Friday, October 27, 2006

EarthTalk : October 29, 2006

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, 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 and 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:,;,; Envirologix,; Environmental Home Center,; Green Building Supply,; Oikos,; The Natural Handyman Network,

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,; Greenpeace Incineration Campaign,

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

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.'" has also had some contributions on wildfire:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Accepting Submissions for Issue No. 20, Community Sustained 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

Saturday, October 14, 2006

EarthTalk : October 15, 2006

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,; Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,; Natural Solutions,; Infinite Health Resources,

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,; World Health Organization Malaria Information,

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


Welcome to the new blog, where in addition to updates on A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, you'll find posts about environmental and literary happenings that impact us and our readers.

Here you'll also find book overviews and reviews, EarthTalk: A Weekly Column courtesy E/The Environmental Magazine, photography, and general ramblings by's editor and publisher, Simmons Buntin.

Finally, this may become a forum for comments on contributions. We hope so; but if not, that's okay, too.