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EarthTalk®

by Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How are scientists using DNA to conserve wildlife? — Jake Summerlin, Newark, NJ

Traditionally, conservation biologists have relied on field observation and sample and statistical analysis to help them understand the dynamics behind species loss, but today genetics is taking on an increasingly important role in helping quantify the biodiversity around us and even save some threatened species. 

According to researchers at King Saud University who reviewed various DNA analysis technologies used in wildlife conservation for the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, the newly emerging discipline of conservation genetics has proven instrumental in creating better management plans for so-called “genetically deteriorated” wildlife populations. “Accurate classification of these threatened species allows understanding of the species biology and identification of distinct populations that should be managed with utmost care.” They add that DNA analysis can be instrumental in preventing illegal hunting and poaching and “for more effective implementation of the laws for protection of the endangered species.”

Conservation genetics is particularly useful for clarifying whether a particular wildlife population needs special protection as a genetically distinct sub-species. According to Susan Haig of the U.S. Forest Service, conservationists are using DNA analysis to determine kinship lineage in selecting which individuals to reintroduce to a population for recovery. “DNA sequencing procedures ... allow for identification of parentage, more distant relatives, founders to new populations, unidentified individuals, population structure, effective population size, population-specific markers, etc.” reports Haig, adding that the result is more sophisticated information crucial to setting species recovery priorities.

One way genetics is being used is to help endangered African cheetahs. “The 10,000 that are left share 99 percent of their DNA between individuals,” reports biologist and blogger Christina Smyth, adding that the low genetic diversity makes the cheetah population highly susceptible to disease and extinction. “By using genetic analysis to look at how closely related individual cheetahs are, cheetah breeding projects are able to breed selectively as an attempt to reintroduce genetic variation back into the population.”

Another favorite example of Smyth’s is how geneticists are helping estimate past population sizes of whales to help manage and conserve current populations. “They are using current levels of genetic diversity along with known mutation rates to look at what the whale population was like before whaling. So far their numbers have increased previous estimates by up to ten times! These numbers could completely change our thoughts and approaches to whale related conservation and management.”

The non-profit Revive and Restore is best known for its advocacy of so-called “de-extinction”—that is, bringing back extinct wildlife species and reintroducing them to the landscapes they used to call home—but also aims to provide “genetic assistance” to existing threatened wildlife species.

“Endangered species that have lost their crucial genetic diversity may be restored to reproductive health,” reports the group. “Those threatened by invasive diseases may be able to acquire genetic disease-resistance.” The group is hoping to apply what it learns from a pilot project restoring genetic diversity to an endangered population of black-footed ferrets to other species’ recovery efforts.

CONTACTS: Revive and Restore, www.longnow.org/revive; “DNA marker technology for wildlife conservation,” www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1319562X11000234.


Dear EarthTalk: What are some basic guidelines about seafood consumption, especially for women and in light of all the pollution threats to our oceans and waterways? – Betsy Draper, Boston, MA

Between mercury poisoning, overfishing and the environmental impacts of fish farms or “aquaculture,” some might expect to see a “Proceed with Caution” sign above seafood counters soon. Others contend that fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet, providing high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating up to 12 ounces of fish and shellfish per week, but only if they are “lower in mercury.”

Mercury can be released into the air through industrial pollution and can accumulate in streams and oceans. The FDA warns that if you regularly eat types of fish that are high in mercury, it can accumulate in your blood stream. They add that mercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for levels to drop significantly. For this reason, women trying to become pregnant should avoid eating high-in-mercury fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, and gravitate toward low-in-mercury shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Super Green List,” fish that are low in mercury and also good sources of especially healthy “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acids include Atlantic mackerel from Canada and the U.S., freshwater Coho salmon from the U.S., wild-caught Pacific sardines and Alaskan wild-caught salmon (fresh or canned).

Of course, it’s possible to obtain long-chain omega-3s without eating fish. Ovega-3s supplement is derived from a strain of algae that naturally produces high amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the healthiest omega-3s. Although most people think fish are the original source of DHA and EPA, these omega-3s actually come from the algae lower in the food chain. 

“When salmon farming began in North America, farmers discovered that without fish oil in their diet, farmed salmon did not contain salmon oil in their tissues,” says Udo Erasmus, Ph.D., author of Fats that Heal-Fats that Kill. “Fish get their ‘fish oil’ from the foods they eat. When we trace these supplement oils back to their origin, we find that the oils we call ‘fish oils’ are actually made by plants at the bottom of the food chain. One-celled red-brown algae makes fish oils. Fish oils are actually plant-based products.”

Algae and other plant-based omega fatty acids also will not deplete the ocean’s supply of fish. Industrial overfishing practices have wiped out certain types of fish before they’ve had a chance to repopulate, and unintentionally killed other marine species besides fish—known as “bycatch”—in their large nets. Upwards of one million sea turtles, for example, were estimated to have been killed as bycatch from 1990-2008, according to a report published in Conservation Letters in 2010.  The transition to aquaculture, where fish are raised in confined quarters (like the “factory farming” of pigs, cows and chickens) has its own environmental burdens. According to the Mangrove Action Project, an estimated three million hectares of important coastal wetlands, including mangroves, have already been lost in order to make room for artificial shrimp ponds.

CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov; Seafood Watch, www.seafoodwatch.org; Ovega, www.ovega.com.


Dear EarthTalk: What on Earth are plastic “microbeads” and how are they threatening the Great Lakes? — Billy Alexander, Macon, GA

Can brushing your teeth or using an exfoliating face or body wash be an act of pollution? Perhaps so, because over 1,000 personal care products contain tiny plastic “microbeads,” each about a half millimeter in diameter. The Los Angeles-based 5 Gyres Institute, which works to end plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, found about 360,000 of these plastic beads in one tube of Neutrogena Deep Clean face wash. Hardly visible to the naked eye, these tiny objects flow straight from bathroom drains into sewer systems.

In July 2012, 5 Gyres went on an expedition with researchers from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia to determine the micro-plastic pollution of the Great Lakes Region. Data from this study, which was published in the December 2013 edition of the peer-reviewed Marine Pollution Bulletin, revealed an average of 43,000 plastic microparticles per square kilometer in the Great Lakes. The highest concentrations were observed in Lake Erie, and accounted for about 90 percent of the total plastics found.

“We found high concentrations of micro-plastics, more than most ocean samples collected worldwide,” said Marcus Eriksen, the study’s lead author and co-director of the 5 Gyres Institute. “These were of similar size, shape, texture and composition to plastic microbeads found in many consumer products used as exfoliants, giving us circumstantial evidence that these products, designed to be washed down the drain, are not adequately being captured by sewage treatment.”

Sewage treatment facilities are not designed to capture tiny microbeads, and during rainy days sewage can overflow into waterways. Once they enter waterways, they move into fish, which confuse them for food, then into those who eat the fish, including wildlife and humans.

“People simply don’t like washing their face with plastic, and the fact that it’s designed to go straight into the environment makes microbeads a particularly egregious source of plastic pollution,” says Stiv Wilson, Policy Director at 5 Gyres. “These beads are similar in size to fish eggs and can absorb and concentrate toxins found in the aquatic environment, making them an ecosystem wide threat to the food chain.”

Once they determined the scale of plastic microbead pollution in the Great Lakes region, the 5 Gyres Institute launched a campaign asking personal care product manufacturers to remove plastic microbeads from their products. The response has been very positive: Unilever said that it would complete a global phase out of plastic scrub beads from personal care products in 2015; Procter & Gamble said that all of its products will be free of microplastics in 2017; Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Neutrogena facial products, has already begun the phase out of polyethylene microbeads in its personal care products and has stopped developing new products containing plastic microbeads; and L’Oreal has decided not to develop any new products with microplastic-pearls and is also working on a substitute for these exfoliating agents in existing product formulas.

You can determine if there are microbeads in your personal care products by checking the ingredients for polyethylene or polypropylene, or by using the 5 Gyres Institute app, Beat the Microbead, which scans the barcode of products and informs you whether or not they contain plastic microbeads and if the manufacturer has agreed to remove them.

CONTACTS: 5 Gyres Institute, www.5gyres.org



Dear EarthTalk: I am in the market for a new flat screen TV. Are some models greener than others? -- Michael Kavanaugh, Rome, NY

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Americans’ 275 million TV sets burn through some 65 billion kilowatt hours of energy each year, representing four to five percent of U.S. household electricity consumption. Each U.S. household spends around $200/year for electricity to power their TVs and related equipment. But while we may not be giving up our TVs anytime soon, there is some light at the end of the tunnel, as the consumer electronics industry has started to prioritize reducing its environmental footprint.

While screen size has continued to increase, the overall mass of televisions is much smaller than back in the days of boxy cathode ray tube (CRT) sets. And many new flat screen models (LCD, OLED or plasma) sport hyper-efficient screens that can be tweaked even further by the user to reduce their power needs.

Some of the energy-saving features that this new generation of greener TVs makes use of include screens back-lit by light emitting diodes (LEDs), automatic brightness controls that adapt the picture to the light intensity of the room, “local dimming,” where sections of backlighting are dimmed or turned off when not needed, and the ability to pre-determine picture settings optimized to save energy. All of the major TV makers—Vizio, LG, Samsung, Panasonic, JVC, Sharp, Toshiba, Sony—now offer power-sipping models.

“Even though televisions are the most widely owned device in the U.S., with a 97 percent household penetration in 2013, their total annual electricity consumption dropped 23 percent from 2010,” reports the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the trade group for electronics manufacturers that puts on the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ENERGY STAR program certifies appliances, electronics and other energy-efficient consumer items to help Americans save money and protect the climate through saving energy. If you’re shopping for a new TV, start your search at EnergyStar.gov, where you can find and compare new models that are all at least 25 percent more energy efficient than conventional ones. The easy-to-use site allows you to check-off which brands, screen sizes, technology types, resolutions and other features you’re looking for before it serves up a list of matches complete with estimated energy use over a year. The EPA reports that if every TV, DVD player and home entertainment system purchased in the U.S. this year qualified for an ENERGY STAR label, consumers would keep some 2.2 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road.

Of course, buying a new TV introduces another potential environmental hazard: that associated with the disposal of your old set. Throwing your old TV in the garbage where it will end up in a landfill is not only bad for the environment, given the risk of chemical and heavy metal leakage, it is also typically illegal. If you’re buying your new TV from a local store, ask them if they can take back your old set. Also, the CEA’s Greener Gadgets website provides an up-to-date list of resources to find out how to responsibly recycle old TV sets and other electronics directly with the manufacturers or through third-party recyclers.

CONTACTS: CEA, www.ce.org; ENERGY STAR, www.energystar.gov; Greener Gadgets, www.greenergadgets.org.



Dear EarthTalk: What is “Moms Clean Air Force” and how can I get involved?
  — Betsy Edgewater, Salem, OR

Moms Clean Air Force (MCAF) is a community of 400,000+ parents working to combat air pollution and respond to the climate change crisis. The fast-growing non-profit leverages the power of citizen activism and social media to help raise awareness of the need for stricter laws regulating air pollution.

“Moms will do everything they can to keep their children safe and sound,” reports the group. “We look for the healthiest foods we can afford; we avoid toxic chemicals in our products. But there are some things we simply can’t buy. Clean air is one. We need job-creating regulations to assure that our children have clean air right now, and for their future.”

The group’s online “Naptime Activism Center” features links, resources and a ‘Take Action’ center with ways to send messages to Congress and sign petitions for stricter environmental laws. The website is designed to make it easy and fast for busy parents to make their voices heard—all while baby naps. 

Currently MCAF is focusing on blocking efforts by lobbyists who represent big polluters that are trying to roll back new air toxic standards and prevent federal agencies from maintaining air and water quality standards. The group warns that toxic air-borne emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, lead, dioxins, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants are poisoning the air we breathe and wreaking untold havoc on the health of younger people whose bodies are still developing. 

Cleaning up coal-fired power plants, the primary source of toxic air emissions across the country is a top priority for MCAF. “American coal plants produce 360,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, at a time when nine million U.S. children under 18 have been diagnosed with asthma,” the group reports, adding that asthma attacks triggered by air pollution is the number one reason kids miss school. Another concern is the mercury coming out of coal plant smokestacks: “Over 400,000 newborns in the United States are exposed to mercury levels that can damage brain development, cause learning disabilities, result in language disorders and memory problems, and impair vision and hearing.”

On the climate front, the group’s new free 23-page e-book, Extreme Weather & Our Changing Climate, aims to educate parents about the links between our increasingly crazy weather patterns and global warming. “The more informed we are, the more effective we can be in pushing for change,” MCAF reports. Easy-to-read sections explain how climate change and weather are related and how parents can spread the word about the need for stricter laws regulating air pollution and more diligence in reducing our collective carbon footprint.

Visitors to the MCAF website can fill in their names and send messages directly to their Congressional delegations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other policymakers about strengthening protections against smog pollution, uniting for a strong plan against global warming, ending tax breaks for fossil-fuel producers and stopping the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Sometimes being a good mom means being an active citizen,” the group reports. “Our children can’t fight for themselves. We have to fight for them.”

CONTACT: Moms Clean Air Force, www.momscleanairforce.org.


Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been hearing a lot about the dangers of sunscreens. What is the latest on efforts to make them safer and more effective? — Phyllis Lothran, Tallahassee, FL

Greater awareness about what’s in everyday products and increased interest in healthy living means there has never been a better time to re-evaluate which sunscreens you use. The ingredients in some common chemical-based sunscreens are known to cause allergic reactions for some people and have been linked to reproductive and behavioral problems in animal studies. But luckily for the sun-safe and health conscious among us, there are lots of widely available all-natural, mineral-based sunscreen formulations that won’t cause any health problems on store shelves these days.

The most common non-chemical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which offer all-natural broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection that will not sting your eyes or cause a reaction in people with rosacea or dermatitis like chemical sunscreens can. Current mineral sunscreen formulations on the market do have their downsides, though. Powdered mineral sunscreens can be messy to apply, and their transparency can make it hard to tell if you have enough on to protect yourself. Liquid versions can feel thick and greasy compared to chemical varieties, and may also leave a white cast on skin and streaks on clothing or bathing suits. To eliminate the white cast issue, tinted moisturizers and cosmetic foundations with mineral sunscreens are now available in a wide variety of shades. To find the sunscreen that’s best for you, you may want to check out free online databases like the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Sunscreens or Paula’s Choice Expert Advice on Sun Care.

“Many sunscreens offer inadequate protection from the sun and can contain toxic ingredients to boot,” says Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG. “[The EWG Guide to Sunscreens] offers users much-needed, well-sourced information so they can make the right choices to protect themselves and their families.”

As soon as this coming summer, Americans may have access to new active sunscreen ingredients that could offer benefits like stronger UVA protection and longer lasting, more lightweight applications. Last November, President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act into law, which will push the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make quicker decisions on new sunscreen ingredients awaiting their approval. Eight sunscreen ingredient applications have been pending FDA approval since 2002, though many of these ingredients are already used in sunscreens in Europe and elsewhere. The last sunscreen to get FDA approval was Mexoryl SX, a strong UVA filter, in 2006. Despite its availability in Europe since 1993, Mexoryl SX was approved in the U.S. exclusively for the high-priced La Roche Posay Anthelios SX sunscreen and no other formula.

“Many promising sunscreen ingredients have long been used in sunscreen products that are sold in other parts of the world, including the European Union and Canada,” says Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president. “It is about time Americans have access to the same products that others use to protect themselves from the dangers of sun exposure.” He adds that the FDA is expected to make decisions on some of the eight pending sunscreen ingredients within six months. 

CONTACT: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org.


Dear EarthTalk: The collective impact of all the iPhones and other devices we buy, use and then discard must be mind-boggling at this point. Has anyone quantified this and what can we do to start reducing waste from such items? — Jacques Chevalier, Boston, MA

With a record four million pre-orders for Apple’s best-selling iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, it’s more evident than ever that consumers want the latest in smartphone technology at their fingertips. A new report by analysts at German market research firm GfK determined that global smartphone sales exceeded 1.2 billion units in 2014—a 23 percent increase over2013.

With so many new smartphones and electronics being purchased, are users disposing of their older devices properly? According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, approximately 2,440,000 tons of electronics, such as computers, mobile devices and televisions, were disposed of in 2010. Twenty-seven percent, or 649,000 tons, of that “e-waste” was recycled. Because some materials in electronics, such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment, the EPA “strongly supports” keeping used electronics out of landfills.

“Recycling electronic equipment isn’t quite as easy as leaving it in a bin in your front yard, as we’ve learned to do with paper and plastics, but the health and environmental benefits of recycling e-scrap are tremendous,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade. “Also, we know that half of the devices thrown away still work.”

If Americans recycled the approximately 130 million cell phones that are disposed of annually, enough energy would be saved to power more than 24,000 homes in a year. If we went ahead and recycled one million laptops, too, we would save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year. Furthermore, for every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Recovering these valuable metals through recycling precludes the need for mining and processing that much new material from the Earth, thus not only conserving natural resources but preventing air and water pollution as well.

Thankfully, recycling old smartphones and other electronic devices is an easy, typically cost-free process for consumers. Electronics retailer Best Buy offers the most comprehensive appliance and electronics recycling program in the United States, with more than 400 pounds of product collected for recycling each minute the stores are open. Best Buy offers free recycling for most electronics and large appliances, regardless of where they were purchased, allowing the company to achieve its ambitious goal of recycling one billion pounds of electronics and appliances by the end of 2014.

Some charitable organizations, like Cell Phones for Soldiers, also offer free cell phone recycling. Since 2004, the non-profit has prevented more than 11.6 million cell phones from ending up in landfills. All cell phones donated to Cell Phones for Soldiers are sold either to electronic restorers or a recyclers, depending on the phone’s condition. The proceeds from the phones are used to purchase prepaid international calling cards for troops and provide emergency financial assistance to veterans. “Cell Phones for Soldiers truly is a lifeline,” says Robbie Bergquist, co-founder of the non-profit. “To withstand time apart and the pressure of serving our country, the family connection is a critical piece to survival.”

CONTACTS: EPA Electronics Recycling, www.epa.gov/ecycling; Cell Phones for Soldiers, www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com.


Dear EarthTalk: The collective impact of all the iPhones and other devices we buy, use and then discard must be mind-boggling at this point. Has anyone quantified this and what can we do to start reducing waste from such items? — Jacques Chevalier, Boston, MA

With a record four million pre-orders for Apple’s best-selling iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, it’s more evident than ever that consumers want the latest in smartphone technology at their fingertips. A new report by analysts at German market research firm GfK determined that global smartphone sales exceeded 1.2 billion units in 2014—a 23 percent increase over2013.

With so many new smartphones and electronics being purchased, are users disposing of their older devices properly? According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, approximately 2,440,000 tons of electronics, such as computers, mobile devices and televisions, were disposed of in 2010. Twenty-seven percent, or 649,000 tons, of that “e-waste” was recycled. Because some materials in electronics, such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment, the EPA “strongly supports” keeping used electronics out of landfills.

“Recycling electronic equipment isn’t quite as easy as leaving it in a bin in your front yard, as we’ve learned to do with paper and plastics, but the health and environmental benefits of recycling e-scrap are tremendous,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade. “Also, we know that half of the devices thrown away still work.”

If Americans recycled the approximately 130 million cell phones that are disposed of annually, enough energy would be saved to power more than 24,000 homes in a year. If we went ahead and recycled one million laptops, too, we would save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year. Furthermore, for every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Recovering these valuable metals through recycling precludes the need for mining and processing that much new material from the Earth, thus not only conserving natural resources but preventing air and water pollution as well.

Thankfully, recycling old smartphones and other electronic devices is an easy, typically cost-free process for consumers. Electronics retailer Best Buy offers the most comprehensive appliance and electronics recycling program in the United States, with more than 400 pounds of product collected for recycling each minute the stores are open. Best Buy offers free recycling for most electronics and large appliances, regardless of where they were purchased, allowing the company to achieve its ambitious goal of recycling one billion pounds of electronics and appliances by the end of 2014.

Some charitable organizations, like Cell Phones for Soldiers, also offer free cell phone recycling. Since 2004, the non-profit has prevented more than 11.6 million cell phones from ending up in landfills. All cell phones donated to Cell Phones for Soldiers are sold either to electronic restorers or a recyclers, depending on the phone’s condition. The proceeds from the phones are used to purchase prepaid international calling cards for troops and provide emergency financial assistance to veterans. “Cell Phones for Soldiers truly is a lifeline,” says Robbie Bergquist, co-founder of the non-profit. “To withstand time apart and the pressure of serving our country, the family connection is a critical piece to survival.”

CONTACTS: EPA Electronics Recycling, www.epa.gov/ecycling; Cell Phones for Soldiers, www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com.



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