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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: A friend of mine recently stopped using skin and beauty products with parabens in them. What are parabens and should we all be avoiding them? -- Betsy Johnson, Port Chester, NY

 

First commercialized in the 1950s, parabens are a group of synthetic compounds commonly used as preservatives in a wide range of health, beauty and personal care products. If the product you are using contains methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben, it has parabens.

 

These ingredients are added to deodorants, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and makeups, among other products, to stop the growth of fungus, bacteria and other potentially damaging microbes. Researchers have also found that some 90 percent of typical grocery items contain measurable amounts of parabens, which is why even those who steer clear of potentially harmful personal care products also carry parabens around in their bloodstreams.

 

What worries public health advocates is that while individual products may contain limited amounts of parabens within safe limits set by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), cumulative exposure to the chemicals from several different products could be overloading our bodies and contributing to a wide range of health problems. “Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity,” reports the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC). “Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells.” Research has shown that the perceived influx of estrogen beyond normal levels can in some cases trigger reactions such as increasing breast cell division and the growth of tumors.

 

CSC cites a 2004 British study that detected traces of five parabens in the breast tumors of 19 out of 20 women studied. “This small study does not prove a causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer, but it is important because it detected the presence of intact parabens—unaltered by the body’s metabolism—which is an indication of the chemical’s ability to penetrate skin and remain in breast tissue.” According to the group, a more recent study found higher levels of one paraben, n-propylparaben, in the axilla quadrant of the breast where the highest proportion of breast tumors is found. CSC reports that parabens have also been linked to reproductive, immunological, neurological and skin irritation problems.

 

Health advocates are pressuring the FDA to ban parabens in products sold in the U.S.—like the European Union did in 2012—but concerned consumers must take matters into their own hands for now by reading product labels and avoiding products with parabens.

 

“Many natural and organic cosmetics manufacturers have found effective alternatives to parabens to prevent microbial growth in personal care products,” reports CSC. “Some companies have created preservative-free products that have shorter shelf lives than conventional products (six months to a year), but if used daily are likely to be used up before they expire.” Readers can check out Breast Cancer Action’s list of over 100 cosmetics and personal care product makers committed to avoiding parabens in their products. Also, see if your favorite products contain parabens or other risky ingredients via Environmental Working Group’s free online “Skin Deep” database.

 

CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov; Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.safecosmetics.org; Breast Cancer Action, www.bcaction.org; EWG’s Skin Deep Database, www.ewg.org/skindeep.

 

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.

 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on efforts to ban plastic bags? How many U.S. locales have instituted some kind of ban, and have these initiatives made a dent in the amount of plastic litter?

                                                                                                                 -- Melinda Clarke, New York, NY

 

California made big news recently when it announced the first statewide ban on plastic shopping bags set to kick in during the middle of 2015. Beginning in July, large grocery stores, pharmacies and other food retailers in the Golden State will no longer be able to send shoppers home with plastic bags, while convenience markets, liquor stores and other small food retailers will join the ranks a year later.

 

Back in 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. municipality to ban plastic shopping bags. In intervening years upwards of 132 other cities and counties in 18 states and the District of Columbia instituted similar measures. Of course, Americans are late to the party when it comes to banning plastic bags: The European Union, China, India and dozens of other nations already have plastic bag bans or taxes in place.

 

But the trend here toward banning plastic shopping bags comes in the wake of new findings regarding the extent and harm of plastic in our environment. Since plastic isn’t biodegradable, it ends up either in landfills or as litter on the landscape and in waterways and the ocean. Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose and releases toxins into the soil and water in the process.

 

Littered plastic is also a huge problem for the health of wildlife, as many animals ingest it thinking it is food and can have problems thereafter breathing and digesting. The non-profit Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, most of which is composed of plastic; tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles die every year from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. A recent European Commission study on the impact of litter on North Sea wildlife found that some 90 percent of the birds examined had plastic in their stomachs.

 

Another reason for banning plastic bags is their fossil fuel burden. Plastic is not only made from petroleum—producing it typically requires a lot of fossil-fuel-derived energy. The fact that Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic grocery bags each year means we are drilling for and importing millions of barrels worth of oil and natural gas for a convenient way to carry home a few groceries.

 

It’s hard to measure the impact of pre-existing plastic bag bans, but some initial findings look promising. A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002 has reportedly led to a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag litter there. And a study by San Jose, California found that a 2011 ban instituted there has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”

 

Environmental groups continue to push for more plastic bag bans. “As U.S. natural gas production has surged and prices have fallen, the plastics industry is looking to ramp up domestic production,” reports the Earth Policy Institute. “Yet using this fossil fuel endowment to make something so short-lived, which can blow away at the slightest breeze and pollutes indefinitely, is illogical—particularly when there is a ready alternative: the reusable bag.”

 

CONTACTS: Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org; Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.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.

 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that playing on artificial turf fields can cause cancer? If so, how can I minimize exposure for my sports-loving kids?                               -- Melanie Witmer, Syracuse, NY

 

Just when you thought it was safe to play soccer on that brand new synthetic turf field, it may be time to think again. Those little black dirt-like granules that fill up the space between synthetic blades of grass and make up some 90 percent of today’s artificial turf fields are actually ground-up car and truck tires. As such they contain a host of potentially noxious chemicals that can lead to a wide range of health problems.

 

Four of the constituent chemicals in these “tire crumbs” (or “tire mulch”) as they are called—arsenic, benzene, cadmium and nickel—are deemed carcinogens by the International Agency for Cancer Research. Others have been linked to skin, eye and respiratory irritation, kidney and liver problems, allergic reactions, nervous systems disorders and developmental delays.

 

While the risk came to light recently when a University of Washington women’s soccer coach began to think it might be more than a coincidence that two of her goalies were stricken with cancer, researchers have known about such potential links for years. A 2007 report by the Connecticut-based Environment & Human Health Inc. (EHHI) looked at several scientific studies and found definitive connections between various health problems and exposure to synthetic turf.

 

EHHI also reported that kids on playfields are likely to face similar risks as line workers in the rubber fabrication and reclamation industries, where they say health reports show the presence of multiple volatile organic hydrocarbons and other toxic elements in the air. “Studies at tire reclamation sites report leaching of similar sets of chemicals into the ground water,” says the group.

 

The Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group, maintains that there is considerable evidence pointing to the health safety of synthetic turf. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t taking sides, leaving it up to state and local jurisdictions to decide whether or not to allow artificial turf. The EPA would like to see more research done so parents everywhere can have a better idea of the risks involved.

 

Of course, synthetic turf fields aren’t all bad. For one, they don’t need frequent watering (a grass playing field typically requires 50,000 gallons of water per week during growing season) and doesn’t require the application of potentially toxic pesticides. Furthermore, turf is much more durable and less costly to maintain than grass, and players suffer fewer injuries on it since it doesn’t turn to slippery mud when wet.

 

Do these pros outweigh the cons? Some schools don’t think so and are turning back plans to convert their grass fields to turf. Where it is too late for that, parents should warn their little athletes to stay upright as much as possible—turf-related cancers seem to be most common in goalies who spend the most time down on the turf surface. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that those playing on synthetic turf avoid eating or drinking on the field where toxic dust can contaminate food and liquids, wash their hands and body aggressively with soap and water afterwards, and remove clothes worn on the field and turn them inside out before washing them separately from other items.

 

CONTACTS: International Agency for Cancer Research, www.iarc.fr; EHHI, www.ehhi.org; Synthetic Turf Council, www.syntheticturfcouncil.org; CDC, www.cdc.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.

 

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

 

Dear EarthTalk: I recently heard that Sweden is the greenest country in the world. Is this true and, if so, by what standards? And where does the U.S. rank?                 -- Raul Swain, New York, NY

 

It’s true that Sweden came out on top in the recently released ranking of 60 countries according to sustainability by consulting firm Dual Citizen Inc. in its fourth annual Global Green Economy Index (GGEI). Norway, Costa Rica, Germany and Denmark rounded out the top five. The rankings take into account a wide range of economic indicators and datasets regarding leadership on climate change, encouragement of efficiency sectors, market facilitation and investing in green technology and sustainability, and management of ecosystems and natural capital.

 

Sweden’s first place finish reflects the Swedes’ ongoing commitment to climate change mitigation and sustainability policies and practices. The country is a leader in organic agriculture and renewable energy as well as per capita investment in green technology and sustainability research. Upwards of 75 percent of Swedes recycle their waste, while only four percent of the country’s garbage goes to landfills. In fact, Sweden imports garbage from other nations to burn as a renewable source of energy.

 

On the climate front, Sweden was one of the first countries in the world—going back to 1991—to put in place a heavy tax on fossil fuels to encourage the development of greener sources of energy. Indeed, the high price of gas there has notably boosted sales and consumption of homegrown, renewable ethanol. Just a few decades ago Sweden derived 75 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, but is on track to shrink that to 18 percent by 2020, with many Swedes clamoring for the country to abandon fossil fuels entirely at that point. As if that wasn’t enough, Sweden recently announced that it would pay a whopping $500 million over the next four years into the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, a pool of money sourced from richer countries to help poorer ones transition to a future less dependent on polluting fossil fuels.

 

The United States didn’t fare so well in the GGEI, ranking just 28th overall, just behind Rwanda and slightly ahead of Canada. Despite leadership in green technology and environmental awareness, Americans’ disproportionately large carbon footprint and resistance to a national policy on climate change mitigation are hurdles to the U.S. achieving a better ranking.

 

The GGEI isn’t the only sustainability ranking of countries. The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network recently released their 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a similar but more expansive ranking of 178 nations on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Switzerland topped that list, followed by Luxembourg, Australia, Singapore and the Czech Republic. Sweden ranked 9th and the U.S. 33rd.

 

The fact that global rankings like the GGEI and EPI exist shows without a doubt that sustainability concerns are a global phenomenon, and that people from Iceland to Australia (two highly ranked countries) realize the importance of taking care of Mother Earth. Despite issuing different rankings, both indices had a lot in common, with five countries (Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Spain) making the top 10 list of each. Another common conclusion was that the U.S. has much to do if it hopes to be taken seriously among world leaders committed to protecting the planet and our common future.

 

CONTACTS: GGEI 2014, dualcitizeninc.com/GGEI-Report2014.pdf; EPI, epi.yale.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.


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