Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Annotation: Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss

In Tristes Tropiques (translated beautifully in this edition by John and Dorren Weightman), Claude Lévi-Strauss presents a nine-part exploration of humans and the environment, and the anthropologist’s role in deciphering that exploration. Though centered mainly on Lévi-Strauss’s trips and research in Brazil, the book also ranges widely over sociology (Fascism, Capitalism, Marxism), religion (Muslem, Islam, Bhuddism), urban development, and education, in such other locations as Martinique, France, Chicago, India, and points in between—the latter mostly on-board ship.

Part one—An End to Journeying—is both introduction and manifesto, beginning, “I hate traveling and explorers.” Right away we learn much about the anthropologist—not so much his curriculum vitae (though there is a bit of that) but more importantly his feelings, his fears, his responses verbal and otherwise to the world around him. We also learn that he is an eloquent writer, an amazing assembler of beautiful imagery, and through-and-through a social scientist, both of the era and beyond.
In part two—Travel Notes—we get a more traditional “How I came to be an anthropologist” story, juxtaposed against what may well be the most detailed essay of a sunset, at 7½ pages, ever penned. We too wonder if, “after all these years, I could ever again achieve such a state of grace.”

Part three—The New World—brings us to the beginning of the heart of the book, concluding with a brilliant essay on urban design in the Americas (North and South), “São Paulo,” that should be required reading for students of architecture and urban planning alike.

Part four—The Earth and Its Inhabitants—takes us deeper into Brazil, literally and figuratively. Except it also takes us to India, takes us deep into the life of true poverty, of the utter failures of the caste system in India. In addition to excellent description, Lévi-Strauss is not shy about his opinions of the place, its people, its political systems—in sum, providing a detailed anthropological review and, in some cases, thesis on the place and its culture.

Part five—Caduveo—brings us to the first of four parts of true, sustained anthropological field study, each dedicated to a different tribe in Brazil’s vast interior. Parts six—Bororo—seven—Nambikwara—and eight—Tufi-Kawahib—are the apex of the book, as Lévi-Strauss and his (some few) associates spend dedicated time with each tribe, learning in fabulous detail about the culture of each. Though geographically similar, the tribes were otherwise absolutely unique in marriage, family life, religious belief, rituals, village design (or lack thereof), and the like.

Finally, part nine—The Return—is just that: a return from Lévi-Strauss’s long days in the field, and a closing discourse (following an almost dreamlike, unfinished play/parable he created called “The Apotheosis of Augustus”) about religion, about anthropology, about witness and inclusion.

Tristes Tropiques, then, is both memoir and (social) scientific field journal, with more than a sprinkling of travel writing mixed in to which Lévi-Strauss, from the get-go, confesses so strongly against. It presents a series of additional paradoxes that may not seem interrelated, but all relate to the variable human condition and therefore are critically connected. The challenge is what can be done about these problems—like the destruction of habitat and cultures both by the westward march of “progress,” like the incredible overpopulation and utter poverty of India, like religious intolerance. There is no solution presented, of course, but there is a concluding seed of hope, a sort of cosmic understanding, that presents itself sometimes in large and more often in very small, detailed ways.

Lévi-Strauss’s stylistic devices are primarily three-fold: imagery, metaphor, and inference. He has a wonderful ability simply to describe. He has a keen sense of comparison, sometimes sweeping but more often using metaphor in specific circumstances, sharp phrases. And, as a scientist, he has the important capability to infer from observation, at least partly answering the great scientific question: What does it all mean? Or at least: What does it mean in this particular situation, in this specific place? These are all his greatest strengths—that and timing, and by that I mean getting to these tribes before they too evaporated.

He may have two literary weaknesses: too much description (he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and all that), and too strong opinions, which can contradict scientific validity. But as Tristes Tropiques is both memoir and field report, and accordingly social criticism, certainly he is entitled to that. Fortunately, we are too.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

EarthTalk : December 3, 2006

EARTH TALK
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’m concerned about all the talk of using hydrogen for fuel. Isn’t hydrogen what caused the Hindenburg blimp to explode back in the 1930s?
-- Doug

The explosion of the Hindenburg blimp in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 killed 36 people and was one of the worst air disasters of the period, but hydrogen was probably not the culprit. Addison Bain, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researcher, investigated the Hindenburg crash in 1997. He concluded that, while the Hindenburg did use hydrogen for buoyancy, the cause of the accident was an electrostatic charge that ignited the blimp’s highly flammable waterproof skin, made from a mixture of lacquer and metal-based paints that Bain likened to rocket fuel.

Others argue that a spark ignited hydrogen that was leaking from the ship. But witnesses described the fire as very colorful, whereas hydrogen burns without much of a visible flame. But whether or not hydrogen caused or simply contributed to the ensuing blaze, hydrogen is indeed flammable, and can burst into flames when it comes into contact with fire or another ignition source.

But gasoline, by far the most common automotive fuel in the world, is much more flammable than hydrogen. According to hydrogen proponent Daniel Emmett of Energy Independence Now, hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air and when it catches fire it disperses and extinguishes quickly. Gasoline, on the other hand, is heavier than air and stays flammable much longer. Many people don’t realize, Emmet adds, that hydrogen has been used safely for decades in many industrial and aerospace applications.

Besides being less flammable than gasoline, hydrogen has many other benefits. It is nontoxic, which is more than can be said for any petroleum-based fuel. Furthermore, the processing (not combustion) of hydrogen in fuel cells produces no harmful pollutants and emits only pure, potable water as well as heat that can be recaptured for other uses. In contrast, the combustion of gasoline and other automotive fuels leads to acid rain, smog and global warming, among other environmental problems.

Despite its benefits, the widespread adoption of hydrogen as an automotive fuel is not yet close at hand. Techniques for producing, storing and transporting hydrogen have to be standardized, and costs reduced substantially. Some hydrogen proponents see a future where hydrogen will fuel vehicles at service stations, as is now done with gasoline; others see a future in which people fuel their cars at home from appliances that make hydrogen from electricity or, further down the road, from solar energy.

In 2003 the Bush administration committed $1.2 billion to a hydrogen initiative in order to “reverse America's growing dependence on foreign oil by accelerating the commercialization of hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power cars, trucks, homes and businesses with no pollution or greenhouse gases.” Under the initiative, says the White House’s “Hydrogen Economy Fact Sheet,” “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by fuel cells.”

CONTACTS: National Hydrogen Association News, “Hydrogen Exonerated in Hindenburg Disaster,” www.hydrogenassociation.org/newsletter/ad22zepp.htm; Energy Independence Now, www.energyindependencenow.org; White House “Hydrogen Economy Fact Sheet,” www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030625-6.html.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m a hair stylist and am wondering about the health and environmental impacts of the styling products I use every day on my customers.
-- Misty Rohrbaugh, Asheville, NC

Millions of people around the world use shampoos, conditioners and dyes on their hair regularly without any discernable harm. But recent studies have linked some of the ingredients in these products to various human health problems, so hair care professionals and consumers are well advised to know their options.

Traditional shampoos and conditioners, the most commonly used hair care products, contain a synthetic detergent called Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), which generates a sudsy lather. But SLS can dry the scalp, stripping the skin’s surface of its protective lipids. It can also cause follicle damage, hair loss, skin and eye irritation, and allergic reactions such as rashes and hives.

Other problematic chemicals in most mainstream shampoos and conditioners are parabens--sometimes listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben or butylparaben--which are added as preservatives to ward off mold and mildew. Morris Shriftman, Senior Vice President with Avalon Organics, says that these chemicals are dangerous because they accumulate in the bloodstream where they can “mimic” naturally-occurring hormones like estrogen, and disrupt human endocrine function accordingly. Parabens are also of particular concern to oncologists, who report finding the chemicals in breast cancer cells.

Luckily, a number of manufacturers make available shampoos and conditioners free of SLS and parabens, making it easier for stylists and customers alike to do the right thing. Aveda, Avalon Organics, Aubrey Organics, Dessert Essence Organics, Jason Natural Products and Simply Organic, among many others, use organic herbal extracts to do the jobs normally associated with synthetic chemicals. These products are readily available at natural foods markets and increasingly in mainstream supermarkets.

Studies trying to prove links between hair dyes and cancer or birth defects have turned up mostly inconclusive results, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) National Center for Toxicological Research found that the majority of off-the-shelf hair dyes for black, red and blonde hair contain a known carcinogen, 4-ABP. Also, according to the FDA, some consumers have reported burning, redness, itching and swelling of the face from hair dyes, as well as hair loss and difficulty breathing. The FDA does not regulate hair products, but John Bailey, director of the agency’s color and cosmetics program, cautions consumers to “consider the lack of demonstrated safety” when considering a hair dye.

Most natural health care experts agree that going without hair dye altogether is the safest route. Hair color professionals should wear heavy plastic gloves and a mask to protect against fumes, and should schedule their color work with lots of breaks between applications to limit exposure. Consumers, when possible, should shop around for less toxic, all-natural coloring agents. Many of the companies listed above also make all-natural hair colorings; other popular brands include EcoColors, Naturtint, and Clairol’s Castings line. Hennas, which are available in most salons, are also a good safe, non-permanent option.

CONTACTS: FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors, www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-toc.html.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What's the Conversion Rate for Euros?

Mark your AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) 2007 Conference in Atlanta calendars now! Join me (Simmons Buntin, Terrain.org editor and author of Riverfall, a book of poems) and four fellow American poets and one American playwright for:

What's the Conversion Rate for Euros? Americans Publishing Abroad
Saturday, March 3, 9:00-10:15 a.m.

I'll be joined by Marck L. Beggs, Philip Fried, Michael Heffernan, John Hildebidle, and Laura Smith, all of whom like me have been published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry.

If that spot's free on your AWP schedule, please join us!

Next year we'll shoot (again) for a Terrain.org anniversary reading. That one's in New York City.

Earth Talk : November 5, 2006

EARTH TALK
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that driving with soft tires wastes energy and results in more pollution?
-- Nanci Graham

When tires are not inflated to the pounds per square inch (PSI) rating recommended by manufacturers, they are less “round” and require more energy to begin moving and to maintain speed. As such, under-inflated tires do indeed contribute to pollution and increase fuel costs.

An informal study by students at Carnegie Mellon University found that the majority of cars on U.S. roads are operating on tires inflated to only 80 percent of capacity. According to the website, fueleconomy.gov, inflating tires to their proper pressure can improve mileage by about 3.3 percent, whereas leaving them under-inflated can lower mileage by 0.4 percent for every one PSI drop in pressure of all four tires.

That may not sound like much, but it means that the average person who drives 12,000 miles yearly on under-inflated tires uses about 144 extra gallons of gas, at a cost of $300-$500 a year. And each time one of those gallons of gas is burned, 20 pounds of carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere as the carbons in the gas are released and combine with the oxygen in the air. As such, any vehicle running on soft tires is contributing as much as 1.5 extra tons (2,880 pounds) of greenhouse gases to the environment annually.

Besides saving fuel and money and minimizing emissions, properly inflated tires are safer and less likely to fail at high speeds. Under-inflated tires make for longer stopping distances and will skid longer on wet surfaces. Analysts point to under-inflated tires as a likely cause of many SUV rollover accidents. Properly inflated tires also wear more evenly and will last longer accordingly.

Mechanics advise drivers to check their tire pressure monthly, if not more frequently. The correct air pressure for tires that come with new vehicles can be found either in the owner’s manual or inside the driver-side door. Beware, though, that replacement tires may carry a different PSI rating than the originals that came with the car. Most new replacement tires display their PSI rating on their sidewalls.

Also, tire pressure should be checked when tires are cold, as internal pressure increases when the car has been on the road for a while, but then drops when the tires cool back down. It is best to check tire pressure before heading out on the road to avoid inaccurate readings.

As part of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act of 2000, Congress has mandated that automakers install tire pressure monitoring systems on all new cars, pickups and SUVs beginning in 2008. To comply with the regulation, automakers will be required to attach tiny sensors to each wheel that will signal if a tire falls 25 percent below its recommended PSI rating. Car makers will likely spend as much as $70 per vehicle to install these sensors, a cost that will no doubt be passed along to consumers. However, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 120 lives a year will be saved once all new vehicles are equipped with such systems.

CONTACTS: Carnegie Mellon Today, “Save Gas, Money and the Environment with Properly Inflated Tires,” www.cmu.edu/cmnews/extra///050921_tire.html; FuelEconomy.gov, “Keeping Your Car in Shape,” www.fueleconomy.org/feg/maintain.shtml.

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly does “not tested on animals” mean on a product, like a shampoo? Where can I find products that are completely not tested on animals and are also eco-friendly?
-- James Masarech

Many consumer products go through precise testing to make sure they are safe and healthy for people and the environment before they are made available in the marketplace. The downside is that many of these tests make use of live animals. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), safety testing of chemicals and consumer products accounts for roughly 10 to 20 percent of the use of animals in laboratories (or approximately two to four million animals) in the U.S.

The majority of animals used in product tests are rats and mice, but dogs, cats, sheep, hamsters, guinea pigs and primates are also used. Significantly more animals are used in biomedical and other kinds of research, but the use of animals in product testing figures prominently in the animal research controversy because it questions the “ethics and humaneness of deliberately poisoning animals [and] the propriety of harming animals for the sake of marketing a new cosmetic or household product,” says HSUS.

Governments often mandate that certain products, such as drugs, automotive fluids, garden chemicals and food additives, be tested on animals. In other cases, such as with cosmetics, personal care and household cleaning products, companies voluntarily test on animals to better understand the pros and cons of using certain ingredients, to see what effects a given product or ingredient will have on living systems--and to demonstrate due diligence should their products harm someone and a lawsuit be filed.

In response to these widespread practices, advocacy groups like HSUS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) campaign vigorously to eliminate or reduce the use of animals in product testing, even recommending boycotts of companies that continue to voluntarily engage in what they argue is both cruel and unnecessary. This advocacy has been effective, as more than 500 cosmetic, personal care and household cleaning products manufacturers have vowed to stop testing their products on animals.

In 2003 the European Parliament approved a Europe-wide ban on the use of animals in cosmetics testing. Set to go into effect in 2009, the prohibition also mandates that no beauty or hygiene products tested on animals elsewhere be sold inside the European Union. Some exemptions do exist, however, such as products tested for toxicity or for their potential effects on human fertility. Some animal advocacy groups see these as unacceptable loopholes likely to undermine the ban or push back its implementation.

In 1986 an international group of animal protection organizations that includes HSUS formed the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC). The coalition urges cosmetics and household products manufacturers to sign on to a “Corporate Standard of Compassion for Animals” policy and agree to not conduct or commission animal tests or use any ingredient or formulation that is tested on animals. Companies portray the coalition’s “leaping bunny” logo on products as proof of their commitment. CCIC publishes a pocket-sized “cruelty free” shopping guide which can also be downloaded from its website.

CONTACT: CCIC Shopping Guide, www.leapingbunny.org/pdf/ccicguide_full.pdf.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

Friday, October 27, 2006

EarthTalk : October 29, 2006

EarthTalk
from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

What kinds of home improvements could I do that would make my house healthier and more environmentally friendly?
-- Elizabeth Bram

Most homes are not lacking in ways they can be healthier for family and kinder to the environment. For one, indoor air quality is a serious problem affecting millions of homes. Studies show that air within homes can be more seriously polluted than the air outdoors--even in the largest and most industrialized cities.

According to Glenn Haege, a master handyman who hosts a national radio show on home repair, as our homes and apartments have become more energy efficient and airtight, “humidity levels from cooking and breathing tend to increase, causing mold and mildew.” Harmful chemicals, he says, from construction materials, insulation, furniture, carpeting, padding, paints, solvents and household cleaners, drawn by this moist atmosphere, combine to contaminate the indoor air which then stays trapped inside.

The first step in remedying this problem is to test your indoor air. Pure Air and Envirologix, among others, sell inexpensive and easy-to-use indoor-air quality testing kits. Once you get an idea of the contaminants floating around your home, you can get to work replacing the offending sources accordingly. Green superstores such as the Environmental Home Center, Green Building Supply and Oikos offer a wealth of greener and healthier building supplies and materials. Also, BuildingGreen.com offers a free online “GreenSpec” database with detailed listings for over 2,000 environmentally preferable building products.

Materials outside the home can also contribute to health problems. One example is pressure-treated lumber, which contains a form of cyanide to keep pests away. Kids who play on backyard jungle gyms and decks made of such material can develop rashes and skin infections. Cedar wood is a naturally pest-resistant alternative that, while more expensive, is a kinder-gentler option that will stand the test of time.

Other ways to green-up the home include replacing traditional incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient compact fluorescents, as well as switching out conventional hot water heaters in favor of solar or on-demand tankless versions. And for saving on water, replacing traditional showerheads and toilets with pressurized low-flow alternatives can save gallons per day while generating cost savings on utility bills. Likewise, capturing rainwater and shower “gray-water” to irrigate the garden is another smart move.

Do-it-yourselfers can find hundreds of websites offering tips on green building and repair. Glenn Haege’s MasterHandyman.com and NaturalHandyMan.com both offer a plethora of articles and links and are good resources if you’re looking to improve your own handy skills while staying true to your green ideals. Two helpful books are: Green Remodeling by David Johnston and Kim Master; and Green Building Materials: A Guide to Product Selection and Specification by Ross Spiegel and Dru Meadows. For less handy homeowners, finding a handyman well versed in green building issues might be a better way to go. The Natural Handyman Network offers a free online search tool that should offer some promising leads.

CONTACTS: MasterHandyman.com, www.masterhandyman.com; BuildingGreen.com, www.buildinggreen.com; Envirologix, www.envirologix.com; Environmental Home Center, www.environmentalhomecenter.com; Green Building Supply, www.greenbuildingsupply.com; Oikos, www.oikos.com; The Natural Handyman Network, www.naturalhandyman.com.


What do you think of those “waste to energy” plants used by cities to generate power?
-- Christine Ramadhin, Queens, NY

Waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities, which generate power by burning trash, have been in widespread operation in the U.S. and Europe since the 1970s and are considered by environmental advocates to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand they get rid of garbage without adding to already-stressed landfills and with the added benefit of contributing electricity to the power grid. On the other hand, they do generate toxic pollution, usually as a result of burning vinyl and plastics.

WtE facilities evolved out of basic incinerator technology that simply burns trash and reduces it to ash and smoke. Waste-to-energy plants instead use the garbage to fire a huge boiler. When the garbage “fuel” is burned, it releases heat that turns water into steam. The high-pressure steam turns the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity.

In the U.S. and Europe, environmental laws regulate WtE plants, typically requiring them to use various anti-pollution devices to keep both harmful gases and particulate pollution (fine bits of dust, soot and other solid materials) out of the air. However, the particles captured are then mixed with the ash that is removed from the bottom of the waste-to-energy plant’s furnace when it is cleaned. Environmentalists contend that this toxic ash, which can include dangerous heavy metals, may actually present more of an environmental problem than the airborne emissions themselves, as it usually ends up in landfills where it can leak into and contaminate soil and groundwater.

According to Greenpeace International, WtE facilities are also among the largest sources of dioxin emissions in industrialized countries. Dioxin is a by-product of burning polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other plastics, and has been linked to cancer and other health problems. Greenpeace advocates for phasing out WtE facilities in favor of improving recycling rates that reduce the waste stream in the first place.

Currently about 600 WtE facilities are in operation around the world. According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, an industry trade group, the United States is home to 98 such plants operating in 29 states. These facilities manage about 13 percent of America’s total trash output. In Canada, where landfill space is more abundant, WtE has failed to catch on, with only a few such facilities across the country. WtE has caught on more so in smaller technologically advanced countries such as Japan, Sweden, Denmark, France and Switzerland, where landfill space is at a premium.

Recent improvements in the energy efficiency and environmental impact of WtE facilities means that the technology promises to play a larger role globally in years to come, especially as crowded developing countries start to jump on the bandwagon.

CONTACTS: National Solid Wastes Management Association, www.nswma.org/; Greenpeace Incineration Campaign, www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/incineration.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Received: Drift Smoke



Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire, by David J. Strohmaier
University of Nevada Press : 2005 : ISBN 0-87417-621-2

Drift Smoke is a beautifully hardbound, hand-sized book by wildland firefighter David Strohmaier. He has worked as a historian in Missoula, Mountana, and with the BLM and Forest Service fighting fires in the west for 15 seasons. He is also the author of The Seasons of Fire: Reflections on Fire in the West.

From Peter List, professor of philisophy emeritus, University of Oregon (and editor of Environmental Ethics and Forestry: A Reader):

"This is a unique book. I know of no other quite like it. It makes a significant contribution to the burgeoning literature about wildfire. It covers a subject only rarely touched on in any comprehensive way; that is, there are many books about some of the losses associated with wildfire (e.g., loss of life), but none that attempt to consider all the main kinds of loss in any detail or, aside from the author's first book on fire, that argue so well that fire is an ambivalent phenomenon and cannot be understood as either solely an unmitigated evil or solely and ecological good."

That's kind of a mouthful, I agree. But just the quality of the book, the font and crisp pages, make me want to spend some time with it next to the controlled fire in my hearth (if, of course, I had a hearth). And this intro from the publisher helps, too:

"Drift Smoke is a powerful and moving examination of wildfire by someone who has seen it in all its terror and beauty, who has lost colleagues and beloved terrain to its ferocity, and who has also seen the miracle of new life sprouting from the ashes. Living with wfire, Strohmaier says, is a matter of choices, of 'seeing the connection between loss on a personal scale and loss on a landscape scale: in relationship with persons, and in relationship to and with the land.' We must cultivate a longer perspective, he says, accepting that loss is a part of life and that 'humility and empathy and care are not only core virtues between humans but are also essential virtues in our attitudes and actions toward the earth.'"

Terrain.org has also had some contributions on wildfire:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Accepting Submissions for Issue No. 20, Community Sustained

Terrain.org is now accepting submissions for Issue No. 20, Community Sustained, which will publish on July 10, 2007 (following our newly revised publication schedule: July 10 and January 10 each year).

We are particularly interested in:
  • Poetry
  • Essays
  • Fiction
  • Articles
  • UnSprawl case study

For more information, visit www.terrain.org/submit.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

EarthTalk : October 15, 2006

EARTH TALK
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any environmental or human health risks to using nail polish?
-- Deborah Lynn, Milford, CT

Conventional nail polishes dispensed at most drugstores and nail salons contain a veritable witch’s brew of chemicals, including toluene, which has been linked to a wide range of health issues from simple headaches and eye, ear, nose and throat irritation to nervous system disorders and damage to the liver and kidneys.

Another common yet toxic ingredient in conventional nail polish is a chemical plasticizer known as dibutyl phthalate (DBP). According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research and advocacy organization that campaigns to educate consumers about the health risks of cosmetics, studies have linked DBP to underdeveloped genitals and other reproductive system problems in newborn boys.

As such, DBP is banned from cosmetics in the European Union but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has taken no such action, even though a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found DBP and other toxic phthalates in the bloodstreams of every person they tested. Further, five percent of women tested who were of childbearing age (ages 20-40) had up to 45 times more of the chemicals in their bodies than researchers had expected to find.

EWG attributes the prevalence of DBP in young women to widespread use of nail polish. “Women of childbearing age should avoid all exposure to DBP when they’re considering becoming pregnant, when they’re pregnant, or when they’re nursing,” says Jane Houlihan, EWG’s Vice President for Research.

Luckily, safer nail polishes do exist and are readily available at natural health and beauty supply stores as well as from online outlets such as Natural Solutions and Infinite Health Resources. These products, from such makers as Honeybee Gardens, PeaceKeeper, Jerrie, Visage Naturel and Sante, rely on naturally occurring minerals and plant extracts to beautify nails without the need for toxic ingredients.

Major nail polish manufacturers are also now getting in on the act. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of organizations that includes EWG and the Breast Cancer Fund, Avon, Estee Lauder, Revlon and L’Oreal confirmed last year that they would begin removing DBP from products. And leading drugstore brand Sally Hansen has said it is reformulating all of its products to remove DBP and toluene as well as formaldehyde, which is also known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.

Exposure to toxic chemicals is not the only health concern associated with nail salons, where nail fungus and bacteria can lurk on the underside of any emery board. Women’s health advocate Tracee Cornforth suggests checking out a salon for cleanliness before signing up for services. She also says to make sure attendants disinfect all tools and equipment between customers, and even recommends bringing in one’s own manicure or pedicure kit so as to minimize the transmission of any unsightly or painful maladies.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org; Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.SafeCosmetics.org; Natural Solutions, www.bewellstaywell.com; Infinite Health Resources, www.infinitehealthresources.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I read a disturbing report recently that the long-banned pesticide, DDT, was being used in Mozambique to combat malaria. Malaria is a killer, but isn’t a return to DDT even scarier?
-- Graeme Campbell, South Africa

Much of the developed world banned the use of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) within about 10 years of the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring.” Carson’s book, which is credited by many as having spurred the creation of the modern environmental movement, documented the ecosystem damage caused by DDT crop spraying throughout the United States and linked the pesticide’s use to the disappearance of songbirds and raptors.

Health officials at the time also linked DDT exposure to nerve damage in humans, and blamed DDT for causing cancer in people who had applied it recklessly. Today, because of widespread indiscriminate use up through the 1960s, most people have traces of DDT in their bodies. DDT has since become increasingly associated with childhood developmental problems, according to the organization, Beyond Pesticides.

Today, two dozen countries--including Mozambique and nine other African nations--permit the use of small amounts of DDT for controlling specific insect-borne diseases, including malaria. Malaria kills one million people, including 800,000 African children, every year. Dr. Arata Kochi, leader of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) global malaria program, strongly advocates using DDT to fight malaria, claiming that it poses little or no health risk when sprayed in small amounts on the inner walls of people’s homes.

“Indoor residual spraying is useful to quickly reduce the number of infections caused by malaria-carrying mosquitoes…and presents no health risk when used properly,” agrees Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO’s assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Asamoa-Baah insists that DDT’s public health benefits far outweigh its risks.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, disagrees and advocates for techniques that do not rely on pesticides like DDT. “The international community has a social responsibility to reject the use of this chemical and to practice sound and safe pest management practices,” he says. Feldman cites a recent study showing South African women living in DDT-treated dwellings to have 77 times the internationally accepted limit of the chemical in their breast milk. Researchers postulate that large amounts of DDT may have contaminated drinking water, exposing entire villages. “This highlights why no society can be unconcerned with DDT’s impact” on health and the worldwide ecosystem, Feldman says.

Feldman is calling for alternative strategies for disease control, including addressing the conditions of poverty that lead to mosquito breeding. We should “no longer treat poverty and development with poisonous band-aids, but join together to address the root causes of insect-borne disease, because the chemical-dependent alternatives are ultimately deadly for everyone,” says Feldman.

CONTACTS: Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org; World Health Organization Malaria Information, www.who.int/topics/malaria/en/.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

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