper and other paper products? -- Jocelyn Mitchell, via e-mail


Many of us already know the risks associated with regular use of products containing the plastic hardener and synthetic estrogen Bisphenol A (BPA)—and have switched over to BPA-free water and baby bottles and food storage containers. But the recent revelation that many of the receipts handed around every day in the U.S. contain the chemical has been a real shocker to those already worried about BPA exposure.

Many thermal papers used in the U.S.—receipts, event tickets, labels—contain so-called “free” BPA (that is, not bound into resin or plastic), which helps “develop” the inks to make the printed information visible. “While there is little concern for dermal absorption of BPA, free BPA can readily be transferred to skin and residues on hands can be ingested,” reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Laboratory tests commissioned by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) and carried out by the University of Missouri Division of Biological Sciences Laboratory in 2010 found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts sampled from major U.S. businesses and services, including McDonald’s, Chevron, CVS, KFC, Whole Foods, WalMart, Safeway and the U.S. Postal Service, among others.

“The total amounts of BPA on receipts tested were 250 to 1,000 times greater than other, more widely discussed sources of BPA exposure, including canned foods, baby bottles and infant formula,” reported EWG. Wipe tests conducted by the lab easily removed BPA “indicating that the chemical could rub off on the hands of a person handling the receipt.”

While BPA contamination of food is still a bigger problem, says EWG, a large number of Americans—especially the seven million who run cash registers—are nonetheless exposed to additional amounts of BPA through handling receipts. An EWG analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data found that retail workers carry an average of 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than other adults.

Another more exhaustive study of BPA in thermal paper receipts and 14 other types of papers found the chemical in a whopping 94 percent of samples from the U.S., Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The State University of New York researchers behind the study, which was published in September 2011 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, estimate that receipts and other thermal paper products contribute around 33.5 tons of BPA to the environment in the U.S. and Canada each year.
Even more disturbing was their finding that BPA in thermal paper receipts also contaminates paper recycling and is showing up in napkins, toilet paper and other common papers with recycled content.


On a more encouraging note, Wisconsin’s Appleton Papers, the world’s largest thermal paper maker, removed BPA from its products in 2006. And the EPA has since launched a program to evaluate the safety and availability of alternatives to BPA in thermal paper. Public health advocates and environmentalists, of course, would like to see BPA phased out entirely.

CON
TACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov/oppt/existingchemicals/pubs/actionplans/bpa_action_plan.pdf; EWG, www.ewg.org; “Widespread Occurrence of Bisphenol A in Paper and Paper Products: Implications for Human Exposure,” Environmental Science & Technology, www.pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es202507f.

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.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: I read that car makers had agreed to up fuel economy standards to an average of about 55 miles per gallon by the year 2025, and that specifics were due to be hammered out by the end of 2011. Did this happen and where do things stand now? -- Scott Ellis,
Norwalk, CA

After years of wrangling on the issue, auto companies, regulators and policymakers have finally come to terms on increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for vehicles plying American roads. According to the plan as formulated by the Obama administration, automakers will double the average, unadjusted fuel-economy rating of their car and light truck vehicle fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 from today’s standard of 27 miles per gallon. Automakers which don’t meet the standards will be penalized $5.50 per 0.1 miles per gallon they fall below, multiplied by their total production for the U.S. market. Congress is likely to sign the new rules, which will start taking effect for the 2017 model year, into law this summer.

According to the White House, the higher standards will likely lead to price increases of some $2,000 per vehicle to cover the costs of more expensive technology, but drivers should save an average of $6,600 in gas over the life of a vehicle. Environmental advocacy groups allied as the Go60mpg Coalition report that the new rules will create almost half a million new jobs while cutting domestic oil consumption by 1.5 million barrels or more a day by 2030.

“The standards are going to lead to large investments and a rebirth of the U.S. auto industry [as] global leaders in innovation,” says Roland Hwang, director of the Transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the six environmental groups (along with Environment America, the National Wildlife Federation, the Safe Climate Campaign, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists) behind Go60mpg. Hwang figures the new rules will generate $300 billion in extra revenue to the
U.S. auto industry, not to mention lining consumers’ pocketbooks with an estimated $200 billion in fuel savings. “This is a big deal [and] something that will keep the U.S.
auto industry on the forefront of manufacturing innovation.”

In addition to the new CAFE standards for cars and light trucks, the White House is calling for a
20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from large trucks and buses by 2018. The fuel economy bump inherent in these new truck rules will translate to some $73,000 in fuel savings for truckers over the lifetime of a new 18-wheeler and some 530 million barrels of oil saved for all large trucks and buses made between 2014 and 2018.

Critics point out that no one can be sure how much new technology will add to the cost of vehicles, let alone how fluctuations in gas prices, consumer tastes and the overall economy could impact what types of cars people want to drive. While the new rules represent a gamble in regard to these variables, enough Americans see the benefits of more fuel efficient vehicles outweighing the trade-offs. Of course, environmentally conscious consumers can already buy more fuel efficient vehicles—Priuses, Volts and Leafs are already all over American roads. And if Congress goes along with its intent to pass the new rules, greener cars will be standard and the U.S will be on the forefront of automotive innovation once again.

CONTACTS: Go60mpg Coalition, www.go60mpg.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.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: There are many areas around the U.S. where “disease clusters” have occurred, whereby unusually large numbers of people have gotten sick, usually because of proximity to a polluter. What if anything is being done to remedy the situation? -- Michael Sorenson, Natick, MA

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) defines a disease cluster as “an unusually large number of people sickened by a disease in a certain place and time.” The organization, along with the National Disease Clusters Alliance (NDCA), reported in March 2011 that it had identified 42 disease clusters throughout 13 U.S. states: Texas, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas, all chosen for analysis, states the report, “based on the occurrence of known clusters in the state, geographic diversity, or community concerns about a disease cluster in their area.”

State and local health departments respond to some 1,000 inquiries per year about suspected disease clusters, though less than 15 percent turn out to be “statistically significant.” Epidemiologists explain that true cancer clusters typically involve one type of disease only, a rare type of cancer, or an illness not usually found in a specific age group.


A classic example of a disease cluster is in
Anniston, Alabama, where residents experienced cancerous, non-cancerous, thyroid and neurodevelopment effects that they believe were caused by releases of various chemicals, including PCBs. The culprit: a nearby Monsanto-owned chemical maker, according to NDCA. And, indeed, a 2003 study in and around Anniston by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry did find that one in five locals had elevated PCB levels in their blood.

Clusters are controversial “in part because our scientific criteria for proving that exposure A caused disease B…are extremely difficult to meet,” says Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of The Autoimmune Epidemic. “People move, or die, or their disease is never properly diagnosed. How can we prove, with all these variables, that a toxic exposure in an area caused a group of people to fall ill with a specific set of diseases?” Nakazawa is hardly skeptical about the existence of disease clusters. She is part of a growing chorus of voices calling on the government to not only remediate existing sites but to also prevent disease clusters in the first place by developing more stringent standards regarding chemical usage and disposal.

“European environmental policy uses the precautionary principle—an approach to public health that underscores preventing harm to human health before it happens,” Nakazawa reports. In 2007 the European Union implemented legislation that forces companies to develop safety data on 30,000 chemicals over a decade, and places responsibility on the chemical industry to demonstrate the safety of their products. “America lags far behind, without any precautionary guidelines regarding chemical use,” adds Nakazawa.

NRDC says “there is a need for better documentation and investigation of disease clusters to identify and address possible causes.” Armed with better data, advocates for more stringent controls on chemicals could have a better chance of convincing Congress to reform the antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1975 and bring more recent knowledge about chemical exposures to bear in setting safer standards.

CONTACT: NRDC report, www.nrdc.org/health/diseaseclusters/files/diseaseclusters_issuepaper.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.


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