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by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How do I learn about what pesticides may be on the food I eat?

-- Beatrice Olson, Cleveland, OH

Along with the rise in the popularity of organic food has come an increased awareness about the dangers lurking on so-called “conventionally produced” (that is, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers) foods.

“There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods such as fetal development and childhood,” reports author and physician Andrew Weil, a leading voice for so-called integrative medicine combining conventional and alternative medical practices. He adds that keeping one’s family healthy isn’t the only reason to avoid foods produced using chemical inputs: “Pesticide and herbicide use contaminates groundwater, ruins soil structures and promotes erosion, and may be a contributor to ‘colony collapse disorder’, the sudden and mysterious die-off of pollinating honeybees that threatens the American food supply.”

In general, fruits and vegetables with an outer layer of skin or rind that can be peeled and discarded are the safest in terms of pesticide residues. Most pesticides are sprayed on the outside of produce. So if you are going to toss the rind of that cantaloupe, you might as well save money and buy a conventional version. But a red pepper would be a different story: For those items consider it money well spent to go organic.

The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists a “dirty dozen” of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide load so that consumers know to look for organic varieties of them when possible. The dirty dozen are: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens.

Another non-profit working hard to raise awareness about pesticide residues on foods is the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). The group’s recently launched website and accompanying iPhone app called “What’s On My Food” helps consumers know specifically which pesticide residues are likely ending up on their foods (and in their bloodstreams). In creating the database, PAN linked pesticide food residue data with the toxicology for each chemical and made the combined information easily searchable. “Pesticides are a public health problem requiring public engagement to solve,” the group reports, adding that “What’s On My Food” can be an important tool in raising awareness.

While the website version of “What’s On My Food” is helpful for advance planning, the iPhone app is handy while plying the supermarket produce aisles to help decide whether to go for organic vegetables or stick with the cheaper conventional ones. For instance, the database shows that conventionally grown collard greens likely contains residues of some 46 different chemicals including nine known/probable carcinogens, 25 suspected hormone disruptors, 10 neurotoxins and eight developmental/reproductive toxins—not to mention 25 different compounds known to be harmful to honeybees. Spending a little quality time on the website or app is enough to drive anyone to more organic food purchasing.

CONTACTS: Andrew Weil,
www.drweil.com; PAN, www.whatsonmyfood.org; EWG, www.ewg.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: One of the objections to wind power has been that the turbines can kill birds. Has there been some progress in developing bird-friendly wind power? -- Marcie Mahoney,
Boston, MA

Bird collisions have been one of the primary negatives of the recent growth in wind power across the United States and beyond. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that almost a half million birds are killed each year in the U.S. by wind turbines. “Birds can die in collisions with the turbine blades, towers, power lines, or related structures, and can also be impacted through habitat destruction from the siting of turbines, power lines, and access roads,” the non-profit American Bird Conservancy reports. “Some birds, such as sage-grouse, are particularly sensitive to the presence of turbines, and can be scared away from their breeding grounds several miles away from a wind development.”

In response to this growing problem, the USFWS released new federal guidelines in March 2012 for land-based wind developers trying to avoid or minimize impacts to birds and their habitats. The guidelines are voluntary at this point, but U.S. wind developers interested in a smoother ride through various permitting processes and the blessing of environmental groups—several were consulted extensively in drawing up the new guidelines—are doing their best to make their designs and implementations comply.

The federal government’s 22-member Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee, which included experts from the National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, Massachusetts Audubon and Bat Conservation International, developed the guidelines. Committee members report they are optimistic that the new guidelines provide a path to better protection for birds and their habitats.

“The guidelines steer wind turbines away from vital habitat…and toward land already marked by development,” says David Yarnold, National Audubon’s President. “They give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a place at the table for siting decisions; they help protect sites with high potential risk for birds; and they minimize habitat fragmentation.” He adds that the guidelines are based on the best available science and provide a roadmap to better bird protections across each of America’s four great flyways.”

Audubon pushed to ensure that the guidelines address habitat fragmentation, one of the biggest potential impacts of wind development on birds. Wind developers that cooperate with the guidelines will avoid dividing important habitats like forests and grasslands, thus maintaining their suitability for wildlife.

“These first-ever federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy,” says Yarnold. “By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival.”

For its part, the American Bird Conservancy would like to take the voluntary out of the guidelines and instead require wind developers to comply. The group recently filed a petition with the U.S. Department of the Interior calling for mandatory rules protecting millions of birds from the negative impacts of wind energy and rewarding responsible wind energy development.

CONTACTS: National Audubon, www.audubon.org; USFWS “Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines,” www.fws.gov/windenergy/docs/WEG_final.pdf; American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.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: I own a small business and would like to do what I can to minimize its impact on the environment. Can you help me? -- Jacob Levinson, New York, NY

There are many ways to green up any business, large or small—and an added benefit might just be saving money. Just like individuals, businesses can measure their carbon footprints to get a sense of where they are starting from and to get some initial ideas of areas to focus on to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a free “Simplified GHG [greenhouse gas] Emissions Calculator” to help small businesses get started. Another option is to enroll in TerraPass’s “Carbon Balanced Business” program, which helps commercial entities measure and then offset the greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for generating.

Beyond carbon footprints, there are many other things businesses can do to minimize their environmental impacts. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that, first and foremost, businesses should shift the paper paradigm—the average office tosses out about 350 pounds of paper per year per employee. “Reducing your waste and purchasing paper with post-consumer recycled content can help save trees and nudge the pulp and paper industry, one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the world, toward a less damaging path,” NRDC reports. Some easy ways to do this include: setting printers to use both sides of a page (or designating a “draft tray” filled with paper that’s blank on one side); buying copy paper with a 30 percent or more post-consumer recycled content; collecting used paper separately for recycling; and stocking bathrooms with post-consumer recycled tissue products.

Getting more energy efficient is another way to save the Earth while saving money too. NRDC recommends taking advantage of the fact that most utilities offer free or inexpensive energy audits, whereby an engineer examines operations and provides a report about how to save on energy costs. Turning off lights and electronics at the end of the work day can save bundles of energy. “Plug all your appliances into a power strip and you’ll only have to flip one switch at the end of the day,” suggests NRDC. Also, setting computers to “sleep” or “hibernate” when inactive will further reduce a business’s footprint. And NRDC says to lose the screensavers: “Flying toasters and slideshows can use up about $50 of electricity in a year.” Lastly, when shopping for new office appliances, look for the EnergyStar label which means that the federal government has rated the particular unit highly in terms of energy efficiency.

Cutting water waste will also make a business run greener. The group says to install faucet aerators and low-flow toilets, check for and fix leaks, landscape with water efficiency in mind and recycle gray water where applicable for nonpotable uses such as watering gardens.

Lastly, NRDC suggests creating a greener work environment, given that “employees are on the front lines of any sustainability initiatives” a business chooses to make—perhaps by creating a green team “with members from all divisions of the organization to help implement plans and bring new ideas to the table.” Those looking to take their businesses down a green path should consult any of the free “Greening Your Business” guides on NRDC’s website.

TACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov/climateleadership/smallbiz/footprint.html; NRDC Greening Your Business, www.nrdc.org/cities/living/gbusiness.asp.

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: Diesel exhaust from trucks, buses, large ships and farm equipment is especially unhealthy. What progress has been made in curbing diesel pollution? -- Jackie Mitchell, Barre, MA

Gasoline-powered passenger cars plying American roads have been subject to strict pollution limits for some three decades already, but only recently have tougher standards for diesel-powered trucks, trains, barges and other soot-belching vehicles gone on the books across the country. Traditionally, older diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide per mile driven than gasoline-powered vehicles, but they produce more of the pollution associated with localized environmental trauma—such as smog and soot in the air—that can trigger respiratory and cardiovascular problems and have been linked to lung and other cancers.

Thanks to the work of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), American Lung Association (ALA) and others, though, the U.S. government has adopted increasingly stringent rules governing how much particulate pollution and other toxins are allowed to come out of diesel engines. In 2001, these groups convinced Congress to pass strict new pollution limits on heavy-duty trucks and buses. Three years later similarl standards were applied for non-road vehicles, including construction and farm equipment.

These laws were designed to clean up new diesel engines, but the millions of older diesel engines still on American roads, work sites and waterways continue to cause pollution problems. Newer state laws in California, Texas and New York calling on owners of older diesel vehicles to retrofit their engines with emissions reduction equipment has helped clean the air in those states. And regional public-private partnerships administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Clean Diesel Campaign have also helped put a dent in diesel emissions from the trucking, rail and shipping sectors.

Even though the clean-up of diesel engines has only been mandated in the U.S. within the last 10 years, the positive effects are already noticeable. A recent report (“State of the Air: 2012”) issued by the ALA found that, in urban areas across the U.S., ozone-causing smog is down 13 percent, soot levels are 24 percent lower and short-term particulate pollution is down some 28 percent over the last decade.

Meanwhile, California’s Diesel Risk Reduction Plan, which calls for cleaner-burning diesel fuels, retrofitting of older engines with particle-trapping filters, and the use in new diesel engines of advanced technologies that yield some 90 percent fewer particle emissions, has already cut diesel particle emissions by 75 percent there, with 10 more percentage points worth of clean-up expected by 2020.

“Together, these regulations will prevent tens of thousands of deaths and hospitalizations each year,” reports EDF. “The billions of dollars in public health benefits far outweigh the costs of controlling pollution.” Green leaders concede we still have lots of work to do on the issue, given that 40 percent of the U.S. population still lives in areas with unsafe levels of smog and soot pollution. But there is optimism that pollution reduction policies like California’s will soon be standard elsewhere as well, making our air even cleaner and reducing the percentage of Americans living in areas with compromised air quality.

www.edf.org; EPA’s National Clean Diesel Campaign, www.epa.gov/diesel; ALA’s State of the Air 2012, www.stateoftheair.org/2012/assets/state-of-the-air2012.pdf; California’s Diesel Risk Reduction Plan, www.arb.ca.gov/diesel/documents/rrpapp.htm.

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: The term “sustainable communities” gets bantered around quite a bit today. Could you define it for me? -- Holly Parker, Mechanicsburg, PA

Kaid Benfield, Sustainable Communities program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), uses the term “sustainable communities” to describe places “where use of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are going down, not up; where the air and waterways are accessible and clean; where land is used efficiently and shared parks and public spaces are plentiful and easily visited; where people of different ages, income levels and cultural backgrounds share equally in environmental, social and cultural benefits; where many needs of daily life can be met within a 20-minute walk and all may be met within a 20-minute transit ride; where industry and economic opportunity emphasize healthy, environmentally sound practices.”

In his March 2011 NRDC ‘Switchboard’ blog post entitled “A Trip to Sustainaville,” Benfield lays out his vision for what a model of sustainable communities could look like, with neighborhoods sporting healthy amounts of green space and shared vegetable gardens; mass transit, biking and walking replacing the majority of automobile traffic; and mixed use communities where schools, residences and commercial spaces are near each other and are powered by solar panels, geothermal heat pumps or windmills.

According to the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), sustainable communities are “economically, environmentally and socially healthy and resilient” and meet “challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches.” And perhaps more important: Sustainable communities take a long-term perspective, focusing on “both the present and future, well beyond the next budget or election cycle” so that the needs of the current as well as future generations are met with adequate resources. ISC adds that the success of a community’s efforts to be sustainable depends on its members’ commitment and involvement as well as leadership that is inspiring, effective and responsive.

Some of the ways ISC has worked to further its goals include helping teach leaders from low income U.S. communities along the Gulf of Mexico how energy efficiency and ecological restoration can revitalize their otherwise struggling economies; developing community sustainability initiatives throughout
war-ravaged parts of Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia; installing green roofs on residences in the Chinese city of Shenzen as a pilot project to show how such “technologies” can yield significant carbon sequestration and other environmental benefits, and many more.

Key to any consideration of what makes a community sustainable is the acknowledgement that there is no such thing as perfection. Sustainability is a process of continuous improvement so communities constantly evolve and make changes to accomplish their goals,” reports Sustainable Communities Online, a web-based information and networking clearinghouse started in the 1990s by a broad coalition of sustainability-oriented organizations and managed by the Washington, DC-based non-profit CONCERN Inc. Those looking to learn more about sustainable communities and what makes them tick should be sure to check out sustainable.org, Sustainable Communities Online’s information-packed website.

CONTACTS: NRDC Sustainable Communities, www.nrdc.org/sustainable-communities/; Institute for Sustainable Communities, www.iscvt.org; Sustainable Communities Online, www.sustainable.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: I understand the Environmental Protection Agency recently took steps to limit pollution from power plants. What are the details? -- Maddie Samberg, via e-mail

In March 2012 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first nationwide emission standards to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new coal- and gas-burning power plants. And while the operative word here is “new”—the standards would not apply to plants currently in operation or those that begin construction over the next year—they
would effectively cut carbon emissions in half over the lifetime of a new power plant. According to the EPA, the standards reflect the ongoing trend in the power sector toward cleaner plants deploying the latest in American-made pollution minimizing technologies.

“The nation’s electricity comes from diverse and largely domestic energy sources, including fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro and, increasingly, renewable energy sources,” reports the EPA. “The proposed standard would not change this fact, and EPA put a focus on ensuring this standard provides a pathway forward for a range of important domestic resources, including coal with technologies that reduce carbon emissions.”

New plants could still choose to burn any fossil fuel to generate electricity as long as modern carbon reduction technologies are employed.

Environmentalists are cheering the EPA’s move given that power plants are the largest individual sources of carbon pollution in the U.S., responsible for some 40 percent of our overall greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this huge pollution burden, currently there are no uniform national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to emit.

“The Supreme Court has found in two landmark cases, Massachusetts v. EPA and American Electric Power v. Connecticut, that it is the EPA’s job under the Clean Air Act to protect the American people from dangerous carbon pollution, including the carbon pollution from the nation’s fleet of new and existing power plants,” reports David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another leading environmental non-profit backing stronger pollution standards. “EPA’s ‘new source performance standard’ for new power plants...is a critical step towards providing that protection.”

Greens are optimistic that the proposal will become a rule. In concert with clean car standards the EPA announced in 2010—mobile sources contribute some 30 percent to our overall carbon emissions—the new power plant standards should help take a significant bite out of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

“These standards will help further the progress we are making towards a cleaner, more secure future for energy in America,” says Fred Krupp, president of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “We will use our nation’ electricity resources more efficiently to cut energy costs for families and businesses, mobilize ‘Made in the USA’ technologies and fuels for cleaner energy generation, and ensure that America will lead the global race to a clean energy economy.”

CONTACTS: EPA “Carbon Pollution Standard for Power Plants,” epa.gov/carbonpollutionstandard; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; EDF, www.edf.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: Who are the “Clean Air Ambassadors” and what are they trying to accomplish?

-- Brenda Coughlin, Pittsburgh, PA

Clean Air Ambassadors are everyday folks from across the U.S. who have committed to speaking up for everyone’s right to breathe clean, healthy air. The effort is part of the “50 States United for Healthy Air” campaign, a joint endeavor of Earthjustice, the American Nurses Association, the Hip Hop Caucus, the National Council of Churches and Physicians for Social Responsibility. In the spring of 2011 these Ambassadors—people from all 50 states and every walk of life—convened in Washington, D.C. to ask members of Congress, leaders at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and high-ranking officials in the Obama administration for stronger protections against air pollution.

Earthjustice, which specializes in litigating on behalf of environmental causes, initiated the effort as part of its larger “Right to Breathe” campaign. “Every year, many people young and old get sick because of air pollution,” reports Earthjustice. Clean air should be a fundamental right.”

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), the most widespread kinds of air pollution are ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot). “When inhaled, ozone irritates the lungs, resulting in something like a bad sunburn within the lungs,” reports the group. “Breathing in particle pollution can increase the risk of early death, heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits for people with asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” In its 2012 “State of the Air” report, ALA reports that 127 million Americans—some 40 percent of our population—live in counties where either ground-level ozone or particle pollution is frequently at dangerous levels, despite significant progress in cleaning up the nation’s air since 1970.

While there are many sources of air pollution, dirty power plants are among the biggest culprits. The ALA reports that over 400 coal-fired power plants across the country “are among the largest contributors to particulate pollution, ozone, mercury, and global warming.” In 2011, the EPA issued the final rules that will cut the emissions that create ozone and particle pollution and, for the first time, set national limits on the toxic pollutants they can emit. While Earthjustice and other groups have challenged the EPA for not going far enough, the ALA is defending the plan as significant enough to warrant implementation.

Of course, everyone can play a part in cleaning up air pollution. The ALA recommends driving less, using less electricity, refraining from burning wood or trash, and making sure local school systems require cleaner school buses. Even better, get involved: “Participate in your community’s review of its air pollution plans and support state and local efforts to clean up air pollution.” Finding a local air pollution control agency is now as easy as steering a web browser to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies’ 4cleanair.org website.

While there are no plans for another visit to Washington, D.C. by Clean Air Ambassadors in the near future, concerned citizens can do their part and join thousands of others in signing on to Earthjustice’s “Right to Breathe Declaration” that calls on the federal government to require major air polluters to utilize existing technologies to significantly reduce the amount of air pollution coming out of their smokestacks.

TACTS: Earthjustice, www.earthjustice.org; ALA, www.lung.org; 4cleaair, www.4cleanair.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: Renewable energy production in the solar and wind markets currently receives about $7 billion in government subsidies annually, but is still not competitive against fossil fuels on a large scale. To what extent should the U.S. continue to prop up these industries as they compete against dirty energy? -- Jack Morgan, Richmond, VA

Given the importance of abundant amounts of energy for Americans, the federal government tends to subsidize all forms of energy development, including fossil fuels and renewables. A recently released report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that in 2011 the federal government spent $16 billion of our tax dollars in subsidies for the development of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency, and only $2.5 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in the form of tax breaks. But this breakdown in favor of larger subsidies to alternative renewables is a recent product of President Obama’s stated goal of cutting back on subsidies to the hugely profitable oil industry.

Historically the vast majority of energy subsidies have gone to developing fossil fuel resources and reserves. The CBO notes that until 2008 most energy subsidies went to the fossil fuel industry as a way to encourage more domestic energy production. A report by the non-profit Environmental Law Institute (ELI) confirms that, between 2002 and 2008, the federal government provided substantially larger subsidies to fossil fuels than to renewables. “Subsidies to fossil fuels—a mature, developed industry that has enjoyed government support for many years—totaled approximately $72 billion over the study period, representing a direct cost to taxpayers,” reported ELI. “Subsidies for renewable fuels, a relatively young and developing industry, totaled $29 billion over the same period.”

Even though subsidies to the oil industry may be down substantially from what they once were, the Obama administration and many others would like to see any such subsidies to the oil industry stripped completely. This past March the U.S. Senate rejected the so-called “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies” bill that would have eliminated several of the tax breaks still enjoyed by the five largest oil companies—and use some of the proceeds to extend expiring energy tax provisions including tax breaks for renewable energy, electric cars and energy-efficient homes.

A September 2011 report from DBL Investors, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund specializing in renewable energy, backs up environmentalist calls for increased subsidies for renewables by showing how early subsidization of other energy keystone sources helped secure their respective dominant places in the energy marketplace. The report calculates that, in the U.S., nuclear subsidies accounted for more than one percent of the federal budget in their first 15 years, and that oil and gas subsidies made up one-half of one percent of the total federal budget in their first 15 years. Subsidies for renewables, in contrast, have constituted only about one-tenth of a percent, the report concludes.

While the pendulum of energy subsidies may be swinging in favor of renewables in the last year or two, such momentum can be lost easily if lawmakers don’t extend various incentives and credits that have helped drive it.

www.cbo.gov; ELI’s “Estimating U.S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources: 2002-2008,” www.elistore.org/Data/products/d19_07.pdf; DBL Investors, www.dblinvestors.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.

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